The National Catholic Review
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The memory of the Second Vatican Council, 40 years after the opening of the council, continues to arouse both acclamation and vilification. Its champions, in many cases, see it as having liberated Catholics from a long night of oppression, thus restoring to the people of God their rightful liberties. Its detractors blame it for shattering the unity and order of the church and introducing an era of contestation and doubt. While reformers caricature the preconciliar church as tyrannical and obscurantist, traditionalists idealize the preconciliar church as though it were a lost paradise.

 

In part, the quarrels are due to a conflict of interpretations. The council documents, like most committee products, reflect some compromises. Four factors make the interpretation especially difficult.

1. The council fathers, under the direction of Pope Paul VI, made every effort to achieve unanimity and express the consensus of the whole episcopate, not the ideas of one particular school. For this reason, they sought to harmonize differing views, without excluding any significant minority. In some cases they adopted deliberate ambiguities.

2. Pope John XXIII, in his opening speech on Oct. 11, 1962, declared that although the church had sometimes condemned errors with the greatest severity, it would best meet the needs of our time “by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations.” Because the council saw fit to follow this instruction, it did not dwell on the negative implications of its doctrine. Framed so as not to offend any large group, except perhaps atheistic Communism, the documents are markedly irenic.

3. The council occurred at a unique moment of history, when the Western world was swept up in a wave of optimism typified by Pope John XXIII himself. The “new humanism” was confident that if free play were given to human powers and technology, the scourges of poverty, disease, famine and war could be virtually eliminated. Christians, on this theory, had no good reason for standing apart from the rest of humanity. They should throw in their lot with all the forces making for humanization and progress. Books like The Secular City (1964), by Harvey Cox, served as bibles for the new gospel of freedom and creativity. Secular enthusiasts interpreted Vatican II as an invitation for Catholics to jump on the bandwagon.

4. In the postconciliar period, the communications media favored the emphasis on novelty. Progressive theologians were lionized for writing books and articles that seemed to be breaking new barriers and demolishing the old edifice of preconciliar Catholicism.

In this atmosphere, early interpreters of the council suggested that the documents contained revolutionary implications not apparent on the surface. Some propounded the hermeneutical principle that where there are ambiguities in the council documents, these should always be resolved in favor of discontinuity. Others used the device of preferring to follow the “spirit of Vatican II” at the expense of the letter.

Whereas this innovationist hermeneutic of Vatican II was clearly predominant in the literature of the first decade after the council, another school of interpretation began to surface toward the middle 1970’s. Such distinguished theologians as Henri de Lubac, S.J., Hans Urs von Balthasar and Joseph Ratzinger banded together to found a new international review, Communio, which was widely viewed as an attempt to offset the progressive Dutch-based journal Concilium. Writers for Communio preferred to interpret Vatican II with what they called “a hermeneutics of continuity,” emphasizing the diachronic solidarity of the council with the whole Catholic tradition.

To overcome polarization and bring about greater consensus, Pope John Paul II convened an extraordinary assembly of the Synod of Bishops in 1985, the 20th anniversary of the close of the council. This synod in its final report came up with six agreed principles for sound interpretation, which may be paraphrased as follows:

1. Each passage and document of the council must be interpreted in the context of all the others, so that the integral teaching of the council may be rightly grasped.

2. The four constitutions of the council (those on liturgy, church, revelation and church in the modern world) are the hermeneutical key to the other documents—namely, the council’s nine decrees and three declarations.

3. The pastoral import of the documents ought not to be separated from, or set in opposition to, their doctrinal content.

4. No opposition may be made between the spirit and the letter of Vatican II.

5. The council must be interpreted in continuity with the great tradition of the church, including earlier councils.

6. Vatican II should be accepted as illuminating the problems of our own day.

These principles seem to me to be sound. Applying them, I should like to propose 12 points on which I believe that the council has been rather generally misunderstood.

1. It is widely believed that the council taught that non-Christian religions contain revelation and are paths to salvation for their members. A careful examination of the documents, however, proves the contrary. The council taught that salvation cannot be found in any other name than that of Jesus (Acts 4:12; cf. Ad Gentes, the “Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity” [1965], No. 9, and Gaudium et Spes, the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” [1965], No. 10). In solemn language it declared: “This sacred Synod professes its belief that God has made known to mankind the way in which men are to serve him, and thus to be saved in Christ and come to blessedness” (Dignitatis Humanae, the “Declaration on Religious Freedom” [1965], No. 1). Without denying that there are truths and values in other religions, the council asserted that these truths and values are commingled with serious errors, and that even the truths have salvific value only to the extent that they are preparations for, or reflections of, the Christian Gospel (Lumen Gentium, the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” [1964], No. 16; AG, No. 9).

2. Regarding the means by which revelation is transmitted, many theologians have argued that the council gave priority to Scripture as the written word of God, and demoted tradition to the status of a secondary norm, to be tested against the higher norm of Scripture.

An impartial reading of Vatican II’s Dei Verbum, the “Dogmatic Constitution on Revelation” (1965) indicates on the contrary that the council gave a certain priority to tradition. It asserts that the Apostles and their successors, the bishops, by their preaching and teaching have faithfully preserved the word of God. Scripture is an inspired and privileged sedimentation of tradition but not an independent or separable norm. Scripture and tradition together constitute a single indivisible channel of revealed truth, in which neither element could stand without the other (DV, No. 9).

3. A third error relating to revelation is the view that, according to the council, God continues to reveal himself in secular experience through the signs of the times, which therefore provide criteria for interpreting the Gospel. Vatican II, in fact, rejected the idea of continuing revelation. It taught that revelation became complete in Jesus Christ and that no further public revelation is to be expected before the end of time, when Christ returns in glory (DV, No. 4). In Gaudium et Spes the council spoke of the church’s duty to interpret the signs of the times, but it specified that these signs are to be interpreted in the light of the Gospel (GS, No. 4).

4. Turning now to the church, we can put the question of its necessity. It has become almost a platitude to say that the council, reversing earlier Catholic teaching, taught that the church is not necessary for salvation. But in reality the council affirmed that faith and baptism are necessary for salvation (Mk 16:16; Jn 3:5), and that, since baptism is the door to the church, the church too is necessary. The council went on to say that anyone who knows that the church is necessary has the obligation to enter it and remain in it as a condition for salvation (LG, No. 14).

Vatican II did, however, face the question whether persons who have no opportunity to hear the Gospel are necessarily lost. It replied that they can be “associated with the paschal mystery” if, with the help of God’s grace, they consistently strive to do God’s will as it is known to them (GS, No. 22). But because people outside the church fall frequently into sin and error, the Gospel and the church could greatly help them on their way to salvation (LG, No. 16).

