Vatican II, 50 Years Later
The council brought great controversy, but also, eventually, a greater gift.

Pope John XXIII


George Weigel

In the retrospect of today’s golden jubilee, however, perhaps we can now see that the council was one dramatic event in a much longer “moment” in Catholic history: a moment that stretches over more than a century and a quarter; a moment in which the Church underwent a deep and difficult process of reform; a moment in which the curtain slowly fell on the form of Catholicism that was born in the 16th-century Counter-Reformation, and the curtain slowly rose on the Catholicism of the Third Millennium — the Catholicism of what John Paul II and Benedict XVI have called the “New Evangelization.”

This Evangelical Catholicism, which you can see and touch wherever the Catholic Church is vibrant and growing today, has nothing to do with the low-church Protestantism of Hans Küng’s revolution-that-never-was; nor does it have anything to do with Marc Andrus’s gnostic Church of Lifestyle Libertinism, or with the Nuns on the Bus and their Church of Obama. Rather, as Vatican II taught in its central theological document, the Constitution on Divine Revelation, the Church is formed by the Gospel and the Church exists for the proclamation of the Gospel. Every Catholic is baptized into a missionary vocation, and every Catholic enters mission territory every day. That sense of evangelical possibility and responsibility, which is the indispensable foundation of the Church’s work for justice and the Church’s works of charity, is the true “spirit of Vatican II” — and a faithful response to perhaps the most important challenge that Blessed John XXIII laid before the Church and the world 50 years ago today:

The great problem confronting the world today after almost 2,000 years remains unchanged. Christ is ever resplendent at the center of history and of life. Men are either with Him and His Church, and then they enjoy light, goodness, order, and peace. Or else they are without Him, or against Him, and deliberately opposed to His Church, and then they give rise to confusion, to bitterness in human relations, and to the constant danger of fratricidal wars. . . .

To mankind, oppressed by so many difficulties, the Church says, as Peter said to the poor who begged for alms from him: “I have neither silver nor gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, rise and walk” (Acts 3.6). . . . [The] Church does not offer to the men of today riches that pass, nor does she promise them merely earthly happiness. But she distributes to them the goods of divine grace which, raising men to the dignity of sons of God, are the most efficacious safeguards and aids toward a more human life. She opens the fountain of her life-giving doctrine, which allows men, enlightened by the light of Christ, to understand well what they really are, what their lofty dignity and their purpose are, and finally, through her children, she spreads everywhere the fullness of Christian charity, than which nothing is more effective in eradicating the seeds of discord, nothing more efficacious in promoting concord, just peace, and brotherly unity of all.

John XXIII concluded his opening address at Vatican II by evoking the image of a council that “rises in the Church like daybreak, a forerunner of most splendid light.” It was, the Pope concluded, “now only dawn.” What would come, after no little travail and darkness, was something unexpected and unimagined by most Catholics 50 years ago: the end of the Counter-Reformation and the emergence of Evangelical Catholicism — a culture-forming counterculture that offers the world friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of the deepest aspirations of the human heart; a Church that is the world’s premier institutional defender of the dignity of the human person and of fundamental human rights.

— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center. His forthcoming book, Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church, will be published by Basic Books in February 2013.