Forgotten Teachings of the Council (Part II)

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

In the previous issue of The Rhode Island Catholic I began a description of what I believe are some of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council that have been “forgotten, abandoned or undervalued” in the implementation and application of the Council.

The issues we’ve already mentioned include: The Hierarchical Nature of the Church; the Magisterium, the Teaching Authority of the Church; and the Primacy of the Catholic Church. Let’s continue our study.

The Special Nature of the Ministerial Priesthood – In the Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests (Presbyterorum Ordinis), as well as in other places, the Council taught that “all the faithful are made a holy and kingly priesthood, they offer spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus Christ … There is no such thing as a member who does not have a share in the mission of the whole body.” (#2)

The Council also taught, however, that the ordained ministerial priesthood has a particular place and irreplaceable service in the Church. “The Lord also appointed certain men as ministers, in order that they might be united in one body in which ‘all the members have not the same function’ (Rom 12:4). These men held in the community of the faithful the sacred power of order, that of offering sacrifice and forgiving sins, and exercised the priestly office publicly on behalf of men and women in the name of Christ” (#2) The document also points out that because “a common interest exists between the pilot of the ship and the passengers” it is the duty of the entire Christian people to promote vocations to the priesthood, “to ensure that the Church will always have those priests who are needed for the fulfillment of its divine mission.” (#11) The lesson here, then, is that all members of the Church should be able to esteem and promote the ministerial priesthood without ever feeling threatened or diminished in their own vocation and mission in the Church.

The Pro-Creative Purpose of the Sacrament of Matrimony – In the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), the Council beautifully affirmed the special dignity and importance of the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. (#47-52) The Council taught that, “The intimate partnership of life and the love which constitutes the married state has been established by the creator and endowed by him with its own proper laws.” (#48)

Nevertheless, never did the Council minimize the pro-creative aspects of matrimony. For example, we read: “By its very nature the institution of marriage and married love are ordered to the procreation and education of the offspring and it is in them that it finds its crowning glory.” (#48) And again, “Married couples should see it as their mission to transmit human life and to educate their children; they should realize that they are thereby cooperating with the love of God the Creator and are, in a certain sense, its interpreters.” (#50)

Furthermore, the Council entrusted women and men with the “noble mission of safeguarding life” and specifically prohibited artificial means of regulating birth: “In questions of birth regulation the daughters and sons of the church, faithful to these principles, are forbidden to use methods disapproved by the teaching authority of the church in its interpretation of divine law.” (51) This unequivocal teaching of the Second Vatican Council would often be overlooked in the fierce debate that surrounded the promulgation of Humanae Vitae in 1968, just a few years after the Council.

The Regulation of the Sacred Liturgy – Perhaps the most visible undertaking of the Vatican Council was the renewal of the liturgy, a task that continues even today. In The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, (Sacrosanctum Concilium) the Council enunciated some essential principles that would motivate and inform this revision. The Council stated that, “No other action of the Church equals its effectiveness by the same title nor to the same degree.” (#7) And it also said that “It is very much the wish of the church that all the faithful should be led to take that full, conscious, and active part in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy.” (#14)

In implementing these liturgical reforms, however, some members of the Church ignored other equally important directives of the Council. In so doing they’ve caused serious harm to the liturgy and confusion among the faithful. For example, the Council insisted that, “Regulation of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the church, that is, on the apostolic see, and in accordance with law, on the bishop.” (#22) And further, “No other person whatsoever, not even a priest, may add, remove or change anything in the liturgy on their own authority.” (#22) I think it’s fair to say that the frequent abuse of liturgical directives after the Vatican Council, and sometimes still today, has irritated and frightened the faithful, prompting a backlash that challenges the unity of the Church and threatens ongoing efforts toward legitimate liturgical renewal.

Popular Devotions in the Church – In the fervor to renew the liturgy and purify it of unhealthy accretions, some members of the Church insisted that popular devotions, including devotion to our Blessed Mother, had to be set aside. A correct reading of the Council documents indicates otherwise. Again, we turn to the document on the Church, Lumen Gentium, to clarify this issue, beginning with devotion to Mary. The Council urged: “all the sons and daughters of the church to foster generously the cult, especially the liturgical cult, of the Blessed Virgin, and to hold in high regard the practices and exercises of devotion toward her recommended by the teaching authority of the Church.” (#67)

The Council encouraged other devotions in the Church as well. “The spiritual life, however, is not limited solely to participation in the liturgy … The Christian people’s devotions, provided they conform to the laws and norms of the church, are to be highly recommended.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, #12 and 13) It’s clear then, that the fathers of the Council recognized that the Catholic Church wouldn’t be complete without the popular devotions that add such warmth and richness to the practice of our faith.

As we conclude … I hope this survey of the forgotten teachings of the Council will be helpful. There are probably other teachings that could and should be added to the list. And as I indicated at the beginning, these lessons must be considered in their full context. That’s why a complete and objective reading of the Council documents is the only way to understand the greatness and lasting impact of the Council and to avoid the imposition of personal agendas, from any perspective.

In his Apostolic Letter, Novo Millennio Ineunte (At the beginning of the New Millennium), Pope John Paul wrote of the lasting significance of the Vatican Council and the incomparable beauty of its documents.

What a treasure there is, dear brothers and sisters, in the guidelines offered to us by the Second Vatican Council . . . With the passing of the years, the Council documents have lost nothing of their value or brilliance. They need to be read correctly, to be widely known and taken to heart as important and normative tests of the Magisterium. Now that the Jubilee has ended, I feel more than ever in duty bound to point to the Council as the great grace bestowed on the Church in the twentieth century. There we find a sure compass by which to take our bearings in the century now beginning (#57)

(This article was previously published in “The Catholic Exponent”)