Teaching Aid - Alan Schreck

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Reexamining the Work of the Second Vatican Council (Hermeneuticsof Reform)

by Alan Schreck, PhD
Professor of Theology
Franciscan University of Steubenville

In his apostolic letter on the beginning of the new millennium, Blessed John Paul II pointed to the Second Vatican Council "as the great grace bestowed on the Church in the twentieth century: there we find a sure compass by which to take our bearings in the century now beginning" (Novo Millennio Ineunte [NMI], no. 57). Pope Benedict XVI, in his first papal homily in April 2005, referred to this statement and affirmed his own commitment as pope to implement faithfully the teachings of Vatican II.

However, Pope Benedict XVI realizes that not everything done in the Church over the past fifty years in the name of Vatican II has been constructive. In an address given on December 22, 2005, the Holy Father distinguished between a proper interpretation of Vatican II—a "hermeneutic of reform," a renewal in continuity with past tradition—and false interpretations—"a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture." He also said "the Council had to determine in a new way the relationship between the Church and the modern era" (Address to the Roman Curia Offering Them His Christmas Greetings).

Often in the past, popes felt compelled to condemn the errors of the "modern world," giving the impression that the Church opposed all change and modern ideas. In calling the Second Vatican Council, Blessed John XXIII believed that a different approach was necessary. As he explained in his opening address to the Council on October 11, 1962:

Nowadays, however, the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity. She considers that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations. . . . To mankind, oppressed by so many difficulties, the Church says, as Peter said to the poor who begged alms from him: "I have neither gold nor silver, but what I have I give to you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise and walk" (Acts 3:6). (Walter Abbott, SJ, ed., The Documents of Vatican II [New York: American Press, Inc., 1966], 716)

What the Church Offers to the World Through Vatican II

Pope John XXIII's statements remind us that the greatest gift that the Church offers to all people is Jesus Christ, and faith in him. The Year of Faith calls us to focus on the great treasure Catholics receive and offer to the world: faith in Jesus Christ and the promise of eternal life through him. The documents of Vatican II affirm the centrality of this message in many ways.The central document of the Council opens with the words "Christ is the light of humanity" and continues "it is, accordingly, the heart-felt desire of this sacred Council . . . that, by proclaiming his Gospel to every creature (cf. Mk 16:15), it may bring to all men that light of Christ which shines out visibly from the Church" (see Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church [Lumen Gentium (LG)], no. 1,in Vatican Council II: Volume 1: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery [Northport, NY: Costello Publishing, 1996]). Likewise, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes [GS]) closes each chapter with an explanation of how Jesus Christ is the key to a proper understanding of each aspect of the human situation and how he provides the solution for the problems and challenges the world faces.

The Church believes that Christ, who died and was raised for the sake of all [see 2 Cor 5:15], can show man the way and strengthen him through the Spirit in order to be worthy of his destiny: nor is there any other name under heaven given among men by which they can be saved [see Acts 4:12]. The Church likewise believes that the key, the center and the purpose of the whole of man's history is to be found in its Lord and Master. She also maintains that beneath all that changes there is much that is unchanging, much that has its ultimate foundation in Christ, who is the same yesterday, and today, and forever [see Col 1:15]. (GS, no. 10, in Vatican Council II: Volume 1)

In reexamining the teaching of the Second Vatican Council today, any interpretation or implementation of the Council that takes Jesus Christ out of the center is distorted. It is true that Vatican II, in Gaudium et Spes and other documents, recognizes and affirms the goodness and positive values that are present in the modern world (such as scientific progress and the richness and diversity of human cultures) and urges Catholics to work together with all people of good will for constructive solutions to the world's problems (GS, nos. 3, 21, 42, 44). Yet it also states that the teachings of Christ and his Gospel can enrich, guide, purify, and elevate human endeavors and cultures (GS, nos. 37, 39, 58). It is for this reason, among others, that Catholics and other Christians can and must bring their faith into the affairs and discussions of the world and not pretend that they are guided just by secular ("this-worldly") considerations. That is why Jesus tells us that we are "the salt of the earth" (as long as we do not lose our "saltiness") and "the light of the world" (Mt 5:13-14).

