The Unfinished Business of Vatican II (pt 2)

Author: Marcellino D'Ambrosio

The Unfinished Business of Vatican II (pt 2)

The Second Vatican Council’s teaching on the nature and mission of the Church is extensive. A full treatment of it would demand an entire book, not an article such as this. Here we’ll limit ourselves to only a few observations on the broadest features. The first thing to note is the fundamental model of the Church in the Council documents. Cardinal Avery Dulles, in his famous book “Models of the Church”, points out that all of us at least subconsciously operate with a fundamental paradigm of what the Church of Christ is and ought to do. The Protestant Reformation tended to minimize the apostolic structure and visible nature of the Church. In response, many Catholic theologians felt compelled to defend the Church as an institution and visible society, leading to an emphasis on the hierarchy and their governmental authority for the next several hundred years. Vatican II, while reaffirming the Church’s hierarchical character, wished instead to return the more biblical and patristic vision of the Church as a communion of persons flowing from the loving relationship of the three divine persons of the Most Holy Trinity. This “communio ecclesiology” undergirds all the Council’s documents and is commented on widely after the Council by, among others, John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who became Pope Benedict XVI. It colours the Catechism of the Catholic Church, one of the great achievements of the post-conciliar period which can be seen as a synthesis and popular expression of the Council’s teaching. The Code of Canon law was even revised in 1983 so that law and governmental structures would follow the priority of personal relationship with God and with one another.

The Church as Communio

So the Communio ecclesiology of the council has had great impact in many respects. Yet regrettably, the way in which the pastoral structures of the Church function on a day to day basis often appear untouched by the vision of the Church as a communio. One example of this is with regard to the role of bishop in a diocese. The bishop is primarily a father whose role it is to teach, pastor, and sanctify the faithful and in a special way, the brother priests and deacons who assist him in carrying out his pastoral mission.

Yet still in many circumstances, the bishop functions more as an administrator than as a father. One of the seldom noted causes of several priestly pedophilia scandals, in my view, is that bishops often do not know many of their priests personally. Priests’ training, selection, and assignments are usually delegated to others. In an internationally publicized pedophilia lawsuit in the early nineties, it emerged that a lengthy letter was written to the bishop from one of his priests which detailed the alarming and inappropriate activity of another priest later convicted of abominable crimes. The jury was shocked to learn that the letter was never even read by the bishop but was rather reviewed by the bishop’s staff. There are some things that can and must be delegated to assistants by any leader. But if the Church is first and foremost a communion of persons, a family as it were, personal care and communication cannot be delegated. If a bishop or pastor becomes inaccessible, barricaded behind various levels of committees, we are dealing with bureaucracy and not communio.

As Archbishop of Buenos Aires and now as Bishop of Rome and successor of Peter, Pope Francis has set a wonderful example of the implications of the Council’s Communio ecclesiology for the life and ministry of the Church’s ministers. I am hopeful that leaders at every level of the Church’s life from dioceses to parishes to Catholic schools will take their cue from Pope Francis in furthering the Councils agenda in this regard.

The Laity, Tradition, and Religious Education

The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum (DV), was one of the last documents of the Council to be finalized because the issues it treated were so delicate and complex. One of those issues was the nature of Tradition. The Council of Trent, in the face of the Protestant revolt, had reaffirmed the authority of “Traditions” as well as Scripture. But it never really described the nature of Tradition and its special role in the transmission of revealed truth. This is precisely one of the great achievements of Dei Verbum, drawing on important theological spadework done by Yves Congar and others. The content of Tradition cannot be limited to specific doctrines or practices, but consists rather in “all that the Church is and believes (DV 8).” It is an entire heritage, a vision of God and indeed of all reality, that is passed on from generation to generation under the watchful eye of the bishops, the successors of the apostles, with laity and clergy participating in the process as in “a single, common effort” (DV 10). There are aspects of Tradition’s content that must be “caught” and not simply taught. That is to say that it needs to be passed on through living practice and prayer.

