Vatican I’s emphasis on the unifying role of the papacy is not lost at Vatican II but reasserted as the basis of a communion in the one Church. If each local Church is to be fully herself, she must be in communion with the larger principle of unity, the Church in Rome and her prelate. This does not mean that there are no other grounds for ecumenism, but rather that ecumenism is truly possible and necessary especially because the Roman primacy provides a way for Christians to be one in a visible way, holding to a common doctrine.
How would we find mutual doctrinal accord if there were no way to attain to a touchstone of unity and to know in what we must be unified? Thus some form of doctrinal infallibility is the necessary condition for doctrinal unity. We can say with certitude: No pope, no true and final ecumenism.
Analogously, if Vatican II states that the laity are to be consulted in their practices and beliefs because of the sensus fidei — the sense of the faith — they hold, it is not because this functions independently of the ecclesial hierarchy. Rather, they are to be consulted because the life of the laity in ordinary society can embody and express, with its own unique genius and sanctity, the concrete truth of the gospel proclaimed by the apostolic hierarchy. Because there is a hierarchy, the laity can have a distinct and complementary mission of witness and teaching.
On this reading, Newman is right. The Church is alive in myriad ways, both in profound unity and in genuine, diversified vitality: in the sacraments, in the grace of Christ working invisibly to lead persons outside the Church to encounter Christ fully in the sacraments, in the Church in Rome and in her sister Churches, in the bishops and in the laity. The Council’s insistence on the sacramental visibility of the Church becomes a point of continuity with the past, not a point of rupture.
Consider another modern Catholic touchstone: the relationship between authority and rationality. The standard secular narrative is that we have to choose between an appeal to a unified doctrinal authority and the openness of human rationality to the fullness of universal truth. From Trent to Vatican II we see a contrary teaching, that authentic apostolic authority and vital human rationality are not only complementary, but also deeply and mutually enriching.
Trent committed the Catholic Church to this stance through that most authoritative of pronouncements: the affirmation of the Greek-language books of the Old Testament as inspired. By accepting the complete Septuagint as the authoritative Scripture of the Church, the Roman Catholic Church knowingly committed herself to a very ambitious project of historical study. How should we understand the narrative of the development of the books of the Bible, from the Torah and prophets (in Hebrew) to the inter-testamental literature (Hellenized Judaism), to the New Testament? What are we to make of the interpretations of the patristic age and the formation of the biblical canon during the time of the early christological disputes?
The Council of Trent saw that historical rationality and the divine authority of Scripture are not in competition but in profound concord. After the Council, the Church sought to win over the academic culture of Europe by making historical arguments about the true genesis and development of early Christianity. As Newman said, “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.” This strategy committed the institution, however, to an ambitious new program of seminary and university studies, one that was in turn propagated throughout Europe by the episcopacy and renewed the study of philosophy and sacred theology in the early modern period.
Vatican I carried this program forward in conversation with the secular Enlightenment. Dei Filius insisted, against secular reason, on the infallibility of divine revelation: Revelation is a gift that human rationality cannot procure for itself. Yet it also underscored the high natural capacities of human reason, our philosophical capacity to know of the existence of God and to cooperate with divine revelation.
Against the reductive tendency of modern thought that so quickly rejects appeal to divine authority, that council sought to underscore the existence of a fruitful, liberating interaction between sacred theology and human rationality. The two are not at war, but may mutually interact with one another in peace and liveliness. Revelation is a gift to human reason seeking perspective. Reason seeking meaning can arrive at the threshold of the question of God and can therefore admit the possibility of divine revelation.
The modern Church’s living confidence in both divine authority and human rationality flowers at Vatican II, bringing to greater fullness what is present in seed at Trent and in stem at Vatican I. For instance, Dei Verbum, the dogmatic constitution on divine revelation, affirms that the Holy Spirit is the principal author of sacred Scripture but that it is also always to be understood as the simultaneous product of true human authors. There is no rivalry between divine causality and human creativity.
Rather, God the Holy Spirit works through the living instrument of human rationality. Consequently, there need be no opposition between the study of the cultural context of a particular author and pursuit of the inspired, deepest meaning of the text. Each should in principle facilitate a deeper appreciation of the other.
Analogously, Gaudium et Spes, the pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world, called for an integrated understanding of modern cosmology and human political and moral life in concord with divine revelation. Engagement with the sciences or modern constitutional law are profoundly compatible with a biblical understanding of reality.
More to the point, only the theological vision of the human person who is created in the image of God can give final explanation to the development of the physical cosmos and the world of living things. Only theological recognition of the dignity of the human being who is redeemed in Christ can give ultimate justification to the humanist aspirations of modern democratic government and the legal system of rights.
As a last example, Nostra Aetate, the declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions, underscored the importance of a search for intelligent points of contact between divine revelation and the diverse religious traditions of humanity. One can seek to explain and promote Christianity while also seeking to understand and learn culturally from the Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim traditions.
Most especially, the Church’s engagement with the Jewish people stems first from her recognition of the authority of Christ. This engagement requires that the Church take account of the theological and moral implications of the grave mistreatment of Jews by baptized persons in both medieval and modern Europe.
