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Theological shifts with Second Vatican Council

Sister Alexa Suelzer

Sister Alexa Suelzer

If earlier ecumenical councils provide a pattern, criticism of the Second Vatican Council will continue for generations to come. Differing in length, style, theological significance and rhetorical polish, the documents are a rich menu for aggiornamento (bringing up to date) and for future theological concerns. Four documents are basic to the conciliar deliberations: Revelation, Liturgy, the Church, and the Church in the Modern World. Many of the other decrees reflect or develop similar concepts.

To appreciate the documents, it is essential to consider an earlier work making possible much of Vatican Council II, namely, the 1943 encyclical of Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu. Why is this so memorable a publication? The church in the 19th century reacted strongly to trends of enlightenment rationalism and mounted a strong defense against the so-called “higher criticism,” which abolished the aspect of faith in Scripture. Stern warnings were issued, chiefly to professors in seminaries, forbidding the publication of works employing the new methods and placing heavy strictures on their teaching. Practically speaking, Catholic biblical studies were dormant for almost a century.

Sister Alexa in the 1960s

Sister Alexa in the 1960s

Then in 1943, 20 years before Vatican II, Pius XII not only approved but actually encouraged the utilization of the historical method in Biblical studies. Almost immediately Biblical renewal became the order of the day. Best of all, people were finding that the Bible — even the Old Testament — could touch their lives. The influence of Divino was apparent in the conduct of the Council as well as in its decrees. The medium — Biblical and patristic — became a great part of the message.

The decree on Liturgy was the first to be promulgated, with “full and active participation of the people the aim to be considered above all else.” The use of the vernacular and of a variety of Scripture readings helped emphasize the role of the paschal mystery and the priority of baptism.

The document on revelation, (Dei Verbum) does not use the term inerrant, but affirms that Scripture teaches without error the truth “which God would put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation.” Further, it spells out the relation between Scripture and tradition, moving away from the long-held concept of dual sources of religious faith. The magisterium is simultaneously the servant of the word and its interpreter.

Prolonged debate resulted in two documents on the church. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, presents the nature and structure of the church: what the church IS. The acknowledgement of the laity as the People of God is placed before the chapter on the hierarchy.

The second document, Gaudium et Spes, deals with the mission of the church: what the church DOES. It is an invitation to adult faith, recognition that we travel the same journey as all humanity and share the lot of human society. Respectful of the world and its contributions, the Council Fathers recognize the presence of truth in areas other than the church and urge an interpretation of the “signs of the times” in the light of the Gospel.

Vatican II has not answered all questions, but it has provided an agenda for future theological development. For example, the Council provides no structure about how the recommended collegiality is to be practiced, or what is meant precisely by saying that the Church of Christ “subsists” in the Catholic Church.

The Spirit remains ever with us!

(Originally published in the Winter 2013 issue of HOPE magazine.)

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Sister Alexa Suelzer

Sister Alexa Suelzer was a great scholar and theologian with a Ph.D. in Sacred Doctrine from the Catholic University of America in 1962, the same year that Vatican II opened. Sister Alexa’s ministry career included more than three decades as a college Scripture professor, time served in Congregation leadership and a stint as a vicar for religious in Oklahoma in the early 1980s. She passed away in June 2015. Read Sister Alexa’s Obituary here.

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