The Reception of Vatican II

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Matthew L. Lamb, Matthew Levering
  • Oxford, U.K.: 
    Oxford University Press
    , March
     480 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Almost a decade after their 2008 volume Vatican II: Renewal within Tradition, Matthew Lamb and Matthew Levering offer a sequel to engage with the effects of the Second Vatican Council in the Catholic Church today. The Reception of Vatican II follows the same format as its predecessor, consisting of sixteen essays by different authors, one for each document promulgated by the council. The contributors include such theologians as Guy Mansini, Thomas Joseph White, and David Vincent Meconi, as well as Robert Barron, Michele Schumacher, and Sara Butler. As the introduction notes, this group of authors is intended to reflect on the impact and reception of Vatican II as appropriated in Western theological thought. A volume on the global impact of the council is left for a future work. Further, while they represent various perspectives on the strengths of the conciliar texts and how they are to be implemented, the authors chosen for this volume all purport to read the texts of Vatican II within a “hermeneutic of continuity,” that is, as cohering with the Catholic tradition at large.

In an age of social media and ephemeral literature, this volume preaches patience as the key to understanding to the texts of Vatican II. Fifty years is not, in fact, a long time for the Church to digest, appropriate, and implement the texts of an ecumenical council. Indeed, “the Church does not dare suppose either that it has yet done all that the Holy Spirit wished to be done through the Council’s Constitutions, Decrees, and Declarations, or that all that the Church has done has been done rightly.” (13) Thus, these essays discuss the ways in which the conciliar texts have been developed in the years following the council, especially in the papal thought of Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI. They also, however, note the contentions and debates which these texts have occasioned. Situating the reader in the state of the question today, most of the authors then proceed to offer insight on how theologians today might continue the process of absorbing the conciliar teachings into theology as a discipline as well as the life of the Church as a whole.

In Thomas Joseph White’s essay on Gaudium et Spes [GS], he considers the basic principles of theological anthropology contained in the document. White argues that although the social context in which the document was written has changed drastically in light of globalization and the cultural upheavals of the past fifty years, GS nonetheless remains a relevant and important document for the life of the Church precisely because its principles are grounded in Catholic theological tradition, especially the Thomistic doctrine of transformative grace. Thus, applying its content to an era different from that which its authors foresaw is both possible and necessary. This, White argues, has been in part accomplished by the work of John Paul II, especially in his call for a “new evangelization” (135).

The need for further work on properly receiving the conciliar texts is clearly emphasized by the William Wright IV’s treatment of Dei Verbum [DV]. In his essay, he identifies tensions present in the text of DV itself, tensions between the “theological-ecclesial” principles of interpreting Scripture on the one hand, and the “historical-literary” principles of interpretation on the other (104). This tension, he says, is responsible for the uneven reception of the text found in the curial and magisterial documents following the council, such as the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s 1993 document on biblical interpretation. Wright justly looks to Benedict XVI’s 2010 exhortation Verbum Domini as the key to moving forward in a reception of DV which better integrates both methods of biblical interpretation.

Despite claims of uneven reception, and an acknowledgement of the controversies surrounding certain documents, the essays in this volume nevertheless maintain a fundamental optimism regarding both the appropriation of the council’s teachings thus far and the future trajectory of this reception. Robert Barron’s essay on Optatam Totius argues that John Paul II did excellent work in using the principles of the document on priestly formation to inform his own papal teaching. Barron then uses his experience as a former seminary rector to suggest how this work may be continued. Nicholas Healy Jr. lays out the debate surrounding religious freedom in Dignitatis Humanae to situate the reader, and then proceeds to show how DH has been supported and developed by the papal teaching of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. He finishes with a helpful examination of how the document has impacted the Church’s understanding of the relationship between truth and freedom. Finally, Jeremy Driscoll’s essay on Sacrosanctum Concilium [SC] examines how the liturgical changes under Paul VI implemented the teachings of SC. Driscoll largely avoids the controversies which have surrounded the liturgical changes and focuses on the positive elements of the document’s implementation. In particular, he notes that the restoration of the importance of Sunday Mass is a major fruit of this work. In an essay on the implementation of SC in the liturgical life of the Church, one would perhaps hope to see included the work of Benedict XVI, who made this implementation one of the main priorities of his time in papal office. Unfortunately, this is mostly absent from Driscoll’s consideration.

Ultimately, The Reception of Vatican II serves as a very helpful collection of essays for anyone who wishes to learn of the impact of the texts of Vatican II on theological thought in the last fifty years, and especially as this is construed in official Church documents. It promises to be an essential text for anyone wishing to build off post-conciliar theological work and make further steps in appropriating the teachings of Vatican II in Catholic theology.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sean Robertson is a doctoral student in systematic theology at Ave Maria University.

Date of Review: 
July 5, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Matthew L. Lamb is Cardinal Maida Chair of Theology at Ave Maria University. 

Matthew Levering is James N. and Mary D. Perry, Jr. Chair of Theology at Mundelein Seminary in Mundelein, IL.


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