The Essential Texts of Vatican II

This is the 50th Anniversary of Second Vatican Council, considered by many to be the most significant event for the Roman Catholic Church and Roman Catholic theology in the twentieth century. The Council lasted three years and resulted in the issuance of a number of important documents on a range of subject including the theology and role of the Church, liturgy, and the role of the laity.

For some people, Vatican II represented a great step forward for the Catholic Church. Others see it as the cause for many of the Church’s struggles today. Lamentably, many of the people with strong feelings on the subject (as well as many with no view) are woefully ignorant of what the Council taught, some able to say little more than that is led to Mass being said in English (and that it was either great or horrible).

I’ll be involved in several programs in various venues this fall talking about various aspects of Vatican II. I was, thus, particularly happy when asked by Image/Random House to review Vatican II: The Essential Texts.

In a world where documents such as those produced by Vatican II are so easily accessible via internet, is there really any value in a book that produces those documents in printed form? (I should say “another”, since one can find other books in print containing documents of Vatican II). In this case, the answer is yes.

The book begins with two introductions, written from very different perspectives: one by Pope Benedict and the other by James Carroll (author of Practicing Catholic). Reading the two introductions gives one a good sense of the contrasting views of what Vatican II intended and what it means for Catholics today.

Whatever else one thinks of the two perspectives, Carroll is assuredly correct that the texts produced by the Council “cannot be fully appreciated apart from the context out of which they came.” For Carroll, the “shorthand definition” of that context is Hiroshima and Auschwitz. For those who might benefit from a more detailed setting, each of the documents in the book is preceded by a historical preface by Edward Hahnenber (a theology profesor and author of A Concise Guide to the Documents of Vatican II.) Many readers will find this a useful aid to their reading of the documents themselves.

As for the documents themselves, the major (“essential”) documents are here. Had I been making the selection, I might have included Apostolicam Actuositatem, the Decree on the apostolate of the laity, but its exclusion is certainly defensible. The translations of the documents used in the text are different from the English translations on the Vatican website, but in almost all cases in which I compared actual language, I found the version in the book to be more easily readable. (I am not in a position to judge the relative accuracy of the translations from the original text.)

My hope is that the fact of this being an anniversary year, and the publication of books like this one, will encourage Catholics (and non-Catholics interested in better understanding the Catholic Church) to spend some time becoming more familiar with the teaching of Vatican II.