Church needs to do more to implement Vatican II – scholar

March 31, 2014

Fifty years after the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church needs to go further in giving authority to lay people, says a leading expert on the council.

"The powerlessness of the laity is striking," said Father Joseph Komonchak, the English-language editor of the five-volume History of Vatican II, produced by an international team of theologians in the 1990s and early 21st century.

"That's a major problem; the Church is still far too clerical."

In a typical diocese, lay parishioners are never consulted on who the next pastor will be or what needs the new pastor should meet in their parish, Komonchak said in an interview.

"In more than one place," vibrant parishes have been ruined within a couple of months after the arrival of a new pastor who has decided to do things his own way, he said.

Komonchak said canon law has a provision for lay input into the removal of a pastor. There is no reason it could not also allow for lay input into choosing pastors.

As well, dioceses are not consulted about who their next bishop will be – not only the names of candidates, but also the qualities people would like to see in their new bishop, he said.

Komonchak said his view is that, as in ancient tradition, a bishop should be chosen from among the local clergy.

He said he expressed that view at a dinner party with five or six recently-appointed bishops, none of whom agreed with him. "But every one of them had been parachuted into a new diocese."

He quoted Pope Celestine I, a fifth century pontiff, who said, "No bishop should be imposed on an unwilling people."

Fr. Joseph Komonchak is perhaps the leading English-speaking expert on Vatican II.


Fr. Joseph Komonchak is perhaps the leading English-speaking expert on Vatican II.

Komonchak, a retired Church historian who spent 32 years teaching at The Catholic University of America in Washington, spoke with the WCR while in Edmonton to give the annual Anthony Jordan Lecture Series March 7-8.


Prior to the last papal election, he said he wrote to an unnamed cardinal to say, "I look at all these TV shows about the papacy and all the cardinals gathering, and a couple of things strike me. First, they are all men; there are no women anywhere, and, two, almost all the men are old."

Another major piece of unfinished business from Vatican II, he said, is the council's teaching on collegiality – shared authority in the Church.

In the first decade following the council, attempts were made to implement collegiality, but they "have essentially withered away."

"The council called for institutions of co-responsibility on every level of Church life," he said. Almost all attempts to implement such institutions have "atrophied."

Komonchak is heartened by Pope Francis' implementation of a council of eight cardinals to help him oversee the Church. "It was an important step and he seems to be investing a considerable amount of authority in them."

However, the council should be expanded to include to include more members, including some who are not cardinals, he said.

"You could have a permanent body, but it would have to be more representative than this one. There's no reason you couldn't have lay people on it."

Pope Benedict XVI's greatest contribution to the Church was his willingness to resign his office because it demythologized the papacy, he said. As well, Pope Francis' exercising his ministry without pomp and circumstance also helps to give authority back to local churches.


Komonchak said people do not always mean the same thing when they talk about Vatican II.

One can see the council in terms of the final documents it produced. "If somebody says Vatican II was in favour of having funerals for pets, you can legitimately ask 'In what document does Vatican II say that?'"

A second way of understanding the council is the experience of what happened between the time the council was called on Jan. 25, 1959 and when it finished on Dec. 8, 1965. "The five-volume history attempted to reconstruct what happened in those six or seven years."


Another way of thinking about the council is in terms of the impact it had, not only in Rome, but in the Church at large during the years the council was in session, he said. "A sense spread that a whole bunch of things that were not possible before were now possible."

A fourth way of seeing Vatican II is to include not only the council but also its aftermath, he said. "If someone says Vatican II was the worst thing that happened in 2,000 years of Church history, they don't mean just the council, they also mean the impact that it had."

Komonchak said to fully understand the council, you need three categories – the documents, the experience and the event that continues to happen.


The 16th century Council of Trent, he noted, didn't affect the Church until 150 years after it finished.

Komonchak said he is often asked when there will be a need for Vatican III. His response: "I would like to see more responsibilities given to local churches before having another council."