The Unfolding and Unsettling of Vatican II

George Weigel’s book on the meaning and legacy of Vatican II is persuasive as a history of ideas, but in focusing on context and content it seems to miss the sense in which the Council is an unfolding event that calls Catholics to encounter Christ and walk away changed and challenged.

As the rector of a men’s residence hall at the University of Notre Dame, I often find myself chatting with students about matters of the faith. It turns out that dropping references to Vatican II tends not to resonate with them. But since this year marks the sixtieth anniversary of the opening of the Council, some of us older folks are finding the occasion to reflect on its meaning and vitality. While even sixty years might not be sufficient to judge an event as complicated as an ecumenical council in the life of the Church.

Ross Douthat has already declared Vatican II a failure: “It was supposed to make the church more dynamic, more attractive to modern people, more evangelistic, less closed off and stale and self-referential. It did none of these things.” With his new book, To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II, George Weigel offers a more optimistic assessment of the meaning and import of the Council. Was it a failure or does it have a vital legacy? If the latter, has Weigel captured it?

For some years, Weigel has been speaking of Vatican II as “The Council without Keys,” which is the title of a chapter in the book, as it was in his 2019 book The Irony of Modern Catholic History. He credits Archbishop Gus Di Noia, Adjunct Secretary of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, with giving him the idea in the late 1990s. If the Council didn’t announce its meaning clearly by issuing a creed or a set of anathemas, he argues, then it remains for us to identify keys to interpreting its sixteen documents. For Weigel, those keys were provided by the pontificates of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who were both present at the Council and consciously set about to implement and explain it. The reader might notice the omission of Pope Francis, who appears briefly in the introduction, where Weigel notes that questions that were “settled” by Francis’s predecessors are now being “relitigated.” Weigel’s book is an effort to shore up the judgment of history on the side of the two previous popes.

Weigel sees himself as charting a middle course in a postconciliar debate whose terms will be familiar to many. On one extreme, ultra-traditionalists view the Council as having tossed aside essential elements of faith and worship in an effort to embrace modern ways. On the other, more progressive voices see a new era of discovery and change as having begun in the Council and leading to places the Council Fathers may not have imagined. Both of these visions have in common a sense of the Council as a “rupture” in the life of the Church, whereas John Paul II and Benedict XVI were at pains to suggest that it had to be understood as being in continuity with tradition.

Weigel’s method is to outline the conditions that prompted Pope St. John XXIII to convene a new ecumenical council, including the upheaval of modern thought since the nineteenth century, the looming threats of secularism and relativism identified by St. John Henry Newman and embodied in the atheistic philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, and the existential crisis for the West precipitated by two world wars (what he terms the “New Thirty Years War”). Though such a rapid survey of so much terrain might get some contours mistaken, Weigel’s gift for deft synthesis of complicated ideas means that overall he tells a responsible story that offers lively and empathetic portraits of the thinkers involved.



Having laid out what he sees as the historical context for the “updating” (aggiornamento) called for by John XXIII, Weigel undertakes a similar journey through the major documents of the Council. He offers interesting interpretations rooted especially in his careful study of the work of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, both when they were present at the Council as bishop and peritus, respectively, and in their papal ministry. In particular, his reading of Sacrosanctum Concilium succinctly and deftly contextualizes (without attempting to settle) contemporary debates over the liturgy. His brief treatment of the complicated politics affecting the development of Nostra Aetate is similarly nuanced. Here again, Weigel’s gift for synthesis and lively presentation of these documents will make this book a very fine introduction to the Council for many readers.

At the same time, others may find that he arrives at his conclusions a little too neatly and swiftly. His discussion of Dignitatis Humanae, for instance, nicely emphasizes the document’s commitment to the freedom of the Church and the distinctiveness of its evangelical mission from the work of secular governance. I’m sympathetic to his argument that the Council’s emphasis on libertas ecclesiae was not a call for establishment, but integralists, for example, who also draw on papal and council documents to defend their position, will probably find it unsatisfying, not least for failing to dive into the details. He writes: “Twenty-first-century efforts to anchor a new Catholic integralism in the teaching of Vatican II or the teaching of Pius XI which the council developed are thus misconceived theologically as well as incapable of application.” I’m not sure many will feel convinced. Some may be perplexed because they are not familiar with the current debate and Weigel’s text doesn’t go very far in explicating it for the newcomer, while others, being familiar, may find it a bit rushed and perhaps tendentious.

