Vatican II - Voice of The Church
Vatican II - Voice of The Church

1985 Extraordinary Synod 25 Years On

By Paul Paniccia

Those who have an appreciation of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, especially if they also lived through the exhilarating years of the Council (1962-65), must be wondering where the Council's teaching sits as the Catholic Church enters the second decade of the twenty-first century. What has happened to the promise of collegiality, the role of the laity in the Church, liturgical reforms, progress on Christian unity, building bridges with other faiths through dialogue? It pays to recall key events which were influential in giving the Church direction, but are easily forgotten with the passage of time even of a couple of decades or so ago. One such event was the Extraordinary Synod called by Pope John-Paul II to 'celebrate, reaffirm and carry forward the work of the Second Vatican Council' on the twentieth anniversary of its conclusion which took place from 24 November to 8 December 1985. Its deliberations were encapsulated in the Final Report which was subsequently published.

The story of the preparation, proceedings and outcome was documented in an accessible style by Peter Hebblethwaite in Synod Extraordinary – The inside story of the Rome Synod November-December 1985 (1986, DLT, London).

Pope John-Paul II

Peter Hebblethwaite, author of papal biographies on Pope John XXIII and Paul VI, also wrote a piece on the thinking of Pope John-Paul II a few years after the Extraordinary Synod in 1990. In this outline (text available here) Hebblethwaite highlights the importance of the Polish background influencing Pope John-Paul in his outlook on the Council. In the pope's first address after his election he seemed to confirm his commitment to fulfil the teaching of the Council. However, by the time of the Extraordinary Synod those early intentions had not been recognisably attained and yet Hebblethwaite observes that in announcing the Synod Pope John-Paul speaks about the conciliar programme as having been realised. To explain this Hebblethwaite refers to the 1972 publication on the Council by Karol Wojtyla, Sources of Renewal, practically the sole work (in the Polish language) for Poles about the Council. The Council was made to seem content-less and essentially a spiritual experience for bishops attending the Council in the mind of Wojtyla. The Council appears as a 'wholly tranquil and harmonious event' as described by the future pope with the drama and heated debates and different theological perspectives at play omitted from the account. Furthermore, in his work Synod Extraordinary Hebblethwaite invites a comparison between Wojtyla's Sources of Renewal and Butler's Theology of Vatican II to demonstrate the difference in perspectives (p.23). Western theology aimed to exploit the new insights of Vatican II whereas Wojtyla simply described a spiritual experience. Hence, there was a qualitative difference in the reception of the Council by the Church in the west compared to that by the Church in Poland.

Whilst the then cardinal Joseph Ratzinger saw the Extraordinary Synod as an opportunity to impose a check on the dangers and excesses he perceived that had arisen in the post-conciliar years (expounded in his 1985 book-length interview published as The Ratzinger Report by Ignatius Press), Pope John-Paul saw the synod as an opportunity to recapture the spiritual experience, 'episcopally privatized', he encountered at the Council. However, Hebblethwaite, describes how the Extraordinary Synod effected a change of emphasis in conciliar teaching. In ecclesiology this amounted to reducing the People of God ecclesial model to a dangerous metaphor because of its 'democratric' connotations and extolling the Church as 'mystery' against a sociological or institutional framework. In its hierarchical aspect special attention was given to the Nota Praevia attached toLumen Gentium tilting the balance from collegiality to the primacy. The Polish bishops had proposed an alternative Polish version of Gaudium et Spes at the Council which was less optimistic because of their concerns with secularisation, closely associated to atheistic Marxism in the Polish context. Hence, the reference to discerning the 'signs of the times' was also not positively perceived as it had been intended in conciliar teaching, but simply a reference to events, normally awful, taking place in the world. Rather than the whole Church discerning the signs of the times this was to be delegated to the competence of the Church's magisterium.