5. Turning now to the ecumenical problem, we must evaluate the common impression that the council, in stating that the church of Christ “subsists” in the Roman Catholic communion (LG, No. 8), implied that the former is wider and more inclusive than the latter. Cardinal Ratzinger, rejecting this view, argues that because the church of Christ has its subsistence in Roman Catholicism, it cannot subsist anywhere else. This reading coheres well with the full teaching of the council. Certain endowments of the church can, to be sure, exist in other Christian communions, bringing their members into “imperfect communion” with the Catholic Church (Unitatis Redintegratio, the “Decree on Ecumenism” [1964], No. 3). Non-Catholic communities that have a genuine apostolic ministry and a valid Eucharist are properly called churches, but they should not be reckoned as constituent parts of the one and catholic church in which the true religion subsists (DH, No. 1).

6. The doctrine of collegiality is frequently misunderstood as though it restricted the powers of the pope, requiring him to establish a consensus of the world’s bishops before deciding important issues. Vatican II did indeed affirm that the bishops as a college, when acting together with their head, the pope, enjoy supreme authority, but it affirmed that the pope likewise has supreme authority as successor of Peter and head of the college. The full power of the college is present in the pope alone, who is always free to exercise his primatial office according to the grace given to him. The college, on the other hand, cannot act except when summoned to collegial action by the pope. Its decisions have no efficacy without the pope’s approval. Thus the primacy of the pope, as it had been defined by Vatican I, remains intact. His power is in no way limited by that of the episcopal college (LG, No. 22).

7. Passing to another point, we may ask whether the council recognized that theologians and others have a right to dissent from noninfallible teachings of the magisterium. Some Catholic theologians, while admitting that all the faithful are obliged to submit to infallible teaching, contend that faithful Catholics are entitled to reject noninfallible teaching when it conflicts with their private judgment.

Vatican II never mentioned dissent, but by implication rejected it. It stated that even when the pope and the bishops do not speak infallibly, their authoritative teaching is binding, and that the faithful are required to adhere to it with a “religious submission of mind” (LG, No. 25). Vatican II, therefore, cannot be quoted as favoring dissent.

8. Regarding the laity, the council did much to clarify their active role in the worship and mission of the church and their vocation to refashion secular society according to the norms of the Gospel. At several points Vatican II urged pastors to consult the laity and to listen to them when they speak within their competence (LG, No. 37; GS, Nos. 43, 62). But at no point did it suggest that the hierarchy have any obligation to accept the recommendations of the laity with regard to matters pertaining to the pastoral office. While encouraging cooperation with priests, deacons and laypersons, the council placed the powers of authoritative teaching, sacramental worship and pastoral government squarely and exclusively in the hands of the hierarchy (Christus Dominus, the “Decree on the Bishops’ Pastoral Office in the Church” [1965], No. 30).

9. It is often said that with Vatican II the church, reversing its earlier position, acknowledged marriage as a vocation no less blessed than celibacy. The council wrote eloquently of the sacrament of matrimony as a sacred bond mirroring the union between Christ and the church (GS, No. 48), but it also reaffirmed the teaching of Trent that it is better and more blessed to remain in virginity or celibacy than to be joined in matrimony—a doctrine that Trent traced back to Jesus (Mt 19: 11-12) and to Paul (1 Cor 7:25-26, 38, 40). In Optatam Totius, the “Decree on Priestly Formation” (1965), Vatican II declared that seminarians “should acquire a right understanding of the duties and dignity of Christian marriage, as representing the love between Christ and his church (cf. Eph 5:22-33). They should, however, realize the greater excellence of virginity consecrated to Christ, so that by a maturely considered and magnanimous free choice they may consecrate themselves to the Lord by an entire dedication of body and mind” (OT, No. 10). If this passage had been better understood and more energetically taught, the present crisis of vocations to the priestly and religious life might be less severe.

10. Opponents of Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968) make much of the fact that Vatican II was silent on the morality of contraception. The council did not explicitly condemn contraception because the pope had reserved this question to a special commission outside the council. But after declaring that the full sense of mutual self-giving and human procreation must be preserved in marital intercourse, the council declared: “Such a goal cannot be achieved unless the virtue of conjugal chastity is sincerely practiced. Relying on these principles, sons and daughters of the church may not undertake methods of regulating procreation which are found blameworthy by the teaching authority of the church in its unfolding of the divine law” (GS, No. 51). At this point the fathers inserted footnotes referring to documents of Pius XI and Pius XII forbidding contraception. If this passage had been written after Humanae Vitae, no revision would have been needed except the addition of a reference to that document in the footnote.

11. The council’s teaching on religious freedom has been poorly understood. It is widely believed that the council recognized that members of non-Catholic and non-Christian religious bodies have a right to believe as they do and to propagate their beliefs freely. But the council declared no such thing. In its “Declaration on Religious Freedom” it rejected coercion by the state in the area of religion, but it did not set all religions on the same level. The “one true religion,” it stated, “subsists in the Catholic and apostolic church to which the Lord Jesus committed the duty of spreading it abroad among all men” (DH, No. 1). Other religious and churches do not have the same mandate. The late John Courtney Murray, S.J., stated in his commentary: “Neither the declaration nor the American Constitution affirms that a man has a right to believe what is false or to do what is wrong. This would make moral nonsense. Neither error nor evil can be the object of a right, only what is true and good. It is, however, true and good that a man should enjoy freedom from coercion in matters religious.”

12. Turning in conclusion to the liturgy, I shall limit myself to one question. Vatican II is frequently praised or blamed for having authorized the translation of the Latin liturgy into the vernacular. But the matter is not so simple. In Sacrosactum Concilium, its “Constitution on the Liturgy” (1963), the council declared: “The use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rite, except where a particular law might indicate otherwise” (SC, No 36, Paragraph 1). In the following two paragraphs the constitution went on to say that competent local ecclesiastical authorities may determine that certain readings, instructions, prayers and chants be translated into the mother tongue of the people. The council fathers would not have anticipated that in the space of a few years the Latin language would almost totally disappear. It would be well if Catholics could be familiar with the Mass in Latin, the official language of the Roman rite. But since there are sound pastoral reasons for the vernacular, faithful translations of high quality should be provided. We may hope that such translations are in the making.

