The National Catholic Review
Drew Christiansen

Fifty years ago this last Christmas Day (Dec. 25, 1961), with the Apostolic Constitution “Humanae Salutis,” Blessed John XXIII formally convoked the Second Vatican Council in the hope that renewal of the church would give hope to the world. “I know how helpful for the good of souls are those means which tend to make the individual people in need of salvation more human,” he wrote. Accordingly, Pope John urged that the church had to “discern the signs of the times.” Despite the darkness of the era—it was the height of the cold war—he saw a few hints that “augur well for the fate of the Church and humanity.”

For many years the renewal wrought by the council (1962–65) gave fresh hope to humanity. The church itself was renewed with a new self-understanding. Its catholicity was enhanced with a stronger embrace of the Eastern churches, the fostering of Christian unity and the retrieval of a special relationship with Judaism. Abandoning centuries of intolerance, the church committed itself to religious freedom. The liturgy was renewed in vernacular rites to promote congregational participation. Above all, the church placed itself at the service of the world in pursuit of human rights, peace and just development.

As the 50th anniversary of the council unfolds over the next three years, America will present a series of articles commemorating its most significant documents, personalities, events and outcomes. We are pleased to introduce this series with an essay by Richard Gaillardetz of Boston College on “the enduring significance” of the council and its reforms. Professor Gaillardetz responds to contemporary skeptics who dismiss Vatican II as an aberrant enthusiasm of the 1960s. He counsels that we have as much to learn from the conduct of the council as from its documents and from the spirit of hope it engendered.


 

Comments

Carlos Orozco | 2/17/2012 - 1:13am
Good Vatican II Council, many aberrations are justified under your name!
Fred Kempf | 2/4/2012 - 7:39pm
I hope that the authors of this series will use it to reflect not just on Vatican II per se, but both the hope that it engendered in the church of that time, and the great disappointment in the backpedaling that has taken place in the church ever since.   As much a story as Vatican II truly was, the revisionist history that has slowly and methodically undone so much of what had engendered hope for so many of us has to be an equally compelling story. 
Eileen Gould | 2/3/2012 - 6:12pm
I'm confused.    I think of myself as the "remnant".    I'm definitely not one of those "who consider human freedom a scandal or administrative error."   On the contrary, at 86, I look back on how and when I really came to understand that I am a thinker; in other words, I now think for myself.   And I owe all to Pope John XXIII and Vatican II.   Remnant?   Yes, the remnant who refuses to leave the church of Jesus to those who want it to remain the same stagnant institution set in place mostly by a politically motivated clergy.  
LEONARD VILLA | 2/3/2012 - 2:25pm
Your hermaneutic of the Council is precisely that which is being contested: continuity versus discontinuity.  The reigning interpretation in our country for years has been the Alberigo/Komonchak discontinuity variety the so-called Bologna school.

Signs of the times? Intolerance? Religious freedom? Renewal of the liturgy?  Relation with the Jews? Interpreted or looked at how is really the question? Pope Benedict (and Paul VI for that matter) insist and have insisted that these categories all are to be interpreted in union with the Church's Tradition. The Church did not begin in 1965.

I suggest readers who read Italian, German, read Roberto De Mattei's Il Concilio Vaticano II Una storia mai scritta (Vatican Council II A History Never Written) I trust an English translation will appear shortly. It challenges the Bologna school in terms of accuracy about the Council's history and pre-history!  Professor DeMatti, an historian at the European University of Rome, points out a similar challenge happened after Trent.  A heterodox history was written by one Paolo Sarpi and was supplanted by an accurate rendering by Pietro Sforza Pallavicino.  He says the same has to happen with Vatican II to which his book is a contribution.  I believe he is correct.

The Church will always be in the world not of the world and cannot seek the plaudits of the world but only the standard of Christ as the Exercises of St. Ignatius maintain. Hence it will always be the City of God versus the City of Man.
Christopher Rushlau | 2/3/2012 - 12:44pm
I was participating in a discussion group in an Episcopalian church in Lincoln Nebraska in 1985 when something led me to say, "If the church ever abandoned the idea of human freedom, I'd work my way into leadership and destroy the church."  A tweed-clad expensive-looking elder lady barked out, "He's a terrorist!"
As an adult spectator to Catholicism (somewhat short of a convert, paperwork to the contrary), it seems now that all the honest priests and religious left the church when the doors were opened by Vatican II.  "Seems?"  Perhaps the people in the pews have similarly "deselected" themselves or not.  So that the faithful remnant consists of those who consider human freedom a scandal or administrative error.
But freedom, if a fact, continues to work its work, making us restless until we rest in God.  If we opened the windows  in the church and the wind blew all the holy people out, then that means the chuch is now scattered across the yard, sidewalk, and street.  That is surely where it belongs.
What about the building?  Imagine a society whose government went up in flames.  Births, deaths, land deeds, school records, encyclopedias, dictionaries:  would it be a "new birth of freedom" or a new stone age?  Having the church as a repository (of all that collects there), well, at the very least we can say it is analogous to the human memory.  Maybe having memories does not help us to see God's will in the circumstances of our current life, but they might help us eventually to want to look.