Early in his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI spoke to the Roman Curia about the proper means of interpreting the Second Vatican Council. In contrast to those on the extremes who have a dualistic view of the Church as either ending or beginning with the Council, Benedict proposed what has come to be known as "the hermeneutic of continuity." The Council was to be understood and interpreted in continuity with the past, not as a break with it. We view what is new through the lens of what has come before. Tradition, not current opinion, is the benchmark for authentic reform.
Benedict’s corrective appears more necessary now than ever. In the 17 years since his address, the Catholic Church seems to have regressed. Her members are now embroiled in the very same controversies that beleaguered their parents and grandparents. The liturgical wars have returned with a vengeance: What did Vatican II really say about the Liturgy? What’s the place of the "pre-conciliar" Liturgy? In her dealing with China, the Church is again confronted with how best to relate to a totalitarian state. In the West, the place of Catholicism in a democratic republic—and whether it even has a place—is questioned anew. Meanwhile under the guise of "dialogue" and "welcome" and "accompaniment," prelates in Belgium, Germany, and even Rome make noise about changing the Church’s unchangeable teaching on human sexuality.
Not surprisingly, there has been a renewed questioning of Vatican II. It’s tempting to look at our woes and conclude that the most significant ecclesial event in centuries either caused them or failed to solve them. Interestingly, those voices calling for the loosening of ecclesiastical and doctrinal discipline don’t even invoke Vatican II as their inspiration or guide. It’s too traditional for them. Their paradigm has shifted beyond it.
In the midst of all this, George Weigel has published To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II. As Pope Saint John Paul II’s biographer and the great chronicler of the Church over the past 40 years, Weigel is perfectly suited to the task of re-presenting the history and theology of Vatican II to naysayers on both ends of the spectrum. And he does just that in this accessible, thorough, and honest account of the Council.
To begin, every text needs a context. So before examining the Council’s documents, Weigel begins by explaining its pre-history. This first section’s title—"Why A Council Was Necessary"—might strike some as a bold claim. Was it really necessary? The myth lingers of a perfect pre-conciliar Church ruined by the Council. Of course, there were areas of great strength and vigor in the Church prior to Vatican II. But as Weigel lays out, for almost a century important voices in the Church were calling for reform and even for a council. Their common warning was that the Church was facing a world far different than she had before. Weigel takes Saint John Henry Newman’s famous observation as representative of these voices:
I think that the trials which lie before us are such as would appall and make dizzy even such courageous hearts as St. Athanasius, St. Gregory I, or St. Gregory VII. And they would confess that dark as the prospect of their own day was to them severally, ours has a darkness different in kind from any that has been before it.
The Church was sailing into weather she had never encountered before and had to adjust her sails accordingly. This historical context is crucial for any discussion about Vatican II. Absent this account of the Church in the century leading up the Council, it is difficult indeed to understand the calling of it.
The heart of To Sanctify the World is the second section, "What the Council Taught." Again, perhaps a bold claim, since precisely what the Council taught has been disputed ever since it ended. Weigel provides a good overview of each document’s history and theology. These chapters are necessarily a survey, as it’s impossible to capture the entirety of the documents, their history, and their meaning, in one book. The strength of this section is that Weigel limits himself to the documents and their context. He doesn’t dismiss them, nor does he read the "spirit of Vatican II" into them.
Some readers might get bogged down in this section, as it is the most academic and theological part of the book. But it’s the most important section. Any discussion of the Council must always return to what it actually taught—not what it should have, or what we wished it had taught. More importantly, Weigel brings out the principal themes and goals of the documents, showing how they form a coordinated and coherent response to the crisis of modernity.
Of course, no council is perfect, and Vatican II has more than its fair share of flaws. The Council’s words can at times seem incredibly naïve. An overestimation of the Church’s pre-conciliar strength and an underestimation of the world’s dangers created blind spots for the Council Fathers. There was an enthusiasm that led them to view both the Church and the world in rosier terms than was reasonable.
Again, avoiding the dualistic temptation, Weigel is refreshingly honest about the problems while still defending the Council as a gift to the Church. He discusses especially the greatest weakness: Unlike any other council, Vatican II didn’t provide its own method of interpretation. There was no one heresy it was convened to address. There was no new dogma defined in its dogmatic constitutions. Lacking this key, the Council was vulnerable to being distorted and hijacked, as indeed happened in the years following.
In the book’s final section, "The Keys to Vatican II," Weigel candidly examines what went wrong after the Council. He then turns to the two popes who gave us the keys for interpretation. Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, both present at the Council, took up the work of providing its necessary interpretation. John Paul II’s entire pontificate was consciously and explicitly dedicated to this work, which he had undertaken on a smaller level as archbishop of Krakow. Pope Benedict’s pontificate was fittingly bookended by two important reflections on Vatican II: the 2005 address on the "hermeneutic of continuity" and the 2013 talk on "the real Council versus the Council of the media" (given days before he left office).
We now have the first pope after the Council who was not at the Council. Perhaps as a result, Francis seems less concerned about providing its proper interpretation. The work of John Paul and Benedict thus remains the way forward in understanding and implementing it.
Did Vatican II accomplish what its promoters and participants had hoped? Did it give the needed response to the modern world? Well, there’s plenty in the Church today that indicates a failure. The blame is unfairly laid at the feet of the Council itself. Still, the confusion from and about the Council has played a tremendous role. George Weigel has done the Church a great service in defending the Council, taking its problems seriously, and explaining the way forward.
To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II
by George Weigel
Basic Books, 353 pp., $32
Father Paul Scalia is episcopal vicar for clergy in the Diocese of Arlington and pastor of Saint James Parish in Falls Church, Va.