Vatican II: Gains, Hopes and Hurdles

Paper read at the (ECR) 3rd Hammersmith Christian Unity Conference, May 1966.

Paulos Mar Gregorios

the 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 relevant perspective.

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

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 already been 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 Liberty.

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.


1.      Flexible dynamism 

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.

2.      The 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 Church

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.

7.    Ecumenism

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.

8.   Religious Liberty

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.

9.   Openness to the World

Vast, far-ranging 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:

  1. a new understanding of man in terms of his dignity, freedom and social character;
  2. a fresh approach to atheism and an invitation to dialogue between believers and atheists;
  3. an insistence on respect for the adversary and on love for the enemy;
  4. a fresh approach to ethics which acknowledges the inadequacy of individual­istic moral codes;
  5. a new acknowledgement of the significance of all human activity in history;
  6. a balanced interpretation of the ‘autonomy’ of terrestrial realities;
  7. a commendable attempt to relate to each other the earthly city and the heavenly city (history and eschatology) in a more creatively dialectical fashion;
  8. a new understanding of the Lordship of Christ in terms of service;
  9. an attempt to draw out the secular implications of the history of salvation;
  10. a fresh interpretation of marriage and the family in terms of an expression of love rather than of having procreation as principal objective;
  11. man's relation to culture as a God-given responsibility, with a recognition of the universal right to culture;
  12. economic development and Christian responsibility;
  13. 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;
  14. the relation between rich and poor nations;
  15. the acknowledgement of the universal solidarity of mankind which needs to be expressed in an ordered world society;
  16. 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 time.

10.   Relations 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 itself.

11.   Decentralization 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 ministry).

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.

12.    Seminary Reform

          The renewal 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.

          Fourth, 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 that the 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:

  1. a spiritual fellowship which has no visible expression at all outside a common confession of faith;
  2. a loose federation of existing denominations and Churches with possibili­ties of common worship, mutual dialogue, joint action for mission and pro­grammes for church union;
  3. 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;
  4. 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 fidelium; and
  5. 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 virtue 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 this power.’

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 run.

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  1 The Constitution on the Church of Vatican Council II. Darton, Longman and Todd. London 1965. p. 17.

  2 Ibid. pp. 8-9.