Vatican II and Christ's Governance of the Church

Anthony Zimmerman
June 2006
Reproduced with Permission

During the Easter Season we read thrilling episodes about Peter and the Apostles, who dared to speak up about Christ despite stern warnings from the Jewish high priests and Sanhedrin not to do so. Christ assisted the young Church dramatically to give her courage and shape. On Pentecost Peter, filled with the Spirit, challenged the crowds with a scathing accusation: "Therefore let all the house of Israel know most certainly, that God hath made both Lord and Christ, this same Jesus, whom you have crucified" (Acts 2:36).

The words cut to the heart of guilty listeners. "What shall we do, men and brethren?" "Repent and be baptized," said Peter. About three thousand did so. Clearly Christ was at work in their hearts. These people did not yet have their own church buildings, so they gathered in the temple to do their prayers. But they were also "breaking bread from house to house," which had become the standard expression for offering the Mass.

There is much more to read and rejoice about in the Acts of the Apostles. For example, when crowds gathered at Solomons Porch in the temple to hear the preaching of the apostles, officers came to put an end to that.

And they laid hands on the apostles, and put them in the common prison. 19 But an angel of the Lord by night opening the doors of the prison, and leading them out, said: 20 Go, and standing speak in the temple to the people all the words of this life (Acts 5).

Clearly Christ was calling the signals from heaven and giving a powerful hand to help the new Church. It almost appears that He thoroughly enjoyed breaking the spider-web traps that the opposing powers were spinning. We ask now: Is Christ still with the Church today, as He was in those early days? More specifically, what about Vatican II, was Christ there?

A summary history of Vatican II

The summary history of Vatican II, as presented by Fr. James H. Kroeger, M.M., encourages us to respond: "Indeed, Christ was there." On the first page of the report he quotes Pope Benedict XVI:

Pope John Paul II rightly pointed out the Council as a "compass" by which to take our bearings in the vast ocean of the third millennium (NMI 57-58).... Also in his spiritual Testament he noted, "I am convinced that it will long be granted to the new generations to draw from the treasures that the twentieth-century has lavished upon us.... "Thus, as I prepare myself for the service that is proper to the Successor of Peter, I also wish to confirm my determination to put the Second Vatican Council into practice, following in the footsteps of my Predecessors and in faithful continuity with the 2000 year tradition of the Church (Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences Papers, No. 117, p.1), [available on FABC-UCAN website: Links: FABC Papers].

The Pope thus declares that the Second Vatican Council is in faithful continuity with the Church. Father Kroeger tells how Pope John XXIII, only a hundred days after his election, announced on January 25, 1959, that he planned to summon all the bishops of the world to a universal Council. Preparations soon went into high gear, even in those days before email and Internet. The working committees received 9,300 proposals for discussion. Apparently interest in the Catholic world was very much alive.

Pope John XXIII convokes the Council

Good Pope John 23 greeted the more than 2000 Bishops on the opening day, October 11, 1962. The average daily attendance during the entire Council, convened at intervals during four years, was 2,200 Bishops. They gave 2,212 speeches and 4,300 written interventions. They met in the vast Basilica of St. Peters, seated on long tiers to the right and to the left of its main body. The speeches at the general sessions are recorded on 712 reels of magnetic tapes, which run for 542 hours (64 eight-hour days). Admire the organizational pattern and logistics, surely a major accomplishment. When its fourth and final session closed on December 8th, 1965, the Council had produced the sixteen Council documents, which the present Pope describes as a "compass" to orient the Church today. Fr. Kroeger continues:

Pope John XXIII spoke of the Council on various occasions. "The Council?" he said as he moved towards a window, gesturing as if to open it. "I expect a little fresh air from it.... We must shake off the imperial dust that has accumulated on the throne of Saint Peter since Constantine." Johns intentions were clear: "We desire above all that the Council be an act of goodness." There would be no condemnations during the Council, because today the Church must prefer "the balm of mercy to the arm of severity."

Pope John XXIII let it be known that sitting on the sede gestatoria, carried on the shoulders of porters, made him dizzy. [The chair gathers dust in the museum today, as does the tiara. Also Popes no longer use the "We" form referring to themselves.] He was and is a beloved Pope, now "Blessed John XXIII." On the opening day of the Council he said to the people gathered in St. Peters square: "When you go back to your homes, hug your children for me. Tell them it is an affectionate embrace from the Pope." When he died on June 3, 1963, a major newspaper called it a "death in the family." His incorrupt body can be viewed through a glass-faced coffin today.

Pope Paul VI re-assembles the Council

Pope Paul VI re-assembled Council for its third session on September 14, 1964. Fr. Kroeger allows other capable authors to tell about the rest of the Council in this very readable, informative and balanced 128 page booklet, FABC Papers, No. 117. I invite you to read it if you have access to it. His email address is


1). Opening the window: Note that Good Pope John wanted to open a window to allow fresh air to come into the Church from the outside; but he did not want to open a door to walk out of the established Church building and settle in a newly constructed Church. The ancient building must remain the home of the churches of all nations.

