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What Happened at Vatican II Paperback – April 12, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
From 1961 to 1965, the world closely watched the proceedings of Vatican II, the Catholic Church's council on the condition and future of the faith. Georgetown historian O'Malley presents the most thorough account of the proceedings of the council itself, from the time it was declared in 1959 until its conclusion in 1965, fulfilling the book's title. O'Malley gives a thorough and detailed history of the event, situating it in the longer history of the church and previous councils. But the bulk of the book concerns the characters and controversies of Vatican II itself, the biggest meeting in the history of the world. Though challenged by a conservative minority, the progressive majority of Vatican II reoriented and refashioned the Catholic Church: opening it to ecumenical relations, declaring its support for religious liberty and ending the practice of the Latin Mass. Infusing the council was the spirit of aggiornamento—Italian for updating. O'Malley shows how Vatican II allowed the church to modernize while also remaining true to its traditions and convictions. (Sept.)
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This remarkable book, in places a veritable page-turner, not only recaptures the drama and the struggles of Vatican II, but gets to the very heart of the issues under all the many ramifying words and acts of the Council. The reader can see how awkward and inadequate the familiar oppositions of liberal/conservative and progressive/reactionary are to the passionate struggles that took place. In fact, it was only through a recovery of Biblical and Patristic sources that Vatican II managed to return the Catholic Church to the twentieth-century world, and to open a dialogue which the traumas of the Reformation and French Revolution had inhibited. (Charles Taylor, author of A Secular Age)
In this elegant and erudite book, the dean of American historians of Christianity tells the story of Vatican II. As a student, John O'Malley attended sessions of the Council. Now he shows us what happened, sets the Council before a richly reconstructed historical background, and makes clear why it still matters so much. His book will be essential reading for anyone interested in the modern history of the Catholic Church. (Anthony Grafton)
This is a masterful presentation. It carries the reader deeper into the reality and outcome of Vatican II than do the other existing books on the Council. (Jared Wicks, Professor Emeritus, Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome)
What Happened at Vatican II offers a one-volume history of the Second Vatican Council that not only tells the story in a way that brings out its drama, but, more importantly, calls the reader's attention to distinctive features of this council that are crucial for its interpretation. I do not know of any one volume that compares with this book for an in-depth account of what happened at Vatican II and of the factors that were at play in this major event in the life of the church. (Francis Sullivan, Boston College)
It is an axiom that Ecumenical Councils take 50 years to assimilate and digest. If so, this clear and readable account of Vatican II is right on time―and on target. O'Malley's characteristic concision and wide learning luster every page. (Kenneth L. Woodward, Newsweek Contributing Editor and author of Making Saints)
With characteristic acumen and grace, John O'Malley has written a splendid book on Vatican II: the history, the meanings, and above all the enduring importance. Once again we are all in this great scholar's debt. (David Tracy)
From 1961 to 1965, the world closely watched the proceedings of Vatican II, the Catholic Church's council on the condition and future of the faith. Georgetown historian O'Malley presents the most thorough account of the proceedings of the council itself, from the time it was declared in 1959 until its conclusion in 1965, fulfilling the book's title. O'Malley gives a thorough and detailed history of the event, situating it in the longer history of the church and previous councils… O'Malley shows how Vatican II allowed the church to modernize while also remaining true to its traditions and convictions. (Publishers Weekly 2008-07-14)
O'Malley's book represents a gift from his generation, which experienced the council, to the cohort coming of age today. The signal accomplishment of the book is synthesis. In just four hundred pages, O'Malley provides a thorough yet gripping overview of the lead-up to the council and each of its four sessions. He wisely avoids lengthy quotations from the sixteen documents produced by the council, which are sometimes written in opaque, 'churchy' language. Instead, he captures the main points of the texts, as well as the floor debates and behind-the-scenes struggles that generated the council's drama. He thus fills what has long been a gaping hole: the absence of a single volume written at a popular level that provides a guide to the council―both its actual results and what might have been had the bishops headed in another direction… The book is a major accomplishment, which no doubt will help to keep the memory of the council alive. (John L. Allen, Jr. Bookforum 2008-09-01)
A gripping account of the drama of Vatican II as it played itself out over its four sessions from 1962 to 1965. Far from being a dry analysis of the sixteen conciliar documents, the book concentrates on the debates that frothed beneath the deceptive serenity of these documents. Personalities come to the fore in the contest between the minority of bishops who resisted change and the majority who favored it as desirable and necessary… O'Malley's emphasis on the importance of style is arguably his greatest contribution to understanding what happened at Vatican II… O'Malley's book is a helpful remedy for preserving Catholic memory. It rehearses not only what happened at Vatican II for a growing number of readers unfamiliar with the debates and documents but, more important, it gives them a way to think about what happened. (Hilmar M. Pabel The Tablet 2008-10-18)
Volumes have been written on the council, but O'Malley offers a fresh perspective by setting it in the historical context of earlier councils and by attending to the language of the documents as well as the personalities and politics of the participants… It should appeal to a wide readership, populated as it is by colorful characters and offering an original approach to the study of the council and an authoritative guide through its proceedings and documents. O'Malley conveys a vivid sense of why Vatican II remains a beacon for some and a burden for others in the ongoing conflict between conservatives and liberals―words that, as O'Malley makes clear, are inadequate to describe the complexity of the positions they describe, and the visions invested in them. (Tina Beattie Times Higher Education Supplement 2008-11-06)
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What strikes me about O’Malley in his narration and conclusions is his ability to make sound judgments without lapsing into judgmental excesses. Many commentators have found this balance hard to achieve in their own writings on the Council. The old assessment of Vatican II as progressive European theologians staving off a Machiavellian Roman Curia still lingers, particularly on Catholic blog sites. O’Malley does not run away from “prelates behaving badly,” but he provides an insightful overview of how those passions developed. Chapter 2, “The Long Nineteenth Century,” is an intriguing and balanced account of Church and society in the formation of Vatican II; the author dates this century as extending from the French Revolution (1789) to the eve of Vatican II.