Because the hermeneutics of discontinuity has prevailed in countries like our own, the efforts of the Holy See to clarify the documents have regularly been attacked as retrenchments. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was denounced for its declaration on infallibility, Mysterium Ecclesiae (1973), for the new profession of faith issued in 1989, for its ecclesiology of communion in Communionis Notio (1991) and for its document on Christ and the Church, Dominus Iesus (2000). The Roman document on the collaboration of the laity in the sacred ministry (1997) was angrily dismissed, as was, in some quarters, John Paul II’s apostolic constitution Apostolos Suos, on the status and authority of episcopal conferences (1998). In each of these cases there was a clamor of protest, but the critics did not convincingly show that the official teaching had departed from the teaching of Vatican II, interpreted according to the principles set forth in the Extraordinary Synod of 1985.

I am not seeking in this brief article to defend the teaching of Vatican II on points that someone or other might wish to challenge. My authority could not add anything to that of the council, which spoke with the promised assistance of the Holy Spirit. I can say only that I find the teaching of Vatican II very solid, carefully nuanced and sufficiently flexible to meet the needs of our own time and place. The artful blending of majority and minority perspectives in the council documents should have forestalled the unilateral interpretations. There is no reason today why Vatican II should be a bone of contention among Catholics.

History, of course, does not stop. Just as Vatican II made important changes reflecting new biblical studies, the liturgical movement and the ecumenical movement, we may expect future developments in doctrine and polity. Progress must be made, but progress always depends upon an acceptance of prior achievements so that it is not necessary to begin each time from the beginning.

Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., is the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham University, New York City. This article is based on lectures given in October 2002 at Loyola University in New Orleans and Georgetown

Comments

Patrick B Fox | 2/27/2003 - 7:58pm
There is no reason why Vatican II should be a bone of contention among Catholics. Cardinal you and I would agree. The fundamental sense I have of Vatican II is that it offered a wonderful sense of Church as both/and and not either/or. Vatican II called all of us to live the call of a loving God who is in covenant with the people. The leaders of the Council, inspired by the Holy Spirit, under the guidance of the Holy Fathers (John XXIII and Paul VI) called Christ to a renewed sense of itself. The council called us to a sense of holism. As the principles for sound interpretation you offer suggest, we must see the interpretation of all passages and documents in the context of all the others. The four constitutions hold a place of dignity and bear a character of importance that leave them key to understanding everything else. Not separating the pastoral importance from the doctrinal content and interpreting within an understanding of scripture and tradition is fundamental. Where I find myself sorting in different ways stems from all of the above. Scripture needs no more defense than that offered by the actions of Jesus. The Christ becoming incarnate spent the larger number of years of life on earth praying with, studying, explaining, and challenging the Hebrew Scripture and then spent the last three years in a public manner within the earshot of the Apostles and Disciples offering those stories that we have come to treasure as the Gospels of the New Testament. If the Son of God values all of these years spent reading and reflecting on, praying with and adding to the Word, it becomes for us a sacred duty and trust that we must follow and practice. Tradition is the action of people in time which act being valued, repeated and which by extending over time becomes, not just the action of a people in time but an act which transcends time and which we rightfully hold in esteem. We are the people of God. We are sharers of the gift of faith and stewards of the growth and nurture of the gift we have received. The Council leaders said, the Church has been seen as, ”…a people made one with the unity of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.” (L.G. 4) The Church is called sheepfold, flock, land to be cultivate, building of God, holy temple, living stones, that Jerusalem which is above and our mother. (L.G. 6) It seems abundantly clear both pastorally and doctrinally that the inclusive model of church is intentional. The gifts and charisms given to each are for the service of all. These gifts and charisms do not hold superiority but are given to fulfill the mission of Jesus. Rightfully and appropriately we each hold responsibility to give to each other the dignity of the office or ministry to which each one’s gifts lead them. To deny dissent is to ignore the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. It was in fact his legitimate dissent with the practice of the Jewish community of his time that the New Covenant was to come to be practiced in the Church, we know as Roman Catholic. We need to be respectful recognizing that dissent is not license but we must and the conciliar documents are in and of themselves matter of dissent with tradition and practice to which they offer new insight. Regarding the laity, for which I confess a personal bias, I trust that the hierarchy does not need a sense of obligation to listen to laity. The Church of Jesus of Nazareth, of the Council of Trent and of Vatican II all hold the laity in esteem. The power of authoritative teaching, results form a both/and attitude. The honor an esteem I have for others is based on the respect I have for myself. I expect nothing less from others. The dignity of each person does not result from or accrue to one by right of rank or place, but by the dignity of each person as the creation of a good and loving God. The leaders of Vatican II, it seems to me, were not the custodians of a new humanism but of an ancient sense of the great gift of creation and the<
Rev. Steven Dunn | 2/26/2003 - 2:01am
One of the problems I find with Cardinal Dulles' article on Vatican II is in the way he interprets the documents: in many ways his literalism and "proof texting" reflects the way in which a fundamentalist approaches Scripture. By stating as a "principle" that "No opposition may be made between the spirit and the letter of Vatican II," he disregards the ongoing work of the Spirit in the interpretation and application of conciliar teaching. The documents are at times "ambiguous" or unspecific not only due to compromises between factions, as Cardinal Dulles asserts, but also because the documents form a broad blueprint for the church, which will be applied by bishops throughout the world. If we agree that the council is inspired by the Holy Spirit, then we cannot freeze the work of the Spirit in 1965. In defending celibacy as a "higher calling," for example, the cardinal is not only proof texting but also reading a the church of the early-to-mid 1960s, not the church of today. Clearly, one of the most important effects of the council was to restore an understanding of the dignity and eqaulity of all the baptized. The teaching and effects of Vatican II are dynamic and, therefore, will require ongoing application and interpretation--or maybe even lead to another council. Cardinal Dulles' static, rigid interpretation of this dynamic council stifles the ongoing movement of the Spirit as its teachings are applied to the "signs of the times."

Jack Selzer | 3/6/2003 - 7:35am
I was educated by Jesuits in the late 1960s, when the changes inspired by Vatican II invigorated my faith life. So it will not come as a surprise that, given his standing and influence within the Church, Avery Dulles' commentary on Vatican II (February 24) `struck me as discouraging, humiliating, and not a little frightening.

No special tolerance of other faiths emerged from Vatican, Cardinal Dulles explains, let alone any sense "that non-Christian religions contain revelation and are paths to salvation." After all, apparently unlike Catholic bishops, "people outside the church frequently fall into sin and error." "Because the Church of Christ has its subsistence in Roman Catholicism, it cannot subsist anywhere else," and so it is simply a mistake to believe that "members of non-Catholic and non-Christian religious bodies have a right to believe as they do." Ecumenism, in other words, is "a problem," not a moral imperative.

