Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Toward a deeper understanding of Vatican II

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 12, 2019 | In Reviews

The other day I was reflecting that most of the Church’s teachings concern mysteries which we cannot fully understand all at once. This explains why different aspects of each truth can be emphasized at different times throughout history, and also why the Church herself grows in her ability to articulate the truth over time. With ongoing study and reflection—and with new situations to address—the Church’s understanding both deepens and expands.

The Church, as understood Magisterially, is now able to articulate the details of the Catholic Faith more thoroughly than even the apostles themselves. Her understanding becomes increasingly precise and comprehensive over time, without any internal contradiction. To take one “simple” example, the definition of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD—that Jesus Christ has two natures, human and divine, in one divine person—was both more comprehensive as a single statement and more precise than any previous teaching. It was also a great protection for the faithful when commenting selectively about Our Lord’s humanity and divinity in accordance with various specific spiritual purposes.

The mystery, of course, remains. Each aspect of the Faith, and each teaching of the Church about the content of the Faith, is a facet of a great prism which reveals the light of God. Development in understanding occurs partly because different questions become pressing to people in different controversies and different human cultures over time, so Divine Revelation is continuously being explored with new questions in mind, and from new perspectives. Our perception of the mystery is always partial, weighted, and to some extent obscure.

One interesting truth about this process is that, while “the Church” tends to keep all of her teachings in mind as she works things out in greater depth and precision, the various human cultures and individual persons generally do not keep everything in mind. For this reason, persons and cultures can sheer off on one tangent or another, emphasizing ideas that are true in one respect or another but are too quickly divorced from the whole picture. This results in distortions that are very hard to correct until teaching and preaching catch up to them, so that the intellectual culture in question can be corrected and re-centered on the whole truth.

Now, every time a pope or a council decides to make a fresh statement about some aspect of the Faith, we can easily imagine why this statement will be somewhat selective in what it emphasizes, in accordance with the progress of the Church’s overall reflection to date and the particular needs of the moment. Indeed, the members of the Church, and the citizens of the world as a whole, need always to be pressed into a greater awareness or acceptance of this or that aspect of the Divine mystery.

Adding the pastoral dimension

Nowhere is the potential greater, for particular individuals and even whole “cultures” to get off center, than in the area of pastoral work. It is one thing to teach the Faith with great thoroughness and accuracy; it is another to try to present it in ways that appeal to others, whether to draw outsiders into the Church or to cause Catholics to increase their understanding and amend their lives. Another way to express the same problem is to speak of the temptation to let people hear what they want to hear.

There is a very challenging balance to be maintained. We can see the challenge whenever we have a discussion of different aspects of Catholic faith and morals in a mixed group of people who do not think the same way about everything as we do. For example, one person in the group might emphasize to a non-believer that the Mass is a wonderful gathering in which we reflect on Scripture and share a kind of sacramental food which unites us as a family of love. Another person might chime in that we must also remember that Our Lord and Savior is really and truly present; the bread and wine become His Body and Blood so that it is now not we who live but Christ in us.

In response, the first speaker may say, “Absolutely, and this Divine Presence elevates what would otherwise be purely human”. Or he may say, “That’s true, but we can get into that later; I want those with us here to feel warm and welcome”; or he may give you a cold culture-bound stare and pretend you haven’t spoken, or even state categorically that “Catholics don’t really believe that anymore.”

You can see the challenge just in ordinary conversation; it increases exponentially when you consider the various “factions” within the Church, composed of both clergy and laity, who for whatever combination of reasons believe that the best way forward is to emphasize X, pay less attention to Y, or jettison Z; or to affirm the good in the surrounding culture to make points of contact; or to issue a starker challenge by condemning obvious errors. All of this, with the various pastoral interests involved, will be strongly conditioned not only by the differing perceptions of the mystery of Christ but by differing valuations of the most important needs of the culture (or cultures) in which the Church must operate.

Even with a certain measure of protection from the Holy Spirit, this creates a very difficult mix. In saying so, however, I do not mean to discourage anyone. Instead, I mean to welcome you…to the Second Vatican Council.

A new way to explore Vatican II

Now, we all know that what matters most about Vatican II is the final text of the documents which were actually promulgated—just as we know that, owing to the rapid secularization of the larger culture since the 1960s, many weak or secularized Catholics prefer to roll their own contemporary religion based on what they call the “spirit” of the Council. We also know that, as the Council was called primarily for the purpose of fostering an authentic renewal in the Church and in its relationship with those outside the Church, the Council documents themselves are a mixture of doctrinal exposition, disciplinary recommendations, and pastoral outreach.

But most of us do not know the history of the debates and drafts. We do not know which groups of curialists and assembled bishops wanted what results, nor what the sticking points were in the various prepared drafts of the conciliar texts, nor how the process of collaboration and compromise produced a series of documents which could ultimately be approved by overwhelming majority votes. One of the interesting things about Vatican II is that the popes (Sts. John XXIII and Paul VI) wanted widespread agreement, not slim majorities, behind this effort at authentic Catholic renewal. For this reason, the textual history of the developing documents is both fascinating and instructive.

