To understand the stakes in this debate, it is essential to know that Vatican II was the first true post-Enlightenment Council. Vatican I, by contrast (1869-1870) operated from the worldview of Pope Pius IX, whose famous Syllabus of Errors (1864) had condemned a wide range of intellectual, political, economic, academic and scientific revolutions dating to the post-Reformation and Enlightenment eras. But the idea of returning to a medieval world view was an impossible dream, and future popes, notably Leo XIII and Pius XII, were somewhat more cautious in their thinking regarding a rapprochement of modern thought with centuries of Catholic belief and practice. Cold War popes, notably John XXIII, understood that nuclear annihilation was a finality for thinkers of all stripes, and that the Roman Catholic communion, given its world-wide expanse and influence, was in a position to discuss the state of the modern world with a new apologetics or better intellectual tools with people of good will universally.
[For a splendid history of the relationship between Christian doctrine and modern thought, see Jaroslav Pelikan's Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture Since 1700]
By the time of Vatican II in 1962, there were actually two basic philosophical questions regarding Sacred Revelation. The first dealt with Biblical texts: were they historical and accurate, were they meant to be treated literally, analogously, thematically, theologically? The second question involved the relationship between the visible Church and the place of Scripture within the Church. Was the Church the sole custodian of the Bible, free to draw textual support for its creeds and doctrines; or was it the Scripture that defined the very nature of the Church, by which all Church practice and conduct would be judged?
As to the first question, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment had begun to address the Sacred Scriptures, God’s Revelation, with a studied textual eye. The Catholic scholar Erasmus (1466-1536) undertook a rewriting of the official Catholic bible of the time, the Vulgate edition translated by St. Jerome around 400 A.D. A master of classical languages, Erasmus noted mistakes in Jerome’s rendering. By 1800 Protestant biblical scholars were developing what we call today the theological science of “Biblical Criticism,” the word “criticism” meaning unbiased analysis as I try to do on Thursdays with the Catechism. By World War II Protestant scholars, using modern interdisciplinary methods, had determined many of the “literary forms” of the Bible, such as laws, hymns, chronicles, mythic texts, etc. Scholars identified four separate distinguishable sources for the Pentateuch, long believed to have been written by Moses. In the 1950’s scholars developed the theory of “redaction criticism” or contrasting the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) to establish the unique theology or understanding of Christ of each evangelist.
Catholic intellectuals and academicians were hardly unaware of this. In truth, many were already applying new biblical principles of criticism in their work, albeit quietly. Finally, in 1943, Pius XII, in his encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu allowed Catholic scholars to utilize the now well-established methodologies of other Scripture scholars around the world in the work of better understanding the full meaning of the Sacred Scripture. Vatican II with DV, however, was the first dogmatic inclusion of modern Scripture study into Church teaching, and this was violently objected to by the Curia and others for multiple reasons, ranging from cooperation with heretics (i.e., Protestants) to fears that certain Bible texts which served as the basis of Church doctrine might come under question in terms of author’s intent. At heart was the premise that “truth never changes,” which is true enough, but it was the Church’s grasp of that truth that was under question, and obviously one that many Church authorities did not wish to parade through the New York Times.
The second hotly debated question flows from the relationship between the Scripture and the Church. In Vatican II the bishops argued in essence if they were one and the same, or if not the same, how are they different in terms of authority, and to which source do we turn for certitude. The general belief through the Church’s second millennium had been that Church and Bible were united but separate. History bears this out: it was the Church as a collective body that determined which books actually composed Sacred Scripture. On the other hand, the content of these very books—believed to be the true Revelation of God—describes and ordains the very body we call an authoritative Church.
It is not uncommon to hear the Church described as a “mystery,” and indeed it is. Vatican II required multiple schema to explain the nature of the Church’s identity and being. Again, if history is a teacher, it is fair to say that the teaching Church is, at the very least, necessary, whose mission is the explication of the revealed Bible. These explications are its “Tradition,” whether they be faith or morals. Vatican II’s major contribution is its teachings on the attitudes our Church must take in undertaking its mission. Conciliar terms for the Church such as “a pilgrim people” are the necessary counterbalance to Lord Acton’s maxim, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We need look no further than Pope Francis: he has taught the body of Catholic belief without a single deviation, but how is he regarded? As the pilgrim leader who brings hope, mercy, and reconciliation without precondition. How good is that!