I really enjoyed talking with Tim about Vatican II on the Catholic School Matters podcast. My fascination will the council began while I was writing my doctoral dissertation in history for Harvard University. My subject was a church reformer active in Rome in the sixteenth century, which meant I had to go to Rome to do the research. When I arrived there in the fall of 1963, the council was just beginning its second year—and I was living just a quarter of a mile from Saint Peter’s.
I got tickets for the several big, public sessions of the council, and I managed to sneak into some of the press briefings held every afternoon. I could hardly concentrate on my dissertation! But I soon saw a relationship between what my sixteenth-century reformer was trying to do and what was going on in the council. Thus, though my specialty was the sixteenth century, I began to teach courses also on Vatican II. I published my first article in 1973, and I am still writing on it today.
The council is an extremely complex affair because it addressed so many issues. Nonetheless, there is a simplicity about what it was trying to do, which I think the word “reconciliation” captures. In other words, it made its own in a more explicit and emphatic way the mission of Christ, who came to reconcile the world to the Father.
We must remember that the council met after the bloodiest half-century in the history of the world, at a time when the threat of nuclear annihilation had for the first time in history become a possibility, and at a time when a Christian nation like Germany had committed to horror of the Holocaust. Wounds had to be held. Working together was no longer a luxury but a dire necessity.
The council’s reconciling dynamic is revealed in the characteristic words in its vocabulary—brothers and sisters, cooperation, collegiality, partnership, friendship, dialogue, and so forth. These are reconciling words, which lead to reconciling actions, such as joining in prayer with persons of other churches or even other religions and joining with others in working for the common good.
The council showed the same dynamic regarding marriage. Before the council marriage was defined as a contract whose purpose was the procreation of children and providing a remedy for concupiscence. The council defined it as a partnership in love.