Vatican II at 60

Francis X. Maier writes on George Weigel’s new book To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II:

Weigel’s friendship with the late pope gave him unique access to background on the council’s major players and issues, and its sometimes fractious dynamics. That special relationship and the knowledge gleaned from it undergird To Sanctify the World.

As Weigel notes, Vatican II was a response to circumstances never before encountered by the church. Previous councils had typically dealt with heresies, doctrinal disputes, or clarifications of belief. But they had operated in a world saturated by religion, even when the religion was pagan or alien to Christianity. The Second Vatican Council was called to deal with a world increasingly irreligious; a self-confident, materialist world of science and technology — and in the developed nations, material abundance — that saw no need for a God. The reforming task of the council thus had two themes: aggiornamento, updating the message and spirit of the church wherever possible, the better to engage modern man; and ressourcement, recovering the zeal of the early church by a return to her ancient sources. The goal of the church, however, remained the same: to sanctify, or “make holy,” the human experience in a fractured world.

Weigel breaks To Sanctify the World into three simple divisions: why the council was necessary; what it actually taught; and the interpretative keys needed to unlock its real meaning. He takes care to explain not just the context but also the content and importance of the council’s central documents. His research is exhaustive. He thus builds his case elegantly and persuasively for the Karol Wojtyła–Joseph Ratzinger understanding of Vatican II. No period in the life of the church is without its failures, but these two men, in their pontificates, simultaneously fulfilled John XXIII’s original intent for the council and served as countervailing centripetal forces against post-conciliar unraveling. The result was 30-plus years of both pastoral renewal and intellectual excellence, married to a confident evangelical spirit — qualities now sorely missed. In contrast, the sheer shabbiness of the intellectual enterprise now dominant in Rome is embarrassing. This need not be an indictment of Pope Francis. But it’s very much an indictment of some who claim to serve his ministry.

We’ve arrived at one of the periodic inflection points in Catholic life. On the one hand, we have those — including some of our leaders — eager to sign a peace treaty with the sexual revolution and other ambiguous traits of the modern world, and on the other hand, those who see our times as a graced moment for evangelical courage and zeal. Remembering and explaining the past is sacred work because it grounds our identity. It also recalls our purpose. What Weigel achieves in To Sanctify the World is an American version, applied to Vatican II, of Hubert Jedin’s brilliant multivolume study of the Council of Trent, its prelude, content, aftermath, and meaning. And as with Jedin’s work, Weigel’s book will be a standard of conciliar scholarship for many years to come.