December 8 1965, at the end of four working sessions, marked the conclusion of Vatican II Ecumenical Council. The important gathering went on from 1962 to 1965, under the pontificates of John XXIII and Paul VI. The Council promulgated four Constitutions, three Declarations and nine Decrees. Vatican II was an eventful landmark in the history of the Church. However, after 50 years, what is the state of its reception worldwide? We turned the question to Massimo Faggioli, Professor of History of Christianity, Director of the Institute for Catholicism and citizenship at St. Thomas University in Minneapolis / St. Paul (USA). From the United States, where he works and lives, the Italian history scholar, author of numerous studies on the Council, gave us a reading of the ongoing debate and on the new prospects ushered in by Pope Francis.
Professor, are fifty years enough time for an equable, consistent overview of Vatican II?
They do represent an important accomplishment, but it took over a century before some of the elements introduced with the Council of Trent were implemented. In the case of Vatican II it’s even more complex, since it’s not a question of adopting it with a top-down approach, but rather to ensure its “reception” at grassroots level, in a Catholic Church which today is authentically global.
Undoubtedly, over the past 50 years Vatican II has changed our way of doing theology. Today, especially thanks to Pope Francis, we passed to a reception of the Council by the Church-institution, starting from the papacy.
Since its opening in 1962, the role of Vatican II has been the object of debates that went through different phases. In a nutshell, could you give us an overview of the various interpretations?
Indeed, there exist various interpretations of the Council, but it should be borne in mind that all Catholicism is a product of the Council, except for schismatic fringes that followed Lefebvre in the Society of Saint Pius X – but it’s a tiny fraction compared to world Catholicism. The phase of commentary and top-down implementation lasted from the closing of the Council, in 1965, to the mid 1970s, followed by the Pontificate of John Paul II, marking an advancement on several issues (ecumenism and interreligious dialogue) and a step backwards in terms of inner Church dynamics. Notably, Wojtyla’s Pontificate was characterised also by the 1985 Synod on the interpretation of the Council. The death of John Paul II signalled also the end of a Pontificate that had always defended the legitimacy of the Council along with its augmentative interpretation. Under the Pontificate of Benedict XVI the attitude was somewhat different, marked by a differentiation and by theological judgement on various hermeneutics. And since it came from a theologian Pope, it resulted in the Church’s polarization around the role of Vatican II.
To this regard should be remembered the speech of Benedict XVI to the Roman Curia of December 22 2005 on the two hermeneutics: “The hermeneutics of continuity and reform” as opposed to “the hermeneutics of discontinuity and rupture.” Where does the current debate stand, also in consideration of the thrust of Pope Francis, the first Pope who did not take part in the Council?
“Continuity vs. discontinuity” is a mantra that has been used as a truncheon, notably on behalf of those who had not read or understood the speech of Benedict XVI, which requires in-depth knowledge of the debate and of the sources. Francis elevated the Vatican II question from the level of the debate on hermeneutics to the level of the necessity to apply the Council. On the one side, Francis quotes from Vatican II cautiously and scrupulously, and always in documents and key-moments of the Pontificate. On the other, the argument of the two hermeneutics cannot be applied to Francis because
For Francis, as for John Paul XXIII, Vatican II, rather than being a “reform” is a radical, courageous “update”
What is the state of the Council’s reception throughout world Catholicism?
Today’s Church is unquestionably a Council Church, meaning that there are no alternatives to the major theological intuitions of the Council (ecclesiology, moral theology, biblical theology, etc.) However, there are new issues that require, in addition to the full application of the Council, also a renewed debate coupled by new solutions, which the Council did not discuss 50 years ago. I’m talking about the challenges of bio-politics, along with the challenges of a form of Catholicism that in not longer safe in the European culture born of the Middle Ages and of Humanism.
The Bishops’ Synod called by Pope Francis has highlighted the complexities in the management of universal Catholicism, characterised by a large variety of cultural backgrounds.
Indeed, the Second Vatican Council may not provide all the answers, however, one cannot expect to find these answers by looking back at the pre-Council epoch.
In the course of the years there was often mention of a Vatican III. What is your opinion, considering also the Synodal process proclaimed by Pope’ Francis?
The debate on “when” a Vatican III is an open question, but the “how” is even more open. Today the Church counts over five thousand bishops, and it’s unconceivable to imagine a Vatican III organized like Vatican II.
Instead, it is conceivable to return to a continental and regional level of the Council, as in ancient times: the institutional future of Catholicism requires courage and creativity.
The Catholic Church has never been bigger or as present worldwide as is it today.
To what extent does Francis’ Church live the spirit of the Council?
Francis has fully received Vatican II, in faithfulness and in great freedom, as a priest, as a bishop and as Pope. Francis never fears the “spirit of Vatican II” nor is he nostalgic of the pre-Council epoch. This is different from the way in which many bishops still view Vatican II (especially here in the United States): with fear and lack of trust in the very idea of changing what can and should be changed.
Francis is unquestionably more in line with the Council than the majority of his confreres bishops. It’s one of the challenges of this Pontificate.
We are living the Holy Year of Mercy… the words of John XXIII upon the opening of the Council come back to mind: the Church “prefers using the medicine of mercy”…
Indeed, and it’s not only a question of dates (closing of the Council: December 8 1965 – opening of the Jubilee: December 8 2015). It is no coincidence that the speech of John XXIII of October 11 1962 has a central role in the document of Pope Francis on the indiction of the Jubilee. Francis’ pontificate clearly traces an ideal arc with John XXIII that confirms and resumes the change in paradigm inaugurated by John XXIII and by Vatican II.