Vatican II: Gains, Hopes and Hurdles
Paper read at the (ECR) 3rd Hammersmith
Christian Unity Conference,
achievements of some five or six thousand
bishops and theologians labouring in Council
over a period of four years can hardly be summed up in twenty minutes. One can only pay humble
tribute to a great event in a great Church, and seek to focus attention
on some of its achievements, formulate some of the hopes the Council has engendered,
and point out the main problems that still remain.
Re-education and change of attitude
The process of producing the Vatican Council documents
can be said to have been of at least
as much value as the documents themselves. Vatican II has dramatized again the great possibilities
opened up by the coming together of the Church's hierarchy and theologians
for a period of Spirit-led deliberation. We have been enabled to understand afresh
how the great Councils of antiquity gave new impetus to the Church's apprehension
and realization of her faith and vocation.
When divergent points of view,
even within one Church, meet in a conciliar spirit, what ensues may not
always be a balanced compromise but is often a fresh revelation. New paths
are cleared, new tasks are revealed, and ancient truth is seen in a strikingly
The process of re-education, which has begun among
the bishops and the periti, is bound gradually to spread over the whole
Church, and bring even newer revelations
of truth only marginally grasped by the Council fathers.
Perhaps the two most fundamental
gains of the second Vatican Council are, first, this incipient re-education
of the leadership of the Church, and, second, the dramatic reversal of the
negativistic, or anti-non-Catholic trend of development which has characterized
Catholic theology since the Reformation.
The documents in themselves
constitute no mean achievement. Two dogmatic constitutions, one on the Church
(de Ecclesia or Lumen Gentium) and the other on Revelation
(de divina Revelatione or Dei Verbum), constitute, in
a sense, the foundation for the other fourteen documents, some of which had
promulgated before these two.
In the matter of relations
with other Churches, the decree de Oecumenismo takes primacy of place, supplemented
by the decree on the Eastern Catholic Churches and the declaration on Religious
In the matter of the Church's worship and mission,
the constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,
the pastoral constitution
on the Church in the World of Today (Gaudium et spes),
the decrees on Missionary Activity (ad Gentes), on the Apostolate
of the Laity, on the Mass Media and on non-Christian Religions lay down the main lines.
Finally on the internal ordering
of the Church there are the decrees on the Pastoral Office of the Bishops
(Christus Dominus), on the Ministry and Life of Priests, on the Institution
of Priesthood, on the Adaptation and Renewal of the Religious Life, and on Christian Education.
These sixteen documents have
one quality which distinguishes them from previous conciliar formulations-namely
their tentativeness. The two ‘dogmatic constitutions’ notwithstanding,
Vatican II has produced no dogmatic definition which sets forth a formula to be directly accepted
by the faithful for their salvation.
The dogmatic constitutions are primarily for theologians, to guide them
in their inquiry and research. But even they are not infallible or final
pronouncements. Fr Gregory Baum
says that ‘the Constitution [on the Church] is an authentic expression of the highest
teaching authority in the Church, but does not intend to involve the Church's infallibility’.1
The Abbot of Downside concurs:2 ‘I have no hesitation in
saying that the Constitution is
a great document, even though, being the fruit of the Holy Spirit's working
in imperfect human beings, it is a
stepping-stone and not a final accomplishment.’
This tentative and cautious approach to Christian doctrine
is a welcome return to the Eastern patristic tradition and a healthy sign
of vitality in the Western Catholic
tradition. Truth cannot be captured in formulae. Words can only point
to truth, warn against error, kindle a light in the mind and open it to the truth.
Among the most important gains recorded in the sixteen
documents of Vatican II, I will put
this flexible dynamism in doctrine first.
Church as People
Second I would put the new vision of the Church rather
as the whole community of the baptized, engaged in the flow of time-space
historical existence, than as a divine
institution, storing, guarding and dispensing at will both grace and truth. The recognition of
the Church as the People of God and of the Apostolate of the Laity
as God-given, rather than mandated by the hierarchy, are two aspects of this vision
which have revolutionary consequences. ‘The Christian laity derive
their right and obligation to the apostolate from their union with Christ
their head. The Lord deputes them to the apostolate by the fact of their baptism’
(de Apostolatu Laicorum, ch. I).
