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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

VERSION TWO : A Break from the Past


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    New feature

    It is estimated that 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, and in an effort to make Questia easier to use for those people, we have added a new choice of font to the Reader. That font is called OpenDyslexic, and has been designed to help with some of the symptoms of dyslexia. For more information on this font, please visit

    To use OpenDyslexic, choose it from the Typeface list in Font settings.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.