Besides bringing Jesus Christ and the wisdom of his teaching into the secular world, the Second Vatican Council clearly taught the primary mission of the Church to proclaim Jesus Christ to all people that all might come to believe in him as their Savior and Lord. The Decree on the Church's Missionary Activity (Ad Gentes Divinitus [AG]) declares, "The Church, the salt of the earth and the light of the world (cf. Mt 5:13-14), is even more urgently called upon to save and renew every creature, so that all things might be restored in Christ, and so that in him men might form one family and one people of God. . . . The Church on earth is by its very nature missionary" (AG, nos. 1-2, in Vatican Council II: Volume 1).

Considerable confusion exists regarding the Catholic Church's approach to non-Christians, but the Council's teaching is clear and consistent. The best summary may be found in the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate [NA]), which states, "The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. . . . [which] often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men. Yet she proclaims and is in duty bound to proclaim without fail, Christ who is the way, the truth, and the life (Jn 14:6)" (NA, no. 2, in Vatican Council II: Volume 1). Lumen Gentium explains that non-Christians who do not yet believe in Christ through no fault of their own have the possibility of salvation, but, "very often" they fall prey to "the Evil One" or to "ultimate despair," and the Church must proclaim the Gospel to them "to procure the glory of God and the salvation of all these" (LG, no. 16). Vatican II did strongly condemn anti-Semitism and any form of discrimination or harassment based on religion (NA, nos. 4, 5), but it would certainly be a "hermeneutic of discontinuity" to claim that Vatican II teaches that there is any person or group who should not hear the Gospel and be given the possibility of conversion to Jesus Christ, the only way to the Father (Jn 14:6). In response to confusion on this issue, the popes since Vatican II have applied a "hermeneutic of reform" with regard to the Church's mission to proclaim Jesus Christ." Pope Paul VI's 1975 apostolic letter On Evangelization in the Modern World (Evangelii Nuntiandi) and Pope John Paul II's 1990 encyclical letter On the Permanent Validity of the Church's Missionary Mandate (Redemptoris Missio) make the Council's teaching unmistakably clear. Vatican II certainly began a new quest for reconciliation with non-Christians and for the restoration of Christian unity (ecumenism), but this is not contrary to the major emphasis of the Council: to lead all people to unity in Jesus Christ.

The Anthropocentric Focus

As we reexamine Vatican II, the emphasis on the value and dignity of the human person stands out as particularly critical today. It is notable that the doctrine of the human person is presented most fully in the Council's only pastoral constitution, Gaudium et Spes, but proper pastoral practice is always founded on sound doctrine. GS declares, "In reality it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear. . . Christ the Lord, Christ the new Adam . . . fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling" (GS, no. 22). Humans discover their dignity when they give themselves in love and service to others. "Man can fully discover his true self only in a sincere giving of himself" (GS, no. 24).

Understanding each human person's unsurpassed dignity and worth, created in God's image and likeness, is the foundation of the Catholic Church's teaching on life issues, reproductive issues, and social teaching, since society ultimately exists to protect and promote the welfare of the individual (GS, nos. 25-26). Although the Church "is not committed to any one culture or to any political, economic or social system" (GS, no. 42), she favors systems that allow the greatest participation of its citizens and protects their rights (GS, no. 31). At the same time, each person must fulfill social obligations and take on social responsibilities as necessary for salvation, and cannot separate faith from daily life (GS, nos. 30, 43).

One of the gravest errors of our time is the dichotomy between the faith which many profess and the practice of their daily lives. . . . Let there, then, be no such pernicious opposition between professional and social activity on the one hand and religious life on the other. The Christian who shirks his temporal duties shirks his duties toward his neighbor, neglects God himself, and endangers his eternal salvation. Let Christians follow the example of Christ who worked as craftsman; let them be proud of the opportunity to carry out their earthly activity in such as way as to integrate human, domestic, professional, scientific and technical enterprises with religious values, under whose supreme direction all things are ordered to the glory of God. (GS, no. 43)

This balance between the mandate of the Council to evangelize and encourage holiness in others with serving in society in order to transform it according to Christian values as well as to meet human needs is portrayed in the three objectives of the lay apostolate described in the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem [AA]). Catholics have the general impression that the Council's call for a more active laity meant that lay people were to be more involved in liturgical or catechetical ministries. Although this involvement is good, Vatican II in Lumen Gentium stresses that the "special vocation" of the laity is "to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God's will." Lay people are "called by God" to be in the world, in order to transform and sanctify it "as from within like leaven" by engaging "in each and every work and business of the earth and in the ordinary circumstances of social and family life" (LG, no. 31). There they carry out their threefold apostolate or mission:

