Spring-Summer 2012

Vatican II’s Catholicity: A Christological Perspective on Truth, History, and the Human Person

Antonio López

“Christ embraces everyone (Col 3:11) because he is the truth of God and man in person, the destiny of man’s history.”

When Balthasar turned seventy in 1975 he wrote Katholisch, a short book that was a response to all the friends of different philosophical and theological backgrounds he had made during his fruitful life.2 The book, an expression of friendship, is a simple elucidation of the meaning of the term “catholic,” which aims at presenting what is central about the mystery of the Triune God and the divine economy. At the beginning, Balthasar writes something that will set us on the right direction to ponder what it means that the novelty of the Second Vatican Council resides in offering a re-reading of the Church’s Tradition in light of its catholic form. “Jesus,” Balthasar contends, “must be catholic, otherwise his Church, which follows him and is promised his fullness could not be called Catholic. Being catholic means embracing everything, leaving nothing out.”3 The present essay therefore wishes to ponder the meaning of the christological dimension of catholicity.

Our reflection does not turn to Vatican II as an inspiration for saying something that the council did not claim. It is well known that the council dealt explicitly with ecclesiological and anthropological matters. Yet it is also the case that for the council the reflection on divine revelation (the mysteries of the Church, man, and their relation in the contemporary world) is inseparable from the mystery of Christ and of the Triune God.4 Vatican II indicates very clearly that the Church was not interested in speaking to her members about internal problems. Rather, in a position of listening to the Word (DV, 1), the Church wished to speak of Jesus Christ, of whom she is the sacramental presence (LG, 1; DV, 2–4).5


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1. Paper delivered at the conference, “‘Keeping the World Awake to God’: The Challenge of Vatican II,” at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., 12–14 January 2012.

2. Hans Urs von Balthasar, In the Fullness of Faith: On the Centrality of the Distinctively Catholic, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988).

3. Ibid., 27.

4. Vatican II was not therefore a “pastoral” council, if by this term we mean “pragmatic.” It is “pastoral” in the sense indicated by Joseph Ratzinger: “Pastoral should not mean ‘nebulous, without substance, merely ‘edifying’. Rather what was meant was positive care for the man of today who is not helped by condemnations and who has been told for too long what is false and what he may not do. . . . [It] should not mean something vague and imprecise, but rather something free from wrangling, and free also from entanglement in questions that concern scholars alone . . . . Pastoral should mean finally, speaking in the language of scripture, of the early Church Fathers, and of contemporary man. Technical theological language has its purpose and is indeed necessary, but it does not belong in the kerygma and in our confession of faith” (Joseph Ratzinger, Theological Highlights of Vatican II, trans. Henry Traub, Gerard C. Thormann, and Wener Barzel [New York: Paulist Press, 2009], 45). See also Karol Wojtyła, Sources of Renewal: The Implementation of the Second Vatican Council, trans. P. S. Falla (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979), 15–18.

5. See Maximilian Heinrich Heim, Joseph Ratzinger: Life in the Church and Living Theology. Fundamentals of Ecclesiology and Living Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007), 1–2. The translation of the conciliar documents is taken from Vatican Council II: the Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents (Northport, N.Y.: Costello Pub. Co., 1975).