“By the power of the risen Lord [the Church] is given strength that it might, in patience and in love, overcome its sorrows and its challenges, both within itself and from without, and that it might reveal to the world, faithfully though darkly, the mystery of its Lord until, in the end, it will be manifested in full light.”

Lumen Gentium 8

My life has revolved around the Second Vatican Council. I was twelve years old in 1962 when the Council began, and I entered high school seminary the following year. When I left the seminary eight years later with a BA in Philosophy, the Council was over, and we were in the early years of its implementation. The Council—its participants, its work, its documents, and its initial implementation—was the cornerstone of the entire seminary and ministerial experience of that time. I spent the next twenty-two years in the Navy as a linguist and cryptologic officer, while remaining active in ministry. I was ordained a deacon almost 31 years ago for the Archdiocese of Washington, DC while still on active duty. Since the Navy, I have been blessed to serve in parish, diocesan, national, and international ministries, including more than five years on the senior staff of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. I earned a Ph.D. in Theology from the Catholic University of America, with a special emphasis in ecclesiology. I have written and taught about the Church, with a special emphasis on the Second Vatican Council for decades. This blend of hands-on ministry with academic exploration has been a blessing. And it all has revolved around the Council.

My Navy career involved sea duty of various sorts, but I most frequently served in submarines. Many friends who hear that shake their heads and say, “Oh, I could never do that; I’d be too afraid!” Let me assure you, everyone in a submarine is afraid at some point, but fear is not the point. The point is doing what needs to be done despite our fear; to act even when the outcome is uncertain; to have faith and trust in our shipmates and our leaders; to move forward into an uncertain future while not becoming frozen in fear.

St. John Paul II frequently called out “be not afraid” and implored us to follow the command of Christ to “put out into the deep”: “Duc in altum!” In his apostolic letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, promulgated at the end of the Great Jubilee 2000, that phrase appears in each of the first three sentences of the document. “Duc in altum! These words ring out for us today, and they invite us to remember the past with gratitude, to live the present with enthusiasm and to look forward to the future with confidence: ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever’ (Heb 13:8).” With those words guiding us, we now turn to the Second Vatican Council and the popes of the conciliar and post-conciliar church.

Opening the Council, Pope John XXIII reminded the bishops that “the substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another.”[1] Pope Paul VI began to refer to this frequently as a novus habitus mentis, a new way of thinking. During the final days of the Council, he first used this expression when he addressed the commission revising the Code of Canon Law. The revised Code would have to mirror, enable and empower the Church as described by Vatican II. “Now, however, with changing conditions . . . canon law must be prudently reformed; specifically, it must be accommodated to a new way of thinking proper to the second ecumenical council of the Vatican, in which pastoral care and new needs of the people of God are met” (emphasis added).[2] What is striking even at first reading is that this “new way of thinking” is to be no mere cognitive process. Nor is it simply a legal principle. Rather, this novus habitus has the practical end of concrete pastoral care and meeting the needs of God’s people. Pope Paul often referred to the Council itself as “the great Catechism of modern times,” a quotation that was repeated on several occasions by John Paul II.[3]

St. John Paul himself spoke often about the Council, writing of the “humble and trust-filled openness that the Second Vatican Council” brought to reading the signs of the times.

What a treasure there is, dear brothers and sisters, in the guidelines offered to us by the Second Vatican Council! For this reason, I asked the Church, as a way of preparing for the Great Jubilee, to examine herself on the reception given to the Council. … With the passing of the years, the Council documents have lost nothing of their value or brilliance. They need to be read correctly, to be widely known and taken to heart as important and normative texts of the Magisterium, within the Church’s Tradition. Now that the Jubilee has ended, I feel more than ever in duty bound to point to the Council as the great grace bestowed on the Church in the twentieth century: there we find a sure compass by which to take our bearings in the century now beginning.”[4]

In 1983, John Paul promulgated the revised Code of Canon Law, concluding the revision begun by John XXIII and expanded by Paul VI. In the Apostolic Constitution Sacrae Disciplinae Leges promulgating the new Code, he stressed the importance of the ecclesiology offered by the Council to the Code. He even uses a phrase now routinely condemned and dismissed by critics of the Council: the despised “spirit of the Council.” Obviously, the pope didn’t get the memo, writing: “It is to be hoped that the new canonical legislation will prove to be an efficacious means in order that the Church may progress in conformity with the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, and may every day be ever more suited to carry out its office of salvation in this world.”[5] Furthermore, “this new Code could be understood as a great effort to translate this same doctrine, that is, the conciliar ecclesiology, into canonical language. If, however, it is impossible to translate perfectly into canonical language the conciliar image of the Church, nevertheless, in this image there should always be found as far as possible its essential point of reference.”[6] He even remarks that “the substantial ‘novelty’ of the Second Vatican Council, in line with the legislative tradition of the Church, especially in regard to ecclesiology, constitutes likewise the ‘novelty’ of the new Code.”[7] To be clear, while canon law is not a source of our theology, it nonetheless reflects (or rather, it should) our theological self-understanding.

Even this cursory review shows that Sts. John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II not only had no problem with the Council: they saw it as charting a course ahead for the Church. Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have continued this ecclesial vision in their writing and their actions. The magisterial trajectory from John XXIII through Francis, through their collective conciliar and post-conciliar Magisterium, acknowledge the value, legitimacy, and “treasure” of the Council. “Be not afraid; put out into the deep.”

This is the first in a series of essays by Deacon Bill Ditewig on the problematic criticism against Pope Francis and the Second Vatican Council. Part Two, “Reacting to Archbishop Viganò: A Pastoral Reflection,” was published Friday, August 21. Part Three, “The Matter of Words,” was published Monday, August 24. 


[1] John XXIII, “Allocution for the Opening of the Second Vatican Council,” AAS 54 (1962), n. 14, 786-96.

[2] Paul VI, Address to the Cardinals and the Consultants of the Council for the Code Revision of Canon Law, November 20, 1965, “AAS 57 (1965), 998.

[3] See, for example, John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Catechesi Tradendae, 16 October 16 1979, #2.

[4] John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, 6 January 2001, #57.

[5] John Paul II, Apostolic Constitution Sacrae Disciplinae Leges, 25 January 1983.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

Image: Photo by Silas Baisch on Unsplash

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Deacon William T. Ditewig, Ph.D. (Commander, US Navy [ret.]) was born and raised in Peoria, Illinois. After college, Bill spent the next 22 years in the Navy where he served in many assignments around the world, retiring in 1993.  He was ordained to the diaconate for the Archdiocese of Washington in 1990.

Since then, Deacon Ditewig has worked for the Church in a variety of capacities, including for the Archdiocese of Washington, the Dioceses of Davenport and Belleville, and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Bill has a BA in Philosophy, an MA in Education, an MA in Pastoral Theology, and the Ph.D. from the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, with a major emphasis in ecclesiology.  Dr. Ditewig has authored numerous books, chapters and articles.

Bill and his wife Diann have been married for forty-nine years and have four grown children and fourteen grandchildren.

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