As I embarked on this church documents project, I knew I needed a foothold in the world of church history.  Despite a few classes in graduate school on American Catholic history, I felt ill-prepared to discuss the impact and message of Vatican II.  After all, I was born after the council as well as after the initial changes.  I couldn’t talk about my experience.  I couldn’t share memories.  How could I lead this investigation which would kick off our church documents study series?

After false starts with 3-4 other books, I finally found my foothold with What Happened at Vatican II (2008) by Rev. John O’Malley, SJ.  This book provides an overview of the events leading up to the council, the forces at work during the four sessions, and measures the impact of the documents. It’s accessible, understandable, and reads like a novel.

Vatican II didn’t emerge out of nowhere to provide a stark break with the past.  It represents a unique context.  For example, the ongoing conflicts within the church over Papal Authority and ecumenism played out in the council.  The conflict with “modernity” had been playing out in many different disciplines.  How would that impact the Church?  The historical context (end of World War II, end of colonialism, rise of Christian democracies, etc) also impacted the events.

It was interesting to learn that three potentially explosive items which were “in the air” around the time of the council were not permitted to be discussed—clerical celibacy, birth control, and reform of the Roman Curia.  These issues have continued to swirl in the Church in the intervening years.  O’Malley also introduces the narratives behind the historical documents.

Are there issues under the issues, issues of which these were a surface manifestation?  I believe there were at least three: (1) the circumstances under which change in the church is appropriate and the arguments with which it can be justified; (2) the relationship in the church of center to periphery, or, put more concretely, how authority is properly distributed between the papacy, including the Congregations (departments or bureaus) of the Vatican Curia, and the rest of the church; and (3) the style or model according to which that authority should be exercised. (8)

As the church struggled with aggiornamento (which O’Malley defines as “bringing up to date”), O’Malley is searching for the deeper conflicts of meaning taking place at the Council.  This is more than a recounting of the events and a description of the 16 documents produced by the Council.  It’s a historical tour de force exploring the conflicts of the Council.

Tune in Monday, October 30th, to hear my conversation with Fr. John O’Malley as we kick off the Church Documents Podcast Series with a look at Vatican II.  You can find this conversation on the Catholic School Matters podcast.