Then again, Catholics themselves have no right to free thought or dissent either. "The primacy of the pope . . . remains intact, [and] his power is in no way limited by that of the episcopal college." No checks and balances are needed. Fantastic though it may sound, even "when the pope and bishops do not speak infallibly, their authoritative teaching is binding, and . . . the faithful are required to adhere to it." Clergy are expected to listen to laity only "when they speak within their competency": in other words, lay persons are expected to serve blindly and submissively, contributing money, to be sure, but no ideas: "the council placed the powers of authoritative teaching, sacramental worship, and pastoral government squarely and exclusively in the hands of the hierarchy." The model Catholic lay person is a faithful and loyal domestic animal.

As for post-Vatican II renovations of the Church's positions on sexual morality, forget it. "It is better and more blessed to remain in virginity or celibacy than to be joined in matrimony," Cardinal Dulles intones. Chastity somehow equals virginity, in other words. According to such logic, sexual acts, even within marriage, are always by implication sinful; my own belief that my marriage vows committed me to a life of chastity (though not virginity) was simply erroneous, beyond my limit of competency I suppose. And the Council, he assures us, "forbid contraception" outright and without qualification: what matter that such a policy would lead directly to massive disease and suffering.

My goodness, even the change from Latin to vernacular languages in our Sunday rites was not authorized by Vatican II, Cardinal Dulles explains.

In short, Vatican II never happened at all, he assures us. I fully expect a follow up article that explains that John XXIII himself never existed, but was as fictional and fantastic as St. Christopher.

Peggy Hebert | 3/3/2003 - 8:27pm
I have great respect for the wisdom and learning of Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J. I was, therefore, saddened by his reiteration in the article "Vatican II: the Myth and the Reality" (Feb. 24, 2003) of "the teaching of Trent that it is more blessed to remain in virginity or celibacy than to be joined in matrimony." (point 9) Jesus chastised his disciples for seeking high places and repeatedly taught that it was their task to serve not reign. Why must celibacy be better than matrimony when a vowed life of celibacy clearly cannot exist without marriage. We need each other and the work of the church needs both. Can we not lie and work in mutual respect?

Francis X. Doyle | 2/26/2003 - 8:52pm
Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., in his article, "Vatican II: The Myth and the Reality" (2/24), rues the "misunderstanding" of the Council's documents. Dismantling the Council's achievements in a manner that would cause 'restorationists' to cheer, he neatly places blame for the misinterpratation of the documents on the "hermeneutics of discontinuity". Whatever happened to the Avery Dulles who wrote in the America Press edition of the Documents of Vatican II (1966, pg 10-11): "When the Council Fathers came together, they immediately saw the need of setting forth a radically different vision of the Church, more biblical, more historical, more vital and dynamic."? He wrote then that Lumen Gentium "...provides an excellent foundation for a new and creative approach to the role of the laity in the Church." (Pg.12). Now, retreating from the "creative approach", he cautions that "...at no point did it [Vatican II] suggest that the hierarchy have any obligation to accept the recommendations of the laity with regard to matters pertaining to the pastoral office." I think I know what happened: Cardinal Dulles has become captivated by the hermeneutic of retrenchment!

Samuel R. Schnydmans | 2/26/2003 - 2:13pm
After reading the Myth etc. and during our dinner conversation last night (about this article)the question arose 'had just received this week's issue of The Wanderer in place of America?'.
James Cosgrove | 2/26/2003 - 1:59pm
With due respect to Cardinal Dulles, I beg to differ with his contention in the issue of February 24th that Catholics really have nothing to argue about when it comes to Vatican II. In the interest of brevity I will express my dissent from his views on one particular point.

Referring to misunderstandings regarding the Council’s treatment of what he calls the “ecumenical problem” (p. 10), Dulles claims that Cardinal Ratzinger has argued that since the Church of Christ has its subsistence in Roman Catholicism, it cannot subsist anywhere else. It is true that Ratzinger (assuming that he is the author of Dominus Jesus) has said that the Church of Christ continues to exist “fully only” in the Catholic Church. (DJ, Section 16) If this is the document Dulles refers to, I would suggest that there is a big difference between not subsisting fully and not subsisting at all.

Everything depends on one’s interpretation of the Latin phrase “subsistit in,” as it is used in Lumen Gentium. Does the phrase mean that the Church of Christ exists solely within the confines of the visible social structure known as the Roman Catholic Church? If that were the case, the Council should have said that the Church of Christ is identical to the Roman Catholic Church. Then it would be official teaching that the Church of Christ does not subsist, for example, in the Greek Orthodox Church.

My view is that the phrase “subsistit in” can be interpreted in a far more irenic manner. If one is a Roman Catholic, one can be confident that the Church of Christ has a real existence in the Catholic Church. To put it another way, the Church founded by Christ continues to exist – imperfectly -- in the Catholic Church. As a historical reality, the Catholic Church by no means is and for that matter never has been “fully” the Church of Christ, that is, the Church the way Christ wants it to be.

Furthermore, the Church of Christ also exists (and subsists) outside of the Catholic Church. The Council’s Decree on Ecumenism says the following: “… it remains true that all who have been justified by faith in Baptism are members of Christ's body, and have a right to be called Christian, and so are correctly accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church.” (UR, Section 3) When this decree states that those who are baptized are members of Christ’s body, it is talking about the Mystical Body, that is, the Church of Christ. Jesus said it best. “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in the midst of them.” (Matt: 18, 20) Ecumenism would be less of a “problem” if we all remembered that.