3. The Dignity of Man
Third among the gains in the Council documents I would
put a fresh understanding of the world
and of man as such, as invested with dignity and meaning by God, quite
apart from his relation to the Church. Though multas opiniones are recognized as being held on the answer
to the question Quid est autem
homo?, the basic fact of
his being created in the image of God is accepted as the source of his dignity
and liberty (Gaudium et spes, Pars I, cap. I). It is his life
in relation to other men that now becomes the object of the Church's prayer
and toil, not merely his individual soul. And this not in the best interests of the Church as an
institution, but out of ‘its solidarity with, as well as its respect and love for, the
entire human family with which it is bound up’ (ibid. Preface). This view
of man has revolutionary consequences for the mission of the Church, for religious
liberty, for relations with other religions, for the Church’s approach to
international politics and to economic development, and for her own self-understanding.
4. Centrality of the Bible
Fourth among achievements would be the restoration
of the Bible to a central position
in theology and preaching as well as in the life of the Church in general. Quite apart from any settlement
of the issue of the relation between Tradition and Scripture, the total documentary
achievement of the Council bears
witness and gives incentive to a growing familiarity with the Bible in the
Roman Catholic Church.
The use of Biblical studies in a historical-critical context and in a spiritually and ecclesiastically
mature milieu alone can bring about a significant break-through in the
stalemate that characterizes Biblical scholarship on the European continent today.
Some discerning Christians have already begun to feel that the major
role in the interpretation and illumination
of the Scriptures is passing from Protestant to Catholic hands.
5. Renewal of Worship
Fifth I would mention the liturgical constitution,
which not only liberates the Catholic
Church from the impoverishment of uniformity of language, but in fact paves the way-by disrupting patterns
of worship which established for centuries, have carried the people without
always engaging their minds-towards a total revision of the recent liturgical
practices of the Western Catholic Church. Enrichment of worship cannot come
merely from the introduction of the vernacular into the Roman rite
nor from unsystematic experiment. But the introduction of the vernacular is a
necessary first step to the discovery of its inadequacy or unsuitability for large segments
of the Catholic population. The liturgical constitution’s major contribution,
however, will, I suggest, lie neither in the theologically dubious innovation
of the priest facing the people throughout the entire liturgy, nor in the vernacular
transformation of an austere Latin liturgy, but rather in the stimulus it has
given to fresh thinking on the centrality of the Eucharist in the life, mission and unity of the Church.
6. Ministry of the whole
A sixth achievement on the part of the conciliar documents
I regard as the new understanding of the ministry of the Church as a whole
and of the clergy in particular. The
tendency in the past has often been to conceive of all authority in
the Church as being derived from Christ and the Apostles directly by the clergy.
Today the second chapter of Lumen Gentium concedes:
‘Though they differ from one another in essence and
not only in degree, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial
or hierarchical priesthood are nonetheless interrelated: each of them in its
own special way is a participation in the one priesthood of Christ.’
The content of the ‘common priesthood of the faithful’
seems still somewhat inarticulate and vague; but the principle is conceded
and the way is open for the development of the notion. Part of this same achievement
in regard to the ministry is the realization that episcopal consecration confers
‘the fullness of the sacrament of orders’, the fullness of power of the priesthood,
‘the supreme power of the sacred ministry’
(para. 21). The principle of episcopal collegiality, as holding
‘supreme power in the whole Church’ is also conceded, though not without
qualifying additions about the papal primacy of jurisdiction. The basic material
for a richer and truer doctrine of the ministry of the Church has already
been provided in the documents, and that is no mean achievement.
Seventh-and some of you must have been wondering why
I have not yet mentioned it-is the achievement in the realm of ecumenical
relations. De Oecumenismo has been characterized by some as a conservative
document. As a statement of general (or Catholic) principles of ecumenism
for all Christian Churches, it is of very limited usefulness. But taken as
a declaration by one Church-and that by far the largest of the Churches-which
had hitherto officially taken an attitude
of almost ‘deadly animosity’ towards the Ecumenical Movement, it is
indeed an astounding turning-point in the history of the Roman Catholic Church.
