History’s View of Vatican II | Michael J. Miller | Catholic World Report
The who, what, where, when, and why of the Council
The famous black-and-white photograph of the Second Vatican Council in session, taken from a high balcony at the back of Saint Peter’s Basilica, shows more than 2,000 Council Fathers standing at their places in slanted stalls that line the nave, with more than a dozen rows on either side. It resembles nothing so much as a gargantuan monastic choir—unless it puts you in mind of the British Parliament with the dimensions quadrupled.
Contemporary perceptions of the Council varied widely, partly because of the extensive media coverage. Although it promulgated a dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, Vatican II was not a “constitutional convention.” An ecumenical council can teach about the Church but cannot modify a divine institution, any more than a pope can invent a new doctrine or change one of the Ten Commandments.
In his latest book, The Second Vatican Council: An Unwritten Story (Loreto Publications, 2012), Roberto de Mattei, a historian in Rome, writes: “[Ecumenical] Councils exercise, under and with the Pope, a solemn teaching authority in matters of faith and morals and set themselves up as supreme judges and legislators, insofar as Church law is concerned. The Second Vatican Council did not issue laws, and it did not even deliberate definitively on questions of faith and morals. The lack of dogmatic definitions inevitably started a discussion about the nature of its documents and about how to apply them in the so-called ‘postconciliar period.’”
Professor de Mattei outlines the two main schools of thought in that discussion. The first and more theological approach presupposes an “uninterrupted ecclesial Tradition” and therefore expects the documents of Vatican II to be interpreted in a way consistent with authoritative Church teaching in the past. This is the “hermeneutic of continuity” emphasized by Pope Benedict XVI.