The Next Pope and Vatican II

George Weigel

Polemics about the Second Vatican Council continue to bedevil the global Catholic conversation.

Some Catholics, often found in the moribund local Churches of western Europe, claim that the Council’s “spirit” has never been implemented (although the Catholic Lite implementation they propose seems more akin to liberal Protestantism than Catholicism). Other voices claim that the Council was a terrible mistake and that its teaching should be quietly forgotten, consigned to the dustbin of history. In The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (just published by Ignatius Press), I suggest that some clarifying papal interventions are needed to address these confusions.

To begin: the next pope should remind Catholics what Pope John XXIII intended for the Council, thereby challenging both the Catholic Lite Brigade and the Forget Vatican II Platoon.

The pope’s opening address to Vatican II on October 11, 1962, made his intention clear: The Church, he said, must re-focus on Jesus Christ, from whom she “takes her name, her grace, and her total meaning.” The Church must put the Gospel proclamation of Jesus Christ, the answer to the question that is every human life, at the center of her self-understanding. The Church must make that proclamation by proposing, “whole and entire and without distortion” the truths Christ gave the Church. And the Church must transmit those truths in ways that invite skeptical contemporary men and women into friendship with the Lord Jesus.

John XXIII did not imagine Vatican II to be a Council of deconstruction. Nor did he imagine it to be a Council that froze the Church in amber. Rather, Pope John’s opening address to Vatican II called the entire Church to take up the task of Christian mission: the mission to offer humanity the truth about God and us, both of which are revealed in Jesus Christ.  The next pope should forcefully remind the Church of this.

The next pope might also engage – and settle – a parallel debate that began during Vatican II and continues today: Did the Catholic Church reinvent itself between October 11, 1962, and December 8, 1965, the day the Council solemnly closed? Or must the documents of Vatican II be read in continuity with revelation and tradition? Curiously, the “progressive” Catholic Lite Brigade and the ultra-traditionalist Forget Vatican II Platoon promote the same answer: Vatican II was indeed a Council of discontinuity. But that is the wrong answer. It is a mistaken reading of John XXIII’s intention for Vatican II. It is a mistaken reading of Paul VI’s guidance of the Council. And It is a mistaken reading of the Council’s texts.

Three canonized popes – John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II – plus the great theologian-pope Benedict XVI have insisted that Vatican II can and must be read in continuity with settled Catholic doctrine. To claim that Vatican II was a Council of rupture and reinvention is to say, in effect, that these great men were either duplicitous, anti-conciliar reactionaries (the tacit indictment of the progressives) or material heretics (the tacit indictment from the far right-field bleachers). Neither indictment has any merit, although the latter has recently gotten undeserved attention, thanks to ill-considered commentaries reverberating through the echo chambers of social media and the ultra-traditionalist blogosphere.

Thus the next pope ought to insist that the Catholic Church does not do rupture, reinvention, or “paradigm shifts.” Why? Because Jesus Christ – “the same yesterday and today and forever” [Hebrews 13.8] – is always the center of the Church. That conviction is the beginning of any authentic evangelization, any authentically Catholic development of doctrine, and any proper implementation of Vatican II.

The next pope should also lift up the Council’s genuine achievements: its vigorous  affirmation of the reality and binding authority of divine revelation; its biblical enrichment of the Church’s self-understanding as a communion of disciples in mission; its insistence that everyone in the Church is called to holiness, especially through the liturgy; its defense of basic human rights, including the first of civil rights, religious freedom; its commitment to truth-centered ecumenical and interreligious dialogues. Yes, there have been distortions of these teachings; but to blame the distortions on the teachings themselves is a serious analytical error.

A Catholicism indistinguishable from liberal Protestantism has no future. Neither does a Catholicism that attempts to recreate a largely imaginary past. The Catholicism with a future is the Catholicism of the Second Vatican Council, rightly understood and properly implemented. That happens to be the living Catholicism of today, and the next pope should recognize that, too.

COMING UP: The Next Pope and the Great Commission

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

In The Shoes of the Fisherman, crusty old Cardinal Leone, canvassing votes for a surprise candidate just before the election of a new pope, is deeply moved by a quiet admonition from a Syrian cardinal named Rahamani: “Always you search a man for the one necessary gift – the gift of cooperation with God. Even among good men this gift is rare. Most of us, you see, spend our lives trying to bend ourselves to the will of God, and even then we have often to be bent by a violent grace. The others, the rare ones, commit themselves, as if by an instinctive act, to be tools in the hands of the Maker.”

For some reason, I thought of Cardinal Rahamani while I was writing The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission, which has just been published by Ignatius Press. So perhaps the fictional cardinal’s words had some indirect influence on the ending of this small book’s reflection on Peter’s Chair and its role in the 21st-century Church –

“The next pope must be, above all, a radically converted disciple: a man formed in the depth of his being by the conviction that Jesus Christ is the incarnate Son of God, who reveals to the world the face of the merciful Father and the truth about humanity, its dignity, and its destiny. The intensity of the next pope’s relationship with the Lord Jesus, and the wisdom of his discernment of what the Lord Jesus is asking of him at any given moment, will determine whether his papacy advances the cause of the Gospel or frustrates the Church’s evangelical mission.

“That is why the next pope needs, and deserves, the prayerful support of the entire Catholic world.”

I have no idea when the next papal conclave will take place. Nor do I have a settled view of who the next pope should be, and still less on who he will be. My book is not about handicapping possible candidates for the papacy or profiling them. Rather, it’s an agenda for the Catholic future. Recent papal history suggests that certain qualities are needed in the Bishop of Rome at this turbulent period in history. Reflecting on those qualities helps everyone understand this Catholic moment and its demands more clearly.

Over the past 30-some years, I have had the privilege of extensive conversations with the popes of the last four decades. And during that time, I’ve also been privileged to be in close contact with Catholics in many circumstances throughout the world. Those privileges created a debt, and it struck me earlier this year that one way to satisfy that debt would be to reflect on what Petrine, papal leadership might look like in the middle decades of this century by drawing on my experiences with Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis, and a myriad of fellow-Catholics.

The Next Pope begins with the premise that we are living in apostolic times – times that require every Catholic to be an evangelist – rather than Christendom times: times in which the ambient public culture transmits the faith. The three popes I have known personally have all recognized this, each in his own fashion. That recognition must set the context for the next pope’s response to the Lord’s instruction to Peter at the Last Supper:  that Peter’s unique role among the apostles would be to “strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:32). Petrine leadership in the Church of the New Evangelization thus means empowering the people of the Church, in every state of life in the Church, to be the missionary disciples they were called to be at their baptism.

How does a pope do that? He does it by means of an intense, ongoing dialogue with the Lord. He does it by putting Christ and the Gospel at the center of his own preaching and teaching. He does it by safeguarding and explaining the truths of Catholic faith, so that the Church’s bishops, priests, religious, and laity are challenged to live the adventure of Catholicism in full. He does it by manifesting in his own life the joy of the Gospel and a willingness to suffer for the Gospel. He does it by undertaking essential reforms in the Church (and especially in the Vatican), so that the Church is seen to live what it proclaims.

All of that is explored in greater detail in The Next Pope, which I hope will provoke a useful conversation about the Catholic future.

Featured image by Mateus Campos Felipe | Unsplash