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May 29, 2015

Future impact of Vatican II -
As pastoral council, what did Vatican II teach? -
Forging ecumenical future by remembering the Gospel together

In this edition:
1. Vatican II: not "council lite."
2. Teachings of Vatican II.
3. Forging ecumenism's future.
4. Quotes to ponder on council:
a) Doctrine viewed pastorally.
b) Muslims and Catholics today.
c) Muslim-Catholic action in world.
5. Unfinished business of Vatican II.
6. Vatican II: Church and world.
7. A church present to the world.

1. Vatican II Not "Council Lite," Speaker Says

The Second Vatican Council is known as a pastoral council that did not define dogmas or issue condemnations. But does this mean that the council was not a teaching council? Speakers at a May 21-24 international conference on the council took up this question. The conference was both ecumenical and interreligious.

Jesuit Father John O'Malley, a widely known theologian at Jesuit-run Georgetown University in Washington and a frequent writer on the council said that "in essence there is nothing wrong" with calling Vatican II a "pastoral" council. He cautioned, nonetheless, that this "tends to trivialize" the council in the minds of some, who conclude the council had no real teachings.

When that happens, it can appear that "Vatican II, like certain beers and soft drinks, is Council Lite," he said.

He spoke May 21 at Georgetown University to the conference of an international network of theologians, church leaders and other scholars known as Ecclesiological Investigations. The conference participants included Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and others. They came virtually from all over the world.

The way the term "pastoral" often is applied to the council seems to imply "that the council's decrees are less substantial, more contingent, more subject to reform or even dismissal than those from the supposedly great doctrinal councils of the past," Father O'Malley observed.

The problem is, he said, that this "misdirects our attention from what is utterly unique about the council's pastoral character."

Father O'Malley commented that if one looks "at the number and importance of Vatican II's teachings, [it] is not Council Lite but the very opposite."

2. Teachings of Vatican II

What was especially noteworthy about the address by Georgetown University theologian Father John O'Malley to the international Ecclesiological Investigations conference in Washington was the list of Vatican II teachings the Jesuit priest provided.

I will not repeat all the teachings he listed, but here are some of them:
  • The council taught "that the purpose of the church is to promote the holiness of its members."

  • It "taught that the church is constituted by the people in it, so that 'the people of God' is a valid, crucially important and, moreover, traditional expression of the reality of the church."

  • And, "since the people of God are everywhere on the face of the earth, the council therefore taught that the church was at home in every culture and needed to incarnate itself in each of them."

  • "Because the council also taught that the sacred liturgy was an act of the whole community at worship and was therefore essentially a participatory action, the liturgy itself had to admit . . . symbols and customs of every culture."

  • "The council taught that it was the duty of the church and of every Catholic to respect the religious beliefs of others and to work for reconciliation among the Christian churches."

  • "The council taught that 'the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well."
Father O'Malley said that these teachings of Vatican II "are not trivial. They are not of a secondary level of importance. They are not platitudes or pious palaver."

They are truths, he said, that are "of the utmost importance for understanding the practical implications" of the "doctrines of the Trinity and incarnation," as well as "for understanding what it means to be a Christian in the world today."

Father O'Malley told the conference that "Vatican II was a pastoral council not in the conventional sense of ensuring proper public order in the church but in teaching the truths that help people live lives of holiness and increase their faith."

3. Remembering Gospel, Forging Ecumenical Future

To remember the Gospel and focus on it as a common basis for ecumenism is not to step into the past but to move forward to the future, German Cardinal Walter Kasper suggested May 23 in a speech to the international Ecclesiological Investigations conference in Washington, a conference that was ecumenical and interreligious in character.

The 82-year-old cardinal is past president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. He spoke to a morning conference session that was held in Washington National Cathedral, the Episcopal Church's cathedral in the U.S. capital.

Cardinal Kasper urged his listeners to ask what the future of ecumenism will be in the 21st century. "The 20th century brought a good deal of progress and aroused great hopes, but in the 21st century, by contrast, clear signs of fatigue have become apparent," he commented.

