I am composing these words on October 11, 2022, which is the sixtieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, easily the most momentous ecclesial event of the twentieth century. I think it’s fair to say that we Catholics have been talking, arguing, and wondering about, denigrating and celebrating, Vatican II pretty much non-stop for the past sixty years. Even the most cursory survey of the internet will reveal that the lively discussion shows no signs of running out of steam.
Both its advocates and critics over these past six decades have sought to find the interpretive key to the complex set of documents produced by the council fathers. When I was coming of age, most commentators said that Gaudium et Spes, the sprawling text on the Church in the modern world, was the most basic of the Vatican II texts. And indeed, Gaudium et Spes launched ten thousand workshops on the Church’s obligation to scrutinize the “signs of the times” and to drop a defensive posture vis-à-vis the secular world. Still other ecclesiastical pundits during those years argued that the first of the Vatican II documents to be approved—namely, Sacrosanctum Concilium—the great constitution on the sacred liturgy, was the most fundamental. And indeed, that text, which inaugurated the transformation of the Mass and compelled us to think about the liturgy in a fresh way, proved massively influential. And a considerable group of analysts held that Lumen Gentium, the lyrical document on the nature of the Church, was the lens through which to read the whole of the council. And to be sure, most of the theologians present at Vatican II would have taught that ecclesiology, the formal study of the Church, was indeed the paramount concern of the fathers. Therefore, a case can be made for all these documents.
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