Catholic Theology from Vatican 1 to Vatican 2: A Comparison

Abstract

This essay discusses the changes to official Roman Catholic theology that were made at the Second Vatican Council. It gives a brief outline of the socio-political context at the time of the first and Second Vatican Council’s so as to outline the factors behind the theological journey of the Catholic Church in this time period. It outlines several of the doctrinal positions that the two Councils took, highlighting the significant alterations in the doctrines of Soteriology, Revelation, and the Church made by Vatican II.  

 

Introduction

The Second Vatican Council’s approach towards modernism was the very antithesis to that of the First Vatican Council. The attitudes and theological assertions of each council were heavily influenced by the socio-political context at each time. Although much of Catholic Dogma was left unchanged by the Second Vatican Council some significant changes in Catholic Theology were made. This essay will evaluate the changes in the doctrines of Soteriology, Revelation, and the Church. It argues that although most of Catholic dogma was left untouched by Vatican II, significant changes were made to the three aforementioned doctrines. These changes reflect a radically different attitude towards other Christian denominations, other religions, and the Church in modern society.

 

Historical context

In order to fully understand the change in theology between the First and Second Vatican Councils we must recognize the complex socio-political context at the different periods. The First Vatican Council was convened by Pope Pius IX, and was held from 1869 to 1870. First and foremost, it was called in response to the echoes of the Enlightenment period with its emphasis on the authority of human reason, the increasing levels of dominance by non Catholic political structures, and attacks on the Church’s worldly power and influence[1]. Pope Pius IX’s main interest in convening the Council was safeguarding Orthodoxy and reasserting the Church’s dominance over and against the threats of enlightenment rationalism’s criticism of the Scriptures and the Church’s doctrines, as well as attacks on the Church’s worldly power and wealth[2]. The Council sought to define the nature of the Church over and against the non Christian philosophies that had undermined the basis of Christian authority[3]. It rejected Naturalism, Rationalism, and Pantheism and reasserted the unique, exclusive, and supernatural nature of Christian revelation[4].  The Council produced two controversial documents before it was forced to end due to the breakout of the Franco-Prussian war[5]. Overall the Council had an attitude of re-entrenchment[6]. It followed in the footsteps of Jacques-Benigne Bossuet (1627- 1704), emphatically reasserting the constancy of the Catholic tradition, and the same boundaries of Catholic orthodoxy as that before the Council[7]. In the First Vatican Council one can see a reaction to the enlightenment akin to that of the fundamentalist Protestant emphasis on the inerrant scriptures.

 

The Second Vatican Council was called by Pope John Paul XXIII on December 25, 1961[8].  The years between the Councils saw the emergence of Catholic modernism within the Roman Church, as well as the rise of prominent progressive theologians such as Karl Rahner and Hans Kung, whose theological assertions influenced those promulgated at Vatican II[9]. The Church was no longer limited to Europe, after years of evangelization Catholicism had made its way into many parts of the world. This, coupled with rationalistic thinking forced the Church to deal with the difficult questions arising from religious pluralism. In the half century before Vatican II the human race had seen two horrific worldwide wars and a global economic depression[10]. This lead to a widespread rejection of enlightenment rationalism and its myth of human progress, and allowed an opportunity for the Church to once again offer the hope of the Christian Gospel. One can see that these significant historical events were in John Paul’s mind when he acknowledged the need for the Council in his speech that convoked the council in 1961[11]. John Paul recognised the twilight of enlightenment rationalism and the need to modernize the Church. He accepted the scientific and technological conquests of modernity while rejecting its exclusion of God from society, and acknowledged that changes had to be made in Church doctrine and practice to bring the modern world into contact with the Gospel once again.  The Council produced sixteen documents of which scholars consider three to be the most significant. They are Lumen Gentium, Gaudium et Spes and Dignitatis Humanae[12]. Overall the Council promulgated many changes to doctrine and practice[13]. The attitude of the Second Vatican Council was totally different to the first. While Vatican I had an attitude of reentrenchment, Vatican II had an attitude of reform and renewal and sought to dialogue with the modern world. For example the Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes states:

 

“To carry out such a task, the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel.”[14]

 

At Vatican II the Church recognized its duty of addressing the concerns of a changing world in order to continue to communicate the Christian Gospel[15]. Although Church dogma was untouched by the Council, it promulgated some significant changes to important doctrines. These changes reflected a positive and inclusive attitude towards other Christian denominations and non Christian religions.

