As John W. O’Malley notes in this morning’s NYT, the Second Vatican Council opened 50 years ago today. Vatican II, which O’Malley and others describe as the most important religious event of the 20th century, was an attempt to reconcile the Roman Catholic Church with a changed and still-changing world. Among the broad scope of issues debated at the council were the desire to recognize the dignity of lay men and women and to empower them to fulfill their vocation in the church, the place of Latin in the liturgy, the relationship of Tradition to Scripture, and the relationship of the church to the Jews and to other non-Christian religions.
As O’Malley’s piece today argues, the new course set by the council signaled a major turning point for the Church, even if recent history (notably Pope Benedict’s 2006 indictment of Islam, or the Church’s censuring of American nuns this summer) suggests that advances are now being scaled back. “The post-Vatican II church was not a different church,” he writes. “But if you take the long view, it seems to me incontestable that the turn was big, even if failures in implementation have made it less big in certain areas than the council intended.”
O’Malley’s 2008 book, What Happened at Vatican II, tells in a single volume the full story of the workings of the council, sessions of which he attended as a student. But in addition to relating the deliberations and decrees of Vatican II, the book is also a thorough consideration of the nature of authority more broadly, and particularly the friction between power and change. He notes three key “issues under the issues,” the questions that lay beneath the points of policy on which the council ostensibly focused, all of which relate to evolution within an authoritative structure:
- the circumstances under which change in the church is appropriate and the arguments with which it can be justified
- the relationship in the church of center to periphery, or, put more concretely, how authority is properly distributed between the papacy, including the Congregations (departments or bureaus) of the Vatican Curia, and the rest of the church
- the style or model according to which that authority should be exercised
These issues, O’Malley explains, are about identity: “how to maintain it while dealing with the inevitability of change, and then how to make it effective in new but recognizably authentic ways.” For the Church, whose authority is indexed to its infallibility, the problem of identity is that of evolution in “an institution that draws its lifeblood from a belief in the transcendent validity of the message it received from the past, which it is duty-bound to proclaim unadulterated.” That tension, which animates O’Malley’s elegant account of Vatican II, will resonate with anyone familiar with the dynamic of institutional entrenchment.