Patrick B Fox | 2/27/2003 - 7:58pm
There is no reason why Vatican II should be a bone of contention among Catholics. Cardinal you and I would agree. The fundamental sense I have of Vatican II is that it offered a wonderful sense of Church as both/and and not either/or. Vatican II called all of us to live the call of a loving God who is in covenant with the people. The leaders of the Council, inspired by the Holy Spirit, under the guidance of the Holy Fathers (John XXIII and Paul VI) called Christ to a renewed sense of itself. The council called us to a sense of holism. As the principles for sound interpretation you offer suggest, we must see the interpretation of all passages and documents in the context of all the others. The four constitutions hold a place of dignity and bear a character of importance that leave them key to understanding everything else. Not separating the pastoral importance from the doctrinal content and interpreting within an understanding of scripture and tradition is fundamental. Where I find myself sorting in different ways stems from all of the above. Scripture needs no more defense than that offered by the actions of Jesus. The Christ becoming incarnate spent the larger number of years of life on earth praying with, studying, explaining, and challenging the Hebrew Scripture and then spent the last three years in a public manner within the earshot of the Apostles and Disciples offering those stories that we have come to treasure as the Gospels of the New Testament. If the Son of God values all of these years spent reading and reflecting on, praying with and adding to the Word, it becomes for us a sacred duty and trust that we must follow and practice. Tradition is the action of people in time which act being valued, repeated and which by extending over time becomes, not just the action of a people in time but an act which transcends time and which we rightfully hold in esteem. We are the people of God. We are sharers of the gift of faith and stewards of the growth and nurture of the gift we have received. The Council leaders said, the Church has been seen as, ”…a people made one with the unity of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.” (L.G. 4) The Church is called sheepfold, flock, land to be cultivate, building of God, holy temple, living stones, that Jerusalem which is above and our mother. (L.G. 6) It seems abundantly clear both pastorally and doctrinally that the inclusive model of church is intentional. The gifts and charisms given to each are for the service of all. These gifts and charisms do not hold superiority but are given to fulfill the mission of Jesus. Rightfully and appropriately we each hold responsibility to give to each other the dignity of the office or ministry to which each one’s gifts lead them. To deny dissent is to ignore the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. It was in fact his legitimate dissent with the practice of the Jewish community of his time that the New Covenant was to come to be practiced in the Church, we know as Roman Catholic. We need to be respectful recognizing that dissent is not license but we must and the conciliar documents are in and of themselves matter of dissent with tradition and practice to which they offer new insight. Regarding the laity, for which I confess a personal bias, I trust that the hierarchy does not need a sense of obligation to listen to laity. The Church of Jesus of Nazareth, of the Council of Trent and of Vatican II all hold the laity in esteem. The power of authoritative teaching, results form a both/and attitude. The honor an esteem I have for others is based on the respect I have for myself. I expect nothing less from others. The dignity of each person does not result from or accrue to one by right of rank or place, but by the dignity of each person as the creation of a good and loving God. The leaders of Vatican II, it seems to me, were not the custodians of a new humanism but of an ancient sense of the great gift of creation and the<
Rev. Steven Dunn | 2/26/2003 - 2:01am
One of the problems I find with Cardinal Dulles' article on Vatican II is in the way he interprets the documents: in many ways his literalism and "proof texting" reflects the way in which a fundamentalist approaches Scripture. By stating as a "principle" that "No opposition may be made between the spirit and the letter of Vatican II," he disregards the ongoing work of the Spirit in the interpretation and application of conciliar teaching. The documents are at times "ambiguous" or unspecific not only due to compromises between factions, as Cardinal Dulles asserts, but also because the documents form a broad blueprint for the church, which will be applied by bishops throughout the world. If we agree that the council is inspired by the Holy Spirit, then we cannot freeze the work of the Spirit in 1965. In defending celibacy as a "higher calling," for example, the cardinal is not only proof texting but also reading a the church of the early-to-mid 1960s, not the church of today. Clearly, one of the most important effects of the council was to restore an understanding of the dignity and eqaulity of all the baptized. The teaching and effects of Vatican II are dynamic and, therefore, will require ongoing application and interpretation--or maybe even lead to another council. Cardinal Dulles' static, rigid interpretation of this dynamic council stifles the ongoing movement of the Spirit as its teachings are applied to the "signs of the times."

Jack Selzer | 3/6/2003 - 7:35am
I was educated by Jesuits in the late 1960s, when the changes inspired by Vatican II invigorated my faith life. So it will not come as a surprise that, given his standing and influence within the Church, Avery Dulles' commentary on Vatican II (February 24) `struck me as discouraging, humiliating, and not a little frightening.

No special tolerance of other faiths emerged from Vatican, Cardinal Dulles explains, let alone any sense "that non-Christian religions contain revelation and are paths to salvation." After all, apparently unlike Catholic bishops, "people outside the church frequently fall into sin and error." "Because the Church of Christ has its subsistence in Roman Catholicism, it cannot subsist anywhere else," and so it is simply a mistake to believe that "members of non-Catholic and non-Christian religious bodies have a right to believe as they do." Ecumenism, in other words, is "a problem," not a moral imperative.

Then again, Catholics themselves have no right to free thought or dissent either. "The primacy of the pope . . . remains intact, [and] his power is in no way limited by that of the episcopal college." No checks and balances are needed. Fantastic though it may sound, even "when the pope and bishops do not speak infallibly, their authoritative teaching is binding, and . . . the faithful are required to adhere to it." Clergy are expected to listen to laity only "when they speak within their competency": in other words, lay persons are expected to serve blindly and submissively, contributing money, to be sure, but no ideas: "the council placed the powers of authoritative teaching, sacramental worship, and pastoral government squarely and exclusively in the hands of the hierarchy." The model Catholic lay person is a faithful and loyal domestic animal.

As for post-Vatican II renovations of the Church's positions on sexual morality, forget it. "It is better and more blessed to remain in virginity or celibacy than to be joined in matrimony," Cardinal Dulles intones. Chastity somehow equals virginity, in other words. According to such logic, sexual acts, even within marriage, are always by implication sinful; my own belief that my marriage vows committed me to a life of chastity (though not virginity) was simply erroneous, beyond my limit of competency I suppose. And the Council, he assures us, "forbid contraception" outright and without qualification: what matter that such a policy would lead directly to massive disease and suffering.

My goodness, even the change from Latin to vernacular languages in our Sunday rites was not authorized by Vatican II, Cardinal Dulles explains.

In short, Vatican II never happened at all, he assures us. I fully expect a follow up article that explains that John XXIII himself never existed, but was as fictional and fantastic as St. Christopher.

Peggy Hebert | 3/3/2003 - 8:27pm
I have great respect for the wisdom and learning of Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J. I was, therefore, saddened by his reiteration in the article "Vatican II: the Myth and the Reality" (Feb. 24, 2003) of "the teaching of Trent that it is more blessed to remain in virginity or celibacy than to be joined in matrimony." (point 9) Jesus chastised his disciples for seeking high places and repeatedly taught that it was their task to serve not reign. Why must celibacy be better than matrimony when a vowed life of celibacy clearly cannot exist without marriage. We need each other and the work of the church needs both. Can we not lie and work in mutual respect?

Francis X. Doyle | 2/26/2003 - 8:52pm
Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., in his article, "Vatican II: The Myth and the Reality" (2/24), rues the "misunderstanding" of the Council's documents. Dismantling the Council's achievements in a manner that would cause 'restorationists' to cheer, he neatly places blame for the misinterpratation of the documents on the "hermeneutics of discontinuity". Whatever happened to the Avery Dulles who wrote in the America Press edition of the Documents of Vatican II (1966, pg 10-11): "When the Council Fathers came together, they immediately saw the need of setting forth a radically different vision of the Church, more biblical, more historical, more vital and dynamic."? He wrote then that Lumen Gentium "...provides an excellent foundation for a new and creative approach to the role of the laity in the Church." (Pg.12). Now, retreating from the "creative approach", he cautions that "...at no point did it [Vatican II] suggest that the hierarchy have any obligation to accept the recommendations of the laity with regard to matters pertaining to the pastoral office." I think I know what happened: Cardinal Dulles has become captivated by the hermeneutic of retrenchment!

