Massimo Faggioli is an historical theologian. He teaches Italian at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. His book on the fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council has become the most widely read among the books published on the subject in our country. It has much to recommend it. It also has much that can be criticized.
Shortly after having gotten into the book I was struck by a thought that has not left me and I want to share it with you. Correctly Faggioli describes the minority and majority among the Council Fathers. Some influential Roman cardinals, some outspoken Council archbishops and bishops who were concerned about too much “innovation,” became the minority. A growing number of Council Fathers from all parts of the world became the majority and the 16 Council texts which make up the rich gift of that Council are what have shaped much of the Church these past 50 years. As a seminarian in Rome during the Council and in my subsequent years as a priest and bishop, I consider myself with some satisfaction to be a “priest of Vatican II”.
Yet we all know there has been controversy in the Church and many on different “sides” criticizing the Council for being “too much this” or “not enough that.” The minority developed into a wide swath of positions from schism, rejecting the whole Council, to various positions rejecting some texts or pointing out aberrations in the implementation of the Council. The majority too began to criticize the Council with views from “it did not go far enough” to “its promise has never been fulfilled” to “the spirit of the Council” has been hijacked.
As one who was influenced –- and I believe positively -– by theologians such as Congar de Lubac, Danielou, Alfaro and Lonergan, I would associate myself with those who were enthusiastic about and did their best to live by the results of the Council.
Why then has it come about that the majority so quickly became dissatisfied with their own work and with the results of the Council? Why did those who were the majority, and their supporters, become the critics?
Without discounting many other elements in a very complex theological, historical and personal set of situations, I would like to suggest that one of the reasons why the Council has become less effective than its proponents would have wished is that the majority abandoned Pope Paul VI. If any Council had a pope who respected the Council and its workings, it was Vatican II and Paul VI. The great inspiration for a Council came of course from Blessed John XXIII. But there would never have been a Vatican Council with so much fruit without its chief guardian who respected the bishops, the experts and the process. That was Paul VI.
He guarded it, guided it, respected it and sought always to encourage what he called a “moral majority” among the bishops. But the majority abandoned him in the years after the Council. He diligently worked to implement the Council. The various decrees that set up committees, interpreted documents, affirmed the adoption and made possible the putting into practice the Council belong in a singular and extraordinary was to Paul VI. Yet the very personalities, bishops, theologians, and others who claimed to be theologians or “voices of the people” would not let him lead, would not heed his voice and isolated him from their own schemes which they proposed all too often in opposition to his teaching.
One thinks immediately of the opposition to Humanae Vitae. But it continued in the spheres of the Church’s life, the missions, the interpretation of texts, the reform of religious life and on and on. Had the majority continued to take their cues from the pope who had saved the texts of the Council from being divisive or even being scuttled, I suspect we would have had a far more halcyon post-conciliar period and a far more fruitful fulfillment of the promises of the Council.
I remain very committed to the Council for what it is and always will be: “the greatest religious event of the twentieth century” (Blessed John Paul II). But I cannot help but wonder how much better the Church would be today if those who, like me, consider themselves “Vatican II Catholics” had respected the wisdom of Paul VI and sought to listen to his words and heed his admonitions. May his name be blessed and his memory be honored.