[Editor’s Note: This is the third installment in a series on “Vatican II and Theological Paradigms” by Michel Therrien, STL, STD, exploring the root causes of internal divisions and polarization in the post-conciliar Church, particularly the debate over the possibility of paradigm shifts in Catholic theology.

Click here for Part 1. Click here for Part 2. Click here for Part 4.] 

In the years leading up to Vatican II, Catholic leaders had a deep sense that the cultural paradigms outside the Church had so drastically shifted that the Church needed to find a new form of engagement with modern society. We needed an approach that would make the Gospel fresh and ever new to a world that had grown deeply wary of neo-scholastic formulations of the faith.[1] While the Church had dependably borne the legacy of the scholastic tradition well into the twentieth century, it seemed timely to engage anew, recent currents of philosophical and theological thought.

With respect to internal matters, as the twentieth century emerged, plagued as it was by ideological world wars and cultural upheavals such as the Bolshevik (Communist) Revolution in Russia (1917), the Thomistic revival Leo XIII envisioned remained pastorally embodied within a strict disciplinary crackdown on Catholic education and schools of theology. This was a direct response to Pope St. Pius X’s warnings against “modernism” in his encyclical Pacendi gregis (1907) and the fear that certain currents of modern secular thought were beginning to hold sway with some Catholic theologians and philosophers.[2] Pastorally, the result was that the legalistic ethos of the Neo-scholastic paradigm continued until the Second Vatican Council, rather than being retired as it might have been if the Leonine revival had reached into all areas of church life.

In the immediate decades leading up to Vatican II, the Church’s defensive posture toward the unfolding events of the twentieth century created some internal tensions among theologians as to what degree scholars were permitted or ought to engage modern sources of thinking. On the one hand, there were those attempting to advance the Thomistic revival. Others were beginning to explore ways to adapt Church teaching to modern modalities of thought. Others, for their part, had more historical interests in recovering the most ancient sources of Patristic thought and their uses of Scripture in the earliest developments of theology.[3] Tensions arose in discerning how creative one could be in bringing the Church into a fruitful engagement with the modern world.

In the three decades before Vatican II, the stage was set for the fragmentation that followed the Council. On a pastoral level, the Neo-scholastic paradigm conditioned the experience of the faithful. Meanwhile, in the universities and theologates, tensions were emerging as to the best approach for renewing the Church. Does Aquinas provide the best framework? Or rather, should we circumvent the medieval period, with its historical baggage, and go back further by engaging modernity from the ancient sources of the early Church? Yet maybe going back is not the best way to go forward. Thus, some advocated for adapting the faith to modern currents of thought in philosophy, modern psychology, sociology, and history.[4]

In calling the Second Vatican Council, Pope St. John XXIII’s response to these disparate, but not fatefully opposed, approaches, was a resounding affirmation of all the work theologians were doing. The council documents reflect a profound integration of every one of these approaches. It demonstrates the truly conciliar nature of the Council, the compromises the Council fathers reached, all of which avoided extremes, and it provided a positive framework for future ministry in the Church.[5] The Council’s documents are faithful to an authentic re-reading of Aquinas for our times; they are substantiated in the ancient patristic sources, and in Scripture; and they are responsive to all the current questions of the twentieth century. It was a clear path beyond the limitations of Neo-scholasticism. It represented the richness and wealth of the entire theological history of the Church, and it positioned the Church to lead, not only Catholics, but also the world out of the ideological darkness of the first half of the twentieth century. The hope and the energy of Catholics everywhere was palpable.

So what happened? Why did the anticipated “golden age” of Catholicism not dawn as many had hoped? Depending upon who one asks, one will hear different accounts. Some argue that the “spirit” of Vatican II hijacked the Council’s purpose, failing to root the Council’s interpretation in the “letter” of the documents.[6] Others argue that Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI attempted to roll back the clock and sidestep the intention of the Council fathers. Many of the theologians influenced by the spirit of aggiornomento held to this view. In any case, the disparate hermeneutics operating in the post-conciliar debates have revolved around the question of who has authority to interpret the Council; and as the years passed, few church commentators seem to register must satisfaction with the outcome of the Council, except the pontiff’s charged with the daunting task of implementing the Council’s pastoral and missionary vision for the Church. The post-conciliar disagreements have been anything but conciliar.