 

Soteriology and Other Faiths

The doctrine of Soteriology underwent a radical transformation at Vatican II. Vatican I asserted that Catholics were saved by faith. For the Church at Vatican I, faith was understood as an ascent to belief in certain propositions that the Church presented as divinely revealed. Faith was made possible by the illumination and inspiration of the Holy Spirit and was only available within the Catholic Church[16]. For example Dei Filius says

 

“Wherefore, by divine and Catholic faith all those things are to be believed; which are contained in the word of God as found in scripture and tradition and which are proposed by the Church as matters to be believed as divinely revealed.”[17]

“The situation of those, who by the heavenly gift of faith have embraced the Catholic truth, is by no means the same as that of those who, led by human opinions, follow a false religion.”[18]

 

As we see Dei Filius sought to convey that other religions are simply human opinions and followers of these false religions are not in the same position of salvation as Catholics since they do not ascent to belief in the Dogma of the Roman Catholic Church[19].

 

Although Vatican II reaffirmed that salvation was through Christ alone, the Council rethought the scope of the atonement and the situation of those outside the Catholic Church. The Vatican’s position moved from an exclusive view at Vatican I, which asserted that salvation is only available for those inside the visible Catholic Church, to an inclusive view at Vatican II, where salvation is available to all. One can hardly ignore the influence of the progressive theology of Karl Rahner on this new position. Rahner coined the term ‘anonymous Christianity’ and identified the acceptance of grace, which was necessary for salvation, with adherence to the human conscience[20]. The Catholic Church followed him in this regard, officially supporting the doctrine of anonymous Christianity. For example Gaudium et Spes says

 

“All this (salvation through Christ’s atoning sacrifice) holds true not only for Christians, but for all men of good will in whose hearts grace works in an unseen way. For since Christ died for all men, and since the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery.”[21]

 

As we see this document asserts that Christ died for all, so salvation is universally available. However, it breaks with Church tradition by proposing that since some people have not heard the Gospel then there must be another way of being saved by Christ’s death[22]. It even goes so far as to assert that God is actively working in these religions in an unseen way. Lumen Gentium goes further than this and asserts that people who do not have the knowledge of God or his Church can be saved by God’s grace based on their response to their God given conscience[23]. After a short discussion of God’s continued love for the Jewish people, Lumen Gentium specifically makes mention of the position of the other Abrahamic faiths before God.

 

“But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the creator. In the first place amongst these are the Mohammedans, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind.”[24]

 

In saying this, the Council appears to have been explicitly stating that salvation is available in a special way to those who acknowledge and love God[25]. Even though Vatican II reasserted that salvation comes through Christ’s atoning death, its doctrine of Soteriology was very different to that of Vatican II and was highly inclusive of all non Catholics.

 

The Doctrine of Revelation and Other Faiths

Vatican II’s doctrine of revelation is a considerable departure from that of Vatican I. Vatican I conceived of revelation as the revealed doctrines which are found in both scripture and Church tradition[26]. However, at Vatican II revelation was seen as God revealing himself, rather than doctrines[27]. The doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture which was asserted at Vatican I was qualified at Vatican II. Vatican II stated that everything God wanted put into the Scriptures for the sake of our salvation was inerrant, rather than the whole of the Scriptures.

 

Vatican II developed a new position on revelation in other religions. Vatican I sought to communicate the uniqueness and exclusivity of Catholic revelation over and against the false revelatory claims of other religions and philosophies[28]. Although Vatican II reasserted the uniqueness of Christian revelation it also acknowledged that other religions contained elements of truth which were either stumbled upon in the search for life’s meaning, or revealed by God[29]. In Nostra Aetate, a document which dealt explicitly with other religions, the Council outlined several positive aspects of non Christian religions, seeing in each a mix of divine revelation and human speculation driven by a desire for truth[30]. There is definitely a hierarchical nature to Vatican II’s view of the extent of revelation in each religion[31]. This can be seen in the structure of Lumen Gentium. The list begins by acknowledging the other two major Abrahamic faiths, commenting on their biblical foundation and their belief in and love of God, before then moving on to other non Christian religions[32]. It is clear from the structure and language used in Lumen Gentium, that Vatican II ranked the extent of revelation in each religion in accordance with its similarity to Catholicism, a decision which has undergone much criticism[33].