The ‘separated brethren’ are no longer just schismatics and heretics to be
opposed and anathematized or assimilated and latinized. The Roman Catholic
Church officially expresses its longing for a relation with non-Catholic Christians
which would be characterized by love and mutual understanding.
The decree on Ecumenism gives no ground for thinking
that the Roman Catholic Church’s view of Christian unity has substantially
altered. But there is a new attitude,
a new approach, which officially accepts non-Catholics ‘with respect
and affection as brothers’. The ‘separated Churches and communities as such’
are recognized as having been ‘by no means deprived of significance and importance
in the mystery of salvation’. For ‘the Spirit of Christ has not refrained
from using them as a means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the
very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church’. In that
last-quoted sentence the word ‘Catholic’ was a later addition by the present
Pope. The fathers wanted to say that these separated Churches and communions
participate in the one Church of Christ. And even the word 'Catholic' added
by the Pope need not necessarily be interpreted as meaning ‘Roman Catholic’.
However condescending these utterances may
sound to non-Romans, we cannot fail to notice the remarkable loosening-up
of the intransigence which formerly characterized the official relations of
the Roman Catholic Church with other Churches.
As an eighth achievement, the document on Religious
Liberty may not be all that many had hoped for. But as the axe laid to the
root of the tree of triumphalism in
Catholic majority countries, its significance is second to none. The cry of
the early persecuted Christians that ‘religio non cogi potest’ (religion
cannot be enforced) had been forgotten by the Church for centuries.
All Churches have erred at this point,
but the record of the Roman Catholic Church is probably the worst. Suppression of the
freedom of conscience in the past is at the root of the large-scale unbelief of
Western culture today.
The decree on Religious Liberty is most significant
in that freedom of conscience is now based on the dignity of man and not on
faith. This has tremendous implications for
freedom in all realms.
to the World
and sometimes far too vague to be fully understood by the ordinary believer, the famous
Schema 13 on the Church in the World of Today (Gaudium et spes), the last to be promulgated, follows up the new line
of openness towards die world inaugurated
by Pope John's Pacem in Terris, and constitutes a magnificent ninth achievement.
Dozens of new problems
are opened up by this document:
- a new understanding of man in terms of his
dignity, freedom and social character;
- a fresh approach to
atheism and an invitation to dialogue between believers and atheists;
- an insistence on respect
for the adversary and on love for the enemy;
- a fresh approach to
ethics which acknowledges the inadequacy of individualistic moral codes;
- a new acknowledgement
of the significance of all human activity in history;
- a balanced interpretation
of the ‘autonomy’
of terrestrial realities;
- a commendable attempt to relate to each other
the earthly city and the heavenly city (history and eschatology) in a more creatively
- a new understanding
of the Lordship of Christ in terms of service;
- an attempt to draw out the
secular implications of the history of salvation;
- a fresh interpretation of marriage
and the family in terms of an expression of love rather than of having
procreation as principal objective;
- man's relation to culture as
a God-given responsibility, with a recognition of the universal right to
- economic development and Christian
- the highly significant acknowledgement
that property is not necessarily a private right, but that the goods of this
world belong to the whole of mankind;
- the relation between rich
and poor nations;
- the acknowledgement of the
universal solidarity of mankind which needs to be expressed in an ordered
- the problems of peace and
war, including a healthy critique on the ‘balance of terror’, and so on.
While many may be dissatisfied with the Council's pronouncements on certain individual topics,
the constitution will open up nearly everything for fresh discussion, thus stimulating
Catholics and non-Catholics to think afresh on many of the topics of our
with non-Christian religions
Traditional Roman Catholic
thinking on relations with other Christians and with non-Christians has for
many generations been on what is caricatured as a ‘percentage basis’: the Catholic
Church has the fullness of truth-100
percent. Others have varying percentages,
none possessing quite the whole.
