Reading Council Documents Well

Vatican I and Vatican II: Councils in the Living Tradition

by Kristin M. Colberg

Colberg, Vatican I & Vatican II


An element of studying theology in the late-19th–early-20th–century manual Thomism tradition was a sense that everything was settled. The neo-scholastic Thomism of those manuals structured theology much like a more robust catechism in which there were dogmas and their subsets, with commentary on the finer points and distinctions related to those points.

Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, published in 1955 and recently brought back into print by TAN Books, is the last example of this kind of thing. The subtitle says it all: “A One-Volume Encyclopedia of the Doctrines of the Catholic Church, Showing their Sources in Scripture and Tradition and their Definitions by Popes and Councils.” Encyclopedias themselves are a Modern phenomenon. According to Wikipedia (ahem), the word was first used in a book title in the 16th century and the encyclopedia as we know it came about in the 18th century. And, yes, this approach to theology had a deeply Modern, timeless, rationalistic feel, even as it tried to respond to the challenges of the Modern world.

Beginning in the 1930s, manual Thomism was challenged by the purveyors of ressourcement theology, who not only wanted to return to patristic sources of theology, but wanted to read them—as well as Aquinas and other scholastics—in context so that they might speak to contemporary problems and questions. Manual Thomism lacked context. So does the simplistic story some tell that hinges on 1962–1965, as if before Vatican II, we were in darkness and then were brought into God’s marvelous light.

Kristin Colberg’s Vatican I and Vatican II: Councils in the Living Tradition (Liturgical, 2016) is an excellent example of how contextual theological thinking can overcome static readings of conciliar texts—both those that fully embrace and those that strive to minimize the teachings of those councils.

Vatican I and Vatican II is accessibly written and it therefore makes widely available Colberg’s own application of a contextual method of reading the output of those two councils. That method is attentive both to genre & presentation (understanding how a council teaches) as well as to context & motivation (understanding why a council teaches) in order to grasp what it teaches. The teachings, then, do not float above history. While historians have applied these questions to Vatican II in the ongoing disputes about the hermeneutics of the Council, Colberg very helpfully extends them to reading Vatican I in order to understand the coherence of the two councils. It would be an appropriate read for parish study groups as well as undergraduate classes in theology.

The major focus of the book is Vatican I’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Pastor Aeternus. Famously, this document defined the dogma of papal infallibility and, as Colberg points out, that’s often all that is said about the constitution. Colberg ably demonstrates that “Vatican I shared many of the same concerns and intentions as Vatican II” (x) and, therefore, “many present-day questions about ecclesiology, authority, and freedom, constitute natural extensions of conversations undertaken at Vatican I and continued at Vatican II” (20).

“Many contemporary readers,” observes Colberg, “have lost sight of the fact that Pastor Aeternus was defined as a remedy for a particular set of concerns and assume that its teachings intend to present the exhaustive word on ecclesial authority” (70). Those particular concerns included Gallicanism (which held the danger of political leaders holding the church hostage), among others. The call for papal infallibility was, at least in part, a grassroots movement to look across the Alps in appeal to pope contra king.

For example, there was widespread agreement among the fathers of Vatican I that the pope has infallible teaching authority, which should be exercised in accordance with the college of bishops (52). Yet the majority wanted the pope to be unhindered by long consultations when the Church needed to respond swiftly to challenges in the modern world, a world which seemed particularly threatening when Church property was seized or Church officials assassinated by French or Italian nationals.

Colberg also shows how a subset of that majority influenced the reception of Pastor Aeternus so that its narrowly construed definition of papal infallibility loomed (and still looms!) much larger in popular understanding. These so-called “maximalists” favored papal infallibility for its juridical advantages, a kind of court of last resort, and tended, with W. G. Ward, to “like a new Papal Bull every morning with [the] Times at breakfast.” They would be disappointed that Pope Pius XII’s definition of the Assumption in 1950 has been the only infallible declaration since Vatican I.

Yet, Colberg also helpfully describes how the silence of Vatican I on episcopal authority made that issue into one debated widely in the years following the Council, rather than one confined to the council floor. That silence helped to shape the agenda of its successor; no, “Vatican II’s focus and direction did not fall out of the sky” (113). Vatican II’s thematic focus on the Church derived from Vatican I’s focus on the Church. Lumen Gentium elaborates on the nature of episcopal authority, and avoids the trap of making ecclesial authority a zero-sum game between pope and college of bishops. Yet, it “raises more questions than it answers” in not “specifying the mechanics of these two subjects of power” precisely because it presents their relation “in a theological manner rather than a juridical one” (132–3).

Colberg makes a compelling case that “coherence is not achieved in precision and full clarity but in dynamism. Choosing either Vatican I or Vatican II does not clarify the truth of the church’s nature and mission; only holding all the aspects in tension with one another can accomplish that…. [T]he ecclesial community must learn to embrace the tension that necessarily characterizes its efforts to express key elements of its identity” (159). As you can see, Colberg’s book would be very much at home in Anthony’s recent “both/and” post.

I highly recommend this book for understanding the way that councils work and how to read their documents. It’s refreshingly catholic. In her hands, conciliar documents are not free-floating ideas with which we should bludgeon one another. Rather, they emerge from historical-political contexts. In other words, they are human documents as much as they are Spirit-led documents. Both councils hang together for her in Mt. 28:19-20, verses which play key roles in the thinking at both councils. Vatican I speaks to the constancy of the Church with an implied emphasis on “behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” and Vatican II to the importance of evangelization and inculturation with its implied emphasis on “make disciples of all nations” (145-146).

Do you think that there are any lessons we can learn from Colberg in the ongoing debates about liturgical form and missal translation?

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