To look toward the future of ecumenism, the cardinal thinks ecumenists would do well to follow the advice of Pope Francis and to remember the Gospel, which can give rise to needed renewal. "The appeal to the Gospel has always been the fundamental motif of renewal movements" down through the history of Christianity, the cardinal said.

The expectations for Christian unity after the council "have not been fulfilled," the cardinal remarked. He said that "there are signs of a regression into the old, self-satisfied denominationalism." Pope Francis, however, communicates "original Gospel-oriented perspectives for a hopeful future."

I should note that in his 2013 apostolic exhortation, "Joy of the Gospel," Pope Francis spoke of the creativity to be generated through a return to the Gospel. He wrote:

"Whenever we make the effort to return to the source and to recover the original freshness of the Gospel, new avenues arise, new paths of creativity open up, with different forms of expression, more eloquent signs and words with new meaning for today's world. Every form of authentic evangelization is always 'new'" (No. 11).

Cardinal Kasper said that Pope Francis "stands in the best tradition of church renewal movements, which all referred back to the Gospel." The cardinal noted how the pope "speaks of the eternal novelty of the Gospel and means by that its inexhaustible riches, which in its original freshness bursts all categories and cliches."

"We can and must allow ourselves to be surprised by God and his Spirit," the cardinal advised his audience. He said that "in this sense, ecumenism occurs not in standing still but in moving on. Only water that flows remains fresh, while standing water turns bad and becomes stagnant."

Cardinal Kasper insisted that "a church which goes back to its apostolic origins goes also forward into the future."

Having the courage to make "a leap to a Gospel-oriented ecumenical future" is a form of fidelity to the Gospel, the cardinal said. With Pope Francis, he believes that "a new phase" in the reception of Vatican II has begun.

4. Quotes From Vatican II Conference

Viewing Doctrine in a Pastoral Light: "It is my contention that Pope Francis makes a distinctive contribution to our doctrinal tradition, not by solemnly defining new dogma, vigorously stamping out heresy and dissent or by reversing church doctrine, but rather by recontextualizing doctrine in service of the mission of the church and the flourishing of God's people. . . . The council bishops did not renounce the need for doctrine but rather placed church teaching in the context of, first, its rich theology of revelation as God's self-communication in Christ by the power of the Spirit, and second, its insistence that the church is essentially missionary in nature. . . . Certainly Francis wants leaders and ministers who are faithful to our doctrinal heritage. Yet he also believes that as they move from the ecclesiastically safe center to the peripheries, listening to people's concerns and attending to their wounds, they will know, through a cultivated pastoral intuition, how the church's doctrine can best be deployed to announce God's solidarity with the poor and suffering of this world and the profligate mercy of God. This is the primary purpose of church doctrine, and in reminding us of this, Francis stands as doctrine's most authentic guardian." (From a May 22 address at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., to the international Ecclesiological Investigations conference by Richard Gaillardetz, a theologian who teaches at Jesuit-run Boston College)

A Muslim Discusses the Council and Muslim-Catholic Relations: "My overall assessment of the impact of Vatican II is that I am cautiously optimistic that the [Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions] moves the interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims a step forward. By affording Islam at least qualified validity as one of the many paths humanity has been offered on the way to salvation, the document is responding to the modern demographic reality of multicultural and multifaith societies." (Abdulaziz Sachedina, a Muslim professor of Islamic studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., speaking May 24 to the Ecclesiological Investigations conference in Washington, D.C.)

Catholic-Muslim Action in the World: "[I have offered] an introduction to the requirements of Catholics and Muslims to engage more fully in a dialogue of action directed toward an appropriation of ethics in the 'public theologies' of both. An appropriate way to accomplish this is through revisiting [the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World] and [the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions] as a charter for more collaborative Catholic-Muslim dialogue over the next 50 years to meet the demands of 2015 through 2065 as partners in protecting human dignity and recommitting ourselves to our role as stewards . . . of the earth and all creation." (From a May 21 presentation by Jason Renken, a doctoral candidate at Jesuit-run Loyola University in Chicago, during the Ecclesiological Investigations conference in Washington, D.C.)