I would suggest that the various theological approaches preceding the Council vied, in the years following, for the right to interpret the Council’s meaning. Perhaps more innocuously, leaders clung to those aspects of the Council with which they felt an affinity. They dug in against those who defended what they considered the less appealing aspects of the Council’s outcomes or the perceived desire to roll back the clock. These divisions shaped the paradigmatic landscape that followed the Council. For its part, the media showed its bias and helped polarize the post-conciliar debates and solidify our disparate paradigmatic commitments.[7] The Council created a political vacuum into which various theologians and church leaders pushed their agendas forward, and at times by simple fiat.

While some might bristle, the concepts of paradigm and paradigm shift can do a lot of heavy lifting to help us understand, now sixty years later, the current controversies surrounding the relevance of Vatican II. It is also significant that a paradigm is not necessarily a bad thing. Knowledge and even wisdom increase significantly within certain disciplines because of the organization and systemization of knowledge so characteristic of the modern age. However, the blind spots that paradigms engender are also very significant. The effectiveness of mission within the Church today depends upon the degree to which we understand the operative paradigms within the Church (and in the world) and their blind spots. The latter, especially, can hinder our ability to create vibrancy within our parish communities. If we remain in our blind spots and thus divided and polarized over the internal sub-cultures within the Church, we will struggle to attract people to the redeeming grace of Jesus Christ and continue to lag behind the cultural architects and influencers of today.

[Click here for the fourth and final installment of this series.] 


[1] See John O. Malley, What Happened at Vatican II (Cambridge MA: Belknap Press, 2008), 43-52.

[2] Russel Hittinger, “Pascendi gregis at 100: Two Modernisms, Two Thomisms: Reflections on the Centenary of Pius X’s Letter Against the Moderns,” Nova et vetera , English Edition, Vol. 5, No. 4 (2007): 843-8880.

[3] O’Malley Vatican II, pp. 72-92; R.R. Reno, “Theology After the Revolution.”

[4] The three rival camps were those who embraced Neo-Thomism, those who wished to return to the Patristic sources under the label of Ressourcement, and finally were those who wanted to explore new forms of engagement with contemporary currents of thought according to the aspirations of aggironamento (renewal). More recently, a fourth group has emerged that basically rejects the theological vision of the Council as fundamentally corrupting to the church.

[5] This is the sentiment of the authors who contributed to the collection edited by Matthew Lamb and Matthew Levering, Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition (New York: Oxford University Pres, 2007).

[6] McInerny, What Went Wrong with Vatican II.

[7] The most notable example of this is the opposition to Pope Paul VI’s Encyclical Letter, Humane vitae. Most recently, the media has been quite “involved” with Pope Francis’ interpretation of Church matters. He has probably had more press than all the popes combined since Vatican II.

Image: Pope John XXIII addressing the assembled Fathers at the opening of the Second Vatican Council. Via Flickr. By manhhai. License: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

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Michel Therrien, STL, STD is the President and CEO of Preambula Group. Prior to founding Preambula Group, he served as the President of the Institute for Pastoral Leadership and the Director of Evangelization for the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Before moving to Pittsburgh in 2014, he was a professor moral theology and Academic Dean at the Augustine Institute in Denver, CO. He taught for seven years at Saint Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, PA, also serving as Academic Dean from 2008-2012. He holds a B.A. in Theology from Gonzaga University in Spokane, WA, an M.A. in Theology and Christian Ministry from Franciscan University of Steubenville, a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the International Theological Institute in Gaming, Austria, and a Doctorate in Fundamental Moral Theology from the University of Fribourg in Switzerland (2007). Michel is the author of The Catholic Faith Explained (Sophia Institute Press, 2020).

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