How does one tell the story of the Second Vatican Council? It is a question that has fascinated many people over the past fifty years, challenged them as well, because for one thing, more than one story is involved. Why was this Council called, what did it hope to accomplish, what actually happened at the Council, what impact did it have on Roman Catholicism, on the world at large? These are all legitimate questions, each with its own story. This article is an attempt to address one of these stories. The fact that next year we will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II has prompted me to undertake this task.

We all know that the Council began on October 11, 1962. However, my years of studying Vatican II inspired me to go back in time even further, before 1962. Why? When one studies the event known as the Second Vatican Council, one is struck by many things. One thing stands out for me. How is it possible that so much could have been accomplished in so short a time? After all, each of the four sessions of the Council met for only for a few months during the fall from 1962 to 1965. Yet, the bishops, who often disagreed on the most critical issues, managed to produce sixteen documents that touched the very essence of the Catholic faith. They produced a charter for the Church of the twentieth century and beyond. The enormity of what the Council fathers achieved intrigued me. I became fascinated with the story behind the story. I was always convinced that the Holy Spirit had been hard at work at the Council. My research demonstrated that the Spirit’s work at Vatican II began long before 1962 and I wanted to uncover some of those developments that took place on the road to Vatican II. I wanted to highlight those remarkable theologians whose efforts were the seeds of what would flourish at the Council. What were their central ideas? How did they develop? How were they received during their time in history? And what kinds of changes came about as a result of their theological inquiries? This desire to look back in no way diminishes the incredible achievements of the Council fathers. If anything, it demonstrates their openness to the Spirit working in and through them.

For Catholics of a certain age today, their understanding of Church is divided into two parts: before Vatican II and after Vatican II. I am one of those Catholics. I have lived in both Churches and continue to maintain a love for both. I remember the Church of my youth fondly, maybe because in truth, life did seem simpler then. Then I grew up and was introduced to an understanding of Church that emerged from the Second Vatican Council. Had it not been for my own theological studies, I do not know if I would have been able to embrace it as warmly as I did. Perhaps, like many Catholics, I would have wondered, “What did you do to my Church?” But precisely because of my work in theology, I welcomed this image because it is the one that we find in the Christian community’s earliest expression of being Church: the New Testament.

For many years I taught theology to undergraduate students at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire. And I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity of helping to prepare them for the twenty-first-century Church. But it was quite a challenge to try to convey exactly what Vatican II was and why we make such a fuss about this event. After all, my students inherited the Church after the Council. They knew no other image of Church. Yet, I remained convinced that they needed to have the “whole story,” so to speak. They needed to understand this amazing grace-filled moment in the life of the Catholic community. Something truly Spirit-filled occurred in the life of the Church. What emerged from Vatican II was a Church with a human face, a Church that stands humbly before its God, knowing that all is a gift. I wanted my students to know how this happened.

Before I go on, perhaps a qualifying remark is needed. The Church is the people of God – divinely founded and divinely guided, but in the hands of frail, wounded human beings for the past two thousand years. Where you have humans, you have the possibility for error, for sin, for evil. You also have the possibility for greatness, since each of us is a God-bearer. The point is this. The Church is not perfect. Only God holds that esteemed attribute. So, in my enthusiasm for Vatican II, I do not want my readers to get the wrong impression. Not everything before Vatican II was bad. We have many saints, scholars, and witnesses to attest to that point. And not every development after Vatican II was for the betterment of the people of God. Still, I believe that the Second Vatican Council was the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst. Years after the Council, one of the bishops who attended the Council was asked who he thought was the most important figure at Vatican II. He said that “most people would probably say it was John XXIII or Paul VI, but, in his mind, it was the Holy Spirit, whose presence was almost palpable.”[1]

One of the key points I hope to make is this: In the years before the Council, the approach to doing Catholic theology in the West was primarily monolithic. I say primarily because, as I hope to show, there were also those theological prophets among us who were attempting to do theology in a “new key.” Their efforts, which bore fruit at the Council and in the years since 1965, reflect a major change in theological method. Every academic discipline has its own method by which it achieves its goal. For example, in the sciences, the methodology used involves (at the risk of oversimplifying the great work done in the sciences) three steps: an hypothesis, an experiment, and, finally, a judgment. Theology employs a very different methodology. Other academic disciples set out to search for the truth; theology begins its work with the truth: the Revelation of God given to us in the person of Jesus Christ. In the years before the Council, the way we read Scripture guided us in the theological process. It was in the very manner by which we read Scripture that a remarkable development was beginning to emerge in the years before Vatican II, a development that would pave the way we would do theology in the future. For centuries, official Catholicism was marked by a static view of reality and resisted a historical, dynamic way of understanding the world, even the possibility of any genuine development in religious thought.

But, one cannot limit the Spirit of God. And it would seem that the bishops at Vatican II understood this point. They produced sixteen documents that reflected the extraordinary theological developments that had emerged in the years before the Council. Indeed, the documents did not occur in a vacuum. In large part, they were the result of a major change in the way we did theology. Three paradigm shifts occurred in the time leading up to Vatican II that would change theology. We turn now to examine those shifts and discover the impact they had on the theological enterprise.

It would appear that the task of a theologian is quite simple: to study the Divine-human relationship and then articulate its meaning for others. Truth be told, it is not all that simple. Good theology requires a sound methodology, and a study of how theology has evolved over the years demonstrates two things: first, the importance of methodology for the theological process and, second, the many changes in the methodology employed.

