VERSION TWO : A Break from the Past

By O'Malley, John W. | Commonweal, March 9, 2001 | Go to article overview

VERSION TWO : A Break from the Past


O'Malley, John W., Commonweal


I teach a course titled "Two Great Councils: Trent and Vatican II." In it I pit the two councils against one another because I believe, with Aristotle, that it's basically through the discernment of likenesses and differences that we learn. Between Trent and Vatican II there are many likenesses, many differences. Although I could provide a long list, I will here limit myself to one of each. I hope thus to establish a framework for assessing the significance of Vatican II for the church today.

The two councils are alike in that they are extremely wordy. In the Alberigo/Tanner collection of the documents from the twenty-one councils recognized as ecumenical by the Catholic church, two councils--Trent and Vatican II--take up about one-third of the space. This simple bit of information suggests to me as a historian that the documents are trying to say something more than business as usual. Historians agree that Trent is one of the most significant councils in the history of the church and, indeed, initiated what is often called "the Tridentine era" of Catholicism that lasted for a long, long time.

The documents of Vatican II are twice as long as Trent's. They were produced by an apparatus of bishops and theologians incomparably more elaborate and sophisticated than those that produced Trent's documentation, and they venture into areas never before touched upon by any council. Vatican II made front-page news for four years, arousing in people from almost every walk of life and every religious background astonishment, delight, despair, and incredulity. Bishops who participated spoke of "the end of the Counter-Reformation," even more boldly of "the end of the Constantinian era," and more boldly still of "a new Pentecost." Maybe this was a passing rapture, or maybe, especially given the extraordinary length of its documents, the council intended to change things more radically than simply turning the priest around at Mass to face the people, even more radically than did Trent. If so, what precisely was the change? Can it be put in a word or two?

Before trying to answer those questions, let me point out a difference between Trent and Vatican II. Although both were extraordinarily verbose--that is, both had a lot to say--they were verbose in different ways. While exhortation and exposition were surely not absent from Trent, its more significant documents were framed in prescriptive language. They were meant to effect closure. Trent "defined" certain doctrines, which means it closed discussion. In its reform decrees it did the same thing analogously by prescribing certain behavior, especially for bishops and priests, and by threatening punishment for failure to comply: Make Them Behave. The documents of Trent, then, have a closed, top-down, and prescriptive style, which by and large is the style employed by every other ecumenical council--except Vatican II.

The style of Vatican II is different: this is the clue indicating the significance of the council. As is always said of it, it defined nothing. Its language, while theologically correct, tends to be (or at least often sounds) nontechnical. It legislated little, and, even when it did, it did not prescribe punishment for offenders. To accomplish the goals of the council, the documents appeal to the good will of those to whom they are directed and therefore strive to motivate them to heartfelt acceptance. The documents read more like invitations than injunctions. What is the significance of this "new" style?

The new style is profoundly significant and, in my opinion, goes to the heart of the council. The council is about style. This time the cliche got it right: The medium is the message. For more than thirty-five years, we have been debating the meaning of Vatican II, especially in the face of interpretations that tend to minimize its import by contradicting what others see as "the spirit of the council." We can take the phrase "spirit of the council" to mean that the documents of the council have a reality and meaning that transcend a narrow reading of the texts which, in proof-texting fashion, fishes out sentences to accommodate a minimal interpretation. …

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