All of this brings me to a brilliant study by the theologian Aidan Nichols, OP, in which he explores the issues at stake in the eight most important documents of the Council, the ways in which the various groups aligned to pursue their goals, the development of the drafts, the compromises and improvements that led to approval, and the incompletely settled issues which are still open to discussion and debate. The title is Conciliar Octet: A Concise Commentary on the Eight Key Texts of the Second Vatican Council. The eight texts chosen are those on the Liturgy, the dogmatic donstitution on the Church, the Eastern Catholic churches, ecumenism, the relationship of the Church to non-Christian religions, Divine Revelation, religious liberty, and the pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world.

I describe this book as brilliant not only because Nichols is a consummate theologian with an extraordinary command of the history of the Council but because of that precious word concise in the subtitle. Rarely does an author offer so much in so few words. In a mere 163 pages, followed by an excellent index, Nichols truly enables us to understand what went into the most important half of the Conciliar documents, and how they were ultimately shaped into their final form as promulgated by Pope St. Paul VI.


  • The Constitution on the Liturgy: The Council wanted to fully express the different ways in which Christ is present in the Liturgy, as well as to address both the use of Latin and the adaptation of the Liturgy for non-Europeans.
  • The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: A curial draft triggered a process in which the Council chose to emphasize the Church as not primarily a “society” but a “mystery”, while dealing with important undeveloped questions such as the role of the laity.
  • The Decree on the Eastern Catholic Churches: Here the main question revolved around the distinction between authentic churches and other religious bodies, which in turn engendered the concept of “ritual churches” to distinguish the various authentic ecclesiastical bodies which were or were not in union with the universal Church centered in Rome—all at a time when relations with both the Orthodox and the Eastern Catholics were often strained.
  • Decree on Ecumenism: Not only was there a question of whether Catholic ecumenism should take place in the context of existing ecumenical efforts among Protestants and Orthodox, but changes to the Curia contributed to different agendas (the Secretariat for Christian Unity had just been established in 1959). No fewer than three separate document drafts had to be studied and melded in ways that sought unity while maintaining Catholic principles and the identity of the one Church of Christ. A key question focused on the nature of “separated ecclesial communities” that are not really churches.
  • Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions: Here the primary concern was to say something about the Church’s relationship to Judaism that could overcome historic anti-Jewish prejudices which so often posed grave obstacles to the message of Christ. But in addition, there were other major religions which worshipped the one God to be considered. What, for example, of Islam?
  • Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation: The Council was faced with the fascinating question of the relationship between Scripture and Tradition. Is everything required for salvation in Scripture at least implicitly? Is it a matter of interpreting Scripture through the lens of Tradition? The Fathers also concerned themselves with the exact nature of Biblical inerrancy, which depends partly on the discernment of what the Holy Spirit wishes to convey in each book.
  • Declaration on Religious Liberty: Here the Council saw the futility, in the modern world, of insisting on freedom only for the Church, and the equal futility of the assumption that people could commit themselves to religious truth without at least some freedom to explore the questions related to it. A few key statements saved the document from minimizing the claims of truth under the pressure of what we might call fair play.
  • Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: Nowhere in the Council’s deliberations was the connection between style and substance put to such a supreme test. Nichols identifies seven key points at issue in the debates, and how they were resolved—not to mention the difficulties inherent in speaking about “human dignity” to an increasingly faithless world.


Too many Catholics who express strong opinions, good or bad, about the Second Vatican Council have never actually read the documents, let alone troubled to understand the issues the Church wanted to address effectively in the mid-twentieth century. To make up for this lack, I have tried to provide an overview of conciliar teaching, disciplinary change, and pastoral emphasis in my own series of commentaries on the documents, which makes available as a free ebook containing thirty-four separate articles in sequence: The Documents of Vatican II: A Summary and Guide.

But every Catholic who has struggled to understand the nature and the importance of the Council owes an enormous debt to Aidan Nichols for his book Conciliar Octet, published in August by Ignatius Press. In my estimation, it is one of the best books in its class, clarifying many of the human questions surrounding the Council and certainly increasing my respect for the Council’s achievement. The Council addressed important Catholic issues in ways which should have enabled the whole Church to grow in faith and commitment—without in the least justifying the widespread errors which followed.

Here we have a Council devoted to Catholic renewal, but perhaps just a little too late for an immediately effective course correction. The Church as it operated beyond the Council sessions was, apparently, already too far lost in the culture of Western modernity. Because of constant deviations from the letter of the Council, the documents themselves have also been obscured in the smoke of battle. Sadly, it has been an uphill battle just to get back to a point at which Catholics can read the documents with an understanding of the good they contain. Conciliar Octet generates light instead of heat. The result is a better grasp of the mystery and mission of Christ for the Church as a whole.

Aidan Nichols, OP: Conciliar Octet: A Concise Commentary on the Eight Key Texts of the Second Vatican Council (Ignatius Press: 2019) 180 pp.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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