Samuel R. Schnydmans | 2/26/2003 - 2:13pm
After reading the Myth etc. and during our dinner conversation last night (about this article)the question arose 'had just received this week's issue of The Wanderer in place of America?'.
James Cosgrove | 2/26/2003 - 1:59pm
With due respect to Cardinal Dulles, I beg to differ with his contention in the issue of February 24th that Catholics really have nothing to argue about when it comes to Vatican II. In the interest of brevity I will express my dissent from his views on one particular point.

Referring to misunderstandings regarding the Council’s treatment of what he calls the “ecumenical problem” (p. 10), Dulles claims that Cardinal Ratzinger has argued that since the Church of Christ has its subsistence in Roman Catholicism, it cannot subsist anywhere else. It is true that Ratzinger (assuming that he is the author of Dominus Jesus) has said that the Church of Christ continues to exist “fully only” in the Catholic Church. (DJ, Section 16) If this is the document Dulles refers to, I would suggest that there is a big difference between not subsisting fully and not subsisting at all.

Everything depends on one’s interpretation of the Latin phrase “subsistit in,” as it is used in Lumen Gentium. Does the phrase mean that the Church of Christ exists solely within the confines of the visible social structure known as the Roman Catholic Church? If that were the case, the Council should have said that the Church of Christ is identical to the Roman Catholic Church. Then it would be official teaching that the Church of Christ does not subsist, for example, in the Greek Orthodox Church.

My view is that the phrase “subsistit in” can be interpreted in a far more irenic manner. If one is a Roman Catholic, one can be confident that the Church of Christ has a real existence in the Catholic Church. To put it another way, the Church founded by Christ continues to exist – imperfectly -- in the Catholic Church. As a historical reality, the Catholic Church by no means is and for that matter never has been “fully” the Church of Christ, that is, the Church the way Christ wants it to be.

Furthermore, the Church of Christ also exists (and subsists) outside of the Catholic Church. The Council’s Decree on Ecumenism says the following: “… it remains true that all who have been justified by faith in Baptism are members of Christ's body, and have a right to be called Christian, and so are correctly accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church.” (UR, Section 3) When this decree states that those who are baptized are members of Christ’s body, it is talking about the Mystical Body, that is, the Church of Christ. Jesus said it best. “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in the midst of them.” (Matt: 18, 20) Ecumenism would be less of a “problem” if we all remembered that.

Richard K. Taylor | 2/7/2007 - 9:09am
I have followed with fascination the exchanges about the Second Vatican Council between Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., and John W. O’Malley, S.J. (2/24). Equally fascinating have been the numerous informative and thought-provoking letters that America readers have written in response.

Two sentences by Cardinal Dulles keep haunting me. Stating that style should not eclipse substance and writing approvingly of Dominus Iesus, he said: “At times the Roman authorities have found it necessary to speak more plainly and less diplomatically for the sake of truth and fidelity.... The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith seems to have learned from hard experience that when you couch unpopular teachings in ‘polite’ language, people easily conclude that you don’t mean what you said.”

I found myself asking, “If the church is not to use polite language, then what language should it use?” Some antonyms for “polite” are: impolite, rude, harsh, discourteous. How do we help people hear what the church is obliged to preach? Is it by being rude, disdainful and disrespectful—as many Catholics, Jews and Protestants found in the language of Dominus Iesus? Or is it by seeking to make our words more expressive of the attitudes enjoined upon us by Christ and St. Paul—humility, gentleness, meekness, patience, tenderheartedness, long-suffering, kindness and loving concern?

Because God is truth, we are tempted to respond to the world’s skepticism by speaking more sharply and shouting more vociferously. But because God is love, the world will not hear the truth about which we speak unless it is couched in a loving spirit. If not polite, then what?

(Msgr.) Thomas D. Candreva, J.C.D. | 1/31/2007 - 1:26pm
Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., in “Vatican II: The Myth and the Reality” (2/24), suggests a sound principle for interpreting the Second Vatican Council in a continuum, which effectively refutes the arrogant polarizations of ahistorical and pseudo-theological extremes. But the setting up of straw men and their facile demolition hardly honors the principle and can even be, as we used to say, “offensive to pious ears.” One small example: In this time of manifest clerical sinfulness and hierarchical mismanagement in our church, to draw any conclusion, as Cardinal Dulles does, from the premise that “people outside the church fall frequently into sin and error” is at best embarrassing and at worst hypocritical.

Vincent Weltzer | 1/31/2007 - 1:11pm
It is amazing that a scholar and theologian of the stature of Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., could keep thinking and writing with such a status-quo, even regressive, tone (2/24). Such an eminent teacher needs to be leading the people toward greater awareness, vision, lifegiving understanding of truth relevant to needs in the new millennium, rather than taking the life out of Vatican II with his extremely conservative interpretations. He is very sure of his appropriation of the council’s teaching, as if all other understanding of it is false. He is precise in his picking and choosing sources in the documents for his bias while being unclear about who are those giving a “common impression” or “it is widely believed” or “it is often said.” This is not the method of serious scholarship.

His opinion that “many theologians demoted tradition to the status of a secondary norm” is a stretch. He acknowledges that the council spoke of the church’s duty to interpret the signs of the times, but then implies that these signs have not been interpreted in light of the Gospel. Come on! His theological colleagues are not dummies. His understanding of “subsist” in regard to the church of Christ is problematic.

Cardinal Dulles sidesteps the issue about collegiality, locating it in the summoning of the bishops for consultation. The relevant issue today is about centralization of power in Rome, depriving the bishops of their rightful share of authority. His view on celibacy being more blessed than marriage is simply wrong-headed. His understanding of religious freedom and other churches is so confused and muddled that debate would be difficult. And I am not aware of the spirit and the meaning of Vatican II being pitted against its letter. He even has some questions about the use of the vernacular in the liturgy.

All in all, I see his view of church and theology to be in the old legal tradition that Vatican II tried to move beyond in Pope John’s aggiornamento. It does not serve the people well to keep in the past when the Spirit is trying to move us with freedom and hope and vision into the future. Cardinal Dulles is not speaking to the church in the modern world.

