At a recent discussion of Vatican II, a scholar pointed out one of the many ways the landmark event differed from prior Catholic Church councils: its flood of written words.
“Vatican II is extremely verbose” because of a literary style that departed from the more autocratic tone of past councils, said John O’Malley, S.J., University Professor of Theology at Georgetown University, during an April 22 lecture at Fordham College at Lincoln Center.
He appeared along with Christopher Bellitto, Ph.D., assistant professor of history at Kean University and academic editor at large for Paulist Press, for the 11th annual Russo Family Lecture, “A Pope’s Thunderbolt: The Call for a Church Council.”
It was 50 years ago in January that Pope John XXIII announced his plans to convene the general council, which lasted from 1962 to 1965. The time is ripe for exploring the impact of the council, Bellitto said, noting that 50th anniversaries of the council itself and each of its 16 documents are coming up.
“We are in a really critical moment in the life of the church. We’ve had now two generations to digest this,” he said.
He began with an overview of the first 20 councils and the sometimes contentious and difficult questions they dealt with, starting with the First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., which addressed a seemingly simple but ultimately difficult question: Who is Jesus?
“[If] you think it’s easy to say who Jesus is, I defy you right now to put into words the love you have for your husband, wife, mother, father, children,” Bellitto said. “You can’t. Because the second you start talking about it, you fail.”
O’Malley spoke of the many things that made Vatican II unique, such as its immense size, the inclusion of observers from other faiths, its open-ended agenda, and the media exposure that projected the council far beyond Rome, sparking debates around kitchen tables everywhere.
Another special feature was the council’s language, he said. Past councils, influenced by the procedure of Roman political institutions, had adopted a judicial form of writing, the canon, that spelled out which actions and statements were correct, and which ones would lead to excommunication or other sanctions, O’Malley said.
“This brought with it a vocabulary of punishment, exclusion, who’s in, who’s out, and sometimes, of downright enmity,” he said.
Instead, Vatican II adopted a more narrative literary form that seeks “to raise your sights, to propose ideals,” he said. He cited a speech by Barack Obama, on the night he was elected president, as “an example of this kind of rhetoric that tries to unite, touches on your deepest aspirations, and tries to inspire you.”
The resulting writings were voluminous. The documents of Vatican II account for about one-quarter of the official documents produced by all church councils, O’Malley said.
He said certain recurring words in the council’s final documents—such as collegiality, cooperation, progress, partnership—must be considered when interpreting the council. He said the new vocabulary reflected a shift in priorities—from commands to invitations, from monologue to dialogue, from laws to ideals, from threats to persuasion, from coercion to conscience, and from passive acceptance to active participation. He gave many other examples.
“This new vocabulary, and this new literary form, allows the call to holiness to emerge as a theme of the council,” O’Malley said. “So the council was really about spirituality. It sort of sets up the model of what the ideal Christian looks like, what the ideal church looks like, what the ideal churchman looks like, and how he behaves.”
“This change in style redefined what a council is, or it modified what a council is,” he said. “This council is something else. It’s a call to holiness.”
The lecture—part of an annual series—was made possible by the Russo Family Endowment, created by Dr. Robert D. Russo Sr., M.D. (FCRH ’39); his wife, Wanda B. Russo; their son, Dr. Robert D. Russo Jr., M.D. (FCRH ’69); and his wife, Kathleen Russo.