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Church Doctrine After Vatican II

BERNICE Sellars’ letter in the Opinion section (CL10/2/02) asked rhetorically what it is that people believe has changed with respect to doctrine after Vatican II.

Pope John XXIII, in his opening speech to the council, said that the greatest concern of the Ecumenical Council was to guard the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine while “teaching it more efficaciously”. Later he said that the substance of the deposit of faith was one thing and the “way in which it is presented is another”.

He said the modern world expected the council to be a step “forward toward a doctrinal penetration and a formation of consciousness studied and expounded through methods of research and the methods of literary forms of modern thought”.

Hence the council was singularly pastoral. Pope John XXIII wanted “to give the Church the possibility to contribute more efficaciously to the solution of the problems of the modern age.”

It was never a question for the council that there cease to be a Doctrine on the Trinity, the Church, Resurrection, priesthood, grace, liturgy, laity, etc, post the council. The council’s task was to examine the terms of our creeds to see if it could better state them for the benefit of the modern person’s understanding.

The great documents of the council are notable for their wealth of biblical images and quotations. Thomas Merton in his book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander saw the council as repositioning the Church’s view of itself away from self-indulgent power broking (p318). He saw the council as realising that the Church had now to help the world “accept itself” (p322). He noted that the document on the Church focused less on its hierarchical structure and more on other biblical models of Church, ie a community of the faithful, the People of God, the Mystical Body of Christ (Contemplation in a World of Action p135).

The use of biblical quotations also allowed for an in-built flexibility of meaning.

The council’s images will evolve over ensuing decades in parallel with the developments in our understanding of the biblical texts. Rather than devalue old formulas we have a revaluing in the continual search for meaningful statements of our creed.

Jesus did not intend to devalue the Ten Commandments when he said that there are only two great commandments – love God and love your neighbour. Neither does modern usage devalue the Ten Commandments if their underlying morality is couched in other terms.

It was not to devalue Mariology that Mary’s role in the Church was set out in a separate chapter and not a separate document.

The Pope sits in the chair of Peter. To say the Church was built on Peter is not the same as saying it was built on Christ. The Vicar of Christ is an heir of Peter.

As Thomas Merton said in his Conjectures, “the calling of the council draws attention to the bishops and to the diversity-in-unity of the universal Church which is not simply a corporation with a head office in Rome” (p261). We are all heirs of Christ.

The document on Revelation allowed scholars to examine literary forms to see what the authors of the resurrection narratives literally meant. Translating across cultures, the literal text in English may not be the literal meaning of the authors.

The archbishop’s call for a return to personal prayer in his Lenten Pastoral Letter (CL 17/2/02) is a call from our spiritual tradition that was meant to be preserved through all the liturgical reforms of the council.

The council was meant to position the faithful (clergy and laity) in dialogue with a modern age. The challenges before the council remain as ongoing goals for any Church synod, including our own in 2003.

VINCENT HODGE Paddington, Qld

Written by: Staff writers
Catholic Church Insurance

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