This deeper insight into the rich content and distinct process of Tradition has many implications that were understood by the Council Fathers. The family, the domestic church, is the place where impressionable young people spend the most time and so must be the key place where the transmission of the Catholic Tradition must take place. Parents must be recognized, says the Council, as the primary religious educators of their children and must be equipped for this task with adequate formation in Christian doctrine (LG 35; AA 28-32).

The religious education programmes in many Catholic parishes have not yet caught up with this conciliar vision. If they had, adult education and parenting courses would be top priority in parish faith formation programmes. Though some strides have been made in this direction (the RCIA is one), by and large adult education outside of RCIA is often regarded as an optional extra. Evangelical Churches generally put Catholic parishes to shame in the emphasis placed on continuing adult education which is focused on bible study, parenting and Christian family life.

Ecumenism and Evangelization

The Second Vatican Council’s decrees on Ecumenism (UR), the Apostolate of the Laity (AA), and Missions (AGD) all outline the vigorous apostolic action of the part of the entire Church, clergy and laity, in the areas of Ecumenism and Evangelisation, which are targeted as twin pastoral priorities of the age. All are to be engaged in praying and working for the restoration of full Christian unity and the proclamation of the Gospel to all who need to hear it, from the primitive peoples in remote, unevangelised corners of the world to the inactive Catholic next door.

Despite the flurry of ecumenical activity immediately after the Council, today we see little ecumenical awareness at the parish level. Petitions for Christian unity seldom appear in the prayer of the faithful. There is little talk about the topic and even less action. Some notable models of successful collaboration in mission over the past years has been Alpha, where many churches in a given locale collaborate in advertising a course proclaiming the basic gospel message. And without cooperation between Protestants and Catholics, Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ” would have never made it past the Hollywood blockade to become the international evangelistic success that it was. This is progress beyond where things stood in 1962, but much more needs to be done.

Apart from these two notable exceptions, our worst record, perhaps, is in the very area of evangelisation. Vatican II proclaimed evangelisation as top priority, saying that the task of carrying the gospel of Jesus Christ to those who have not yet accepted it is more urgent now than ever (AGD 1 and 7). All must be involved in this work not only through witness of life but in words as well, able and ready to provide a reason for the hope they have in Christ (AA6 and AGD 23). All the forms of social communication must be utilized, including modern mass media. John Paul II wrote in 1983 in Redemptoris Missio 3 that “the time has come to devote all of the Church’s energies to new evangelisation.”

Yet fifty years after the Council, it is rather rare to find a parish where the evangelisation of the inactive and the unchurched has any prominent place in the parish mission statement –to find a parish where there is any effective training in such evangelisation is even rarer. The vast majority of Catholics, including not a few clergy, don’t have the faintest idea of where to start to bring an unchurched person to faith in Christ and participation in the life of the Church. Clearly, when it comes to making evangelisation a top priority, more than a few have dropped the ball.

The Task at Hand

Fortunately, when someone fumbles the ball, a teammate is free to pick it up and run it across the goal line. The story about Trent and the seminary system should encourage us that it is not too late to pick up the work of implementing the Council and move it towards completion. In all the areas we have spoken about- inward liturgical renewal, a shift in religious education, the triumph of a true communio ecclesiology, and effective commitment to ecumenism and evangelisation–the task is not changing texts or structures. Rather, it is about changing people. Human beings are creatures of habit. And habits take time to change. And when you are trying to change attitudes and habits of a community one billion strong, change simply takes a long time and a lot of energy.

So it should not surprise us that, fifty years after the close of the Council, much of the Council’s vision still remains to be implemented Much prayer and hard work lie ahead of us. But I can think of one intercessor whose prayers we can count on for assistance—Pope John Paul II. This pontiff, who many believe should be called “the Great,” assumed the double name of the two popes of the Second Vatican Council in order to demonstrate that his entire pontificate was dedicated to the implementation of that Council’s directives. May he never cease praying for us as we seek to carry out his unfinished work under the inspiring leadership of his successor, Pope Francis, who so embodies the spirit of the Council.

Marcellino D’Ambrosio, aka “Dr. Italy,” writes from Texas. For additional resources on Vatican II or info on his pilgrimages to Rome & the Holy Land, visit

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