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 (Basic Books), the next 26 and a half years saw John Paul II fulfill this promise, for his pontificate was an epic of teaching and witnessing which helped to provide the council with the keys to interpretation that it did not was not given.
Unlike the previous 20 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 that, which is one of the reasons why a donnybrook on the intention and significance of the council ensued.
In the apostolic exhortation of 1975 Evangelii Nuntiandi (“Heralding the Gospel”), Pope Paul VI began the process of giving the council without keys an authoritative interpretation by recalling John XXIII’s original intention for the council: Vatican II was to launch the church into a revitalized Christ-centered mission. evangelization. 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 in 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 man of counsel; 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, should be understood as a council that 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 35-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 “permanently on 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…the 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 affirmation that the plurality of religions is an expression of the will of God does not easily accord 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!) have undermined 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.
Weigel is Distinguished Senior Scholar and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.