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The Church Must Embrace John Paul II and Benedict XVI’s Interpretation of Vatican II, or Face Irrelevance

George Weigel was a high school student in Baltimore when the Second Vatican Council closed. The faith life of Catholics in the United States was quickly turned upside down as pastors and theologians disputed the Council’s actual teachings on liturgical reform, Church discipline and lay participation. Now, as the Church this month marks the 60th anniversary of the opening of the Council, and the upcoming 2023 Synod on Synodality revives an often bitter, polarized debate on the Council Fathers’ legacy, the best-selling papal biographer offers his own assessment: To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II, published Oct. 4 by Basic Books.

During an Oct. 3 email exchange with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond, Weigel answers questions about key themes and arguments in his book: Pope St. John XXIII’s reasons for convening the Council, the substance of its seminal teachings, why Popes St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI provided their own “keys” for interpretation, and the painful lessons of the tumultuous post-conciliar era that still apply today.

You were in high school when the Second Vatican Council finished and a period of upheaval ensued, from the exodus of women religious to dumbed-down CCD and the ubiquitous “folk Mass.” Sixty years later, it feels like we have a better, more accurate grasp of its teachings — or do we?

The detachment of the actual teaching of Vatican II from an amorphous “spirit of Vatican II” (which looks ever more in retrospect like the Spirit of the Sixties, not the Holy Spirit!) was one of the chief impediments to a proper reception and implementation of Vatican II. I hope we’re now at the point where the Council can be “read” properly, through the prism of its two most important texts, The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) and The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium). That’s what the living parts of the world Church are doing.

Why did Pope John XXIII call for a new ecumenical council that would deepen the Church’s self-understanding, while also strengthening its engagement with the modern world? 

John XXIII’s intention in summoning Vatican II was to rekindle the Church’s Christocentric faith in order to convert the modern world. That would only happen, he believed (correctly), through a new method of engaging the modern world. And that meant finding a language of evangelization and catechesis that the modern world could “hear.” He knew that would take some time, and the truth is that we’re still grappling with that problematic — even as the modern world has become ever more incoherent and aggressively secular. 

At the same time, in his opening address to the Council the Pope insisted that Catholic faith be proclaimed in full — in, as I said, a way the modern world could engage. So the Council was far more about “Christifying” the world than about changing the Church.  

How did the Roman Curia approach these objectives at the opening of the Council, and why did its position fail to win support? 

The dominant attitude of the Roman Curia in 1953 was criticized by a very conservative curialist, Msgr. Giuseppe De Luca, in a letter to the future Pope Paul VI, Msgr. Giovanni Battista Montini, in which de Luca said, “In this suffocating atmosphere of unctuous and arrogant imbecility, perhaps a scream — chaotic but Christian — would do some good.” Internal housecleaning was in order; the shrewder churchmen of the time knew it; and so the curial attempt to manage a brief, rubber-stamp council was rebuffed during Vatican II’s first days. Montini likely agreed with De Luca, but he also knew that releasing a lot of pent-up steam was going to cause a donnybrook; as he said to a friend on the night John XXIII announced his intention to call a Council, “This holy old boy doesn’t know what a hornet’s nest he’s stirring up.” 

In his opening address Pope St. John XXIII stated that the Council’s “greatest concern” must be the more effective and complete presentation of “the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine.” How did Dei Verbum and Lumen Gentium address this challenge? 

Dei Verbum robustly reaffirmed the reality and binding authority of divine revelation over time. This is precisely what is at issue today in Germany: Does God know better, or do we? 

At the same time, by affirming that divine revelation is real, Dei Verbum was making an important statement about us: We are creatures configured to be able to hear a divine word spoken into history, and then embodied in the Incarnate Son of God. So Dei Verbum challenged the dumbed-down concept of the human person being proclaimed by secularism, or what Henri de Lubac, a major theological influence at Vatican II, had dubbed “atheistic humanism.” Lumen Gentium put Christ back at the center of the Church’s life and proclamation and affirmed that, in the Church, the Body of Christ in mission in history, humanity would find the answer to its longing for authentic human community. 

You write that the Council Fathers approached the liturgy as “the Church’s most powerful instrument for bringing the leaven of the Gospel to the world at large.” How did that vision shape The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, and why has it provoked such bitter controversy to this day? 

All of those involved in the “liturgy wars” should read Sacrosanctum Concilium; it will then become clear that the past half century of liturgical agitation has been caused by inadequate (and worse) implementations of the Constitution on the Liturgy, not by the constitution itself. The “correction” of these implementation problems was well underway until the recent Vatican intervention in Traditionis Custodes, which has made matters worse, rather than better. 

Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, proposed a new dialogue with science grounded on the truth that Jesus Christ is the Lord and Savior who reveals the human person’s true dignity and the very purpose of human history. Yet today many Catholics believe that the Church should be engaged in dialogue with the world, but not with its sanctification. 

Well, that’s a mistake, isn’t it? And again, the ecclesiastical crisis in Germany is the prime example of this mistake. The Church of Woke isn’t going to bring anyone to God, because woke ideology today (especially gender ideology and the LGBTQ+ agitation) deny the truths of biblical anthropology: who we are, how and why we are made as we are, and how being made as we are in fact reflects the inner life of the Trinity, a community of fruitful, self-giving love and receptivity.  

The Council departed from the precise language of Neo-Scholasticism to offer a more authentic and welcoming tone that allowed the Church to “reach out to the world … in generosity of heart.” Did this change encourage dueling interpretations of the Council, and what is the lesson to be learned?

In the decades prior to the Council, some of the most creative theologians in the Church proposed a “return to the sources” of Catholic self-understanding in the Bible and the Church Fathers as a more adequate response to secularism’s irreligiosity than the syllogisms of Neo-Scholasticism. The anti-Neo-Scholastic polemic was overdrawn at times; so was the Neo-Scholastic condemnation of every fresh approach to the deposit of faith as the opening wedge to the modernist deconstruction of the faith. 

Over the past several decades, I think we’ve learned that both methods of theological thinking are essential to the Church’s evangelical mission. Perhaps the best example of this is Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, which creatively combined both approaches to sketch the architecture of the Christian moral life and its pastoral application. 

The Council was not convened to address a heresy or formalize a creed, and that is one reason why it failed to provide “authoritative keys” that would clarify its proper implementation. As a result, the social upheaval of that period became one “key” for interpretation. Has that continued to be the case? 

No, as I explain in To Sanctify the World, the authoritative “keys” to the Council were provided by two men of the Council, Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger, whose pontificates as John Paul II and Benedict XVI should be understood as one continuous arc of authoritative interpretation of Vatican II. In the 1985 Extraordinary Synod of bishops, summoned by John Paul II and intellectually guided by Ratzinger, the Church was given the “master key,” so to speak, to the Council: the concept of the Church as a communion of disciples in mission. 

During the late 20th century, Dignitatis Humanae, the Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, transformed the Church into a global defender of human rights. Does the declaration continue to inspire the Church’s witness, or have we failed to fulfill its promise? 

The current pontificate has certainly failed to grasp the meaning of the Declaration on Religious Freedom — which was also about the limits of state power — in its China policy, and in its seemingly accommodating approach to anti-Catholic dictatorships in Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and elsewhere. Nonetheless, Catholics who refuse to live under tyranny continue to be inspired by the declaration; the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is perhaps the foremost example of this at the moment.

The battle over the correct interpretation of the Council was waged by theological reformers who disagreed on whether its teachings constituted a rupture with Tradition. Today, as the Church prepares for the 2023 Synod on Synodality, the battle lines have shifted, with reformers reportedly seeking to modify Church discipline, and “arch progressives” calling for an entirely new model of the Church. Your thoughts? 

Since no one has ever been able to define “synodality” with any precision, it’s hard to know what the 2023 Synod is going to accomplish. But if it mirrors the confusions of the German “Synodal Path,” the 2023 Synod will place further impediments in the way of the Church’s evangelical mission. You can’t evangelize with Catholic Lite, because Catholic Lite inevitably decomposes into Catholic Zero. 

You believe that the Council helped lay the groundwork for both the collapse of European communism, and for the explosive growth of Catholicism in sub-Sahara Africa. What made a difference? 

The Declaration on Religious Freedom empowered the Catholic human rights revolution in east-central Europe and gave John Paul II the platform on which to conduct his bold campaign for the freedom of the peoples of what we used to call the “captive nations.” 

The Council’s summons to the Church to recover its missionary essence, and the Council’s disentanglement of the Church from state power (and thus from colonialism), were essential in laying the foundations for the tremendous growth of the Church in sub-Saharan Africa. 

If, as you say, it took a century for the Church to fully live the teachings of the Council of Trent, do we need more time to properly absorb the teachings of the Second Vatican Council? What gives you hope? 

The living parts of the world Church today are those that have embraced John Paul II’s and Benedict XVI’s authoritative interpretation of the Council as a summons to evangelize in the fullness of Catholic faith. That’s the empirical fact. And the parallel fact is that the dying parts of the world Church are those that continue to try to make the chimera of Catholic Lite work — which it doesn’t, anywhere. 

If the 2023 Synod doesn’t begin from those two empirical facts, it will not be true to the authentic spirit and teaching of Vatican II.

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