Academic journal article
By Krieg, Robert A.
Theological Studies , Vol. 60, No. 3
THE SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL brought about a breakthrough for Catholics in understanding the Church's relation to the world.(1) Prior to the council, some ecclesiastical officials and theologians viewed the contemporary emphasis on human autonomy as erroneous and dangerous. Seeing the modern notion of freedom as a form of rebellion against God, they asserted that the Church should stand as the supreme authority over a society and its state.(2) This reasoning led popes such as Pius IX, Pius X, and Pius XI to oppose both democracy and socialism, claiming that Western civilization without the Church's formal guidance was degenerating into chaos. By contrast, Vatican II took a positive view of human independence, including the rights and dignity of all people.(3) In Gaudium et spes the council endorsed the idea of autonomy, properly understood: "If by the autonomy of earthly affairs is meant the gradual discovery, utilization and ordering of the laws and values of matter and society, then the demand for autonomy is perfectly in order: it is at once the claim of humankind today and the desire of the creator."(4) This statement expresses Vatican II's dominant understanding of the Church in the world. The council did not accentuate an ecclesiology in which the Church is an institution with legal rights and formal ties to the state; it emphasized rather an ecclesiology in which the Church is first of all a community God uses to offer revelation and grace to the human family on its way to the perfection of God's reign.(5) In short, Vatican II gave priority to the model of Church as community or communio over the model of Church as institution.(6)
The council's adoption of communio ecclesiology disclosed the dynamism of the Christian tradition. This emphasis revealed that the handing on of God's revelation is a living process. Tradition is to be understood as more than the repetition of familiar practices and conventional formulations of Christian beliefs. Tradition also entails, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, relinquishing established forms (without abandoning the truths embodied in them) and adopting new modes that eventually uncover previously hidden or forgotten wisdom.(7) As Dei Verbum stated:
The tradition that comes from the apostles makes progress in the Church, with the help of the holy Spirit. There is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on. This comes about through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts (see Luke 2:19 and 51). It comes about from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience. And it comes from the preaching of those who, on succeeding to the office of bishop, have received the sure charism of truth. Thus, as the centuries go by, the Church is always advancing towards the plentitude of divine truth, until eventually the words of God are fulfilled in it.(8)
This statement implicitly recognizes that Christian tradition includes breakthroughs or innovations that may initially seem discontinuous with what preceded them but eventually show themselves to stand in continuity with the past. To put it another way, Christian tradition unfolds in a manner similar to paradigm shifts in the history of science.(9) As the Church passes on its wisdom, transitions occur in which widely accepted conceptual frameworks become recognized as inadequate. Alternative framework emerge, capable of expressing past knowledge, answering unresolved issues of the earlier horizon, and bringing about unforeseen insights. Such a moment occurred when the council affirmed the rightful autonomy of the world.
My article aims to shed light on the significance of Vatican IFs dominant ecclesiology by studying the life and thought of Karl Adam (1876-1966), a creative German Catholic theologian in the years between the two world wars, and author of international best-sellers such as The Spirit of Catholicism (1924), Christ Our Brother (1927), and The Son of God (1933). …