Skip to Content
Search Icon
Issue 18 – Assumption 2023

Arts and Letters

Solemn and Long

Vatican II: A Very Short Introduction

Shaun Blanchard and Stephen Bullivant
Oxford University Press, pp. 176, $11.95


On June 18, 1959, Cardinal Tardini, the secretary of state under John XXIII, sent a letter to the world’s bishops asking them to propose topics for the upcoming ecumenical council. Some of the replies now make for curious reading. The archbishop of Gaeta, one Luigi Maria Carli, said that he would like to see something done about evolution; Bishop Geraldo de Proença Sigaud of Jacarezinho suggested that the Church’s chief priority should be “counter-revolutionary combat” against communism and the French Revolution, the latter of which he evidently considered a live issue.

Yet another bishop, a rather moderate-sounding Frenchman named Marcel Lefebvre, called for a wide range of practical reforms: changes to the annulment process that would allow for speedier decisions, wider adoption of clergy suits with Roman collars, an increase in the number of bishops (he proposed a cap of two hundred thousand on the number of the faithful in any diocese), decentralization of episopal decision-making, and, most strikingly, permission to celebrate evening Masses. Years later, in 1965, he would praise the new practice according to which the congregation sang the Ordinary along with the priest and the Collect, Epistle, and Gospel were read in the vernacular as “good reforms that give back to that part of the Mass its true finality.”

These anecdotes do not appear in Vatican II: A Very Short Introduction, but they are very much in the spirit of this worthwhile book. Among the qualities that make Shaun Blanchard and Stephen Bullivant’s entry in the first-rate series of primers from Oxford University Press stand out is its refusal to confirm established facile narratives. Rather than introduce readers to a familiar bestiary of progressive lambs and reactionary ogres (the adjectives might easily be swapped), they draw attention to the fact that Cardinal Ottaviani, the traditional hero of the eponymous “intervention” that would lead to a revision of the new General Instruction of the Roman Missal, was, even at the height of the Cold War, an opponent of nuclear weapons and, indeed, all modern offensive warfare. (This was among the reasons he found himself at odds with the American episcopate, for whom at least the tacit approval of their country’s deadly arsenal was as important as an increase in the number of native African clergy had been for Lefebvre.)

This is not an historical work. The authors have organized the book along conceptual lines, with chapters given over to broad topics such as liturgy and ecclesiology. For some of us the opportunity of being reminded of all the old familiar gas about aggiornamento and the needs of modern man will not be a welcome one. But for those readers, Catholic or otherwise, who are unfamiliar with the conciliar documents and the context in which they emerged, it will serve as an effective introduction which avoids the caricatures and polemics that are unavoidable in many books with similar aims.

Even Catholics steeped in the history of the council and its debates will appreciate many of the authors’ insights; the chapter on the liturgy, for example, begins with the interesting point (which I have never seen anyone else make) that unlike those of other major conciliar documents, the incipit of Sacrosanctum concilium does not lend itself to the assignment of “a fittingly symbolic title,” such as that of Lumen gentium or Inter mirifica, but a rather pedestrian meta-reference to the existence of the council itself. This, they remind us, is of a piece with “how problem free the document’s passage through the council was.”

Other editorial decisions are equally inspired, such as the choice to refer in places to the two factions at the council as the “majority” (though “plurality” might have been a more precise choice) and the “minority” respectively rather than by the more familiar appellations of “liberal” and “conservative.” What this reminds us is that the council was not (as participants on both sides of contemporary debates sometimes seem to suggest) an interminable struggle session between two powerful, opposed groups that ended with a narrow victory for one side. Indeed, most of the council fathers were mainly interested in issues that they saw as bearing directly on their home dioceses but otherwise unconcerned with the theological and other implications of the texts they approved. For this reason the loose grouping of idealists and time-servers who constituted the majority were barely hindered by the quixotic efforts of Ottaviani and a handful of others.

One thing this book accomplishes (perhaps unintentionally) is reminding us that Vatican II was, among many other things, virtually a fait accompli. It is almost impossible to imagine a world in which the limitless energy (and at times astonishing arrogance and condescension) of the dazzling young periti and the majority bishops on whose behalf they labored could have been overcome. Even those of us who are largely unsympathetic to their aims cannot help but look back longingly on those days of promise—to be young, to be steeped in existentialism and up-to-date biblical criticism, to be in the most beautiful city in the world thumbing one’s nose at one’s elders, who had never read so much as a syllable of Bultmann! This sense of inevitability—of alternating hopefulness and gloom—has been wonderfully captured in Rumer Godden’s novel In This House of Brede and is also brought home here.

Otherwise, what I liked most about the book was its inauguration of what for me will be a delightful new parlor game. This comes in the form of a schema offered in its final chapter breaking down the four “paradigms” according to which Vatican II had been understood during the last half century. The first two paradigms are, in effect, twins: the “Traditionalist,” according to which the council “erred or was dangerously ambiguous” and “did too much and changed too much,” and the “Progressive,” which considers the council a failure for rather different reasons. Of these the former is given fairly limited treatment here, perhaps because (as the authors put it) it is “academically marginal.” (The latter, I take it, is, or was, once academically ubiquitous.) The next two are more widely adhered to by both theologians and ordinary laypersons: “the Spirit-Event” paradigm, which sees Vatican II some kind of Hegelian unfolding of the universe’s will, or, more humbly, simply as the Reason Everything Changed, and the “Text-Continuity,” which is to say, making sense of the council as a collection of documents broadly in keeping with the Church’s historic teaching. Both of these differ fundamentally from the other two paradigms in the sense that they are defined in formal rather than evaluative terms. For this reason, it might have made more sense to conceive of the four not as distinct paradigms but as the opposite ends of two perpendicular axes—with the X running from “Text” to “Event” and the Y upwards from “Progressive” to “Traditional”—upon which individual interpretations could be plotted. One can imagine a kind of graph, with Mel Gibson and the Society of Saint Pius V in the top right corner, George Weigel on the right but in the middle, the staff of the National Catholic Reporter firmly in the bottom right, sober Ratzingerians in the middle left, and someone like Thomas Pink (whose work on Dignitatis humanae might have warranted a brief mention in these pages) occupying a somewhat lonely perch in the top left quadrant.

While this is not the new book about Vatican II I have always dreamed of reading—why has no one produced the short, ironical, not quite error-free ribbing after the manner of Lytton Strachey that the council so richly deserves?—it is still a valuable one. This will be the case especially for non-Catholic readers rightly interested in the most influential event in the history of the Church since Trent.

You must or subscribe to read the rest of the article.

About the author

Matthew Walther

Matthew Walther is editor of The Lamp.