October 26, 2012

Vatican II: Documents address teachings of the Church

Year of Faith logo(Editor’s note: Blessed John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on Oct. 11, 1962. Pope Benedict XVI marked the 50th anniversary of the council’s opening and kicked off the Year of Faith with an Oct. 11 Mass in St. Peter’s Square. John F. Fink, editor emeritus of The Criterion, has written a four-part series reflecting on Vatican II. This is the third installment.)

By John F. Fink (Third of four parts)

The “Decree on Ecumenism” was passed during the third session of the Second Vatican Council. It made clear that overcoming the scandalous divisions among Christians requires recognition that “Christ the Lord founded one Church and one Church only,” and it refers to Lumen Gentium, which declared that “the sole Church of Christ … constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him” (#1 and #4).

Thus, the decree hardly says that one Christian community is as good as another. It did, however, say that Christ’s Church “subsists” in the Catholic Church rather than “is” the Catholic Church as earlier documents stated.

It then went on to acknowledge that the Catholic Church shared responsibility for the divisions of the Church in the 16th century. And it said that the Church accepts those who are brought up in Protestant faiths today “with respect and affection as brothers” (#3).

It said that the life of grace, the theological virtues and the other gifts of the Holy Spirit are available to Christians outside the boundaries of the Catholic Church, but then immediately reminded readers that “it is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help towards salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained” (#3).

So while decrying divisions in Christianity and exhorting all to promote dialogue and to pray for unity, it did not water down the teachings about the Catholic Church that are in “Lumen Gentium.”

Vatican II’s “Lumen Gentium” said plainly, “They could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it, or to remain in it” (#14). It also said, “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation” (#16).

The fourth and final session of Vatican II ran from Sept. 14, 1965, to Dec. 8, 1965.

Altogether, the council promulgated 16 documents and the fourth session promulgated 11 of them.

First was the council’s “Decree Concerning the Pastoral Office of Bishops.” This decree spelled out the roles of bishops in the universal Church, in their own dioceses and in their cooperation with one another.

The second was the “Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life.” This decree sought to adjust religious life in all its manifold forms to the conditions of the modern world without changing anything essential to the consecrated life.

Next, the council turned to priests. The “Decree on Priestly Training” made clear that the true renewal of the Church was dependent upon the training of priests so that they would be prepared for “a priestly ministry animated by the spirit of Christ” (#1).

It dealt with the importance of seminaries, the care which should be given to the spiritual formation of those preparing for the priesthood, the revision of ecclesiastical studies, training for pastoral work and the continuation of studies after ordination. All these were to serve the purpose of preparing priests to lead the renewal outlined by Vatican II.

The “Declaration on Christian Education” emphasized the inalienable right of every human being to a suitable education, and said that parents must have the right to choose the schools they wish for their children. It said that parents must not suffer any direct or indirect burdens because of their choice of schools for their children.

It said, too, that education is broader than just schools, and that the teaching of religion must be extended to those who don’t attend Catholic schools. It supported special education for the disabled. It said that children “should receive a positive and prudent education in matters related to sex” because modern youth were being inundated with false sex education (#1).

The fifth document promulgated in the final session was “Nostra Aetate,” the “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions.” During the decades since Vatican II, this document has proved very important, particularly in improving relations with the Jews.

The history of antagonism between Christians and Jews went back to the very beginning when Judaism opposed the Christian Church, evoking a similar response on the part of Christians.

In the document, the council rejected the charge that the Jews were guilty of deicide and that they were guilty of the crucifixion of Christ. The document said, “Christ underwent his Passion and death because of the sins of all men so that all might attain salvation” (#4).

It also said, “The Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against people or any harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life or religion” (#5).

But “Nostra Aetate” wasn’t just about the Jews. It also praised Hinduism for its search for God through asceticism and meditation, commended Buddhism for its belief in the radical insufficiency of this temporal world and its search for enlightenment, and complimented Islam for its belief in God, its recognition of Christ as a prophet and its veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The next document to be promulgated was the “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation.” This was the document on which Father Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, had the most influence. He was all of 35 at the time and was teaching in his native Germany at the University of Bonn.

Cardinal Joseph Frings of Munich took him to the council as his theological adviser.

Father Ratzinger thought the text of the original document on revelation was defective. He believed that revelation is always greater than what can be contained in human words and, therefore, greater than the words of Scripture.

Scripture is the essential witness of revelation, but revelation is something greater and more alive, and what we call “tradition” is precisely that part of revelation that goes above and beyond Scripture.

At the council, Cardinal Frings asked Father Ratzinger to write a brief schema in which he expressed his views. He then read it to a number of highly regarded cardinals, who asked him and Jesuit Father Karl Rahner to produce a second, more developed, version. The result was the “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation.”

It said that God’s revelation came to us by Christ to his Apostles and from them to others either in written form or by their preaching. Thus, it said, there are two ways in which God revealed himself—Sacred Scripture and Tradition. Then it added a third component, the Church’s Magisterium.

While acknowledging that this teaching office was not part of God’s revelation, it said that it “serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully” (#10).

It also acknowledged the fact that Scripture uses various literary forms and thereby canceled the fundamentalism that was once required to be taught in seminaries. It also accepted the consensus of contemporary New Testament scholars regarding the authorship of the various books, and it encouraged Catholics to study Sacred Scripture.

(John F. Fink is editor emeritus of The Criterion.)

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