- The Teaching of the Second Vatican Council in Current Catholic Theology
THE STATE OF THE CHURCH in the aftermath of the Council of Nicaea famously reminded St. Basil the Great of a nighttime naval battle: "The raucous shouting of those who through disagreement rise up against one another, the incomprehensible chatter, the confused din of uninterrupted clamoring, has now filled almost the whole of the Church, falsifying through excess or failure the right doctrine of the faith."1 [End Page 127] Many have found Basil's vivid description of the aftermath of Nicaea pertinent to our troubled post-Vatican II times.
The image of a naval battle seems a particularly apt one. No less than the very first, the twenty-first ecumenical council was launched into rough seas of doctrinal disagreement and left swells of controversy in its wake. History suggests that it is the normal state of affairs for ecumenical councils to settle some things and, where the theological consensus has not taken shape, deliberately to leave other matters unresolved. Not infrequently the very resolutions pronounced by a council remain at the center of contention long after the participants have gone home.2 The animated theological debates of the sixty-year period leading to the Second Vatican Council, momentarily put on hold during the council itself, resumed afterward with a somewhat altered set of protagonists and an agenda reset by the council itself.
In the midst of current turbulence, it is easy to forget the rough seas of the 1950s and 1960s, not to mention those of the 1920s and 1930s. There is a general awareness but not always a sufficiently profound understanding of the significance of these years for the council's agenda and output. The Modernist controversy—suppressed perhaps prematurely—had left many issues unresolved: the nature of revelation, the role of tradition, the place of historical-critical methods in the study of the Scriptures, the propositional force of doctrines, the possibilities and limits of doctrinal development, and other issues as well. The reform movements that shaped the participants at Vatican II—biblical, liturgical, ecumenical, patristic—had begun twenty, forty, or even sixty years before the council convened. These movements challenged the hegemony of Neo-Scholasticism in [End Page 128] Catholic thought as well as settled patterns of law and practice in Catholic life. When contextualized by the social and cultural unrest caused by two catastrophic world wars, the pastoral and doctrinal situation in which the council began its deliberations in the early 1960s was plainly a stormy one. Council fathers, curial officials, and theological experts were expected to assess a variety of contending theological and pastoral proposals about how to address the challenges posed by this new situation.
Jared Wicks succeeds in giving us some idea of how they went about doing this. In the opening lines of Investigating Vatican II: Its Theologians, Ecumenical Turn, and Biblical Commitment,3 he announces that his book "presents the Second Vatican Council as an event to which theologians contributed in major ways and from which Catholic theology even today can gain enormously" (1). With theologians in the spotlight of this highly informative book, readers might well expect Wicks to examine something of the prior theological debates in which some of the very theologians he considers were prominent actors. But he sets his sights elsewhere. In this collection of ten lively essays (originally published between 2009 and 2015), Wicks shows, sometimes in considerable detail, how the positions these theologians espoused during earlier years shaped the eventual teaching of the council. He writes about the contributions of many theologians—including Karl Rahner, Yves Congar, Edward Schillebeeckx, and Joseph Ratzinger—to the development primarily, but not only, of conciliar teaching on ecumenical relations and biblical studies.
In his tantalizing first chapter concerning what he calls the "Tridentine motivations" of Pope St. John XXIII, Wicks sets the theological substance of the council's final teaching in these areas into the broader context of the previous history of doctrine and theology. Marshalling Angelo Roncalli's earlier writings, Wicks shows the influence of prominent Tridentine figures (Cesare Baronio, Charles Borromeo, and Gregory Barbarigo) on Pope John's aspirations for...