On the morning of October 17, 1978, the newly elected Pope John Paul II concelebrated Mass with the College of Cardinals and promised that the program for his pontificate would be the full implementation of the Second Vatican Council. It was his “definitive duty”, for the Council had been “an event of the highest importance” in the two millennia of Christian history. As I explain in Sanctifying the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Fundamental Books), the next twenty-six and a half years saw John Paul II fulfill this promise, for his pontificate was an epic of teaching and testimony which contributed to providing the Council with the keys to interpretation that he had not given himself.
Unlike the previous twenty ecumenical councils, Vatican II did not articulate or identify a definitive key to its own interpretation: something that made it clear that “This that’s what we mean. Other councils had written creeds, defined dogmas, condemned heresies, legislated canons in Church law, and commissioned catechisms. Vatican II did none of this, which is one of the reasons why a donnybrook on the intention and meaning of the Council followed.
In the apostolic exhortation of 1975 Evangelii Nuntiandi (Heralding the Gospel), Pope Paul VI began the process of giving the Keyless Council an authoritative interpretation by recalling John XXIII’s original intention for the Council: Vatican II was to launch the Church into a revitalized mission of Christ-centered evangelism. John Paul II filled in the gaps of what this new evangelization would entail with his voluminous magisterium – and with his pastoral visit to the Holy Land in March 2000, which reminded the Church that Christianity began with a personal encounter with the Risen Lord Jesus, who must always be at the center of the Church’s proposal and proclamation to the world.
Alongside John Paul II during this great work of providing the keys to the Council was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would succeed the Polish pope as Pope Benedict XVI. Like his papal predecessor, Ratzinger was a Councilman; in fact, the young Bavarian theologian had been one of the three most influential theological advisers to the conciliar bishops. It is therefore not surprising that, in his first Christmas address to the Roman Curia in 2005, Benedict XVI directly addressed the question of the correct interpretation of Vatican II.
Like the man who called it, Pope John XXIII, Pope Benedict knew that the Council was not called to reinvent Catholicism; that is not what ecumenical councils do. On the contrary, the Council aimed to revive the faith of the Church in the Lord Jesus Christ and to renew the experience of the Church of the Holy Spirit, so that, like the disciples after the first Christian Pentecost, the Church may be emboldened for a radical mission. Thus, Vatican II, he taught, must be understood as a Council which organically developed the tradition of the Church. Vatican II was not a break with tradition, but a deepening of the Church’s self-understanding in continuity with divine revelation.
This is why, in sanctify the worldI suggest that the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI should be understood as a continuous thirty-five-year arc of conciliar interpretation, providing the keys that unlock the authoritarian teaching and evangelical power of Vatican II.
So what about the current pontificate?
Pope Francis spoke of his respect for the Council. And his call for a Church “in permanent mission” certainly reflects John XXIII’s original intention for Vatican II, which Pope John summed up in a succinct sentence in September 1962: “The purpose of the Council is . . . evangelization”. Yet the current pontificate has departed from the teaching of the Council in several ways.
The Vatican’s current China policy contradicts the Council’s teaching that no rights or privileges should be granted to governments in the appointment of bishops – a teaching now legally incorporated into Canon 337.5. The Holy See’s endorsement of the 2019 Abu Dhabi Declaration and its assertion that the plurality of religions is an expression of God’s will does not easily sit well with the Council’s proclamation of Jesus Christ as the one and only redeemer of humanity: the Lord who is the center of history and of the cosmos. One of the defining achievements of Vatican II was its strong affirmation of the authority to govern conferred by sacramental ordination on the episcopate; recent reforms of the Roman Curia, the deposition of bishops without due process, and curial dictates on the proper celebration of Mass (and even the contents of parish bulletins!) undermine this authority. And the pontificate’s unusually narrow interpretation of the Council’s teaching on the liturgy made the implementation of Vatican II even more controversial.
These disparities will be at the center of the next papal conclave.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.
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