Interpretations of council often ignore historical record

February 18, 2013

In last week's article, I referred to Pope Benedict's analysis that some people have presented the Second Vatican Council as a break with the Church's past. He maintains that the council was a council of reform in continuity with the tradition.

There are, however, more than two stories, or narratives, being told about Vatican II.

The hermeneutic of rupture that the pope deplored focuses on that which was new at Vatican II. It can, in fact, take two forms – the ultra-traditionalist view that the council was the work of Satan and wrecked the Church and the ultra-liberal view that Vatican II created a new Church that throws out everything that came previously.

Further, there is also the view of some, like theologian Hans Kung, who maintain the council betrayed the vision of Pope John XXIII by not going far enough in its reforms.

As well, there are American neo-conservatives, such as Richard John Neuhaus and George Weigel, who are pleased with the council's teaching on religious liberty and other matters, but cool, if not opposed, to its social justice thrust.

All of these different "narratives" of what the council did and what was good and not-so-good have been argued for decades.

Bishops stream out of St. Peter's Basilica after a meeting of the Second Vatican Council in 1962.


Bishops stream out of St. Peter's Basilica after a meeting of the Second Vatican Council in 1962.

What is new is the massive historical research that went into the writing of the five-volume History of Vatican II edited by Giuseppi Alberigo and Joseph Komonchak that was published between 1996 and 2001. Along with scouring the council archives available at the Vatican, Alberigo's international team found and researched more than 100 unofficial archives created by people and institutions represented at the council.

In a recent article in the journal Theological Studies, Massimo Faggioli points out that the researchers made many new discoveries regarding the period prior to the council, the history of individual documents, the effect of re-writing documents in the "intersessions" between each formal session of the council and other areas as well.

The historical record of the council is much fuller now than it was when the various versions or narratives about the council mentioned above were developed. "But the narratives . . . have not changed a bit," Faggioli writes. "Their 'spin' on the council has been untouched by what we now know about Vatican II."

In fact, rather than welcoming the historical research, some have tried to discredit the Alberigo-Komonchak project as representing "the Bologna School," which supposedly has a progressive agenda of its own. It is as though they are saying, "We have our own version of Vatican II; we don't want the facts to get in the way of our telling that story."

To be sure, no history is written without biases or preconceptions, and, in the case of Vatican II, still more needs to be learned. However, I have read large chunks of the five-volume history and simply do not hear the sounds of axes being ground. The Alberigo-Komonchak research has been painstakingly detailed and the amount of that detail can make it painfully boring reading at times.

The team of researchers were not journalists trying to tell an interesting story nor were they advocates trying to convince the reader of their perspective of what happened at the council. They are historians trying to make sure no rock goes unturned.


Many important things about the council remain unknown and will perhaps always remain so. We may never have certain knowledge, for example, of who convinced Pope Paul VI to intervene at key moments in the council. Some of the key players at Vatican II did not, it seems, keep diaries.

Further, if someone believes there are errors and misrepresentations in the Alberigo-Komonchak team's version of Vatican II, they have a responsibility to tell the full story in a better way. So far, there have been no takers.

Vatican II did many things. Generally, it is fair to describe it as a council of reform, reform that did not break with the Church's past, but did point to a different future.

Some untenable narratives are being told – that Vatican II was a revolution or, conversely, that Vatican II changed nothing. These narratives have consequences. If leading figures at the Vatican, for example, believe the council changed nothing, they will tend to ignore the calls for reform in its documents, to say nothing of reforms urged in later documents such as Pope John Paul II's encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint.


Or, if, like the Society of St. Pius X, one believes that several of the reforms of the council have the smoke of Satan about them, it will be impossible to ever accept the full teaching of the council.

Some of the stories being told are based more on ideology than on facts. While such stories have their supporters, one can be sure that, over time, truth will win out over fantasy. Getting the story straight in people's minds, however, will have to overcome an immense amount of bias and ill-founded preconception.

(Some of the information in this article came from Massimo Faggioli's article, "Vatican II: The History and the Narratives" in Theological Studies 73 [2012], pp. 749-67. Thank you to Franciscan Father Donald MacDonald for pointing out this article as well as Faggioli's 2012 book, Vatican II: The Battle for Meaning.)