MILWAUKEE – With the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council less than two months away, participants in the first Forum on Faith and Work for the 2012-13 academic year received, depending on one’s age, a crash course about part of what happened at the council or a review of what the council fathers were trying to accomplish.

Richard Gaillardetz, professor of systematic theology at Boston College, told more than 60 participants at the event, sponsored by the St. Clare Center for Catholic Life in collaboration with your Catholic Herald, Catholics were “pressed about what the council was about.”

“We attribute to Vatican II changes it initiated and didn’t bring about, and tend to overlook those far more significant changes,” he said in introducing “Unpacking Vatican II: Opportunities for 21st Century Pilgrims,” Friday. Aug. 17, at the Milwaukee Athletic Club.

Reminding the group that what he was sharing was a condensed version of a semester-long course on Vatican II, Gaillardetz noted three “dynamisms” at work during the council, including “ressourcement” – French for “return to the sources.”

“So many of the things at the council look like innovation because they were not part of Baroque Catholicism, but, in fact, they were the result of this process of ressourcement, where they were going back before the 16th century, before even the Middle Ages, to retrieve ancient insights, biblical insights, from our church – insights that were much of our theological tradition for the first millennium,” he said.

Building a ‘living church’

Gaillardetz explained that at “the heart of (Pope John XXIII’s) ‘aggiornamento’” (“bringing up to date”), the second dynamism, the council wanted the church to “take the riches of our tradition, but have the courage to say how can we best present those riches today….”

He noted that the pope’s view of aggironamento “did not mean sacrificing our faith at the altar of relevance.” Instead, it was to make the church a “living church.”

“Always, in every period, instituted by Christ, but guided by the Holy Spirit and so the task of the church in every age is to take our great tradition but then to say, ‘How do we apply it to the new and pressing questions of our age?’” Gaillardetz said.

In listing “development of doctrine” as the third dynamism, the vice president of the Catholic Theological Society of America noted that the bishops were cognizant “that there are fundamental teachings and convictions that have been are part of our tradition. The substance has been there from the beginning. As the church has traveled through time, it has had to reformulate those teachings to take advantage of new insight and to respond more effectively to new questions.”

He added, “Our church, as Pope John reminded us, is not to be understood as a museum filled with antiquities but it is to be viewed as a living garden.”

Insights valid today

Gaillardetz listed four insights that he considered important “for the church to claim today” – priority of baptism; call to engage in dialogue; eschatological humility; and lay initiative.

Quoting Pope Pius X’s 1906 encyclical “Vehementer Nos,” Gaillardetz said that prior to the council, the church had “two ranks – clergy whose task it is to lead the church; laity, whose task it is to docilely follow the initiatives of the bishops.”

The bishops of Vatican II, he said, focused on “disciple,” used 200 times in the New Testament, to speak about the “Christian faithful.”

“That is one of the themes running through the entire council,” Gaillardetz said.

This was evident in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (“Lumen Gentium”) when, at the suggestion of Cardinal Leo Josef Suenens, the bishops placed the chapter titled “People of God” before chapters on hierarchy and laity.

“We need to remind people that we’re first baptized Christians before we’re anything else,” he said, referring to the late Belgium cardinal’s intervention.

Gaillardetz said the council fathers were not pitting baptism against ordination.

“They were saying that if you want to understand ordained ministry, place it in the context of the baptized,” he said, adding that the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1547) “enshrines that teaching.”

Dialogue central to church life

The call to engage in dialogue was a shift from what Gaillardetz termed the church’s “fortress mentality – we alone have the truth, everyone else is wrong and mistaken so there is really no point in dialoguing.”

He noted that in opening the council, Pope John said that while the church had used the “medicine of condemnation,” it was now better to use the “medicine of mercy.”

Pope Paul VI reiterated that in his first encyclical, “Ecclesiam Suam,” when he wrote, “Dialogue is central to the life of the church.”

Gaillardetz said that the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (“Gaudiem et Spes”) incorporated Pope John’s words “unity in essentials; liberty in doctoral matters; and in all things charity” when it stated, “Hence, let there be unity in what is necessary, freedom in what is unsettled, and charity in any case” (92).

Indicative of the church’s view on ecumenism and ecumenical dialogue during the first half of the 20th century was Pope Pius XI’s 1928 encyclical (“Mortalium Animos”) on religious unity which  Gaillardetz paraphrased as saying, “We’re right, you’re wrong, come back to us.”

He said the council’s approach was different.

“When we engage the world, we should engage it with open eyes, that have seen sinfulness, brokenness and evil, but we must also have the eyes to see the goodness of the world,” Gaillardetz said. “So the council dared to say that when we go on mission in the world, we bring something positive to you, we bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but we also believe we have something to learn from the world and so there is a basis for genuine dialogue.”

Pilgrim individuals, pilgrim church

Regarding eschatological humility, Gaillardetz said that the council reworked Lumen Gentium to note that “not just that we are a church comprised of individual pilgrims, but we are a pilgrim church, that the church itself is pilgrim, that the church itself is on a journey.”

The humility, he said, referencing Gaudium et Spes, means the church admitting it doesn’t have the answer to every question.

“With humility, we bring what we have, but we go with humility to the world in partnership because that doesn’t mean we have every answer; there are tough questions facing our world today and you can’t look up in the Bible chapter and verse that addresses the ethics of in vitro fertilization or how best to move from fossil fuel to clean energy,” Gaillardetz said. “You’ll find wisdom, you’ll find guidance, but not obvious answers about how to affect that transition.”

‘Imitate Christ’

Gaillardetz said that while the council would not be one of condemnation, there was one thing it did condemn.

“The greatest error in the church today is the dichotomy in what people profess to believe and how they live their daily lives. We say one thing, we do something else,” he said about the bishops’ admonition, noting they instructed the faithful to “imitate Christ.”

Again emphasizing dialogue, and linking it with the imitation of Christ, Gaillardetz said, “The most profound thing our church can contribute to political discourse in our society today is not advocating for one party or the other, but advocating for a different way of dealing with disagreement.

“Charity, humility, and a concern not to win the argument, but a concern for the cause of good. This is what 50 years ago the Second Vatican Council called us to do, and may I suggest we have a long ways to go before we can say with satisfaction that we have implemented the dictates of the council.”