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The English Editions of the Documents of Vatican II

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 10, 2010

The Second Vatican Council took place well before the era in which the Vatican Press began to issue translations of Church documents in all major languages. For this reason, the publication of the Council documents in various languages depended on independent projects undertaken by publishers in the various countries around the world. I am indebted to David A. Peterman, Ph.D for information leading to a more complete enumeration of the English editions than I provided in the first version of this blog entry.

Although various scholars translated one document or another, the first comprehensive English translation of the documents was prepared by the National Catholic Welfare Conference. These translations were published individually, and later as a group under the editorship of Rev. J. L. Gonzalez, by the Daughters of St. Paul, which in those days made a considerable point of providing English translations of many Church documents to the general public. The full Gonzalez edition was published as The Sixteen Documents of Vatican II and the Instruction on the Liturgy in 1967, which actually made it the second full set to become widely available. Later in 1999, the Daughters' Pauline Books and Media published an edition entitled <em>The Sixteen Documents of Vatican II with Introduction</em> by Douglas G. Bushman, which included outlines. These translations are long since out of print. Though it was once used in at least one college course, the relatively recent Bushman edition will no longer even show up used on Amazon.

The two most well-known English editions of the Documents of Vatican II were put together by Walter M. Abbott, SJ and Austin P. Flannery, OP. The first—which I read as soon as it was published immediately following the Council in 1966—was prepared under the general editorship of Fr. Abbott. It contains an extensive introductory note by the translation editor, Msgr. Joseph Gallagher, which acknowledges a debt to the NCWC translations. Though now also out of print, this was the most widely circulated editon of the conciliar documents in English for many years. The introduction to the volume was written by Lawrence Cardinal Shehan, Archbishop of Baltimore, but it also includes a brief introductory essay by Bishop Reuben H. Mueller, President of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, entitled “An Adventure in Ecumenical Cooperation”. Each document is prefaced and followed by comments from one scholar or another—priest or lay, Catholic or non-Catholic—except that the majority of the introductions are by Jesuits. The documents were presented in a kind of logical order, beginning with the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, and ending with the Declaration on Religious Freedom. The edition was published by the Jesuit-run America Press.

A second English translation was published nine years later, in 1975, under the direction of Austin P. Flannery, OP. Happily, it is still widely available new in an inexpensive paperback. The edition was issued mainly to take into account various follow-up documents which had been issued in the intervening years to clarify or provide further implementation of the various conciliar texts, and the most important of these are included in the volume. In 1982, a second volume (Vatican II: More Postconciliar Documents) was issued, making the two-volume edition the best way to follow the official documentary continuation of the Council's work. In preparing the fresh translation for this edition, Fr. Flannery was able to compare the new translation with both the French and Italian editions, and the Abbot edition, which were already in use. The Flannery edition presents the Council documents in chronological order, based on the date of issue at the Council itself; it omits the papal addresses which opened and closed the Council’s individual sessions and the Council as a whole. It was published by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Interestingly, while the Abbott volume deliberately cultivates an ecumenical and even progressive tone, the Flannery volume suggests just the opposite. The Preface was by the conservative John Cardinal Wright. Clearly this edition was designed to indicate how Rome understood the Council documents as evidenced by her subsequent decrees. Indeed, in explaining his decision to include the follow-up documents issued by the Holy See, Fr. Flannery notes:

One knows, of course, that there are many, perhaps very many priests, religious and lay people who, since the controversies of the sixties, are unlikely to lose any sleep over the location of a Roman document—any Roman document! In fact they may find the mere mention of a Roman document a soporific. For some of them, the phrase, “Roma locuta, causa finita: Rome has spoken, the case is finished,” may have taken on a new and cynical meaning, best rendered perhaps by “Rome has spoken, that’s one more subject buried.” That is a pity, and they are themselves the poorer.

Thus the battle with theological dissidence within the post-conciliar Church was already well joined by the mid 1970’s.

Had it not been for a kind note from Dr. Peterman, I would have continued to think the state of the editions of Vatican II has remained unchanged since that time, but not so. In 1990, Norman P. Tanner put together an immense two-volume work of some 2,500 pages entitled Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, which includes the official documents of every ecumenical council from Nicaea through Vatican II. It appears to have been published both by Sheed & Ward and Georgetown University Press, and new copies of the two-volume set are still available, though they cost over $150. This edition is particularly valuable in that the Latin and the English texts appear on facing pages and the translation is reportedly the best of the bunch. Clearly this should be the first choice for a scholarly study of the texts, despite Tanner's decision to employ inclusive language.

At some point in the past ten years, the Vatican added the documents of Vatican II in multiple languages, including English, to its web site (www.vatican.va). A quick check of these texts suggests that they may have been modified slightly from whichever of the pre-existing translations the Vatican thought best. Whatever the case, the texts supplied in the CatholicCulture.org library are the same as those on the Vatican web site. In the commentaries which follow, all quotations will be taken from these digital texts.


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  • Posted by: GymK - Feb. 09, 2010 5:08 PM ET USA

    Jeff. Thanks for that detailed clarification and explanation. It is time for all of us to re-visit the documents of Vat II in union with our Holy Father, BXVI. I was unaware of the amended documents on the Vatican website. Having confidence in the translation that you are referencing will greatly enhance my enjoyment of the articles. Thank you for all of the truly orthodox articles and resources that you and Philip Lawler provide to us via Catholic Culture.

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