Every ecumenical council in the history of the Catholic Church has been preceded by controversy, conducted in controversy, and followed by controversy. That perhaps helps to explain why there have been just 21 such exercises over two millennia. Thus, in a sense, that controversy would follow Vatican II ought to have been expected. But Vatican II was different in a unique way, and that difference explains something of the character of the discord that followed.
Every other ecumenical council had provided the Church with keys to its authentic interpretation: doctrinal definitions, creeds, legislation, or the anathematizing of heresies. If you want to know what the Nicene Creed taught about the Trinity, you read the Nicene Creed (or recite it, as Catholics do every Sunday). If you want to know what the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon taught about the Incarnation, you ponder Ephesus’s definition of the Virgin Mary as the Theotokos (God-bearer) and Chalcedon’s definition of the two natures in the one divine Person of Christ, who is homoousios (consubstantial) with the Father. If you want to know what Trent taught about the Reformation and about authentic Catholic reform, you study its condemnations and the Catechism it authorized. If you want to know what Vatican I taught about the way the Holy Spirit continues to teach the Church through the teaching office of the papacy, you reflect on its definition of the character (and limits) of papal infallibility.
Vatican II did none of this: It defined no doctrine, condemned no heresies, legislated no new canons for the Church’s law. What Vatican II did do was write 16 documents of divergent doctrinal weight, the interpretation of which set off an ungodly row that lasted for the better part of four decades. That row frequently centered on “Who’s in charge?” issues, which, intersecting with a much-advertised (although rarely defined) “spirit of Vatican II,” produced forms of do-it-yourself Catholicism that would have stunned John XXIII. For while it is true that “Good Pope John” wanted his council to offer the world what he called, in his opening address, the “medicine of mercy, rather than that of severity,” it is also true that, in formally convening the council 50 years ago, on October 11, 1962, Blessed John XXIII also said that “the greatest concern of the Ecumenical Council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously.” And while the pope’s allocution 50 years ago noted that “the substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another,” it is also true that the pope lifted up “the Church’s solicitude to promote and defend the truth,” a notion that seems quaint to many (and dangerous to others) in a post-modern cultural environment in which there may be your truth and my truth, but nothing properly describable as the truth.
Thus the truths that Vatican II taught remained bitterly contested in the 15 years immediately following the Council. Then, in yet another unexpected twist in the story-line, two men of genius, both men of the Council, arose to provide the Church with authoritative keys for properly interpreting the documents of Vatican II. That, history will likely show, was the great task taken on by the unexpected Polish pope, John Paul II (who as a hitherto-obscure young bishop helped develop several council documents), and the even more unexpected Bavarian pope, Benedict XVI (who as a theologian in his mid-30s played a major role in articulating several of the council’s most important teachings on the nature of the Church as centered on the Gospel).
Although neither Hans Küng nor Marc Andrus (nor the Nuns on the Bus) seems to have gotten the message, both these scholar-popes have taught, correctly, that what was innovative in the teaching of Vatican II must be understood in continuity with, and as a development of, the tradition of the Church. The Catholic Church did not begin on October 11, 1962. And what happened in the four sessions of the council that followed must be pondered and understood in terms of that secure “deposit of faith” of which John XXIII spoke a half-century ago. Thus, what was truly innovative at Vatican II — its repositioning of the Gospel at the center of the Church, understood as a “communion” of disciples; its reform of the Church’s worship; its insistence on the baptismal dignity and vocational responsibility of all Catholics, lay as well as ordained; its openness to new methods in theology; its teaching on religious freedom, on church-and-state, and on the Church’s ongoing debt to Judaism — has to be understood as securely grounded in the Church’s tradition. For without that grounding and that continuity, those welcome innovations would be so much flotsam and jetsam, adrift in the cultural whitewater of post-modernity.