The conciliar teaching on religious liberty, if not repudiated in John-Paul's mind, was certainly not celebrated. The concept was narrowly perceived as the liberty to incorporate Catholic moral teaching within the legal framework of countries. As for liturgy, a 1984 indult to allow celebration of the tridentine liturgy was seen to be a concession to the Lefebrvists, even though an October 1984 conference of liturgists suggested that liturgical reforms emanating from the Vatican II constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium had definitively and irrevocably superseded the tridentine form. However, as much more recent developments have shown this is another area where the will of the Council is being undermined by a determined minority wanting to maximise or go beyond the parameters set by Pope Benedict's 2007 motu proprio.

Walter Kasper

The now retired head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity wrote an extensive article (full text available here) on the Continuing Challenge of the Second Vatican Council a couple of years after the 1985 Extraordinary Synod, some time before his curial appointment. In part, the article was written to address concerns arising from the very fact of calling the Extraordinary Synod. The article was subtitled The Hermeneutics of the Conciliar Statements and begins by stating:

For many people at the time, the Second Vatican Council was a positively breathtaking spiritual event. Today, twenty years later, many find the conciliar texts completely alien, if they are familiar with them at all. The interest and hope which the council awakened has often turned into disappointment '“ indeed into a fear that the renewal which the council began is not going to be maintained and will come to nothing.

Emphasis has been added by bold type of text in the quoted extracts. Kasper goes on to say, 'There is no doubt that all legitimate expectations were not fulfilled. This is particularly true of collegiality, and the view of the church as communio.'

Having described three phases following the Council: exuberance, disappointment and post-conciliar development, Kasper says:

The church can therefore only move into the future on the basis of the last council's resolutions, and by implementing them conscientiously . A restoration in the sense of a return to conditions as they were before the council would contradict the very principles of that pre-conciliar period itself , according to which councils are the supreme authority in the church. Any such restoration would plunge the church into a foundational crisis compared with which the present state of affairs is a trifle.

What is at issue for Catholic theology, therefore, is not the council in itself. What is in question is the interpretation and reception of the council. The dispute is about this and this alone. For opinions differ about the reception of the council hitherto, and about the events of post-conciliar development. Where one person talks about renewal, another sees only breakdown, crisis and loss of identity. As long as the dispute is pursued within the limits set by Christian truth and love, a dispute of this kind is part of the church's life which, like all life, exists in tension . In the previous history of the church as well, almost all Councils led to crisis and upheaval. So the present situation is by no means unique. It is to some degree normal.

Kasper lays out the difficulties in deriving an interpretation from the texts of the Council documents:

It has frequently been pointed out that in the Vatican II texts 'conservative' and 'progressive' statements are often found side by side, with no attempt at reconciliation. People talk about purely formal compromises. For example, Vatican I's doctrine about the primacy and infallibility of the pope is not merely retained. It is reiterated several times, and is in this way emphasized and endorsed. But it is integrated into the doctrine about the church as a whole, and the responsibility of all believers, as well as into the doctrine about the collegiality of the bishops. Yet how this integration is supposed to be conceived and practised in individual cases is by no means clarified in the conciliar texts . So some people have talked about a juxtaposition, a double viewpoint, a dialectic, if not actually a contradiction between two ecclesiologies, in the conciliar texts – a traditional hierarchical ecclesiology and a new, better communio ecclesiology, renewed in the spirit of the ancient church. So both conservatives and progressives can find support in individual conciliar statements. And this lends all the more urgency to the question about generally applicable rules of interpretation.

Kasper proceeds to analyse the tension between the 'progressives' and 'conservatives' and provide a hermeneutical resolution:

The council's aggiornamento had its roots in what preceded it, a renewal from the biblical, patristic and scholastic sources. The 'progressives' at the council were in reality the representatives of the greater and wider tradition, as distinct from its neo-scholastic levelling and simplification. The concern of the 'conservative' minority at the council, on the other hand, was to see to it that recent tradition (represented especially by Vatican I) was not passed over and forgotten, in the course of this renewal from the earlier sources. This is a fundamentally legitimate concern, according to the Catholic view of tradition; and in the end the majority quite rightly accepted it. Admittedly , the harmonization between earlier and later tradition is often not completely successful; for—like most previous councils—Vatican II solved its task, not with the help of a comprehensive theory, but by pegging out the limits of the church's position.

