Articles on Vatican II - Fifty years Later
Seemingly miniscule changes in wording can hide major shifts in understanding. So it was when the Second Vatican Council's Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) spoke of "Tradition" in comparison with "traditions" referred to in the teaching of the 16th century Council of Trent. The shift from the plural to the singular and from a small "t" to a capital "T" augured a significant shift in Church teaching. For Joseph Ratzinger, this was but one sign in Dei Verbum indicating that Tradition had come to mean something quite different than the strict "passing on" of unchanging truths and laws inherited from the past.
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The most basic question about divine revelation is "why?" Why would God choose to reveal himself to humanity? Every person has an in-built sense of the divine, a sense that at the heart of all that exists, there is mystery. In every culture, religion spontaneously arises because of this wonderment in the face of being.
You won't have to travel far in the company of theologians before you find one . . . or many who declare that the Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) was the most important document produced at the Second Vatican Council. To a casual observer, this may not seem so obvious. It was the changes in the liturgy that had the greatest effect on the way we celebrate our faith; it was the document on the Church that cut a swath through clericalism and presented the Church as a communion first and a hierarchy second; it was the document on the Church in the modern world that really moved the Church out of the sacristy and into conversation with the secular movements of the time.
Montreal's Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger is often cited as one of the more influential reform-minded bishops at the Second Vatican Council. Léger was a man who was transformed by the council. He led his diocese in a triumphalist style prior to Vatican II, but came to see things much differently during those four years in Rome. In 1968, he resigned as archbishop and went to Senegal to serve in a leper colony for 11 years so moved was he by the council's emphasis on service and the poor.
Few groups went through as much change because of the Second Vatican Council as did diocesan priests. This would not be apparent from reading any history of the four years of Vatican II. While there was much controversy over the theology of bishops' collegial authority and a lot of attention was given to the role of the laity, priests seemed to be the forgotten ones.
One misshapen stereotype about the Catholic Church is that following the Second Vatican Council men's and women's religious orders went squirrelly, lost their sense of identity and went into a freefall of vocations. While there is a grain of truth in the stereotype and while large numbers of men and women did leave religious life in the years following the council, the decline in religious vocations had been underway for decades.
Fifty years after the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church needs to go further in giving authority to lay people, says a leading expert on the council. "The powerlessness of the laity is striking," said Father Joseph Komonchak, the English-language editor of the five-volume History of Vatican II, produced by an international team of theologians in the 1990s and early 21st century.
The Second Vatican Council's Declaration on Christian Education should be seen as a provisional document. In fact, then-Father Joseph Ratzinger called it a weak document. "One unfortunately has to say that the text wasn't treated by the council fathers with any specific affection," the future pope wrote in 1966. Ratzinger attributed the weakness of the document to the fact that the bishops were getting worn out as the four-year council drew to its conclusion.
The Second Vatican Council was unprecedented in the strong emphasis it gave to the role of the laity in Christ's saving mission. Not only was there a chapter on the laity in one of the council's chief documents – the Constitution on the Church – but there was also a specific document on the laity. That document, The Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People (Apostolicam Actuositatem), was one of the least controversial matters to go before the council.
The disharmony and bitterness of the 1964 session of the Second Vatican Council did not end with the so-called "black week" at the end of the session. Pope Paul VI had felt snubbed by the rejection of the Decree on the Missions that he had gone out of his way to promote and the failure of the Council for Promoting Christian Unity to send him the Decree on Ecumenism until after the council had approved the text. Now, he asserted his authority with greater vigour.