“Keeping the World Awake to God”: The Challenge of Vatican II

Introduction: “Keeping the World Awake to God”

This special Spring-Summer 2012 double issue of Communio is devoted to commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the convocation of the Second Vatican Council. In January 2012 the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family co-sponsored with Communio a conference on the theme “Keeping the World Awake to God: The Challenge of Vatican II.” The aim of the conference was to ponder the novelty of Vatican II read through the lens of what Pope Benedict XVI has affirmed as a “hermeneutic of continuity.”

When Pope John XXIII called the council in his apostolic constitution Humanae salutis (25 December 1961), he “made a great, unrepeatable gesture in entrusting to a general council the task of understanding the word of faith today in a new way. Above all the council took up and carried out its great mission of defining in a new way the Church’s purpose as well as her relation to the modern era, and also the relation of faith to this time with its values.” Our task now, Pope Benedict XVI continues, “is first of all to bring to light God’s priority again. The important thing today is to see that God exists, that God matters to us, and that he answers us. And conversely, if he is omitted, everything else might be as clever as can be–yet man then loses his dignity and his authentic humanity and, thus, the essential thing breaks down. That is why . . . as a new emphasis we have to give priority to the question about God.” (Benedict XVI, Light of the World, 65). The Second Vatican Council provides us with a rereading and illumination of the Tradition in order to meet this task.

The letter of the conciliar documents, taken as a whole, contains a hermeneutical center radiating outwards from the doctrine contained in Dei verbum and Lumen gentium and illuminating the council’s teaching on mission, inter-religious dialogue, modernity, religious-freedom, and the life. Rightly understood, Vatican II sought to recover a sometimes unnoticed constitutive principle of the Tradition: the catholicity of God’s self-revelation in Christ. Christ is “catholic,” because he reveals God in revealing man (and creation and the order of being tout cour) and vice versa (cf. Gaudium et spes, 22 and Dives in misericordia, 1). The council is novel, then, as a rereading of the Tradition in light of its catholic form, which is not merely “formal,” but a unity of form and content: Christ as the Incarnate Word of the Trinitarian God (Dei Verbum 2).

Carl A. Anderson, in his opening remarks, reminds us that the drama of man, which compels us to understand the pastoral challenge confronting the Faith today, “can only be answered in terms of an adequate anthropology in light of the teaching of the council. This anthropology cannot simply be taught in a classroom but can only be convincing when reflected in the lives of believers—“when the ‘splendor of Christ’ truly radiates from millions of Christian families.”

In “The Significance of Vatican II,” Francis Cardinal George first speaks to the purpose Pope John XXIII articulated in calling the Second Vatican Council, tracing much of the relevant history leading up to its convocation. The Cardinal goes on to illustrate why a greater understanding of the world and her place in it leads the Church to change her own governance, “restore and strengthen in our ecclesial consciousness the centrality of the worship of God in spirit and in truth,” and bring renewal to the liturgy. Last, Cardinal George addresses the hope at the convocation of the council “for a new springtime for the faith.” This hope was not false, and he sees evidence of this new season in the papacies following John XXIII and in the generosity of spirit prevalent in the Church today.

D. C. Schindler, in “Ever Ancient, Ever New: Jesus Christ as the Concrete Analogy of Being,” asks the question, “How can an event in history, which as such is a free human act, be not only illustrative, but in some sense truly generative, of the meaning of being?” The premise of this question is the claim, drawn from Gaudium et spes (GS), that “Jesus Christ not only reveals man to himself, but, insofar as man recapitulates and in some sense fulfills the diverse dimensions of reality, he reveals the meaning of being simply.” Schindler explains that this question can only be answered when Jesus Christ is understood to be the concrete analogy of being, meaning that he gives to the relationship between being and beings a personal meaning. Viewed in this manner, that is, as an image of love, the actions of beings do not become a threat to being, but rather enhance their mutual unity.

Adrian J. Walker, in “The Original Best: The ‘Coextensiveness’ of Being and Love in Light of Gaudium et spes, 22,” offers a speculative retrieval of GS, 22’s famous declaration that Christ, in revealing the mystery of the Father and his love, fully reveals man to himself. Drawing on the work, among others, of Maximus the Confessor, Walker argues that Christ, as the telos of the divine plan ad extra, is the highest revelation, not only of the Father’s fontal generosity, but also of the original goodness of the creature. In revealing both God and man at their original best, Christ also reveals love—the quintessence of “original bestness”—to be the very meaning of being.

Roch Kereszty, in “Catholicity and the Mission of the Church,” explains that the council documents “have recovered the threefold interconnected meaning of  catholicity in the Fathers and St. Thomas: fullness, universality and authenticity.” Kereszty then draws on this meaning to treat the twofold foundation of the Church’s catholicity in the Triune God and human nature, the Church as universal sacrament of salvation, the Church’s relationship to the world, and finally in the eschatological consummation of the Church and the universe.

Antonio López, in “Vatican II’s Catholicity: A Christological Perspective on Truth, History, and the Human Person,” suggests that the key to the catholicity of the council is its Christology: “Christ embraces everyone (Col 3:11) because he is the truth of God and man in person, the destiny of man’s history.” Because the Incarnation took place at a particular, concrete moment in time, Jesus Christ, who indwells eternally in the Father, can also indwell in man, thus revealing himself as the fulfillment of history because he reveals the truth of God’s love. Applying this Christology, the council Fathers were then free to address history and man’s freedom not as “progress with no transcendent horizon” but instead as “a path in which God educates man to receive his Son and to receive the Spirit.”