This fundamental approach
has not changed very much in the approach to non-Christian or even non-Catholic
Christians. But the fresh affirmation of the need for dialogue with Hindus,
Buddhists, Muslims and Jews may start a new crop of efforts at dialogue, which
may, given charity and understanding on all sides, go beyond the Kraemerian stalemate in which
the World Council of Churches finds
of Roman Catholic Church administration
Despite the highly unsatisfactory language in which
the principle of collegiality is formulated in both Lumen Gentium and
in the decree on the Bishops, the acknowledgement
of the principle itself can have radical consequences. It is now official doctrine that
each bishop is a bishop of the universal Church and not only of his
diocese. A synod is now formally established, though not yet constituted, of ‘bishops chosen
from various parts of the world, in ways and manners established or to be
established by the Roman Pontiff’ to ‘render more effective assistance
to the supreme pastor of the Church in a deliberative body’ (Decree on the episcopal
It is well known that the Roman Catholic Church has
for many centuries been governed by
the pope and the curial bishops and cardinals, who have been predominantly of Italian origin. The conditions
under which the Church lives and serves, being diverse and not always the
same as those obtaining in Italy, make this Italian domination a serious handicap.
A loosening-up of this dominance was already set in motion by Pope John
and will continue to gain momentum
in the post-conciliar period.
of the Roman Catholic Church is heavily dependent on what happens to the
tens of thousands of priests who will be trained in their seminaries in the
coming thirty years or so. The decree on Priestly Training gives the charter
for breaking through present patterns by which priests are trained in isolation
from the life and thought of the world through a system of indoctrination
which stifles the mind and stagnates thought.
The decree allows for each
country or region to develop its own programme of priestly training within
the limits of general lines laid down by .the Council. The pastoral and biblical
aspects of priestly formation are now emphasized. Human maturity is now to receive
preference rather than scholastic agility. Seminarians are to be given
'humanistic and scientific training' as a foundation for theological studies.
They are to ‘acquire a solid and coherent knowledge of man, the world and God’, using
not only the ‘perennial philosophy’ of Aquinas but also later philosophical
developments in the modern world. Dogmatic theology is to be
given a biblical orientation. A knowledge of other religions is to be acquired.
Modern teaching methods are to be used. Pastoral psychology and sociology are
to be taught. Refresher courses for priests are recommended. All this must eventually have a cumulative
impact for the renewal of the Roman Catholic Church.
These dozen or so achievements
that I have sought to mention are by no means the only ones. In fact
dozens of others could be mentioned. These achievements make it
possible for us all to look forward to the future with hope.
First, I think it legitimate to hope that the
ferment created by the Council will lead to genuine renewal of life, thought
and worship in the Roman Catholic Church. By the time these ideas are digested
by theologians and assimilated by seminarians and disseminated in the Church
by a new generation of priests and teachers, at least thirty years will have
passed. And in that period of gestation
so many insights which are fresh and strange at the moment will have been
clarified and made more balanced as well as more precise.
Secondly I think it legitimate to hope that the process
of decentralization which began with Pope John will gain momentum in the Roman
Catholic Church. Personally I would not be surprised to see emerging a pattern
of national Catholic Churches, with autonomous national hierarchies, rather
loosely federated, co-ordinated
from Rome. I would welcome the development of national liturgies which
take into account the cultural and spiritual particularities of each nation.
A thousand tongues can thus praise God in the one Roman Catholic Church in
their thousand ways.
Third, I think it legitimate to hope that the laity
will assume a larger role in the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church as
well as in determining its general ethos. This will necessarily be a long
and difficult process, not only because a celibate clergy is much less expensive
as management personnel for the Church, but also because our culture relies
for its efficiency on the division of labour, and the class interests of any
group that dominates the leadership of the Church in terms of power and finance
are bound to influence its general ethos.
it is my hope that the participation of the Roman Catholic Church in the ecumenical
movement will radically alter the relationships between the various Christian
Churches. Personally, I hope that the Roman Catholic Church will find it
possible to accept full and committed membership in a fellowship of Churches
at the local, national, regional and world levels. Such participation is
necessary for all the Churches and need not imply any relinquishing of any
particular Church’s ecclesiology or view of unity. It does imply, however,
a willingness to share this view with other members of the Church of Christ
and to be open to seeing it from their standpoint. It is not inconceivable
that the Roman Catholic Church should become reorganized on a national level
with full international co-ordination and a conciliar leadership at all levels.
If this happens, one can imagine several national Catholic Churches becoming
members of an ecumenical fellowship on national, regional and world levels.
