Reclaiming Vatican II: What It (Really) Said, What It Means,
and How It Calls Us to Renew the Church
by Fr. Blake Britton
What’s the main point: The author, a self-identified Millennial, is gravely concerned about the sorry state of a US Catholicism polarized between liberalizing progressives and alienated traditionalists, while a middle, misled, pastorally mal-served majority languish in ignorance of doctrine and proper liturgy. He rightly identifies understanding and implementation of the Second Vatican Council as the key to both the myriad problems and promising solutions.
Why does it matter? As a subject, the reception of Vatican II remains the functional, overarching mandate for the Roman Catholic Church—a century-long process, as Pope Francis recently asserted. The council’s four constitutions (sacred liturgy, church dogmatic, revelation, church pastoral) substantiate the doctrine comprising all sixteen conciliar documents, as well as the church’s restoring, renewing, pastoral agenda for our time. The author does well to devote a chapter to each of those four major documents, giving an introductory survey of each.
Who’s it for? The author continuously indicates his target audiences to be two out of the three groups identified above: the “traditionalists” and the wide mainstream membership of the church. The progressives he caricatures as a threefold “paracouncil” (a term taken from H. de Lubac)—“the council of the theologians, the council of the media, and the council of the age” (164). Insofar as the author continuously props up this totalized, nearly nameless faction as an unfortunate straw man against whom to pose his arguments, there seems little chance of those who have built upon, even advanced beyond, such theologians benefiting from this book. The popular reading audience will variably be misled or put off by the polemics, I should think.
What intrigued me the most? I found this book providing a stunning demonstration of how a moderate, intelligent, reconciliation-minded younger priest goes about thinking, researching, and arguing in a published text. The author repeatedly makes sweeping simplifications, and at times misrepresentations, of the overall work of at least one generation of theologians, many of whom (he fails to acknowledge) were themselves pariti at the council. He failed to revise places in the final page proofs where his passionate (and to my reading, often uninformed) biases led to such outright slurs as: “… influential figures in the Church performed the same parlor trick over and over again ..” (3), “… paraconciliar thought rejects tradition wholesale in lieu of personal ideologies” (26), “… unhealthy theologies … weaseled their way into liturgical music” (85).
Quibbles: All this, coupled with arguments for “genuine … objective beauty” (90) that two generations of paraconciliar theologians and pastoral ministers have thrown aside in favor of “relevance.” Try as I might, allowing for the author’s personal transparency, I could not accept such unqualified statements as: “No institution on earth has created or propagated more beauty than the Catholic Church” (83). I am left wondering at not even an acknowledgement, for example, of the music and art advanced by Chinese dynasties. Vague odes to “beauty” coupled with pastoral zeal for a foundering church risk overstatements dismissing large expanses of the humanity the author, rightly, identifies the two conciliar constitutions on the church as valorizing.
Suggestions: The author seems to have projected de Lubac’s identification of a “paracouncil” in the 1960s and 70s into the very present, such that his endnotes and bibliography are limited to a very small range of secondary sources (von Balthasar, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Aidan Nichols). The historical, hermeneutical, dynamic process of receiving as monumental an event (yes, event, not just texts) as Vatican II necessitates broader reading, including John O’Malley’s What Happened at Vatican II (if not his other books on the councils), Paul Lakeland’s A Council That Will Never End, numerous books and articles by Richard Gaillardez and Massimo Faggioli, Paulist Press’s sixteen-volume Rediscovering Vatican series (the four constitutions treated by Rita Ferrone, Gaillardez, Norman Tanner, and Ronald Witherup), to name but a few. A more centered, centrist historical view, along with greater theological and pastoral nuance, could emerge.
Britton, Fr. Blake. Reclaiming Vatican II: What It (Really) Said, What It Means, and How It Calls Us to Renew the Church. Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2021. 224 pages. $17.95. ISBN: 9781646800292.
REVIEWER: Bruce T. Morrill