Book Review: “What Happened At Vatican II” by John W. O’Malley

I finally finished John W. O’Malley’s What Happened At Vatican II (right before Easter, appropriately enough).  While a bit dense and sometimes obsessive in its detail, O’Malley’s book remains, at just over 300 pages, as condense and concise a volume as I imagine one would ever hope to find on a historical event this monumental.

The magnitude of the Second Vatican Council is something that O’Malley insists not be lost of his readers; not only the physical scale of the event (which was staggering), but of its repercussions for the Catholic world and beyond.  In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Pope Pius XII espoused a return to pre-war norms; but even high-ranking Vatican prelates recognized that the world would never be the same.  His successor, Pope John XXIII, was one of those men who knew that the world was only going to change more rapidly, and that the Church needed to catch up or be forever left behind.

It must have taken hours just to find your seat

Thus in 1962 he convened Vatican II, a gathering of over 2,000 Catholic priests, bishops, and cardinals from all over the world, to assess the state of the Catholic Church.  In sessions lasting eight weeks at a time, spread over many years, the most influential practitioners of Catholicism debated the very nature of their faith.  When the council finally concluded one pope later (John XXIII was succeeded by Pope Paul VI in 1963), the Catholic Church now had new philosophies on its relationship to other faiths, on the powers of regional leaders vs. the powers of the papacy, and on the relationship between the shepherds and their flock.

John XXIII

One of the most interesting parts of O’Malley’s survey of Council history to me was seeing how the conflict at the Council evolved.  The first two sessions, those presided over by John XXIII, can best be broken down as a struggle between the reformers and the reactionaries.  The latter half of the Council became a struggle between the assembly itself and the Vatican, now embodied by Paul VI.  The resistance to change among those participating had been almost completely drummed out, and Paul’s penchant for exercising what you might call executive privilege during debate and in the ratification of the Council decrees managed to rally the attendees together.  If there was one thing they wanted out of Vatican II, it was independence (however moderate) from Rome.  In that respect, the Council may have somewhat backfired on the central authority of the Church; the most obvious reforms to make would be with the Church’s unquestioned vertical power structure.

Another interesting thing about the book was seeing how far-reaching the influence of Vatican II would be within the leadership of the Church.  In attendance in Rome for these debates were no fewer than three future popes.  Of particular distinction were Karol Wojtyla, the future John Paul II, who was something of a star among the progressive Polish delegation, and Joseph Ratzinger, the future Benedict XVI, who climbed the ranks of the conservative minority from session to session.  He was essentially a theological hit-man, employed by the leaders of the traditionalists to poke dogmatic holes in the proposals of the reformers.  It gives some insight into their eventual tenures as pontiff.

Young Wojtyla and Young Ratzinger
Paul VI

Paul VI emerges as one of the more complex individuals in this story.  He was no doubt on the side of reform, but he did not grant the progressives the free pass his predecessor may have.  He forbade certain issues from even being discussed by the Council (the vow of celibacy, birth control), and was not shy about swooping in with his red pen at the last minute.  Yet he was the first pope to travel abroad in centuries, visiting impoverished areas of India and addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York.  I didn’t read his actions as two-faced–being a public face for the new and improved Church, but obstructing progress behind closed doors–but rather as delicate and deliberate.  For Paul VI and others, I think the fear of an irrevocable split of the Catholic Church was very real at this time, and while the Council was meant to bring it together in a new way, it also all but invited the opportunity for just such a disaster.  Don’t forget that the Council ran concurrent to the hottest days of the Cold War.  In a way, the Church itself was toyingwith the possibility of mutually assured destruction.  As with the eventual easing of tensions between America and the Soviet Union, the success of Vatican II is all the more remarkable.

If you’re up for slogging through some real history, I’d recommend this book.  Otherwise, see what you can find on The History Channel.

~ T

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