Articles on Vatican II - Fifty years Later
The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) was the crowning achievement of the Second Vatican Council. There is no document remotely like it in the history of the Church, and it should be regarded as an act of providence, rather than deliberate design, that Vatican II was able to produce such a statement. Gaudium et Spes arose out of the folding-together of various documents the council was preparing and giving those documents a more solid theological foundation than had been found in earlier Catholic social teaching.
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Although the Polish Archbishop Karol Wojtyla was not one of the main architects of the Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae) at the Second Vatican Council, he may have been the bishop who used the declaration most effectively after the council. For Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, by rooting the right to religious freedom in the nature of the human person, the declaration provided a teaching that he could use to challenge the Communist rulers of Poland.
The American Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray was the only expert from this side of the Atlantic to have a significant impact at the Second Vatican Council. Murray made a major contribution to the drafting of the Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae), although not as major as some observers would have it. In the early 1950s, Murray made a name for himself by arguing that the American system of Church-state relations was the most desirable form. This did not go down well at the Vatican where the U.S. system of toleration of religious difference was seen as a necessary, but unsatisfactory, compromise.
Depending on your perspective, the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignatatis Humanae) made a major change to an unchangeable Church teaching or only an evolution in that teaching. Either way, the roots that gave rise to the decree go back to the persecution of the Church begun during the French Revolution and which continues in various ways to this day. Prior to the Revolution of 1789, the Church was a dominant and privileged force in France.
In discussions about the Second Vatican Council, the Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church (Christus Dominus) is rarely mentioned. That is understandable. The main theological discussion on the nature of the episcopacy takes place in chapter three of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium). Christus Dominus is a document intended to take that earlier constitution and draw out practical implications for how bishops carry out their ministry.
Although the Decree on the Catholic Eastern Churches (Orientalium Ecclesarium) is the third shortest document produced by the Second Vatican Council, it is a significant statement that goes far beyond maintaining the status quo. While the decree is not exactly a Magna Carta for the churches of the East which are in union with Rome, it does signal a shift to a more positive view of those churches than had been the practice of recent centuries.
A key Protestant belief is the priority of Scripture. Catholics, while not denigrating Scripture, have held to the crucial importance of Christ's real presence in the Eucharist. The final chapter of the Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) raises the question of the relative importance of the two. It begins with the striking statement, "The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures as it has venerated the body of the Lord" (DV 21).
The Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) was surely the most difficult document to finalize at the Second Vatican Council. The original document on revelation appeared in November 1962 and was soundly rejected by the council fathers. It went through roughly six more major drafts before finally being approved three weeks before the council ended in 1965. To win approval, compromises were needed, and nowhere is that more evident than in the document's discussion of Sacred Scripture.
Seemingly miniscule changes in wording can hide major shifts in understanding. So it was when the Second Vatican Council's Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) spoke of "Tradition" in comparison with "traditions" referred to in the teaching of the 16th century Council of Trent. The shift from the plural to the singular and from a small "t" to a capital "T" augured a significant shift in Church teaching. For Joseph Ratzinger, this was but one sign in Dei Verbum indicating that Tradition had come to mean something quite different than the strict "passing on" of unchanging truths and laws inherited from the past.
The most basic question about divine revelation is "why?" Why would God choose to reveal himself to humanity? Every person has an in-built sense of the divine, a sense that at the heart of all that exists, there is mystery. In every culture, religion spontaneously arises because of this wonderment in the face of being.