The book’s concluding chapters offer as keys to interpreting The Council without Keys the teachings of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and especially the Catechism of the Catholic Church (“The Master Key”). The strong implication is that the Council had ushered in some chaos and uncertainty that two conclaves, one electing John Paul II and the other Benedict XVI, resolved to settle by giving us definitive interpreters of the Council as Bishops of Rome. For Weigel, the overarching theme is that Vatican II updated the Church’s ancient heritage by inviting renewed attention to the encounter with Jesus Christ as the center of the Church’s mission. He reads Dei Verbum, the Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, not so much as remarkable in adopting many of the insights of modern biblical scholarship but in boldly proclaiming the reality of revelation to an increasingly secular world.

Whereas the Council is often viewed as a bridge between the anti-modernism of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Catholicism and a more accommodating approach, Weigel wants us to see it as continuous with skepticism about modern trends of thought and as an effort to strike a blow against the rising tide of secularism. It seems to me that the major texts of the Council are capacious enough to do more than one thing, and the less one chooses to see them through the lens of current debates the more one might simply take what is valuable from a multiplicity of interpreters and keys. Dei Verbum is bold in proclaiming God’s intervention and self-revelation in history, and it was also bold in refining our understanding of the scriptures’ authors as human (work that began of course with Pius XII’s encyclical  Divino Afflante Spiritu in 1943). These aspects of the text are not in conflict with each other and we can benefit from seeing Vatican II in the light of Weigel’s emphases without having to choose between them.



Weigel frequently emphasizes that the proclamation of Jesus Christ is the central focus of the Council’s teachings—and surely that’s true, nearly a truism. But for all that, and for the many wonderful ways in which the book lays out the context and content of the Council, I often found myself wondering “but where is Jesus?” Though I have spent most of my priesthood devoted to university work in one form or another, I felt uneasy with the implication that the history of the Church is a history of ideas. Crucially, Weigel seems to miss the Council’s focus on the Church as emerging from and for the People of God, and presenting the person of Jesus. As a preacher, teacher, and rector, I have learned the importance of giving expression to those ideas so that I can live a gospel of mercy and share the good news of self-emptying love. The Council’s connection to that form of witness felt a bit lacking in Weigel’s narrative, which is persuasive in many ways as a history of ideas (if not as comprehensive as it aspires to be) but more eager to settle than to unsettle. Vatican II was and is an event in addition to a set of documents; it’s still unfolding because it’s a charter for an era of unspecified duration. Like so many events in our individual and collective experiences, the graces and gifts it has to offer may only be seen through a glass darkly by most of us most of the time.

The kind of unsettling I have in mind is not that of internal debates over the meaning of the Council but the unsettling of what it is to encounter Christ and walk away changed and challenged. If Vatican II is to have a vital legacy, or to be judged a success or failure, it will have to be instantiated in the lives of the faithful. This leads us back to Douthat’s suggestion that on its own terms the Council should be declared a failure, since in the post-Christian West we have seen increasing secularization. But if Weigel is correct that Church councils tend to take one hundred years or more to be received and implemented, and also correct that among the reasons Vatican II was necessary was just such impending secularization, we can’t really know how things would look absent the aggiornamento that the Council has already achieved.


I suppose it’s special pleading. But I love the liturgy. I have only ever known the Novus Ordo. I find the lectionary a great gift in my personal spiritual life and my ministry and ecclesial life. I lament that Mass attendance has declined but I never lament attending Mass, and I see its power to move and console and inspire each day that I’m able to offer it. As bad as things look to Douthat, maybe they’d have been much worse absent the Council, and maybe the seeds it planted will bear greater fruit by 2050 or 2075 than they have by 2022. If that’s to be so, and I am hopeful it is, then Weigel will have improved the odds by giving us a lively account of why the Council was needed, and how it met the challenge. I recommend reading it in tandem with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in hopes of being unsettled.

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