  1. The apostolate of evangelization and sanctification.
    The very witness of Christian life, and good works, done in a supernatural spirit, are effective in drawing men to the faith and to God. . . . This witness of life, however, is not the sole element in the apostolate; the true apostle is on the lookout for occasions of announcing Christ by word, either to unbelievers to draw them toward the faith, or to the faithful to instruct them, strengthen them, incite them to a more fervent life; "Christ's love urges us on" (2 Cor 5:14). (AA, no. 6)

  2. The renewal of the temporal order, which involves instilling the values of the Gospel in the world's affairs. "Laymen ought to take on themselves as their distinctive task this renewal of the temporal order. . . . [which] is to be renewed in such a way that, while its own principles are fully respected, it is harmonized with the principles of the Christian life. . . . Among the tasks of this apostolate Christian social action is preeminent" (AA, no. 7).

  3. Charitable works and social aid. The Church "claims charitable works as its own mission and right. That is why mercy to the poor and the sick, and charitable works and works of mutual aid for the alleviation of human needs, are held in special honor in the Church" (AA, no. 8).

The Power to Attain These Objectives and Their Ultimate Purpose

Among the sixteen documents promulgated by Vatican II, the four constitutions have special importance; they have been called the "pillars" of the Council. While I have spoken of two of these constitutions, the other two constitutions show us both the power of and guidance for the Church, including the laity, to carry out her mission in the world and the final "end" or purpose of the Church's temporal work. The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) [DV]) explains how Catholics understand the Word of God (Dei Verbum). "Sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God, which is entrusted to the Church" (DV, no. 10). This Word of God is the source of guidance and power to carry out and fulfill the Church's mission on earth.

Such is the force and power of the Word of God that it can serve the Church as her support and vigor, and the children of the Church as strength for their faith, food for the soul, and a pure and lasting fount of spiritual life. Scripture verifies in the most perfect way the words: "The Word of God is living and active" (Heb 4:12), and "is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified" (Acts 20:32; cf. 1 Thes 2:13).(DV, nos. 21-22, in Vatican Council II: Volume 1)

Besides being nourished by the Word of God, Catholics receive the spiritual nourishment and grace to carry out their mission in the world through the charisms—ministry gifts of the Holy Spirit (see LG, no. 12; AA, no. 3)—and through the sacraments, especially the Eucharist.The fourth constitution, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium [SC]) speaks of the sacred liturgy as the "source" and "summit" of the Christian life: "The liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; it is also the fount from which all her power flows. For the goal of apostolic endeavor is that all who are made sons of God by faith and baptism should come together to praise God in the midst of his Church, to take part in the Sacrifice and to eat the Lord's Supper" (SC, no. 10, in Vatican Council II: Volume 1).

To carry out her mission in the world, the Church needs the spiritual nourishment of her liturgy: "the fount from which all her power flows."The goal of the Church's apostolic endeavors is the glory of God; our endeavors in the world are our spiritual sacrifice offered to the Father through Jesus, the Son, in the Holy Spirit. This is our Eucharist, our thanksgiving to God for his gifts and graces. In the liturgy, our daily efforts and sacrifices are united with the one perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ (LG, no. 34). Hence, "the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed," since all we do is an offering for the glory of God.

Copyright © 2013, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to duplicate this work without adaptation for non-commercial use.

Excerpts from Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents edited by Austin Flannery, OP, copyright © 1975, Costello Publishing Company, Inc., Northport, NY, are used with permission of the publisher, all rights reserved. No part of these excerpts may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise—without express written permission of Costello Publishing Company.

Excerpts from Pope John Paul II, Novo Millennio Ineunte, copyright © 2001, Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV); Pope Benedict XVI, Address, December 22, 2005, copyright © 2005, LEV. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Scripture excerpts used in this work are taken from the New American Bible, rev. ed.© 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

Excerpts from The Documents of Vatican II, Walter M. Abbott, SJ, General Editor, copyright © 1966 by America Press, Inc. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.