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Scholar Urges Catholics to Revisit Vatican II Documents
Beth Griffin
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Wednesday, March 21, 2012
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The presidents of the Second Vatican Council are gathered inside St. Peter's Basilica in this file photo.
GARRISON, N.Y. (CNS)—The 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council is an opportunity to revisit the clear teaching of its documents and reject distortions and false interpretations that have gained traction in the Catholic Church, according to a council scholar.

Alan Schreck, professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, spoke at the Graymoor Spiritual Life Center in Garrison March 13 on "Vatican II: World Church or Church of the Little Flock?"

Vatican II is still a sure compass for the church today, Schreck said, and each pope since the council reaffirmed its teachings as "God's teachings in our time." Nonetheless, he said, there has been tumult as the postconciliar church sought to understand what the council meant and how to implement it.

Schreck said extreme responses vary from those who thought the council did not go far enough to create a democratic church to those who thought it wrought too many changes and opened the door to secularism and modernist heresy.

"The documents of Vatican II are among the great unread documents of our time," said Schreck, a theologian, author and scholar of the council. "People are not sure what it said. A lot of things that are blamed on Vatican II are not in the documents."

Vatican II consisted of four sessions, each approximately three months long, in the years 1962-65.

Although the Catholic Church was clearly present worldwide long before Vatican II, Schreck said the council promoted a concept of "world church," which he described as a mentality that redefined ecumenism. "Rather than expect all Christians to simply return to the Catholic Church, there's more of an attitude of reconciliation and reunion, where the Catholic Church joins with other Christians seeking that unity for which Christ prayed," he said.

"In the relationship of the church to other religions, there is a focus on what we have in common and what causes we can promote to overcome the obstacles that divide us," he added. "World church teaches respect for other paths to God."

Schreck said some people misinterpreted the new understanding of ecumenism as a rebuke to evangelization. "None of the documents of Vatican II put limits on whom we preach the Gospel to. Our Gospel is for all people," he said.

Schreck said distortions of the council teaching dismissed anything European or Western as being intrinsically paternalistic, colonial or oppressive. He said this is akin to a teen rebelling against a white, middle-class upbringing because that is what the teen knows. "Being open to all includes respecting one's own history and cultural heritage," he said.

One significant misinterpretation of the documents held that non-Christians would win salvation solely through the goodness and truth of their religions and not through Jesus Christ, Schreck said. "People asked, 'If non-Christians can be saved, why preach the Gospel?' It's little wonder that Catholics rejected this false universalism," he said.

"In the name of being a world church, people began to see things in the documents that were not there," he said. The magisterium of the church responded by "underscoring that Jesus is the savior of the world," Schreck said.

This does not exclude non-Christians and nonbelievers from salvation, he added, but affirms that Jesus is the source of saving grace. "If they are saved, it's by the grace of Christ, even if they do not know him."

"The concept of world church as portrayed by the Second Vatican council is a church that is truly Catholic, truly universal, reaching out to include all people through the proclamation of the Gospel, willing to adapt the practice of the faith to other cultures besides Western ones, respecting all people, defending human life and dignity, even those who do not yet believe in Christ or who consider themselves enemies of the church and Christ," Schreck said.

He said the rights and dignity of all people were articulated in the council documents. These were reflected in the growing voice of non-European bishops within the church and the option of celebrating liturgy in the vernacular, with music that reflects the richness of individual cultures. They also were included in the council's focus on the church's mission to care for the poor and afflicted, as Jesus did. Schreck said it is a false interpretation to think the church is called only to fight injustice.

In contrast to the world church, Schreck said Vatican II documents also include an image of the people of God as a little flock who may appear as a small, illegal, persecuted minority. "With the rise of secularism and irreligion, the Catholic Church may appear as a small flock, yet it is most surely a seed of hope and salvation for the whole human race," he said.

He said the Catholic Church might correctly be seen as out of step with the modern world as it seeks to be faithful to its charism. "To follow Vatican II faithfully is to experience what it means to be a minority, the church of the little flock," Schreck said. "It would be an easy mistake for Catholics to retreat and withdraw, but that is not in keeping with Vatican II's call for engagement with the culture."

"We can't afford to sit in our shell and lament the new paganism," he said. "We must evangelize and win new Christians."

Schreck said contemporary Catholics can access the teachings of Vatican II by discussing the council documents in study groups with reliable guides or by concentrating on the Catechism of the Catholic Church. "If you read the whole catechism, you have Vatican II." he said.

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