Vatican II reforms stand or fall together – historian

Cardinal Leo Jozef Suenens played a key role in bringing unity to the Second Vatican Council.


Cardinal Leo Jozef Suenens played a key role in bringing unity to the Second Vatican Council.

June 18, 2012

The documents of the Second Vatican Council should be studied as one body of work, lest they be misunderstood or their reforms dismantled piece-by-piece, says a leading Church historian.

"The documents of Vatican II have an integrity such that you have to look at them as a corpus," said Jesuit Father John O'Malley, a theology professor at Georgetown University.

O'Malley, author of the book What Happened at Vatican II, was asked to speak to the Catholic Common Ground Initiative about the significance of just one of the council's 16 documents, Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.

Unlike previous Church councils, such as the Council of Trent, Vatican II's documents build upon one another, and have "inter-textual" qualities, which was a new innovation for such material, said the Jesuit.

O'Malley gave the initiative's Philip J. Murnion lecture June 1 at The Catholic University of America in Washington.

Gaudium et Spes was the last document of Vatican II to be promulgated, in December 1965. Unlike the other documents, it was not drafted before the council began but arose from discussions during the sessions, O'Malley explained.

Belgian Cardinal Leo Jozef Suenens gave "an electrifying speech" about the need for a central theme on the floor of the council that helped unify what had until then been a somewhat chaotic process, he said.

With the encouragement of Pope John XXIII, Suenens shepherded what would become the council's consideration of the Church in the world.

Its themes about how the Church is a part of the modern world addressed the need for relationships between the Church and nonbelievers; said the quest for peace should be continuous; urged international cooperation in aiding underdeveloped nations; and discussed the "nobility of marriage" and the role of conjugal love.


O'Malley said Gaudium was significant for its "new stance toward the modern world."

The constitution said the Church is to be of service to the world, and that it should work to combat war, hunger and poverty, he said.

It also maintained that the Church can learn from the non-Catholic world, not as an enemy but as a potential partner, and it raised up "conscience as the ultimate personal norm for decisions," he said.

O'Malley also said Gaudium et Spes was striking for being addressed not just to Catholics, but to all men and women of good will, beyond the bounds of the Church.

"No previous council particularly took note of those outside the Church," he said, except occasionally as examples of wrong behaviour or flawed theology.

"It was a hymn to human dignity," said O'Malley, "an extremely positive consideration of human nature."

Criticism of the early document's drafts included the point made by Germany's then-Father Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, that the document wasn't theological enough and didn't adequately discuss the role of sin or the suffering of Jesus on the cross, O'Malley said.

By the time it was passed overwhelmingly by the council late in 1965, it had been adapted somewhat to take such critiques into account, he added.


In cautioning not to take individual documents of Vatican II out of context, O'Malley cited recent movement at the Vatican toward reconciling the Society of St. Pius X, a traditionalist group that split with the Church over whether it had to adopt the reforms of Vatican II.

For instance, some of the society's leaders continue to reject parts of Nostra Aetate, the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, including its condemnations of anti-Semitism and of the idea that the Jews were to blame for the death of Jesus.

O'Malley said allowing the society to "pick and choose" which Vatican II documents it accepts would amount to a strategy of "divide and conquer."

The council documents are so intricately linked that shelving one piece would lead to the downfall of the whole package, he said.

Major themes link the documents, notably that of reconciliation, which he said is expressed in different, important ways throughout the documents.

O'Malley said reconciling with the modern world means getting in touch with the wide-ranging components of today's society and sometimes making that outreach in ways that called for reconciliation.