Giorgio Buccellati, in “Holiness, World and the Meaning of Work: The Enfleshment of the Holy in a Mesopotamian Perspective,” claims that if Christian “revelation” is rooted in human experience, then approaching it through the eyes of even seemingly remote dimensions of that experience can be enlightening. All the more so if we approach the theme of the “world,” an “outsider” by definition, and seek to see what holiness means within a non-Christian context and how human agency is involved in it. Against the backdrop of a broken tradition that served as the cultural matrix of the Old Testament, namely Mesopotamia, Buccellati seeks to show how the outsider’s sensitivity for these themes can help us to gain an insight in some aspects of the lived Christian experience.

William L. Portier, in “What Kind of a World of Grace? Cardinal Henri de Lubac and the Council’s Christological Center,” treats Cardinal de Lubac’s contributions to the council and his positions afterward with special attention to his reading of GS. De Lubac’s emphasis on the council’s christological center helps to clarify the senses in which we might talk about our world as “graced.”

Jarosław Kupczak draws our attention to Karol Wojtyła in “John Paul II’s Interpretation of the Second Vatican Council.” Wojtyła, he notes, was one of the council fathers who managed to divert the text of Dignitatus humanae from political deliberations about the proper relation between Church and the state to a deep anthropological reflection about the necessary conditions of the actus fidei, and the relation of the human person to his own conscience and to the truth. Kupczak presents two distinctive elements of John Paul II’s interpretation of the Second Vatican Council: the first, the integral reading of the council, is exemplified in John Paul II’s communio ecclesiology; the second lies in the Christian anthropology included in the constitution GS, 22. Both evidence that Wojtyła was a theologian both shaping and shaped by Vatican II.

David S. Crawford, in “Family and the Identity of the Person,” takes his cue from what he determines to be the “central question for the council Fathers:” who and what is the human person? This question of identity, Crawford contends, cannot be answered without reference to familial and marital relations. GS calls the family the “school of deeper humanity,” a direct contradiction to the liberal and individualistic anthropology which currently pervades our culture. But in “being a child, and more concretely in seeing the visible signs of being the child of this mother and this father, the child’s knowledge of himself—his “identity”—is simultaneously a knowledge that his origin is embedded more deeply in reality than any act” of individual will. In a word, human and personal identities are always at once in themselves and in another.

In “Christian Personalism and the Debate Over the Nature and Ends of Marriage,” Nicholas J. Healy, Jr. traces the doctrinal development of GS in its sections devoted to marriage and family. The long-held theology of marriage, which placed the unitive end of marriage secondary to the procreative is not, Healy argues, contradicted by the council Fathers, but rather “carried forward and deepened in terms of the inseparability of the unitive and procreative meanings of marriage.”

José Granados, in “The Body, the Family and the Order of Love: The Interpretive Key to Vatican II,” highlights the pastoral nature of the council. Pastoral does not infer any opposition to a theoretical world view, but instead “refers to the enrichment of faith inasmuch as it touches the center of the human experience by offering it a dwelling place.” GS, says Granados, points to the family as this dwelling place because in the family there is integration of the order of love with the primacy of God, the reality of nature, and the structures of society. The nature of love is “its capacity to hold human life together, to offer a foundation in which to build up our society . . . . the council has shown that the family is at the center of the Church’s presence in the world, inasmuch as it is in the family that love, true love, sustains its meaning.”

Margaret H. McCarthy, in “Vatican II and the Church’s ‘Openness to the World’: Casting a Wider Net Through the Still Narrow Gate,” explores the Church’s renewed awareness of and attention to the world through the doctrine of predestination. She notes the parameters of the doctrine as it is currently known, and its receptivity by the faithful and the teaching Magisterium. McCarthy then considers the challenge of the council for the Church to “raze its bastions” in order to face the whole world, for the sake of directing the world, through the Church, to the truth of trinitarian love.

Larry Chapp, in “Gaudium et spes and the Intelligibility of Modern Science,” proposes that if we take the trinitarian Christology of the council seriously—that is, if we accept that Christ “fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear”—then this oft-quoted line of GS holds the key not only to understanding the Church’s relationship to the modern world, but also man’s relationship to knowledge. Intelligibility is never extrinsic to Christ. Therefore, Chapp avers, the stranglehold the modern sciences have on discourse in the modern university must be released in favor of a confessional university guided by an adequate analogy of being and knowing. Only therein can the truth of Christ as informing all knowledge from within—including what is understood to be properly scientific—be appropriately explored and communicated.

Michael Hanby also identifies GS, 22 as the key to understanding the legitimate autonomy of the sciences, “because creation, which only emerges fully to view in the light of Christology, is in one of the most basic senses what things are.” In his “Aggiornamento and the Sciences: What Does It Mean?” Hanby goes on to argue that the “legitimate autonomy” that GS concedes is proper to the modern sciences does not mean, as is often thought, that the sciences tell us what things are while philosophy tells us what things mean. Rather the christological key which GS, 22 offers us allows us to see and explore the “inexhaustible surplus” of intelligibility of the world and being, thereby transforming all three—intelligibility, world, being—such that the sciences gain an “ever more” quality in their respective disciplines while remaining inextricably bound to metaphysics and theology.

Finally, in Retrieving the Tradition, Angelo Scola, in an article written early in the pontificate of John Paul II, demonstrates the continuity between his papacy and the Second Vatican Council in “The Interventions of Karol Wojtyła at the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council: Exposition and Theological Interpretation.” The framework within which the young Polish auxiliary bishop situates his suggestions for the council is astonishingly similar to the conciliar documents that would result: they revolve around “the trinitarian mystery of the Church understood in missionary terms,” and a “constant concern for the human person, who is the Church’s permanent interlocutor, as he was of God the Creator and the Redeemer.” In each of Wojtyła’s interventions we see radiating the central themes that sprang from the council and continue to be pondered today.

—The Editors