 

The Doctrine of the Church: The People of God

One of the most important symbolic changes set forth by the Second Vatican Council was the decision to define the Church as the “People of God” rather than the institution of the Roman Catholic Church[34].  This change was due to reflections on the biblical evidence, a push towards greater unity between the many Christian denominations, and a desire to emphasize the human and communal side of the Church, rather than the institutional and hierarchical aspects which had been overemphasized in the past for polemical reasons[35]. In defining the Church as the “people of God” the Council was including those Christians outside of the institution of the ‘Mother Church’ as part of the Church[36]. In this definition the Council sought to avoid any terms that signified a differentiation of membership in the Church[37]. To make this point clearer the Council made a concerted effort to assert that Orthodox believers in other denominations are also Christians and that these people are joined with the Catholic faithful by the Holy Spirit[38]. The view of the Church as the people of God was also intended to assert the importance of the laity as part of the Church[39]. In the document Apostolicam Actuositatem the Council built on this foundation, asserting the priesthood of all believers and calling the laity to act in charity and to serve in their sphere of influence to advance the Gospel, the Church and the good of humankind[40].

 

 

 

 

 

Conclusion

There were several significant changes between the First and Second Vatican Councils. Vatican 2’s attitude of renewal in doctrine and practice and its dialogue with modernity was a far cry from Vatican I’s re-entrenchment of the Church’s former positions and its rejection of modernity. This change in attitude between the two Councils was heavily influenced by the prevailing thought and the significant events of their times. I have outlined three significant theological changes that were made at Vatican II. Firstly, the council adopted an inclusive doctrine of Soteriology, which proposed that Non-Christians could still be saved by Christ’s death. Secondly, the Council promulgated a new understanding of the nature of revelation, the inerrancy of the Scriptures and a radical view that there are varying extents of revelation in other religions. Thirdly, the Council altered their definition of the Church to “the People of God” and asserted the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. This new understanding of the Church was inclusive of other Christian denominations. These changes reflected a positive and inclusive attitude towards different Christian denominations and non Christian religions in contrast to the negative attitude of Vatican I.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

. Abbott, W. M., ed., The Message and Meaning of the Ecumenical Council: The Documents of Vatican II (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1966).

 

. Cairns, E.E., Christian Thought Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church (3rd ed. Grand Rapids: .

Zondervan, 1996).

 

. Casarella, P. J., “Modernity and Post Modernity” in The Blackwell Companion to Catholicism, edited by James J. Buckley, Frederick Christian Bauershmidt and Trent Pomplun (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 81- 95.

 

. Lane, T., The Lion Concise Book of Christian Thought (Sydney: Lion Publishing, 1984).

 

. Manz, J. G., Vatican II: Renewal or Reform? (St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1966).

 

. McGrath, A. E., Christian Theology: An Introduction (5th ed. London: Blackwell Publishing, 2011).

 

. Nicholl, D., “Other Religions (Nostra Aetate)” in Modern Catholicism: Vatican II and After edited by A. Hastings. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 126-133.

 

. Ogden, J., “Religious Liberty, Vatican II, and John Courtney Murray”. http://www.duke.edu/web/kenanethics/CaseStudies/VaticanII.pdf. (accessed 10 May, 2012).

 

. Pace, J. M. “The Soteriology of Julian of Norwich and Vatican II: A Comparative Study”. http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/obj/s4/f2/dsk3/ftp04/mq25203.pdf. (accessed 13 May, 2012).

 

. Pope John Paul XXIII., Humanae Salutis, in The Message and Meaning of the Ecumenical Council: The Documents of Vatican II, edited by Walter M. Abbott (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1966), 703-709.

 

. Straus, B.R., The Catholic Church (New York: Hippocrene Books, 1987).

 

. Vatican Council I., “Dei Filius: Dogmatic Constitution of the Catholic Faith”. http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Councils/ecum20.htm. (accessed 11 May, 2012).

 

. Vatican Council II., Dei Verbum: Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Promulgated by Pope Paul VI, November 18, 1965 (Boston: St Paul Books and Media, 1965).

 

. Vatican Council II., Gaudium et Spes: Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Promulgated by Pope Paul VI, December 7, 1965 (Boston: St Paul Books and Media, 1965).