My fifth hope is that all Churches, led by the Holy
Spirit, will become open to the possibility of taking courageous decisions
in relation to each other. Past history cannot he forgotten. To ignore history
can only tend to drive hostilities into the sub-conscious. But history should
not blind us. The eschaton is upon us. Before the throne of God, denominational
loyalties will not be the basis on which the judgments are given. We must
move forward with faith, but not without awareness of the reality of our situation,
present, past and future.
In speaking of some of the fundamental difficulties
that remain, I shall limit myself to
three points. There are a large number of theological points on which many Roman Catholic theologians agree with
me in disagreeing with the conciliar documents. I shall not weary
this audience with these fine points, all of which I hope will find correction
in the ecumenical dialogue which is already beginning.
(1) The first question relates to the nature of
the Church’s authority. Here both words need to be made precise. By the
word ‘Church’, especially when used
in contexts such as the present, writers often mean the constituted authorities
of the Church, namely the magisterium. Of course it is recognized
authority of the magisterium is not on the same plane as ‘worldly authority’;
but still it is the
authority of the magisterium that is being discussed under the rubric, the authority
of the Church. I wish to submit that this identification of magisterium with the Church is
in contradiction with the pronouncements of the Vatican Council
itself. The very concept of magisterium and of its proper place and legitimate
institutional expression in the Church needs reconsideration.
The word ‘authority’ is also ambiguous when
used in the context of the Church. Normally, authority and power are almost
synonymous. Authority over others consists
in having the power to make their minds and wills bend to one’s own.
Teaching authority has often meant that the taught accept interpretations,
value-judgments and often matters for belief, because those holding magisterial
power in the Church have solemnly taught them. This notion of authority comes
from a feudal tradition and not from the biblical tradition.
Neither does the concept of
‘hierarchy’ have any biblical roots. The word itself can be traced back to
St Dionysus the Pseudo-Areopagite, and his use of this word needs to be re-studied
in our time. The words hierarcheo and hierarchia occur some 200 times in the
two basic works of Dionysius, The Celestial Hierarchy and the Ecclesial Hierarchy.
But Dionysius included everyone in the hierarchy and it had nothing
to do with any notions of authority or jurisdiction. For him hierarchy meant, in
his own words, ‘a holy ordering, science and activity which works towards transfiguration
into the form of God of all according
to capacity and gifts’ (Celestial Hierarchy, iii: i, Migne pg vol. 164: 36D). The celestial hierarchy or sacred ordering
(or drill, or parade, or assembly) includes all the celestial beings: cherubim,
seraphim, principalities, powers and so on; but it is not implied that any of
these ranks exercises authority over the others. To confuse hierarchy and authority
is to misunderstand Dionysius.
In the ecclesial hierarchy
of St. Dionysius, there is no implication that the four or five orders-bishops, priests,
deacons, laymen, catechumens, etc. exercise any authority over each other.
And certainly the hierarchy is not limited to the clergy. Hierarchy is etymologically
misinterpreted when it is taken to mean the rule or authority of the
priestly class. It simply meant ordering of holiness or sacred ordering (hiera
arche) around the throne of God.
It was a serious deviation
in the history of the Church when Church authority followed patterns of authority in the State.
Today Church authority is undergoing a radical transformation in all Churches.
But the new patterns follow rather the patterns in secular society (mostly
civil administration and industrial management patterns) than the evangelical
ones of self-authentication, the authority of wisdom, love and spiritual power.
The Vatican Council documents have barely touched
the issue. This is one of the most difficult areas that call for ecumenical
discussion in the post-conciliar period and that are bound to have far-reaching
consequences for the life of the Churches.
(2) The form or structure of the one united Church
is a second hurdle that we have to jump over on our ecumenical path.
So many conceptions co-exist in the Western Church today ranging from a fellowship
of believers in the autonomous local
congregation to a hierarchically ordered society with a single bishop
as ‘the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity both of
the bishop and of the faithful’ (Lumen Gentium, para. 23).
