Understanding Vatican II

It seems there is a wide-spread misunderstanding of what Vatican II is, and what the Council Fathers intended. Here’s something I compiled from some posts I made on the topic.

There seems to be often a misunderstanding that Vatican II “changed everything” in the Church, and that there is therefore a radical break from tradition and nothing prior to the 1960s is valid any longer.

Nothing can be farther from the truth.

The hermeneutics, or interpretation, of Vatican II should be carried out in the spirit intended by the Council Fathers, which is also the Apostolic and Catholic spirit of continuation and reform of tradition, rather than rapture, as Holy Father has pointed out (also as Cardinal). Hence, it can never be so ‘radically different’ as to negate what has been handed down from the past.

Perhaps the key to understanding Vatican II is Lumen Gentium, which is the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. As one of the two dogmatic constitutions (the other being Dei Verbum), It is arguably the most important document from the Council. In it, the identity of the Church is examined by the Council Fathers as they explicitly state in their opening paragraph, “This [the Sacred Synod] intends to do following faithfully the teaching of previous councils”. There is not a conflict here at all, but (as with all authentic Catholic doctrine) an organic development. This becomes clear upon objective reading of the document itself.

Now, the term “People of God” is used of the Church in the second chapter of Lumen Gentium. This was the term used in order to capture the “bird’s eye view”, as it were, of the Church. Often, the use of the phrase in chapter 2 is regarded as emphasising this aspect over and above the others, as a sort of hint of democratization of the Church, which counters the ‘pre-Vatican-II’, hierarchical concept. This is, of course, an over-simplification.

The ‘people Church’ includes the hierarchy (LG, chapter 3) as well as the laity (LG, chapter 4). The term “people of God” was used to recall the Old Testament, in order to stress the Scriptural continuity of the Church, as well as to provide a term for the Church which could embrace all the various elements (such as the hierarchy, the laity, and the religious) which follow chapter 2. It is not meant as an isolated term to negate all the elements which are implicitly found in it.

Besides, it’s arguable that the most comprehensive term for the Church is ‘sacrament’, used in the opening paragraph, since this is the mystery of the Church as outlined in the first chapter, which is also inclusive of the people of God, as part of the Church’s sacramental operation (invisible grace working through the Church’s visible members).

‘People of God’ is one aspect of the Church that is further illucidated in the proceeding chapters. As a term which emcompasses the others, it is necessarily a general term that needs to be seen in the light of all of the others (and vice versa, of course). Thus, it necessarily needs to respect the other seven chapters in the document. One cannot emphasise the second chapter without considering the third, and vice versa:

1. The Mystery Of The Church
2. On The People Of God
3. On The Hierarchical Structure Of The Church And In Particular On The Episcopate
4. The Laity
5. The Universal Call To Holiness In The Church
6. Religious
7. The Eschatological Nature Of The Pilgrim Church And Its Union With The Church In Heaven
8. The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother Of God In The Mystery Of Christ And The Church

There is certainly a doctrinal development in ecclesiology, or the theology about the Church, but it is an organic development, not one of rapture from Apostolic Tradition (found in sacred scripture and articulated in the early Church by Ignatius of Antioch, among others). This is crucial, since Apostolic Tradition is constitutive of the Church (2Thess 3:6) – without this divine means of guidance, there can be no Church, for the Church is not a merely human social institution, but one that is divinely established (Mt 16:18)


2 thoughts on “Understanding Vatican II”

  1. The perception you refer to is definately widespread, particularly in the Protestant Church. It is always interesting to hear the other side.

    I still feel I do not know enough to have my own stance as yet.

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