Sept/Oct/Nov 2008

Roman Numeral

John W. O’malley recounts a pivotal moment in Catholic Church history

John L. Allen Jr.


One might say that the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), a massive gathering of bishops from around the world that launched the Catholic Church on a course of modernization and reform, was for Catholicism what the civil rights movement was for American politics. Enormously controversial at the time, both have since been reimagined as shining moments in recent history.

Beyond that lip service paid to the past, however, lurk unresolved conflicts that often define the battles of the present. For example, virtually all Americans now invoke the ideal of equality before the law, but they’re deeply divided over how to apply it to matters such as immigration and affirmative action. In a similar vein, most Catholics say they embrace Vatican II’s calls for lay empowerment and a dialogue with the world, but they wage titanic battles over issues such as the power of the pope, how the Mass ought to be celebrated, and what theological value the church ought to assign to other religions. And nearly all call on the legacy of the past to defend their positions; memory, in both cases, has become a powerful political tool.

It’s in the context of this struggle for the memory, and thus the soul, of Catholicism that John W. O’Malley’s new book, What Happened at Vatican II, takes on an importance that easily transcends the boundaries of specialized research. As O’Malley puts it, the gathering was perhaps “the biggest meeting in the history of the world.” Roughly twenty-four hundred bishops from every part of the globe met in Rome each fall for four years to set policy for the Catholic Church. The results were dramatic. To take the signature example: After Vatican II, the Catholic Mass was no longer generally celebrated in Latin but rather in the vernacular languages of the world. This shift betokened a new determination by the church to be relevant, to learn from other cultures as well as to teach them.

Vatican II is also the most amply documented chapter of church history in the past several centuries—another parallel to the civil rights movement. Given the ocean of literature already produced, any new book faces a large hurdle in quelling charges of redundancy. It might overcome that barrier in three ways: by adding new material, such as interviews with participants or previously unpublished correspondence; by offering an interpretive framework for the council that moves beyond the usual liberal/conservative taxonomy; or by synthesizing the massive literature about the council into an easily accessible, popular narrative. What Happened at Vatican II doesn’t attempt the first, tries but doesn’t quite succeed at the second, but does a masterful job of the third.

For those who know the basic story of Vatican II, O’Malley’s book offers little in the way of new information. That’s not necessarily a handicap, given that, for anyone under the age of fifty, Vatican II is not a fact of living memory. Rather, it’s a chapter of church history almost as remote from personal experience as the sixteenth-century Council of Trent. In that sense, O’Malley’s book represents a gift from his generation, which experienced the council, to the cohort coming of age today.

The signal accomplishment of the book is synthesis. In just four hundred pages, O’Malley provides a thorough yet gripping overview of the lead-up to the council and each of its four sessions. He wisely avoids lengthy quotations from the sixteen documents produced by the council, which are sometimes written in opaque, “churchy” language. Instead, he captures the main points of the texts, as well as the floor debates and behind-the-scenes struggles that generated the council’s drama. He thus fills what has long been a gaping hole: the absence of a single volume written at a popular level that provides a guide to the council—both its actual results and what might have been had the bishops headed in another direction. Yet O’Malley aspires to do more than summarize. He also hopes, as he puts it, to “move beyond loaded labels like conservative/reactionary and progressive/liberal” in understanding Vatican II. Alas, here the results are more ambiguous. He avoids a liberal/conservative classification by referring to the “majority” and the “minority” at the council, but the terms are all but interchangeable, as he concedes. As a result, the story he tells is still largely that of a progressive majority of bishops pitted against a determined conservative minority—or, alternatively, of an overwhelming majority struggling against the Roman Curia, the church’s central bureaucracy.

To some extent, that framework is unavoidable. There really was a broad majority at Vatican II favoring reforms in areas such as religious freedom, the relationship of Catholicism to other religions (especially Judaism) and other Christian churches, and the role of the laity, as well as desiring a more positive and dialogic approach to the modern world. That bloc of bishops drew opposition from a resolute, though small, minority, disproportionately concentrated in the Curia. O’Malley’s basic sympathy for the liberals is clear. He adopts their argot at key points, in describing, for instance, the old style of celebrating the Mass as featuring the priest “with his back to the congregation.” A conservative would instead say that the priest celebrated ad orientem, facing east, so that both celebrant and congregation stood in the presence of God. Toward the end of the book, O’Malley asserts that Vatican II’s call for greater collegiality, or collaborative decision making, never entered the “social reality of the church”—decidedly not how recent popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI would see things.

The tensions that played such a key role at Vatican II are of limited utility in understanding how things have developed in the forty-plus years since. Today’s debates tend to arise out of fractures within the broad majority at Vatican II, and this is where O’Malley sometimes confuses the picture rather than clarifying it. For example, he treats the aggiornamento instinct at Vatican II, which refers to a desire to “bring the Church up to date,” as a virtual synonym for ressourcement, meaning a return to the sources of the church—to the Bible, the fathers, and the traditions of the early centuries. O’Malley is correct that these two instincts coincided in the council’s collective desire to break the defensive paralysis that had gripped Catholicism in the nineteenth century. Afterward, however, the two factions moved down decidedly different paths. The aggiornamento forces are still pressing for further reforms in the “spirit” of Vatican II—described by O’Malley as collegiality, greater appreciation for change, and a more positive style—while the ressourcement camp stresses the continuity of Vatican II with previous eras of church history. The top priority for ressourcement Catholics is generally not change, but rather recovery of some of what was set aside in the years after Vatican II.

The post–Vatican II era could be concisely described this way: The true “conservatives” of the council went into schism or faded away, while the “liberals” broke into two broad camps, providing the new fault lines of Catholic debate. Unfortunately, little in O’Malley’s account assists the reader in comprehending the contrasts between these forces, both of which passionately identify themselves as carriers of the council’s true legacy. Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner, for example, tended to be an aggiornamento thinker; his fellow German theologian Joseph Ratzinger, today Pope Benedict XVI, veers toward ressourcement. O’Malley helps us understand why the two men agreed at Vatican II but leaves us largely in the dark as to the theological and philosophical reasons they, and Catholics who draw inspiration from them, have differed since. Instead, one is left with the impression that something momentous happened at Vatican II, but that its key breakthroughs have fallen into the deadening orbit of what O’Malley euphemistically calls “the center”—meaning, of course, the Vatican. That is, and long has been, the stock liberal indictment.

O’Malley has provided a valuable primer, blending solid historical scholarship with the vivid prose of a skilled journalist. The book is a major accomplishment, which no doubt will help to keep the memory of the council alive. Yet What Happened at Vatican II does not deliver the fresh framework that its promotional materials promise. Instead, it reads like the valiant effort of an aggiornamento Catholic to stick as close to the facts as possible, but inevitably the old biases break through. Perhaps it will require a new generation of church historians to approach Vatican II without that baggage.

John L. Allen Jr. is the senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and senior Vatican analyst for CNN.

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