The question may be put very
simply thus: What is the visible expression of the world-wide unity of the
Church? The competing concepts today are:
- a spiritual fellowship which has no visible expression
at all outside a common confession of
- a loose federation of existing
denominations and Churches with possibilities of common worship, mutual dialogue, joint action
for mission and programmes for church union;
- a unity that is most intense
at the local level (all in each place), organized as national Churches, cooperating in a World Council
of national Churches;
- Churches organized on the basis of episcopal dioceses
in which the people and priests are united with the bishop in faith, love
and the Eucharist, and the bishops on a world-wide level are also united with
each other in faith, love, hope and the Eucharist, no bishop having jurisdiction
over the whole Church, but some bishops being chosen as patriarchs or co-ordinators
and mouthpieces of regional or national synods, and one of them having a
special primacy as primus
inter pares among all the patriarchs, or as a presiding bishop for
the universal Church. In such a conception the highest visible expression
of the unity of the Church would be the bishops in Council. The decisions
of such a Council would, however, still be subject to the test of history
which is primarily expressed not through any formal action but by the consensus
- a conception which includes most of the elements mentioned
above in (4), but insists on one bishop
being placed over all the other bishops, exercising jurisdiction over
the whole Church, both the bishops and the faithful, holding office ‘as vicar of Christ’, ‘successor
of Peter’, and ‘pastor of the whole Church’, with ‘full supreme and
universal power over the Church’, ‘always free to exercise this power’ and
without whom ‘the College or body of bishops has no authority’.
You would have inferred that my own personal position is indicated in suggestion
(4). My point here is only to say that this perhaps is the area of discussion for all the Churches that is
going to prove the most difficult.
Here at this point it may be necessary to speak of
the urgent need for a penetrating and honest East-West dialogue, which has
not yet begun. The gap between East and West, and by the West I mean all the
Churches of the West from Roman Catholics to Pentecostals, has hardly begun
to be bridged. It is a fact that there are too few Easterners trained in
the categories of the West and intimately
acquainted with both the ecclesiastical and the cultural heritage of
the West. But the more shocking fact, which ought to be and can be remedied with a little effort, is that there
are very much fewer Westerners trained
in the East and intimately acquainted with the ecclesiastical and spiritual
heritage of the East. This is the hurdle that we must jump over
soon if there is to be an understanding between us on the nature of the unity
of the Church.
(3) The third hurdle,
integrally related to the first and the second, has already been
mentioned in passing-namely the place of the bishop of Rome in the united
Church. Here, again speaking from an Orthodox point of view, the Vatican
Council might seem even to have set the clock back. The notion of papal primacy
developed fully at the First Vatican Council, instead of being corrected
has been pervasively reinforced in nearly all the documents of the Second Vatican Council.
We recognize the contribution of Vatican II
in establishing the notions of the People of God, of the mandate of the laity
by baptism, and of episcopal collegiality,
all of which are in a sense correctives to the doctrine of the papacy. But
Vatican II, especially in Chapter 3 of Lumen Gentium, has made some
of the most unacceptable statements regarding papal primacy. Already at the
First Vatican Council the Malkite
uniat patriarch of Antioch and Bishop Vancsa of the Rumanian Uniat
Church had pleaded against the statement that the bishop of Rome had ordinary and immediate
jurisdiction in all dioceses of the Church. These objections were overruled
because the majority at the First Vatican Council had no will of their own
to express over against what they knew to be that of Pope Pius. The concept
of the pope's universal diction comes from the notion that he is the supreme
temporal ruler as well. This, we had assumed, the present pope does not want
to assert. Why, did the majority in the Council not have the will to stop
the following statement from being accepted?
‘The College or body of bishops
has no authority unless it is understood with the Roman Pontiff, the successor
of Peter as its head. His power of primacy over all, both
shepherds and faithful, remains whole and intact. In
of his office as vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full,
supreme and universal power over the Church, and he is always fret to exercise
Fortunately, he is not free to exercise
this power. The more he tries to exercise
this power over against the College
of bishops and the tradition of the Church, the less will be the reality
of that power. Our hope is in the Holy Spirit, that this atrocious third
hurdle, thrown up by historical accidents, will also be cleared in the long
1 The Constitution
on the Church of Vatican Council II. Darton, Longman and Todd. London
1965. p. 17.
2 Ibid. pp. 8-9.