We recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the close of the II Vatican Council, which was the single most significant event in Catholicism since the Protestant Reformation.Hence it is opportune to ask: what was the Council’s vision on the church and what were its contributions toward the renovation of the church? Vatican II offers us a great deal, but its task seems to be far from over. Its work remains as an unfinished project.
A new vision of the Church
The task of the Council wasn’t just to change policies and structures. It was about transforming our very sense of what it is to be the church. The Council was trying to create a new vision of the church. The old vision, which was a good thousand years or more in the making, is a particular way of looking at the Catholic Church as a ‘hierocratic’ form of the church. It had served the church well for centuries; however it had also outlived its usefulness. In calling a Council, Pope John XXIII was recognizing the fact that the old form, which still had a lot that was worth keeping and preserving, was no longer adequate to meet the exigencies of the church of the 20th century. That insight marked the beginning of a new form,a new vision of the church.
It was pointed out that Vatican II had just established the pillars, but could not construct a dome that would bring all those pillars together into a unified vision. This task still remains unfinished. Vatican II has certainly made several very important contributions, but the challenge of the church today is to bring out from the Council’s teaching a more unified and coherent account of the church, that is adequate to our engagement with today’s world.
The role of the Holy Spirit
It was falsely thought that the mission of Christ was to institute the church and to establish its structures, whereas the mission of the Spirit was to animate those structures. For example, many thought of the ‘mystical body of Christ’ as a largely institutional reality, with the Spirit as the soul animating it. This is only partly true. The Dominican theologian Yves Congar, one of the most influential theologians of the Council, challenged that notion. He argued that we need to think of Christ and the Spirit as co-instituting the church. They work together. The Spirit is present in the church and plays a decisive role in determining what the church is today.
It is not wrong to say that Vatican II rediscovered the Holy Spirit. Because of his active presence in the church, she is a dynamic and living organism, even at the institutional level. Structures are part of the life and growth of the church, and they need to be changed according to the exigencies of the times. It was a significant discovery of Vatican II that through the presence of the Holy Spirit, the church is always alive, always active, always growing and always changing. This is a discovery that transcends the old vision. The Dogmatic Constitution of the Church says that the Holy Spirit gives to the church both hierarchic and charismatic gifts. The Spirit is present and animates both the ordained ministers and those who exercise the gifts received at baptism. His gifts are manifested both through the ordained ministries and the charisms of the faithful; all of them work together fruitfully to build up a church in service of her mission.
It was thought before Vatican II that the pope and bishops are the custodians of divine revelation, the deposit of the faith. They expounded on those dogmas, and the role of the laity was just to obey. Vatican II says that the Spirit guides the whole church to receive God’s Word, not just the pope and bishops. Evidently the pope and bishops play a distinctive role as teachers. However, according to Lumen Gentium, every baptized Christian has this sensus fidei, thes instinct for faith. This means that the faithful have, through the Spirit, the ability to penetrate into God’s word, to understand it more deeply, to discover new insights and to apply it in bold, new, and often unanticipated ways.
Accordingly, the whole church, through the Spirit, receives God’s Word. The bishops have the responsibility to guard it faithfully in their teaching and all of the baptized have the duty to preserve it as the basis of their faith. This recovery of the theology of the Holy Spirit is central to the second Vatican Council. However, this aspect has been least developed in the post-conciliar church. This is where the Council’s vision remains unfinished. The church is a historical reality, however she is growing, changing, and responding to new pastoral realities. The Spirit always works through such structures, allowing those structures to accept new ways, while at the same time, remaining faithful to the fundamentals of the church. The Spirit animates and enlivens the church, bringing about structural changes as well as the conversion of believers.
According to Vatican II, humility is a virtue that the Church must make her own. It is central to the thought of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas and it has been a very important virtue in the church’s history. The church is the body of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit. The Catholic Church is not just a human, sociological reality, but it is also a spiritual community due to the presence of the Divine Persons in her. However it is not proper to emphasize the divine reality of the church to the extent that we lose sight of the human. Sometimes we so emphasize God’s action in the church that we downplay the human aspect. It is very significant, that Vatican II, while acknowledging the human dimension of the church, appropriated an attitude of ecclesial humility.
It has always been the teaching of the church that we are a pilgrim church and Vatican II repeats it. We are, by our baptism, pilgrims on a journey towards our final destiny, eternal communion with God. The church itself is on the way. In Lumen Gentium the Council acknowledges that the church is not perfect and it ‘will not achieve its perfection until the end of history’. If the church is not perfect, then it follows that there is a need for change and reform. With this the Council admits, for the first time, in the Decree on Ecumenism, that there were errors made also on the side of the Catholic Church. Acknowledging with humility that Catholicism may have contributed to the divisions, the Popes have since then publically asked for pardon for the mistakes from the part of the Church.
Once we admit that the church can make mistakes, we have the beginning of a humble Church. The Decree on Ecumenism admits this when it says in #6: “Insofar as the Church is a human institution, it will always be in need of reform and renewal”. That means that the Church has to be humble, because it is willing to be self-critical of her own faults and weaknesses. Speaking of other Christian traditions, the Council, instead of focusing on their errors, emphasizes the gifts that these traditions offer us. Moreover in the document on the “Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions”, the Council invites us to look at the elements of goodness and truth that can be found in these other religions. In the past, the church had relied on condemnation, vigorously denouncing things, but now it was the time for the church to use “the medicine of God’s mercy”. Thus the Council calls for a humble church that is willing to learn from its dialogue partners.
Fr James Mundackal CST