George Weigel is a distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of the just-released To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II. He spoke with City Journal associate editor Daniel Kennelly about the meaning, legacy, and controversies of the council, which opened 60 years ago this month.
What was the Second Vatican Council, in particular, and, more broadly, what role do ecumenical councils play in the Catholic Church?
There have been 21 ecumenical councils as the Catholic Church counts these things. Each was an attempt to resolve a question of critical importance either to the Church’s self-understanding or the Church’s mission—or both. Vatican II was the Catholic Church’s effort to get to grips with the modern world in order to convert the modern world to Christ.
Why was Vatican II necessary, and what did it accomplish?
The Council was necessary in order for the Church to develop a fresh and compelling approach to its mission of evangelization. By teaching that Jesus Christ reveals the full and noble truth about our humanity as well as the truth about God, and by teaching that the Church offers the world a template for genuine human community, the Council addressed the two gravest issues confronting late modernity: What is the human person, and what is authentic human solidarity?
What are the common misconceptions—both inside and outside the Church—about the Council?
The most common misperception about the Council is that it was summoned to reinvent the Catholic Church. That is not what such councils do; Christ “invented” the Church, by giving it a body of enduring truths and a structure, and the Church has no authority to change that. If you read John XXIII’s opening address to Vatican II, he intended that the Council should “Christify” the world, not reinvent the Church—though he understood that the Church had to craft its proposal to the world so that an irreligious, disenchanted modernity could actually hear what was being proposed.
Why, 60 years after the opening of the Vatican II, is its legacy and meaning still such a matter of contention?
It’s a matter of contention because radical traditionalists, who fantasize about an impregnable pre-conciliar Church, do not grasp the necessity of a rekindled, Christ-centered Catholicism offering the world the truth about the human person and human community. It’s a matter of contention because Catholic progressives think that the Council was meant to turn Catholicism into a variant of liberal Protestantism. The good news is that the thriving parts of the world Church are those that have understood Vatican II’s call to evangelize and sanctify the world and are getting on with that noble task.
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