Last Wednesday, Cardinal Avery Dulles addressed a crowd of Georgetown University students and staff in the ICC Auditorium. Because of this month’s celebration of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council’s 40th anniversary, Cardinal Dulles discussed the different interpretations of the council and the various misunderstandings some have about Vatican II.

Vatican II is a council that was opened under Pope John XXIII in 1962 and closed by Pope John Paul XI in 1965. This council made several decrees that changed the ways the Catholic Church was allowed to operate.

Dulles is currently a professor of religion and society at Fordham University. He is the son of former Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and was made a Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church in 2001. He also is an associate fellow at Georgetown’s Woodstock Theological Center.

University President John J. DeGioia introduced Dulles. DeGioia described Dulles’s service as a lieutenant in the Naval Reserve before entering the Jesuit order in 1946 and being ordained in 1956. He earned his doctorate in 1960 and has authored 21 books and more than 700 articles. “Cardinal Dulles has informed and enriched for more than 40 years, inspiring religious thinking,” DeGioia said.

Dulles explained that in his evaluation of Vatican II, he relied heavily on the council’s documents. He said that most of the positive and negative controversy revolving around Vatican II is based on myth rather than reality. Dulles added that the council’s detractors blame it for “shattering the unity and order of the Church, creating an era of contestation and doubt.” He explained, however, that both sides agree that the council made radical innovations.

Dulles offered four factors that contributed to the creative and progressive nature of the council. He first explained that the council made an effort to achieve unanimity in order to reflect broad ideas rather than the ideas of just the liberal majority or conservative minority. Second, he explained that Pope John XXIII instructed the council not to issue anathemas condemning new errors but instead conduct Catholic teachings in an open and peaceful manner. Dulles said that he understands how, because of this, readers could get the idea of a lenient Church. “It would be easy to get the impression that the Church tolerated almost anything and praised secular humanist ideas,” Dulles said.

Third, Dulles discussed the context of the post-World War II Vatican II, a time when the Western world was “swept up in a wave of optimism typified by Pope John XXIII himself.” According to Dulles, there was a new Gospel of creativity and freedom, and secular enthusiasts interpreted Vatican II as an opportunity for the Catholic Church to jump on this bandwagon. He explained finally that liberals had organized a movement to put a progressive spin on the interpretation of Vatican II, as they promoted a particular reading of the council’s documents.

Dulles described the Church as divided in a struggle between different schools of interpretation brought about polarization in the Church almost to the point of a schism. He said that traditionalists in different countries set up schismatic churches, while radicals on the left went in opposite directions making movements within the Church for reform.

Dulles next discussed the 12 points where he believes the council has been misunderstood. First, he explained that some believe the council said non-Christian religions contained revelations and salvations. But according to Dulles, careful examinations of the council’s documents prove that the council said “salvation cannot be found in any other name than Jesus.”

Dulles also attempted to dispel the belief that the council gives priority to scripture rather than tradition. He said that a reading of the documents indicates the contrary that the council gave certain priority to tradition. He then explained how some believe in Vatican II’s concept of “continuing revelation,” but said that the council taught that revelation was complete in Jesus.

He next addressed the belief that the council taught that membership in the Church was not necessary for salvation but reaffirmed that only faith and baptism would bring salvation. Dulles defined baptism as the doorway to the Church and explained that people must be baptized a condition for salvation.

He also addressed the extension of the role of Christ, but explained that the council said that it is through Christ and the Catholic Church alone that the meaning and fullness of salvation can be obtained. Sixth, he addressed the ecclesiological question of whether the council limited papal power. He agreed that Vatican II did affirm that the bishops collectively constitute a college (an organized body of clergy) but said that the college cannot act without action and consent of the pope, so in now way has the Pope’s power been limited.

On the question of dissent, Dulles contended that Vatican II did not favor dissent from infallible teachings. He continued on to discuss the misconception that the council gave power from pastors to the laity. On the contrary, he said the “Vatican II places powers of teaching, worship and government exclusively in the hands of hierarchy.”

Regarding the idea that the council no longer taught that celibacy is a more blessed state than marriage, Dulles said that he sees no ground for this opinion in the council’s documents.

He then spoke on the council’s decision not to address the use of contraception. Dulles explained that this was not specifically condemned because the question was reassigned to specific commission, and today “sons and daughters of the Church must not regulate procreation.”

Dulles then addressed the issue of religious freedom. He explained that the council affirmed that the secular state did not have authority to pronounce on religious truth and rejected coercion by the state in the area of religions but did not set all religions on the same level. And last, he addressed the controversy associated with the council’s allowing masses to be conducted in the vernacular rather than Latin. He explained that the council did not foresee that the Latin language would disappear from liturgy, and that if harm has been done it is not because the English language is used but because of unfaithful translations from the original text.

He closed his discussion by urging people to stop arguing about the ideas of Vatican II. “I find the teachings solid, nuanced and sufficiently flexible to meet the needs of time and place . There is no reason that Vatican II should be a bone of contention among Catholics. Forty years later, we have much to be grateful for and much to learn from council documents which today are all too little understood,” Dulles said.

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