Frankly, his rigid, legalistic, defensive view is no help and inspiration for the church today. It is just rehashing old theology, which Vatican II sought to update in order to open, in Pope John’s words, the windows and let in the fresh air of the Spirit to a church that was stagnating or worse.

Mark Franceschini, O.S.M. | 1/31/2007 - 1:10pm
Thank you for presenting two views of the meaning and thrust of the Second Vatican Council (2/24). They confirm how interpretation leads to diverse, occasionally opposite, conclusions and applications. Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., reminded us of this and mentions the compromises that sought to harmonize differing views without excluding anyone.

The articles sum up where differing views lead. The cardinal presents the reality of what has happened. If there is room for disagreement, it is with his attempt to prove that what the pope, Roman offices and Curia have done is a faithful carrying out of Vatican II’s intentions. The style is unmistakable. It is a return to doctrinal orthodoxy enforced by centralized authority. The march backwards has derailed much of what Vatican II aspired to. If Rome maintains its present juridical and canonical imposition on every movement toward bettering relationships with other churches, religions and, sadly, the laity, the true church, then Vatican II will be a nostalgic memory containing the consolation of some changes even Rome dare not reprove! Of course, there is no guarantee this won’t happen!

The article by John W. O’Malley, S.J., captured all the enthusiasm and energy Vatican II created. He clearly spells out what hopes and dreams accompanied dialogue, collegiality, cooperation, etc. He graciously leaves off without commenting on what has taken place in the interim under Pope John Paul II. As much as his legacy will be bright in the eyes of the world, for the church, it will include reversing the optimism, faith, trust in the Spirit and generous openness to all peoples, religions and the challenges that ever remind us of the present calamities in political, economic, social and religious affairs.

Joseph F. Kelly | 1/31/2007 - 1:02pm
After reading Cardinal Avery Dulles’s article about how traditional the Second Vatican Council really was, one cannot help but be struck by how much the reality of Catholic life, at least in this country, has already changed since the council.

The council may not have legitimized dissent from noninfallible teachings, but one need only go to a meeting of a scholarly religious society to learn that dissent is flourishing, especially as more and more lay people and particularly lay women become theologians. The council may have taught that the celibate life is superior to the married one, but Catholic students, from elementary school to university, are almost all taught by lay people who neither accept nor teach that perspective. The council may have reaffirmed traditional teaching on contraception, but surveys show the vast majority of American Catholic women have used it, often after presenting it as a matter of conscience to a confessor. The council may have reaffirmed the pope’s authority, but authority has little value if people ignore it. In the last three presidential elections, the majority of Catholic votes went to the pro-abortion candidate. For better or worse, many of the council’s positions are becoming history in American Catholic life.

Cardinal Dulles closes his article by observing “we may expect future developments in doctrine and polity.” Those developments may already be taking place. The task now is to discern which are occurring under the guidance of the Spirit.

Dennis Haugh | 1/31/2007 - 1:01pm
Cardinal Dulles’s reading of the documents of the Second Vatican Council left me mystified: Was this the same council I remember? The one area in which I have done some study is ecclesiology, and I recalled an article published in 1987 by Cardinal Jan Willebrands (Origins, May 28), discussing the development of the council’s use of the expression subsistit in rather than est. Perhaps I am engaging in dueling cardinals, but Cardinal Willebrands is pretty explicit that the council used the term to express the truth that the church of Christ exists in its fullness in the Roman Catholic church but that it is not co-extensive with the juridical boundaries of that institution. It may be that Cardinal Dulles wishes to preserve that insight as well, for he specifically says that “Non-Catholic communities that have a genuine apostolic ministry and a valid Eucharist are properly called churches, but they should not be reckoned as constituent parts of the one and catholic church in which the true religion subsists.” Is Cardinal Dulles drawing a distinction between the Catholic Church and the church of Christ?

Father O’Malley points out that the council taught us “how” to be a church. In my opinion, the break with the pre-Vatican II church was in certain respects even greater than he describes. First of all, in Gaudium et Spes the council did recognize that we, the church, can expand and deepen our understanding of the most basic theological datum, human nature, through a fruitful dialogue with contemporary culture. The second point I would make flows from that insight of humility. Lay Catholics and non-Catholics participated in the production of Gaudium et Spes. The open process of dialogue and debate contrasts sharply with the experience Oswald von Nell-Breuning, S.J., related as the author in 1931 of Quadragesimo Anno; then he was sworn to secrecy and forbidden to consult with anyone.

I thank America for providing the stimulus for rereading the documents of Vatican II. They restore my hope in the church with the confidence that the Holy Spirit worked and works well in our midst.

Nathan Kollar | 1/31/2007 - 12:59pm
Cardinal Dulles’s defense of conservative Catholicism’s interpretation of the Second Vatican Council overrides one important fact and affirms one traditional Curial principle. The fact is that people who were there told us what they meant when they voted. One would appreciate his use of the biographies, autobiographies and commentaries of those who were there in defending his position. One would think that those who voted on the documents knew what they voted on. But documents and votes never did make a difference to those who hold his position. As one Curial official said to me in 1963, “When they all go home we will still be here. We, not they, determine what this council is.”

Andy Galligan | 1/31/2007 - 12:56pm
Regarding ecumenism, I am not sure exactly what Cardinal Avery Dulles is driving at (2/24), but I trust he is not trying to say that the Second Vatican Council taught there is only one true church of Christ that is to be completely and solely identified with the Roman Catholic Church. If they had wanted to, the council fathers could easily and clearly have stated, “The one true church of Christ is the Roman Catholic Church alone.” They refused to do that. Evidently they did not think it was the proper thing to do. I trust Cardinal Dulles doesn’t either, but the way his article on the council is worded makes me somewhat unsure of his thought.

Charles E. Miller, C.M. | 1/31/2007 - 12:55pm
The article by Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., (2/24) on the Second Vatican Council was distressing and depressing. We do not need to be told what Vatican II did not say. We need to be reminded of what it taught and did. It is easy to propose caricatures of the teachings of the council in order to refute them, which is what Cardinal Dulles did. One of his primary complaints concerns what he calls “the hermeneutics of discontinuity.” The continuity of the council is not with the post-Reformation church of Trent, it is true, but it is with the church of the Apostles and the fathers. This article reminded me that when Cardinal James Francis McIntyre of Los Angeles returned from the council, he gave a talk at the seminary in which he said, “Gentlemen, nothing has changed.” He believed what he said, and he thought we wanted reassurance about immutability, when, especially at that time, all of us, faculty and students, were eager to hear of all the wonderful developments at the Second Vatican Council.