5. Unfinished Business of Vatican II

While the Ecclesiological Investigations conference in Washington May 21-24 focused on the Second Vatican Council, the purpose was not to ask what the council "did" or what it already has accomplished. Instead, with its theme of "Vatican II: Remembering the Future," the conference focused on the time ahead.

The conference's purpose was "to explore what is happening with Vatican II" and where its impact will be felt in the future, according to Gerard Mannion, a theologian at Jesuit-run Georgetown University in Washington. Mannion is chairman of the Ecclesiological Investigations network of scholars, now in existence for 10 years.

"Above all else we are going to explore what is going to happen to Vatican II and its legacy in the future," Mannion said in an opening presentation to the conference.

He recalled that French Dominican Father Yves Congar, the influential 20th century theologian, once said that it takes, on average, some 50 years for a council to bear fruit. With that in mind, Mannion said that "Vatican II isn't ancient history; its effects are only just starting to come into their own."

So "there is much 'unfinished business' of the council, as Paul Lakeland has memorably said, and in many ways it is 'a council that will never end," Mannion added. (Paul Lakeland is a professor of Catholic studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut, another Jesuit-run university.)

Mannion said the reason for having the Ecclesiological Investigations conference on Vatican II is that "it was a monumental event of significance that changed the Roman Catholic Church and indeed helped change the world, in a positive sense, forever."

There has been, Mannion said, a "rather strange debate in recent years about whether anything really did happen at the council." Nonetheless, he said, Vatican II "was a very big deal indeed, and . . . it still is."

6. Vatican II: The Church and the World

The Second Vatican Council "renewed the question of the relationship between church and society," French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran told the Ecclesiological Investigations conference in Washington. Cardinal Tauran is president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

Speaking May 21, Cardinal Tauran explained that the council "tried to better understand the relationship between Christ and humanity." The cardinal said:

"Christ, God made man, is the revelation of man, the transmission of the truth about man, and the church has no other ambition than that of proclaiming, serving and manifesting in history that fundamental relationship of God with humanity through Christ."

Cardinal Tauran said that over the 50 years since the council "we have passed from the regime of Christianity to a church of communion, and the question now is, How is the church to be presented in the world of today?"

The question is not one of creating "a Christian world separate from the secular world." Rather, the cardinal said, "the goal is to create the Christian in the world, and it is for this world that Christ died."

Cardinal Tauran stated that "in a divided world where hatred, massacres and wars seem to prevail, it is a consolation to hear the Catholic church affirming," as the council's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World said, that "the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age . . . are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ."

Vatican II called itself a pastoral council, "but it is one that has taught so much as well," said Cardinal Tauran. The council did this, he added, "not by imposing definitions but by breathing a style of relationships which has helped the church to move from commandment to invitation, from threat to proposition and from monologue to dialogue."

7. Vatican II: A Church Present to the World

Reminding the world of all the "human beings who have been forgotten" is what the Second Vatican Council wanted, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, Philippines, said May 22 when he addressed the Ecclesiological Investigations conference in Washington.

He characterized the council as "optimistic about being open to the world," but added that "the council was not naive." The church must be present to a world that will continue to grow more volatile, complex and ambiguous, he suggested.

People in all their human dignity are the reason for opening up to the world, said Cardinal Tagle. It is a matter, he added, of openness to every human being and to society. He remarked to the conference participants, "That's frightening, huh?"

Jesus is the church's reference point, the cardinal noted. He said, however, that being referred to Jesus "refers us to the world."

For Pope Francis the conviction that the church should be present in the world -- to human beings and to the world they have constructed -- is not a new idea, Cardinal Tagle insisted. In fact, he said, the pope is reminding people of Vatican II.

Cardinal Tagle said that the church's "opening to the world is not just a strategy." Nor is it a mere "fad." Rather, this is an opening that involves the church's very identity.

Vatican II is known as the council that opened the church to the world, Cardinal Tagle said. This makes the world "the horizon for the church." Thus, he observed, with Vatican II the church moved "from self-focus to other-centeredness."

He called the church a communion, but said it is not a "self-centered" one. He cautioned that a church focused upon itself "will lose its identity."