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Why Vatican II Still Gets "No Respect" More Than 50 Years On

The other day, I met a Catholic school principal who told me her school is a “Vatican II school.” I asked her what makes it so and—no joke—she showed me some balloons and banners.

“No respect,” Rodney Dangerfield might have said as he worried his tie, “no respect.” These words come to mind as I think about the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Not only has the council been blamed for much of the apostasy in today’s Church, but it has been remarkably misunderstood. Now, this is true for many councils: they’re only appreciated in the long run and, in “Church time,” the Second Vatican Council would still be considered a recent event. Still, it may be time to reclaim the council and its intentions, and give it some respect, starting in the schools.

A level of uncertainty about the council is understandable. Highly intelligent people were confused about what was going on. Yves Congar wrote in his journal: “Toward the end of 1964, the French minister of education, Christian Fouchet, said to Bishop Elchinger of Strasbourg, ‘You are doing a bad job at the Council. You are calling everything into question. What was true yesterday is no longer true today.’”

That was not quite the case. What was expressed in the council was the need to go back to the sources and let the sources of the tradition nourish a renewed expression of the faith today. While the council has been rightly described as an “ecclesiological council,” I agree with Catholic theologian and man of the council Fr. Robert Imbelli that it is right to see its teaching as Christologically saturated. Both support each other, though. Imbelli writes: “The deepest ressourcement the council engaged in was a re-Sourcement: a return to the unique Source who is Jesus Christ.” Was that effectively communicated? No. Thanks to the soundbite-sized analysis in the secular press and opportunistic commentators both inside and outside the Church, the meaning of the actual council within the texts was not received in many dioceses, especially within Catholic schools. Many of the religious orders running the schools saw the council as a rupture from the Tradition instead of in continuity with it. Others, especially liturgists, saw it as an opportunity to update and modernize with abandon. This has had dire consequences, especially in implementing the renewal within the Church that Pope St. John XXIII had sought.

As an educator, it is my opinion that the biggest problem plaguing religious education programs in Catholic parishes and schools is inadequate Christology. But the good news is that many theologians in recent years have recognized this and have given us good handbooks in Christology as a guide.

Rowan Williams writes, “There is nothing more fundamental in Christian theology than clarifying what we say and believe about Jesus Christ.” The council fathers understood this. They wanted us to think about all reality in the light of Christ (see Gaudium et Spes, 22). However, the implicit Christology that was often taught in graduate theology schools and then presented in parishes and schools by educators who did not spend much time learning the foundations of theology was rather one-sided (sometimes separating the man Jesus from the divine Word) or borderline heretical. As Aaron Riches, author of the excellent Christology book Ecce Homo: On the Divine Unity of Christ, points out in an interview, graduate schools that offer an MDiv and an MTS often have courses with the titles “Christ and . . .”—assuming an adequate Christology is in place—without having a foundational Christology course. Part of the reason for this lack was the Land O’ Lakes Statement (1967) that declared institutional autonomy and academic “freedom” (or secularization) from the Church within many Catholic educational institutions. Theology departments turned away from a robust orthodox Christology and to issues of secondary importance like politics, economics, and the natural sciences.

Given that many theology programs have not included a robust and challenging offering in Christology, many future catechists had no idea that they should teach it, or even how to do so in an orthodox way. For many, orthodox Christology seemed as unfamiliar as quantum mechanics, so it was left alone. What did it have to do with praxis? Everything, actually. All things, especially the human being, come to light in the light of Christ. Thanks to the visions of the post-Vatican II popes, there has been a greater stress on orthodox Christology.

Here’s what I think would help: Catholic schools and parishes need to make sure their students (and catechumens) know the basics of the faith, and then are exposed to the Christology that anchors everything. Department chairs need to consider if the New Testament or Church history classes are adequately presenting foundational Christology. Otherwise, they might need to have a Christology class unto itself. I have found that many Scripture and Church history classes do not focus on the centrality of Christ’s identity.

There are many great resources available to start studying Christology. Fr. Roch Kerestzy’s Jesus Christ: Fundamentals of Christology is an excellent place to begin. And while it is not a systematic overview of the history of Christology, Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth books are another gift. Not only are they informative, but they offer a sincere search for the face of the Lord.

Every student of the faith is meant to seek his face, and teachers need to be prepared to fulfill the mandate of Vatican II and represent the Source in all his splendor. Though the arcane language used within Christology might initially come off as unintelligible, it must be allowed to sink in, and over time, as students seek to understand terms such as “the hypostatic union,” the light of Christ will become more perceptible. The motto “faith seeking understanding” should be the guide as we illumine all domains of theology with the light of Christ who is the Word, the light of the nations.

Often, the council does not get the respect it deserves. The council had the immensely difficult task of representing Christ-in-full in a forgetful world, generally ill-equipped to make sense of the faith of the Church. The best the Church can do is to make sure it has teachers who know the basics of orthodox Christology and Vatican II’s Christocentric vision. Because respect comes with understanding.


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