The Church in modernity has understood that human reason is enriched by revelation, and in its teachings on this matter Vatican II is thoroughly and faithfully Tridentine. While the Church simultaneously embraces the exploration of divine revelation and the expansion of human reason, the mystery of the faith itself does not change, but the way that mystery is understood, articulated, and transmitted does develop. Through this development, doctrines are clarified and purifications occur. In and through the process, the Church is called to become more herself, more attentive to the truth that she bears within herself in order to proclaim it with integrity and vitality to the world.
Consider the third theme, that of holiness. The Reformation was most fundamentally about the doctrine of justification: What is it that makes us righteous before God? We know Luther’s bold answer: justification by faith alone, apart from works. The Church took issue with this definition, but not with the notion of justification as a gift of grace. All were agreed on that. Nor did the Church dispute the need for supernatural faith. Again, the Church insisted at Trent that faith is necessary for salvation.
Rather, the heart of the matter had to do with Luther’s formula simul justus et peccator: the claim that by faith one could be just while simultaneously alienated from God in the will by the interior wound of sin. Against such a notion, Trent taught that the infusion of supernatural charity is an essential dimension of justification. In the fallen human person, the disordered loves of sin turn the human will away from God. By the grace of justification, faith, hope, and love together turn the human person freely and voluntarily away from sin and back toward God, all through the power of Christ.
What is at stake in this technical theological argument? One answer is: the Church’s insistence on the essential character of holiness at the core of Christian life. For there is no Christian life without charity. The seed idea of Trent, then, is that charity is at the root of all authentic Christian life.
Charity, however, is not only interior but lived out in the street. At Vatican I, the Church militant insisted on the public and social character of religion, in the face of the militant secular state that wished to confine religion to a merely privatized “freedom of worship.” The inner core of this Catholic militancy is based on a deep understanding of the all-embracing character of religion. Since charity impels the human person toward the service of God in all things, it is not feasible to ask the religious person to quarantine his or her belief behind the walls of private life. Catholic charity bears fruit through public, Christian institutions.
This is not to say that Vatican I pushed for a state-imposed religiosity (it did not). It did hold for the principle of integrity. For the Catholic Christian is called to submit the whole of his life to the mystery of God, in all spheres of life. Holiness is the fruit of such integrity, and it tolerates no half measures of self-offering. It stems instead from the victory in the human person of radical, oblative love.
This, too, is a theme that flowers in Vatican II. The Council emphasized the “universal call to holiness” of all of Christ’s faithful, the people of God. Baptism brings with it intrinsically a vocation to holiness that is grounded in the life of charity. This pursuit of holiness should affect both family and social life at their root, and the effect can transform the world.
But the world also can and does resist the holiness of God. Gaudium et Spes enjoins Christians to public practices of Christian charity that can be performed through the instrumentality of the state: education of the poor, economic development in underprivileged countries, and the pursuit of international peace, for example. The Council also calls upon Christians to demarcate clearly those threats to sacramental married life that strike at the heart of the holiness of a civilization, referring particularly in this respect to adultery, abortion, and contraception.
This theme of the Council is deeply interconnected with the sacramental vision mentioned above. We are frail human beings, in need of spiritual healing and elevation, dependent upon nourishment and continual aid from God. The sacramental life is the visible sphere wherein the baptized Christian can be habitually rejuvenated, in order to bring the mystery of Christ visibly and invisibly into the heart of modernity. Vatican II’s emphasis on holiness is grounded in Tridentine presuppositions in the charity of the sacraments of reconciliation, and the Eucharist stands at the heart of the Christian calling to renew the world.
Some today, particularly among younger Catholics, wonder not if the Council’s teaching is true but whether it is of any great help to us in our contemporary setting. The council fathers did not really foresee the radical secularization of Europe and the Americas that was beginning (or beginning to be seen) just as the documents were being published.
In our new and very challenging context, in which the Church suffers internal dissent and external persecution, many look back to the liturgical spirituality and theology of Trent and Vatican I as expressions of vibrant Catholic identity, and this makes perfect sense in light of the life of the Church as Newman described it. A plant under attack from disease will protect the roots and the stem and let the flowers go. These earlier configurations of Catholicism are like the root and the stem of modern Catholicism, wherein the life of the modern Church is expressed in concentrated fashion.
But we cannot do without the Second Vatican Council. The stem and the root are meant to flower, and the flowering of the Church occurs through the Christian life of charity and the public, credible proclamation of the truth, the realities of her life developed and articulated at Vatican II. It is precisely because Catholic Christianity is not sectarian but cosmopolitan and culture-forming that it must remain ever engaged with the world around it.
The modern Church is indeed a sacramentally visible order. She recognizes simultaneously the absolute importance of divine authority and public rationality. She is committed at her heart to the life of holiness. Because all this is true, the confidence of the Second Vatican Council should continue to speak to us.
The faith of the Church truly can transform the world, even as leaven in the dough or as the lamp that illumines an entire room. Newman was acutely sensitive to the great difficulty and simultaneous grandeur of being a Christian in the contemporary age.
The Christian is always a stranger in the world, but the Christian is the soul of the world as well. The greatness and promise of this vocation can be underscored by a patient reading of the Second Vatican Council that understands its place in the living tradition of the Church, particularly its place as the third great council of modern Catholicism.
That Council teaches us confidence. For in modernity the Church surely does travel through a dark night of faith, but she also bears within herself the hidden and radiant presence of the inextinguishable light of Christ.