The Church in Africa cannot legitimize polygamy, for example. Nor can the cultural dance and drum become a liturgy that obliterates and replaces by its over-intensity, the Liturgy by which the Church celebrates the Sacrifice of the Mass.

The Church in Latin America cannot replace the Messiah who rode humbly into Jerusalem on a donkey, with a mighty conqueror wielding a sword, as Liberation Theologians might prefer.

The Church in the USA cannot approve dissent from Humanae Vitae which resonates the natural law with its ban on contraception; nor can it legitimize divorce with remarriage.

The Church in Asia cannot be genuine without adopting all the teachings that Christ commissioned the apostles to proclaim even from the roof-tops: "Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you" (Mt 28:20). That includes dogmas and commandments now specified in the Catechism. Nor can the Church in Asia compromise the position of Christ as THE teacher by placing Him side by side with competitive teachers of ancient and hallowed world religions: "But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students" [Mat 23:8].

2) Dusting off the Chair: Note also that John XXIII wanted the Council to "shake off the imperial dust that has accumulated on the throne of Saint Peter since Constantine." He didnt want to change chairs. The old chair was to remain just where it was while it was being dusted.

The Vatican II document Christus Dominus presents specific provisions for Episcopal Conferences, and mentions their function as "a council in which the bishops of a given nation or territory jointly exercise their pastoral office ..." (No. 38.1). Canon Law follows through with provisions for Federations, such as the FABC: Cn 459 1. "Relations between conferences of bishops, especially neighboring ones, are to be fostered in order to promote and protect the greater good."

It should be noted that the Church does not attribute special teaching authority (munus docendi) to these bodies. We are wrong, therefore, if we expect Episcopal Conferences and Federations to have the backing of Christ if they teach doctrines that the Church does not teach (e.g. the legitimacy of possessing atomic weapons, homosexuality, contraception, divorce and re-marriage). When Peter raised his voice on Pentecost and accused those who crucified the Lord. the power of Christ went with the words, and 3000 of those who heard repented and were baptized. If Episcopal Conferences would raise voices to teach new doctrine, the power of Christ would not support them. Individual bishops teach their diocesan flocks authentically, and all bishops teach with the power of Christ when joined to the Chair of Peter. But Christ looks the other way when episcopal conferences try to teach new doctrines.

Dissent from Humanae Vitae

Nevertheless, some Episcopal Conferences put an unauthorized spin upon message of Humanae Vitae in 1868, speaking as though with a forked tongue, for example:

If somebody, notwithstanding his good will to fulfill the directives of the encyclical [Humanae Vitae] is unable to observe it in some matters because of objective and necessary circumstances, he should never think himself separated from the love of God. Rather we advise them to deepen their trust in God, and to participate fervently in the works of the Church and to receive the sacraments."

The words are open to a catastrophic interpretation of the worst kind. They could mean that those who think they must contracept are invited by the bishops to receive the Sacraments - Confession and Holy Communion - without undergoing a conversion and making a firm purpose of amendment. Apparently that is exactly how many interpret the cryptic statement. Martin Luther once gave this blasphemous advice: "Pecca fortiter, et confide fortius" (Sin bravely and trust even more strongly). Catholic bishops may never give that kind of advice.

It was, and it is, a mistake to believe that Episcopal Conferences have the power of Christ to teach nations authentically on their own, if what they teach is beyond what the Church teaches. They can resonate Church teachings that already exist, but they cannot put an unauthorized "spin" on Church teachings, or produce a new teaching, (unless the vote is unanimous and the Chair of Peter gives it a recognitio.)

We ought not to expect from conferences powers to teach differently than Peter and the Church. Vatican II had apparently not made this point sufficiently clear. But we should not blame Vatican II for some of the things that were done beyond the control of the Council after it had adjourned.

Dissent after some previous Councils

There are precedents of mischief after other Church Councils. After the first "Council" of Jerusalem, which freed gentiles from Judaic obligations, resolute Judaizers dogged the footsteps of St. Paul. In hot anger Paul wrote to the Galatians: "But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach a gospel to you besides that which we have preached to you, let him be anathema" (1:8). Judaizers no longer bother the Church today. And after the Council of Nicea in the year 325, which defined the that Christ is "Deum de Deo, Lumen de Lumine, Deum verum de Deo vero" Arian dissenters dominated politics for over fifty years, unseating orthodox bishops. Today Arians are a monument of history. We sing the Credo as The Council if Nicea worded it. So also Vatican II is a permanent fixture in the Church. Noxious interpreters will fade from the scene as the years roll by.

Yes, Christ was at Vatican II

My impressions of the Council? Yes, Christ was there in attendance. In the early Church, Christ worked miracles for Peter and the apostles. Today, Christ preserves the body of Blessed John XXIII incorrupt.

As we read the documents of Vatican II, we may feel an exhilarating Presence, the Holy Spirit welling up in our souls like "a fountain of water, springing up into life everlasting" (John 4:14). A visit by tourists to the Vatican today attracts so many people, perhaps, because Christ lives there intensely, and breathes forth upon visitors an exalting breath of the Holy Spirit, reminiscent of what the Fathers felt during Vatican II.