A Spirit of Affirmation

Reviewed by Michael Novak
Sunday, October 5, 2008


By John W. O'Malley

Belknap/Harvard Univ. 380 pp. $29.95

The Second Vatican Council, which held 10-week sessions every autumn between 1962 and 1965, is almost universally regarded as the single most significant religious event of the 20th century. It was probably also the single largest meeting of active decision-makers in the history of the human race -- between 2,400 and 2,800 bishops, their theological advisers and other participants gathered each year in the huge nave of St. Peter's Cathedral. Its ceremonial splendor was irresistible to world television. Thousands of journalists descended on Rome to witness the intense, passionate arguments about a new opening of the church, a thaw in world affairs, a thorough reform of one of the world's oldest institutions. And the debate has never stopped.

Over the last two or three decades, a huge argument has erupted among theologians, journalists and intellectuals about what "Vatican II" actually did. Conservatives tend to argue that the council took several false and damaging turns, leading unintentionally from the confident Roman Catholic Church of the 1950s to the empty churches (in Western Europe) today. As the great progressive Jesuit Gustave Weigel, who loved irony, once predicted during the council, swirling a splash of scotch in a plastic cup at a party: "All good things, given enough time, go badly."

Progressives tend to argue that the council reaffirmed ancient traditions even as it made significant reforms: clearing the way for the Mass to be said in native languages, endorsing the search for heartfelt cooperation and doctrinal dialogue with other Christians and, above all, encouraging deeper self-understanding and warm relations with Jews. In other words, progressives say now (as some did then) that the council's essential purpose was conservative in nature, rooted in lessons from the pre-medieval church. They wanted, for instance, to resume the ancient tradition of speaking of the church as a "people" -- the "people of God" -- and of bishops and priests as "servants" of the people of God. They argued that celebrating Masses in vernacular languages and small, informal settings was more in keeping with the practices of the early church. Well, then, what was really new?

Going back to the documentary record to answer this question, the Rev. John W. O'Malley set himself a Herculean task. The council's proceedings alone, without commentary, fill 32 hefty volumes. During the intervening years, hundreds of memoirs, insiders' amateur reportage (such as letters by bishops to their dioceses), diaries and memoranda have come to light. It is impressive how much of this material O'Malley, a Jesuit priest and professor of theology at Georgetown, has studied in the original languages and analyzed in his new book, What Happened at Vatican II.

O'Malley also tells a good story. Though his main effort is to interpret what took place at this immensely complex event, he recounts the surprise announcement of the council by John XXIII ("good Pope John") in 1959. He details the three years of preparations and thoroughly chronicles each of the council's four sessions.

For some readers, O'Malley's interpretive framework may be slow going, since he uses theological terms unfamiliar even to many Roman Catholics. But, in essence, he argues that the council was trying to do three things: bring new openness to Catholic thinking; update its teaching to face contemporary questions; and return to St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom and other ancient sources richer than those of the post-Enlightenment era.

His main point is that Vatican II differed in its way of thinking from every other doctrine-setting gathering in the church's history, from the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. to the First Vatican Council in 1869. His preferred word for this is "style," though sometimes he says "method," "approach" or "language." Vatican II was distinctive, he contends, in its attention to the liberty of the human person and to the connectedness of the human community. The new spirit was to affirm, not condemn; to be open, not closed; to focus on ideals to live by, not things forbidden.

"Vatican II was unprecedented," he writes, "for the notice it took of changes in society at large and for its refusal to see them in globally negative terms as devolutions from an older and happier era." He says the council underscored the authority of bishops while, at the same time, trying to make them "less authoritarian." For bishops, priests and everybody in authority, it recommended the ideal of the servant-leader. It upheld the legitimacy of modern methods in the study of the Bible. It condemned anti-Semitism and discrimination "on the basis of race, color, condition in life, or religion." It called on Catholics to cooperate with people of all faiths, or no faith, in projects aimed at the common good. And it supplied "the impetus," O'Malley writes, "for later official dialogues of the Catholic Church with other churches."

O'Malley is quite fair to the conservative minority of bishops at the council (who were startled to learn that they were the minority, after so many decades of precedence and power). He takes pains to show the reasonableness of their claims and their insight into the ill effects of some of the work of the council, including the departure of thousands of priests and nuns, a general confusion about what the Catholic Church is bound to teach, and the danger of a church so "open" it stands for nothing. Yet there is no doubt that O'Malley's heart lies with the progressive majority. This bias is also fair; after all, the progressives did win nearly all votes by impressive margins, often two-to-one. But many of today's progressives think that the church has lost its nerve since the council and has not gone far enough to adapt to the modern day, particularly in respect to the role of women. On these claims, O'Malley is silent.

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