The Second Vatican Council -- The first in a Three Part Series

By John Houk

Forty years ago in December the final document of the Second Vatican Council was published concluding the two-year process of publication. The whole Council was, and remains, unprecedented in its scope and tone with the final document having its own unique history.

The agenda for the Council was established prior to its first session. The documents to be developed were laid before the world’s bishops to discuss and refine. This is the way of things in large organizations that flow from the top down. But the tone of this Council set up a new counter dynamic. This dynamic spoke to the action of the Spirit at all levels of the Church, and there is no better example of this new dynamic than the final document called, “Gaudium et Spes” (joy and hope) with its full title, “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”. This document was not on the official top down agenda, but instead rose from within the gathering of bishops who essentially said, “We need this,” and indeed we did, and do.

The fortieth anniversary of Vatican II has prompted an interesting proliferation of articles and series of articles on the Council from a wide spectrum of sources within the Church. “Our Sunday Visitor”, known for its conservative/traditional editorial policy produced a lengthy series. Maryknoll Magazine, a publication focused on social issues, and often liberal in their views also published a series on the Council. These sometimes seemingly incompatible publications both found parts of the Council documents to be supportive. Perhaps this says something about the wisdom of the drafters of these documents that a wide spectrum of Catholics can find their roots there.

There are a total of sixteen documents, four constitutions (the documents that carry the most weight in the Church’s hierarchy of documents) and twelve Decrees and Declarations. The documents of the Second Vatican Council are easily accessible on the Vatican web site. You can read or print the documents (Titles are listed in Latin); select the document you want; click on the language desired.

Gaudium et Spes is a Constitution, the weightiest class of document. For any Catholic who intends to live a “reflective” faith this document, which grew from the bottom up is essential reading. It tells us why there is need for dialogue between Church and world. The critical word here is dialogue—not monologue. The Church speaks and listens. The opening statement, the front and center statement, of the document is: “Solidarity of the Church with the whole human family”. It is no longer o.k. to characterize the relationship between Church and world as us against them. We are in “solidarity”. We share the joys and hopes of all humankind.

The underpinning theology of this document is the dignity of the human person and our natural life in community with one another. This document is one of the Council’s great contributions to the human pilgrimage. Catholics need to know what it says. Give yourself about an hour.