Vatican I and Vatican II
Councils in the Living Tradition
The contemporary Catholic church is riven with division between, for example, those who prefer the Latin liturgy and those who prefer to attend Mass in the vernacular; those who wish to see women taking a more active role in the church and those who don’t; and those who see the kingdom of God as an eschatological hope and those who strive to enable its creation on earth. At the heart of many of these divisions lie two Vatican Councils, which although held ninety years apart, define many people’s expectations of the church. In the popular imagination, these Councils are perceived as two completely different events: Vatican I confirmed the supremacy of the church as an institution whose members ought to have little to do with the temporal sphere; by contrast, Vatican II threw the windows of the church open to the world and sought to “read the signs of the times.” Such perceived differences mean that Catholics find themselves “forced to decide” between councils (3). Whilst the meaning and consequences of Vatican II has been the subject of countless monographs and articles, Vatican I, with the exception of some work in German, has not.
Vatican I and Vatican II Councils in the Living Tradition is therefore a much needed contribution to the history of the Catholic Church. Beautifully written and demonstrating a masterful understanding of both doctrine and history, this book asks important questions about the relationship between the two councils which desperately need to be answered if the Catholic Church is going to overcome some of these challenges, such as the ordination of married men and the role of women, which lie ahead. The two most important questions are: “what is the relationship between these two significant church assemblies?” and “what does the current shape of the church have to do with either of these councils?” (2). In answering these questions, author Kristin M. Colberg contributes to the process seeking to lead the church toward a stronger self-awareness and understanding, enabling it to pronounce its message more successfully and meaningfully.
In order to achieve this aim, Colberg takes a document from each council and places it within the correct historical and theological context: De Ecclesia for Vatican I, and Lumen Gentium for Vatican II. In doing so, she helps to overcome the misunderstandings surrounding Vatican I, in particular those that have damaged the church. She does this skilfully by arguing for a link between the two councils, by demonstrating how both recognised and addressed matters of authority within the church. The two councils, the first of which tried to retain the church’s voice within the world, and the second, which meaningfully tried to contribute to contemporary conversations, Colberg argues, should be seen as “complementary not competitive efforts” (153). Her discursive skill is such that this reader was persuaded, and will be examining the relationship between the two councils more closely in the light of these findings.
Although the text, at times, becomes overly focused on narration, Vatican I and Vatican II is a superb achievement as it not only contributes to Catholic historiography by strengthening understandings of the relationship between the two councils, but also in that it helps to debunk some of the myths that lie at the heart of the culture wars within the church. In producing this work, Colberg is helping to inform—and indeed start—a much needed conversation regarding this particular aspect of Catholic history based upon a deep and perceptive reading of the documents.
Maria Power is lecturer in religion and peace building at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool.
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