 

. Vatican Council II., Lumen Gentium: Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Promulgated by Pope Paul VI, November 21, 1964 (Boston: St Paul Books and Media,1964).

 

. Walsh, K., “The Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem)” in Modern Catholicism: Vatican II and After edited by A. Hastings. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 151-156.


[1] Such as the French Revolution, Bizmarks Kulturkampf, Napoleans imprisonment of 2 Popes, and the Italian states confiscation of Papal lands. J. Ogden, “Religious Liberty, Vatican II, and John Courtney Murray”, 2. http://www.duke.edu/web/kenanethics/CaseStudies/VaticanII.pdf.

A. E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 5th ed. (London: Blackwell Publishing, 2011), 78.

[2] Ogden, “Religious Liberty”, 2.

[3] B.R. Straus, The Catholic Church (New York: Hippocrene Books, 1987), 136. Modernism asserted the principle authority of human reason using deductive reasoning and the scientific method to discover knowledge about God and the universe and applied new forms of criticism to the Biblical text and Church tradition. Ogden, “Religious Liberty”, 3.

“Thereupon there came into being and spread far and wide throughout the world that doctrine of rationalism or naturalism, – utterly opposed to the Christian religion, since this is of supernatural origin.”  Vatican Council I, “Dei Filius: Dogmatic Constitution of the Catholic Faith”. http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Councils/ecum20.htm.  

[4] Straus, The Catholic Church, 136. “There came into being and spread far and wide throughout the world that doctrine of rationalism or naturalism, – utterly opposed to the Christian religion, since this is of supernatural origin, – which spares no effort to bring it about that Christ, who alone is our lord and saviour, is shut out from the minds of people and the moral life of nations.” Vatican Council I, “Dei Filius: Dogmatic Constitution of the Catholic Faith”.

[5] These were called Dei Filius ‘the Dogmatic Constitution of the Catholic Faithand Pastor Aeternus ‘the Dogmatic Constitution of the Catholic Church’. Ogden, “Religious Liberty”, 3-4.

[6] Ogden, “Religious Liberty”, 3.

[7] McGrath, Christian Theology, 78. Apart from the Infallibility of the Pope and the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception which became articles of faith for Catholic Christians.  J. G. Manz, Vatican II: Renewal or Reform? (St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1966), 23.

[8] The Pope consulted a broad range of ecclesial bodies to determine the issues that the council would address. Ogden, “Religious Liberty”, 9.

[9] Catholic modernism is a movement akin to that of liberal Protestantism. They accepted the most sceptical conclusions of biblical criticism and asserted that the doctrines of the Bible, Pope, and tradition were not infallible.  They were excommunicated by Pope Pius X and the clergy were required to take an anti modernist oath.  T. Lane, The Lion Concise Book of Christian Thought (Sydney: Lion Publishing, 1984), 215.

[10] P. J. Casarella, “Modernity and Post Modernity” in The Blackwell Companion to Catholicism, eds. James J. Buckley, Frederick Christian Bauershmidt and Trent Pomplun (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 89.

[11]One can see his recognition of these factors in this extract from his speech “Today the Church is witnessing a crisis underway within society. While humanity is on the edge of a new era, tasks of immense gravity and amplitude await the Church, as in the most tragic periods of its history. It is a question in fact of bringing the modern world in contact with the vivifying and perennial energies of the gospel, a world which exalts itself with its conquests in technical and scientific fields, but which brings also the consequences of a temporal order which some have wished to reorganize excluding God. This is why modern society is earmarked by a great material progress to which there is not a corresponding advance in the moral field.” Pope John Paul XXIII, Humanae Salutis, in The Message and Meaning of the Ecumenical Council: The Documents of Vatican II, eds. Walter M. Abbott (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1966), 703.

[12] Lumen Gentium “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church;” Gaudium et Spes “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World;” and Dignitatis Humanae “Declaration on Religious Freedom.” Ogden, “Religious Liberty”, 10.

[13] They were an inclusive doctrine of the Church, a new stance on Soteriology, a revamped doctrine of revelation, further lay involvement in the Mass and the life of the Church, a progressive stance on religious and academic freedom, and an embrace of modern critical exegesis, amongst others.

[14] Vatican Council II, Gaudium et Spes: Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Promulgated by Pope Paul VI, December 7, 1965 (Boston: St Paul Books and Media, 1965), 4.