The “nineteenth century” was the coming to full bloom of secular modernity; for the Church, there was no hope of turning back the clock to a time before nationalism, democracy, science, and separation of Church and State, the end, as O’Malley phrases it, of the “old marriage of throne and altar.” (p. 54) Given that the modern era posed physical as well as philosophical threats to geographic Rome—Risorgimento and the end of the papal states, for example--an embattled central church used the tools at its command: a fierce adherence to its past and a resistance to the present. The defensive posture of the Roman Church maintained itself through the election of Pope John XXIII.
O’Malley captures the scope of the Council in terms of size and cost with some wonderment that such an event as Vatican II could have taken place at all. The author does not idolize Pope John; he recognizes that the pope—a keen observer of twentieth century horrors—came to the Throne of Peter with a conviction that the times called for a new conversation between the Church and the world. Pope John could model what he hoped for in his messages and encyclicals, but O’Malley comments on the unwieldly machinery collected for the drafting of documents and floor management. Visionary as he was, John XXIII fielded an old guard administration.
The efforts of the Curia to engineer a brief Council in the mode and format of Vatican I are well known. But O’Malley explains the Curial mind without malice at numerous points in the narrative. If I may jump ahead to a telling episode on the debate over Revelation, “Dei Verbum,” in October 1965 the floor debate virtually ground to a halt over the language on the relationship of Scripture and Tradition. While a strong majority of the Council fathers endorsed a greater role for the Bible in Church life, the Curia lobbied Pope Paul VI to maintain a definition of Tradition as equal to Scripture. For Cardinal Siri, among others, any hint of diminution of Tradition as an equal revelation source would undermine doctrines of the Virgin Mary, notably the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, neither of which enjoyed a strong Biblical foundation. (p. 278)
O’Malley’s narrative incorporates three impulses driving the majority of Council fathers and their theological advisors: Aggiornamento, Ressourcement, and Development of Doctrine. “Aggiornamento” is a term often applied to Pope John’s “throwing open the windows.” In his addresses, John used the term favorably as a need to openness and change in the face of new challenges throughout the world. Aggiornamento was a mood; Ressourcement, on the other hand, was a technical theological term for a contemporary review of the primitive or early practices of the Church. “Perfectae Caritatis,” for example, challenges religious orders to return to the principles of their founders. “Development” too was a theological principle of exploration into existing teachings to consider new applications. A notable example is John Courtney Murray’s contribution to the Council’s “Declaration on Religious Liberty.”
O’Malley manages to produce a consistent chronology of the floor proceedings despite considerable odds. Among them was uncertainty over just how long the Council would last. That Vatican II extended over four years came as a gradual surprise and point of concern for bishops—and certainly to the Curia, which had hoped for a one-session conclave of several weeks. Once the original plan for the Council was scuttled, its proceedings were managed by Curial moderators in a fashion of haphazardness, an unevenness of clock management, and a maddeningly disjointed daily agenda of serious debate interrupted frequently by calls to vote on schemas or portions of schemas on entirely different subjects. Hardly a Roberts Rules convocation.
As a result, many bishops from the “third world” and the Eastern rite churches received precious little attention to their pressing concerns by Council’s end. Moreover, some documents were written hastily (on “Social Communications,” for example) so that precious time could be allotted to major doctrinal and pastoral concerns. The author speaks positively of the bishops themselves—their openness to Pope John’s vision, their own theological acumen or their selection of competent advisors, and their willingness to tackle controversial questions from the start: the “Sacred Constitution on the Liturgy” was the first document promulgated.
In his final chapter, “Conclusion,” O’Malley does offer a telling assessment of perhaps the biggest error of the bishops, particular Western bishops: “They assumed an easier transition from ideas of the scholars’ study to the social reality of the church than proved to be the case.” (p. 292) Hence the turmoil when the bishops returned home.
The endnotes show extremely thorough scholarship... but the book itself is extremely readable, engrossing, a great work of study and synthesis which bears several rereadings. It is a wonderful way to discover Vatican II and understand its importance.
After that, read the documents that interest you most.
Fr. O'Malley's engaging writing style brings all of the major players of the Council to life. He eschews simplistic explanations and gets to the heart of the matter in each of the four periods that the Council met between 1962-1965.
At a time when some in the Roman Catholic Church actually repudiate Vatican II and attempt to claim that nothing of import really happened at the Council, Fr. O'Malley presents a vibrant and vital portrayal of the reform that the Council intended for the Roman Catholic Church. One of his most poignant insights is that those who would downplay the significance of Vatican II for the history of the Roman Catholic Church actually do the Council a great disservice by denying it the greatness that it had hoped for in its reform of the Catholic Church. Fr. O'Malley's assessment of the Council puts the lie to their denial.
You will not be disappointed by this book. Not only is it a pleasure to read, but it is also a repository of full and substantive factual information on what happened at Vatican II.