Additional Lessons from the Second Vatican Council

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Most historians agree that the Second Vatican Council marked an important time in world history. The Council provided a new direction in the Catholic Church, connecting the Church to the world and contemporary issues of society. Whether Catholic or not, religious or not, Vatican II helped define the social responsibility we all share in service to the Common Good. And fifty years later, the Council provides important lessons at a time when mutual respect, understanding and civility are less evident in all walks of life.

Last week I shared the first important lesson that can be drawn from Vatican II … the value of dialogue. While I am a great believer in the usefulness of most technology, the impersonal nature of e-mail and texting has replaced conversation. And I am not sure why we think there is a value in limiting ideas to 140 characters on a Twitter account. Dialogue typically requires face to face interaction, the sharing of thoughts, ideas, feelings and perspectives. Dialogue leads to relationships. Dialogue leads to understanding. Dialogue is open and welcoming. How did 2500 bishops reach the conclusions that led to the Vatican II documents? They talked to each other. They listened to each other. They agreed and they agreed to disagree in a spirit of mutual respect. They welcomed and embraced dialogue. 

In his essay entitled, “Conversation Starters: Dialogue and Deliberation During Vatican II” (America, February 13, 2012), Richard Gaillardetz, the Joseph McCarthy Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College, suggests that there are two additional important “dynamics” that are instructive. One he defines as “humble learning.”   This lesson teaches us that no one has a monopoly on truth and knowledge. A bishop doesn’t become an expert upon ordination; a politician doesn’t become an expert upon election; and a CEO doesn’t become an expert upon appointment (not even a college president!).

According to Gaillardetz, and I fully agree, we must all become students and be open to lifelong learning. One of the most surprising and remarkable things that occurred in Vatican II was the willingness of so many world leaders to listen to others and understand that they needed to learn from colleagues who were more knowledgeable and more experienced. But even more, the bishops at Vatican II demonstrated an openness to learning not only from each other, but also from both the theologians and observers who were in attendance. 

And this openness to learning required a demonstration of humility. Gaillardetz states it clearly when he writes about Christianity, “Christ, our teacher, showed impatience only toward those who were arrogant in their certitude.” Humility is neither a sign of weakness nor a lack of confidence. Rather it is a recognition of the value of others, an openness to learning and a respect for the opinions and ideas of others.   This sentiment can be found in the Hebrew Scriptures (Micah 6:8: “…what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”) and in the writings of every religious tradition and ethical text.  Justice, kindness and humility … wouldn’t that be an interesting paradigm for leadership.

The final lesson we can learn from Vatican II is inclusivity. In his essay, Gaillardetz discusses the value of “openness to the world.” He argues that Vatican II in general, and Pope John XXIII who oversaw the Council in specific, understood the value of “respectful yet critical engagement with the world.” While I think this is a critical lesson for the various religious organizations of the current times, it may be too limiting a perspective as we consider business, industry, government, etc.

To me the best way to translate this concept for broader applicability is to describe it in terms of the value of an inclusive approach. It seems to me that the dialogue is richer, more learning takes place, and the decisions are better with more voices not fewer. The lessons from Vatican II are more dialogue not less, a humble awareness that we can all learn more, and that divergent and varied views and perspectives can only help.

Too often when we look at political campaigns, Wall Street and our religious and civic leaders, we wonder why they act the way they do. We wonder why respectful disagreement looks more like disagreeable behavior. We wonder why difference of opinion seems to include ad hominem attacks. History can teach us important lessons. If we look back 50 years, we can learn a great deal from the process of the Second Vatican Council. And, you know, it wouldn’t hurt to re-read the documents, too!

 (Your comments and ideas are always welcome.)


  • Guest
    Sr. Carol Proietti, SSA Alum Class of 1960 Thursday, 05 July 2012

    What a welcome relief to have someone remind us about why Vatican II was such a powerful experience, not only for those attending but for the rest of the Church members. I was a young Sister of Saint Anne back in the 60's. The Council offered so much hope in all areas.

    I remember the late Bishop Flanagan returning with the assignment to implement ecumenism. The Worcester Diocese was in the forefront. We finally began to break down barriers which separated us from Protestant and Jewish folk. The bishop appointed our own Sr. Therese Dion to lead the way. It was an exciting time - finally people speaking to each other - not pointing fingers.

    We Sisters even got directly involved in justice and peace issues - thanks to Cardinal Suenens and his groundbreaking Nun in the World.

    I followed a year-long sabbatical program for religious at Gonzaga University in Spokane, WA, 1983-1984. A periti at the Council taught us a course on Vatican documents. The last day he held up his copy of Vatican II Documents and said, "Sisters, hold onto this and demand its implementation. Some people are already dismantling the documents." I have never forgotten this. Slowly but surely this happened.

    So I thank you for reminding us that HOW the Council was conducted could serve us right now not only in the church but in politics.

  • Guest
    Joan Kelly Friday, 13 July 2012

    Dr. Calareso,
    I am writing to acknowledge your wonderful commentaries on the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. My battered copy of the documents (the original red covered text) is held together by an elastic, a testimony that teaching the documents has truly been my life. Favorite themes are Lumen Gentium's "universal call to holiness" and Nostra Aetate's recognition that all religions seek answers to "the restless searchings of the human heart." I do remember the day the Second Vatican Council opened on October 11, 1962. All of the Sisters at my Catholic parish elementary school engaged their classes in a "Hail Mary" for the council's success. And the rest is history!

    I continue to use your blog as my weekly academic meditation. The issues you present are timely and informative and I share your insights with colleagues and friends. This week's tribute to Father Brooks is well deserved. Father Brooks is well known down here in the Fairfield area too as Fairfield Prep has sent many students to Holy Cross. I recently explored the archives of Holy Cross doing American Catholic History research on the famous Healy brothers. Considered African Americans these lads from Georgia were sent North to Holy Cross by their plantation owner Irish father and bi-racial slave mother when Holy Cross opened in the 1840's and they went on to great heights. Both became Jesuits with James Augustine eventually becoming the Bishop of Portland, Maine and Patrick the president of Georgetown University. What a story! James was in the first HC graduating class of 1849!

    I am leading an American Catholic History tour to the Philadelphia,Baltimore, Washington area in October. Event is sponsored by both Sacred Heart University and the local diocese so it is a wonderful way to strengthen ties. I so abhor tensions in relation between the two and strive in all things for a spirit of hospitality and good will. We will pray at the tomb of John Carroll, James Gibbons, Mother Seton in Emmitsburg and visit Gettysburg where the local church's stain glass windows portray the work of Catholic Sisters as nurses on the Civil War battlefields. Katherine Drexel's house in Philadelphia on the way home. I regret few Catholic colleges tell this remarkable story either via curriculum or through more alive and vibrant mission and identity offices.

    My best wishes to you. I admire your good work. You and Dr. Garvey of Catholic U. (my alma mater) are among my picks for well respected Catholic college presidents.

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