In the century or so before Vatican II, the methodology used was known as neoscholasticism. However, alongside these theologians were those who were moving away from neoscholasticism and biblical fundamentalism. These new theologians were greatly influenced by three paradigm shifts that would bring an immense change in the way we would do theology. The theological process was undergoing a significant transition and transitions are rarely easy. They can produce great anxiety and hesitation, especially for a Church that had prided itself on its immutability, on the unchanging nature of its teachings. The struggle would involve breaking away from previous ways of thinking without sacrificing the core of the faith or fidelity to the Church.

The first of the three major shifts that occurred before Vatican II was a shift from the classicist worldview to a historically conscious view. The traditional classicist view maintained the truth of the past as certain and unchangeable for every future time and culture. Vatican II substituted the historically conscious view, which holds that every expression of a theological truth is historically conditioned (meaning the way we express a revealed truth is a product of its time in history). John XXIII, who was trained more as a historian than a theologian, said that truths themselves are not affected by history. But he implied that each new age presents us with new data, new questions, new discoveries that theologians must think about when they seek to give reasons for our hope. In fact, in one of his most frequently quoted comments, stated during his opening speech at the Council, John XXIII said that “the ancient deposit of the faith is one thing; the way it is articulated for each new generation is another.”

Ongoing revelation is a term used to describe this approach. One of Vatican II’s key theologians, Karl Rahner, SJ, was also committed to a historically conscious approach. In Rahner’s mind, the truths of Revelation were revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, but each generation must explore these truths, come to a deeper understanding of them in a way that is both intelligible and credible. New situations, which bring new questions, require a new language to express the Christian story. Rahner believed that the theologian’s most important task was to be a “translator” for the people of God in each new generation, using a language that gives life to the truths revealed to us by Jesus Christ.

The second shift was in the way we do theology, its method. Every academic discipline has a methodology. Before the Council, theology used what is called a “deductive” method. To study the Divine-human relationship in deductive methodology, one begins with the Divine partner. I am oversimplifying a bit, but in this approach, theologians took their “picture” of God from Scripture and saw that God was all good, all loving, etc. Then they came across the line from Scripture: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” which led us to assume that we too must be perfect. This expectation of divine behavior from non-divine beings caused much frustration and guilt for those Catholics who realized the impossibility of such an expectation. This approach did not take the human condition into account. If we want the Gospel to take root in the hearts and souls of humans, we must understand the needs and desires of the human person.

The Council Fathers, along with their theological experts, realized this as well, that theology must take seriously the world in which humans live, prompting the shift to an “inductive” method. Perhaps the best example of this inductive approach is found in Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. The very first paragraph says: “The joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.” This approach begins in the concrete, in the real world of men and women, taking the human condition seriously, with all its strengths and limitations. Only then can the message of the Gospel have any real meaning for the human person. Pope Francis demonstrates this approach in his theology. He has used the term “Seeds of the Word.” By this, he means whatever is true and holy in the concrete world in which humans dwell.

The third shift that had a significant impact on the way we do theology came in the way we taught the faith. We might label this the move from the “apologetic” approach to the “foundational” approach in teaching the faith. In the field of theology, the word apology does not mean “I am sorry.” Rather, it describes the way we taught. An apologetic approach to teaching is one that focuses on stating and defending the truths of the faith, often at the neglect of explaining what they mean.

Anyone who received religious education in the US prior to Vatican II would have experienced the apologetic approach in the Baltimore Catechism. Good as it was on many levels, this catechism focused more on saying what the truths of the faith were and less on what those truths might mean in our everyday lives. And, given the world we lived in in the 1950s, that approach worked very well. We did not question our parents, police officers, or —heaven forbid—our religious leaders. We simply accepted the truths as given. But the 1960s ushered in a new way of thinking. What might have worked in the 1950s—that something is right because an authority figure said it was right—was no longer viable. The 1960s brought about the “What does it mean?” generation. Now the task of theologians was not simply to reiterate the truths of the faith. No; now their task was to provide the foundation for the faith.

Hence, we speak of the shift from the apologetic approach to the foundational approach in our efforts to evangelize a new generation. Sometimes when I am teaching this concept, I explain the apologetic approach as the “I’m the mommy” approach. Something is right because I said so. Parents know that children reach a point where that no longer suffices; the child wants to know why. And that is what happened to the people of God: they reached a point where they wanted to know why. And a number of theologians in the years leading up to the Second Vatican Council took up these questions, shifting the paradigm and setting the stage for a renewed understanding of Catholic theology.


[1] Bishop Frank Markus Fernando, “Interview,” in Voices from the Council, eds. Michael R. Prendergast and M.D. Ridge (Portland, OP: Pastoral Press, 2004), 19.

Image: St. Peter’s Square, Pixabay

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Sr. Maureen Sullivan

Sr. Maureen Sullivan is a Dominican Sister of Hope from New York and Professor Emerita of Theology at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire. She currently serves as a National Religion Consultant for William H. Sadlier, Inc. She received her master of arts in Theology from Manhattan College in the Bronx and her PhD in Theology from Fordham University, also in the Bronx. While Sr. Maureen offers presentations on a number of theological topics, the Second Vatican Council, along with its impact on our Church, is at the center of her theological research. She has written two books on this topic: 101 Questions and Answers on Vatican II (2002) and The Road to Vatican II: Key Changes in Theology (2007), both published by Paulist Press.

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