John F. Kobler, C.P. | 1/31/2007 - 12:53pm
I greatly appreciated the two articles on the Second Vatican Council by Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., and John W. O’Malley, S.J. (2/24). However, each of these essays failed to mention an important dimension of the council’s method of reflection.

As regards the details of Cardinal Dulles’ s paper, I could not agree more. The weakness of his treatment is that it is entirely conceptualistic, and this makes Vatican II a doctrinal council in the tradition of Trent and Vatican I. About such issues Pope John XXIII said, “For this a council was not necessary” (opening speech). Hence, Cardinal Dulles’s technically correct analysis derogates from the pastoral role of Vatican II.

Father O’Malley’s appropriation of “style” to describe the pastoral role of Vatican II is much more congenial to my own understanding of the council’s methodology. But the conclusions he derives from this insight totally escaped my comprehension. Father O’Malley makes no reference to the phenomenological/existentialist movement that had a serious impact on European theologians since the 1920’s.

Since the era of the Enlightenment, especially in the West, there has been a growing crisis of meaning and values. Today this crisis is affecting Islam and the developing nations. This is a very dangerous situation, since we live in an age of ABC warfare and rapidly developing technology. The central question of our time is, “What does it mean to be a human being?’

In his last talk to the bishops in council Paul VI said that the council’s answer to the above question was totus homo phaenomenicus, “the whole man as a phenomenological reality.” This is the whole Christ, God’s archetype of authentic human possibilities, transfiguring the human dynamisms of the church, the new people of God, and projecting a relevant Christian anthropology (humanism) to help solve the crises of modern humanity. The subsidiary pastoral model of the council’s undertaking is, in the thought of Paul VI, the parable of the good Samaritan.

Francis A. Sullivan, S.J. | 1/31/2007 - 12:50pm
In his article “Vatican II: The Myth and the Reality” (2/24), Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., observes that the council fathers sought to harmonize differing views, without excluding any significant minority. He further quotes the principle for sound interpretation of the council that was laid down by the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in 1985: “Each passage and document of the council must be interpreted in the context of all the others, so that the integral teaching of the council may be rightly grasped.” Cardinal Dulles concludes, “The artful blending of majority and minority perspectives in the council documents should have forestalled the unilateral interpretations.”

In my judgment, Cardinal Dulles’s article offers just such a “unilateral interpretation” of the council. His procedure is to quote what in many instances are oversimplified or inaccurate statements people have made concerning points on which the council moved beyond previous Catholic doctrine. Cardinal Dulles then refutes each of these statements by selectively quoting texts that could lead one to believe that the council did not really say anything new on that issue. But the fact is that the council really did say something new on each of those issues, and the texts that Cardinal Dulles cites “must be interpreted in the context of the others, so that the integral teaching of the council may be rightly grasped.”

I shall comment specifically on just one point: the meaning of the conciliar statement that the church of Christ “subsists” in the Catholic Church. Cardinal Dulles refers to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s argument that because the church of Christ has its subsistence in Roman Catholicism, it cannot subsist anywhere else. In fact, this is the interpretation given by Cardinal Ratzinger’s congregation in its 1985 critique of a book by Leonardo Boff. However, in its recent document Dominus Iesus, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith no longer invokes the philosophical notion of subsistence, but translates subsistit according to the basic meaning of the Latin word, which is “to continue to exist.” Thus, it now explains Vatican II to mean that the church of Christ “continues to exist fully only in the Catholic Church.” This implies the recognition that the church of Christ continues to exist, but not fully so, in other churches. This interpretation is consistent with the same document’s description of the separated Eastern churches as “true particular churches.” Vatican II teaches that the universal church of Christ exists “in and out of” the particular churches. I do not know how we could recognize the Orthodox as “true particular churches” if we did not also recognize that the universal church of Christ is wider and more inclusive than the Roman Catholic Church.

John F. Long, S.J. | 1/31/2007 - 12:47pm
As one who actually participated in the Second Vatican Council—as a private consultant during the first period and as an official of the council in the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity for its three other periods—may I add a few reflections of my own to the articles you published by Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., and John W. O’Malley, S.J.?

Both articles contain many positive observations and insights. Still, neither quite conveys the notion of the council as a process, an event in which there was a growth in understanding and a willingness to open up to new horizons while maintaining the great tradition and truths of the faith.

Cardinal Dulles speaks of efforts at harmonizing different opinions and points out thus there were, at times, compromises and even deliberate ambiguities. That was openly recognized by Pope Paul VI. In various addresses he gave during the council, as its head and leader, he indicated ideas for interpretation that are still valid. Often these are not even adverted to, much less used by commentators since then.

Twice in the final homily at the session for promulgating documents held on Dec. 7, 1965, the pope spoke of questions still seeking answers, which in the postconciliar period the church could address with “generous and orderly energies.” In his words: “Since the council had not intended to resolve all the problems raised, some were reserved for future study by the church, some were presented in restricted and general terms, and therefore they remain open to further and deeper understanding and a variety of applications.”

No one would deny that after the council, there were some radical interpretations of it and its documents that went beyond what the council said or wanted. In my years of working for the Holy See and in ecumenical dialogues of various types, I myself had to struggle with this extremism, which could cause confusion and misunderstanding and lead to the polarization that often followed. However, in his presentation of the situation, Cardinal Dulles does not clarify enough either the “myth” or the “reality,” and so the confusion continues.

First, he does not use, as one important element for proper interpretations, the speeches of Pope Paul VI that I have already mentioned nor the relationes of the various commissions to the plenary sessions of the council, all of which are published. Second, in expounding his 12 points, he generally opts for the most narrow interpretation of the ambiguous statements or legitimate differences found in the documents. The consideration of the role of the laity is also treated in a purely juridical way, without proper consideration of the moral obligations of those in authority in exercising that authority—an idea that permeates quite a few of the other documents (and, incidentally, is repeated incisively in Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter Novo Millennio Ineunte [2001], No. 45). Nor is there any mention of the arrival of the lay auditors during the council’s third period and their contribution to developing a fresh understanding of both the doctrine and the reality of the lay apostolate.

One point I found particularly painful. The ecumenical problem is reduced to a word-battle about the meaning of “subsists in the Catholic Church.” No attention is given to be the excellent developments that have taken place over 35 years as Catholics and other Christians reflect together on the many treasures found in a wide array of the conciliar documents. In this we have the reality, not the myth.

With regard to “subsists,” the narrow interpretation of Cardinal Ratzinger, which Cardinal Dulles adopts, was certainly not the view held by the theological commission or in the secretariat as we were drafting texts and responding to the bishops and as the bishops accepted its introduction into the text. We were influenced, for example, by the recognition of the fact that in many churches not in communion with the Holy See, by<