The council itself, like all other councils, wished to preserve tradition. Otherwise it would have lost its raison d'etre. But—again like all other previous councils—it did not wish simply to reiterate tradition. It wished to actualize it and give it a living interpretation, in the light of the changed situation of the time. It did not intend to develop any new doctrine, but it did wish to renew the old. The theological language is aimed at and related to men and women in the situation of today, and may be termed pastoral. The word pastoral is therefore used in contrast to a rigid dogmatism, but it is not an antithesis to 'dogmatic'. On the contrary: 'pastoral' means bringing out the enduring relevance of dogma. Just because a dogma is true, it must and can be continually given a new and living impact, and has to be interpreted pastorally.

Kasper warns that 'the texts of the Second Vatican Council must be understood and put into practice as a whole. It will not do simply to stress certain statements or aspects only, in isolation.' He stresses that 'the letter and the spirit of the council must be understood as a unity.' Bearing in mind Pope Benedict's 2005 address to the Roman Curia where many believe he was setting up an opposing dichotomy of 'hermeneutics of discontinuity and rupture' against the 'hermeneutics of reform and continuity' (not simply the 'hermeneutics of continuity' as some wish to portray and promote), it pays to heed what Kasper stated nearly twenty years before:

It is therefore absurd to distinguish between the pre-conciliar and the post-conciliar church in such a way to suggest that the post-conciliar church is a new church; or as if, after a long, dark age in church history, the last Council had at long last rediscovered the original gospel. On the contrary, Vatican II itself belongs within the tradition of all previous Councils, and it is this tradition which it wished to renew.

The pastoral aspect of the conciliar teaching is also considered by Kasper to be of prime importance and the complex considerations of taking on board Church teaching in specific circumstances:

For what use is all our orthodoxy if it does not bear fruit in practical life? If we were to speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but had not love, we should be sounding brass and tinkling cymbals.

But where practical morality is concerned, general principles are not enough. Clear directives are necessary. And yet the particular situation is never merely a special case within, or subordinate to, a general rule. The specific situation also contains something additional—a surplus—compared with the general rule. So traditional doctrine also says that practical directives cannot simply be deduced in the abstract from general principles. They presuppose an evaluation of the particular situation into which the general principles have to be translated. This is where the difficulties begin. And it is these difficulties with which moral theology especially (but pastoral theology too) is having to struggle at present. For in evaluating the particular personal, cultural, social or political situation, the church has no particular spiritual authority and competence. Here it is dependent on human experience, human judgment and the relevant human sciences .

The council took this fact into account, and decided that in judging practical situations within the limits of the common faith, different political, social and cultural options are open to Catholics.

These principles, confirmed by the council itself, have consequences for the interpretation of the pastoral statements (taken in the narrower sense) of the council. In these pastoral statements a clear distinction has to be made between the different levels of a statement and their varying degree of obligation. To be more precise: a distinction has to be made between the generally binding, doctrinal foundation, the description of the situation, and the application of the general principles to the pastoral situation described . In the description of the situation, the council had to fall back on recognitions of a secular kind, for which it possessed no special ecclesiastical teaching authority. The binding nature of these situational definitions is therefore dependent on the validity of the arguments which are brought into play. Their authority is therefore essentially different and, above all, less than the authority of the doctrinal statements themselves. This in its turn has consequences for the application of generally binding statements about faith and morals to the specific situation. The obedience required here cannot be simply the obedience of faith, in the sense of fides divina et catholica. And yet this does not by any means relegate such statements to the sector of what is not obligatory at all, and a matter of pure choice. Nor are they solely disciplinary. Catholics are required to enter into such statements with a religiously motivated inner assent, and to go along with them. But this assent and response includes co-responsibility, spiritually and morally . The possibility that here the individual Christian, after a mature examination of conscience may arrive at a different judgment from that of the Church's magisterium, is in line with the best theological tradition.