[15] Casarella, “Modernity and Post Modernity”, 89.

[16] J. M. Pace, “The Soteriology of Julian of Norwich and Vatican II: A Comparative Study”, 36. http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/obj/s4/f2/dsk3/ftp04/mq25203.pdf.  

[17] This qoute is in the context of defining the faith that saves. Vatican Council I, “Dei Filius: Dogmatic Constitution of the Catholic Faith”.

[18] Vatican Council I, “Dei Filius: Dogmatic Constitution of the Catholic Faith”.

[19] It is important to note that since Protestants did not ascent to all of the Dogma of the Catholic Church and were not within the bounds of the visible Catholic Church, they were not thought to be saved.

[20] Rahner thought that even Atheists could be saved in this way. For Rahner, salvation doesn’t come from a knowledge of God or an ascent to a belief in God or a certain set of truths, but rather, it is due to ones response to him in their conscience, whether or not they know it is God they are responding to or not. Lane, The Lion Concise Book, 218.

However, the Vatican II parts from Rahner in that it states that those who hear the true gospel and see the necessity of the Church and deny the Christian faith and the Church will not be saved. Pace, “The Soteriology of”, 32.

[21]Words in parenthesis added. Vatican Council II, Gaudium et Spes, 22-23.

[22] Although how this exactly works is a mystery that only God knows. Vatican Council II, Gaudium et Spes, 23.

[23] Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium: Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Promulgated by Pope Paul VI, November 21, 1964 (Boston: St Paul Books and Media,1964), 16. This is another reiteration of Rahner’s position.

[24] Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium, 16.

[25] W. M. Abbott, ed., The Message and Meaning of the Ecumenical Council: The Documents of Vatican II (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1966), 34.The special mention of other the Abrahamic faith’s seems to imply a hierarchy of those who are most likely to be saved.

[26] Vatican 1 promulgated the inerrancy of both Scripture and tradition. Vatican Council I., “Dei Filius: Dogmatic Constitution of the Catholic Faith”.

[27] Lane, The Lion Concise Book, 216. This can be seen in the following qoute “This plan of revelation is realised by deeds and words having an inner unity: the deed’s wrought by God in the history of salvation manifest and confirm the teaching and realities signified by the words, while the words proclaim the deeds and clarify the mystery contained in them. By this revelation then, the deepest truth about God and the salvation of man is made clear to us in Christ, who is the mediator and at the same time the fullness of all revelation.” Vatican Council II, Dei Verbum: Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Promulgated by Pope Paul VI, November 18, 1965 (Boston: St Paul Books and Media, 1965), 3-4.

 This new position appears to have been heavily influenced by the doctrine of revelation asserted by the prominent Swiss theologian, Karl Barth.

[28] Vatican Council I., “Dei Filius: Dogmatic Constitution of the Catholic Faith”.

[29] This can be seen in Lumen Gentius where it says “Whatever goodness or truth is found among them (proponents of other religions) is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the gospel. She regards such qualities as given by him who enlightens all men so that they may finally have life.” Words in parenthesis
added. Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium, 16.

[30] Pace, “The Soteriology of”, 33-36.

    Manz, Vatican II: Renewal or Reform, 77.

    Abbott, The Message and Meaning, 661- 665.

[31] Pace, “The Soteriology of”, 39.

[32] Pace, “The Soteriology of”, 39.

    Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium, 16.

    D. Nicholl, “Other Religions (Nostra Aetate)” in Modern Catholicism: Vatican II and After, ed. A. Hastings. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 132.

    Abbott, The Message and Meaning, 34.

[33] Pace, “The Soteriology of”, 39-40.

[34] Ogden, “Religious Liberty”, 10.

[35] Abbott, The Message and Meaning, 24.

[36] The Mother Church is the visible Roman Catholic Church. Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium, 16.

[37] The Vatican did not wish to make it seem like non Catholic Christians were any less a part of the Church.     Abbott, The Message and Meaning, 33.

[38] Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium, 15.

[39] Abbott, The Message and Meaning, 34.

    E.E. Cairns, Christian Thought Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church (3rd ed. Grand Rapids:      Zondervan, 1996), 498.

[40] K. Walsh, “The Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem)” in Modern Catholicism: Vatican II and After, ed. A. Hastings. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 151-152.

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