What happened at Vatican II? And does it still matter?

I just finished reading John O’Malley’s What Happened at Vatican II (Harvard University Press, 2008). I read it for at least three reasons. First, John is a teacher, mentor, and friend. Second, I realized I had never read anything substantive about the council, a glaring lacuna in my knowledge. Third, with the recent developments in Roman Catholic liturgy and practice, it struck me as important pastorally to understand some of the background to the Roman Catholic church of the late twentieth century, what conservative Catholics are reacting against, and what disaffected Catholics are struggling with.

O’Malley delivered on all of those points. It’s an engaging read of a difficult subject, and probably very difficult to make interesting for the non-specialist. To talk about machinations behind the scene, debates over schemas and the like is no easy thing. He doesn’t divide the opposing camps into “liberal” and “conservative” but calls them “majority” and “minority.” One gets the sense that the council had a life of its own that made it difficult to control and surprising in its outcomes to both participants and observers.

Most interesting to me are the three underlying themes that O’Malley detects. These, he says, are “the issues under the issues” and are key both to understanding the council and to making sense of Catholicism today. They are: 1) the development of doctrine; 2) the relation of center to periphery; 3) the “style” or model according to which authority is exercised.

In many respects, these three issues are not unique to Catholicsm. It may be that because Anglicanism is shaped very much like the Roman Catholic Church that we experience them acutely, but it seems to me they are pervasive throughout Christianity, and to some degree, throughout the History of Christianity. The first two are, of course, particularly important in debates within and concerning the Anglican Communion. The third I find especially intriguing. O’Malley points out that the documents of Vatican II are self-consciously written in a “pastoral” style, a remarkable break from the doctrinal formulas and anathemas of previous councils. That style involved a change in rhetoric, towards teaching, a change in vocabulary, but also a change in form, perhaps with the emphasis on collegiality.

I read a blog post about “the theology of the text message.” In it, Jason Byassee argues that pastors must be ready to “text” with younger parishioners or risk not communicating at all with them. He talks about offering pastoral care via text message, but there is more to be said. Christians are people of the Book, readers and interpreters of scripture. The question is, what sort of theological and spiritual “style” might emerge from our use of new media?

One possibility: The New Media Project at Union Seminary offers a case study of the House for All Sinners and Saints.

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