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Catholic Review of: Vatican II

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Author:  Alan Schreck, PH. D.

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This item received 5 stars overall. (10/14/2009)

Orthodoxy: Completely orthodox.
Reading Level: Intermediate

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Vatican II Placed Back in Continuity with Tradition

Evaluator Comments

 I can’t count the number of times I have heard the expressions "pre-Vatican II" and "post-Vatican II" used to describe someone’s particular allegiance as a Catholic. These labels clearly presume opposition—or at least a deep division— within the Church today.

To the great suffering of the faithful, extremists on the left and on the right have done such a thorough job of distorting and misrepresenting the teaching of the Second Vatican Council that many see the council as a revolution that gave birth to a new Church, even a new religion. While some deny the validity of the council and call its teachings heretical, others believe that Vatican II was only a "pastoral council," insisting that Catholics are bound by none of its teachings. Still others have taken advantage of the confusion to promote a "spirit" of Vatican II that stands in opposition to the "letter" of its documents.

In Vatican II: The Crisis and the Promise, Alan Schreck provides the antidote to the poison that he calls the "crisis" of Vatican II. The crisis, he explains, is the fact that all the controversies and misrepresentations surrounding Vatican II have led many to believe that Vatican II went terribly wrong. Schreck argues that this has created tremendous difficulty in rallying the faithful to believe, study, and live out the teachings of the council. This crisis has also resulted in declining vocations and Mass attendance, as well as a general "loss of faith."

After identifying the crisis, Schreck introduces readers to some of the sharpest critics of the council—those who identify themselves as traditionalists, as well as those self-described "progressives" who have distorted the teachings of the council under a false "spirit of Vatican II." He shows that many of their assertions, and indeed any rejection of the council itself, cannot be grounded in an authentic understanding of the Catholic faith.

Drawing on such things as Pope John XXIII’s opening speech to the council fathers and the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops of 1985 as authoritative guidance in understanding the council, Schreck dispenses with the myths and explains the teachings of the council according to the Church’s magisterium—the only interpreter with any authority. For example, as evidence that the council did not intend to rewrite Church doctrine, Bl. Pope John told the council fathers, "The greatest concern of the [Second Vatican] Ecumenical Council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously" (emphasis added).

Schreck further explains some of the principles for interpreting the documents as laid down by the Extraordinary Synod: "No opposition may be made between the spirit and letter of Vatican II; the Council must be interpreted in continuity with the great tradition of the Church, including earlier councils; the four constitutions (on liturgy, the Church, Revelation, and the Church in the modern world) are the interpretive key to the other documents"; and "the pastoral import of the documents ought not to be separated from, or set in opposition to, their doctrinal content."

Reflecting his optimism about the council, Schreck devotes three chapters to the "crisis" and the remaining 11 chapters to the "promise," examining and expounding the conciliar teachings on Scripture, worship, the Church, the laity, Christian unity, and the challenge to bishops, priests, and religious. He devotes three chapters specifically to the conciliar teaching about the role of the People of God in the modern world. In each case, Schreck provides excerpts from council documents and gives examples of practical ways in which these teachings can be applied. He does an excellent job of placing the council documents in the context of tradition and simultaneously explaining what is new about the council and why.

One of the great strengths of this work is the way in which Schreck effectively deals with some of the nuanced and tension-filled teachings of the council. For example, The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) reaffirmed the Church’s traditional teaching of extra ecclesium nulla salus ("outside the Church there is no salvation") while also recognizing that the "Church" extends beyond her physical boundaries to reach those who, "through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience" (LG, no. 16).

Schreck also provides citations to post-conciliar documents to show the continuity of Catholic teaching, properly noting that conciliar teaching should be read together with what preceded it and what followed it. Vatican II was about adaptation, not innovation. The council fathers frequently appealed to a more broadly understood past and a "return to the sources" (i.e., Scripture and tradition in the early Church). The Church’s liturgical renewal, for example, recognizes that the Church’s liturgical tradition began prior to the Council of Trent.

Like Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Schreck sees the authentic implementation of Vatican II as the key to renewal and the solution to the crisis in the Church today. Vatican II: The Crisis and the Promise is a well-written, easy-to-read, and long-overdue introduction to and explanation of the Second Vatican Council, its teachings, and its aftermath. This is an excellent resource for personal study as well as formal catechetical programs.

- Pete Balbirnie  (from Lay Witness magazine.

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