Theological Assessment

The December 1986 issue (188) of Concilium, the international review of theology, was devoted to an evaluation of the Extraordinary Synod by several eminent contributors.

Avery Dulles saw the Synod as not about affirming or rejecting the Council, but how to interpret it. For him the Synod affirmed the need to pay attention to the interrelationship of the conciliar documents especially the four constitutions, one must not play off the pastoral character of the Council against its doctrinal import or, like Kasper above, oppose the letter of the Council to its spirit, Vatican II is to be regarded as in continuity with the tradition of the Church and 'we must allow the Council to enlighten us as we strive to read the signs of our own times'.

For his assessment, Joseph Komonchak focussed on ecclesiological issues. In his analysis of the Synod's Final Report he notes that there is only one reference to the 'People of God', which had been a whole chapter in the Council's Constitution on the Church, and then it appears as one notion among many. He goes on to say:

It had served as one of the architectonic themes of the Council's ecclesiology, and that it had been introduced precisely as an articulation of the very mystery of the Church in the time between Ascension and Parousia. Somewhere between the Council and the Synod, it came to be believed that to stress the mystery of the Church required one to underplay the Church as the People of God, to the point that some observers even speak of the Synod's having 'entombed' the expression 'People of God'.

Komonchak goes on to elaborate:

Neither the pre-synodal responses nor the synodal interventions required this development. Several of them indicated how significant and beneficial it was that Christians began to see the Church as the People of God. But already in the Initial Report, there is evidence of a suspicion of the notion. It appears, not in the summary of the fruits of the Council, but only in the section on abuses and errors, where it is used to illustrate superficial, incomplete, and even ideological readings of the Council's teaching on the Church. This alleged misuse of the term seems to account for its near disappearance from the Final Report, an astounding development for a document which warns against partial and selective readings of the Council's texts. (Italics in original text)

Komonchak's assessment was also reflected by Jean-Marie Tillard, the French-Canadian Dominican who was very involved in ecumenical dialogue, who points out the implications of this selectivity, or discretion as he terms it, with regard to the fundamental equality of all baptised persons:

Everything goes to show that the vision of the Church as the People of God no longer receives the privileged treatment which was indicated by its position in the structure of Lumen Gentium, even though when the descriptions of the Council recur it is to the fore, and even though we find a repeated assertion that the Church is 'a messianic people on its pilgrim way on earth' (11. A, 3; C, 2). No time is lost in condemning a unilateral sociological idea (ibid) which many people would treat as the result of a poor understanding of this notion. In his synthesis of answers to the preparatory questionnaire, Cardinal Danneels had selected as the main negative note the fact that 'in particular the idea of the Church as the People of God is defined ideologically and separated from other complementary ideas mentioned in the conciliar texts'”hence the inappropriate contrast between the 'People of God' and the 'hierarchical Church'. This fear of democratism leads to a very considerable degree of discretion about the concept under discussion.

A result of this discretion is the absence—even from the paragraphs on communion, unity and pluriformity—of any reference to the absolute equality of all baptised persons, to their common dignity, and to their common responsibility, which grounds and sums up the differences between functions and charisms. The short statement about the 'new experience of us all being the Church', with a brief reference to the 'new kind of cooperation between laity and clergy' and to the spirit of availability of the laity, does not express as strongly as Vatican II the dogmatic profundity of this community of belonging and destiny (II.B,6). In shifting the emphasis which Vatican II placed on the idea of the People of God, one has also happened on the implications of that emphasis. (Italics in the original text)

On collegiality Komonchak observes:

This section of the Final Report contents itself with a description of the sacramental foundation of collegiality, a distinction between collegial spirit (affectus) and collegial activity in the strict sense, and an insistence that the issue be posed correctly, not as a distinction between the Roman Pontiff and the bishops taken collectively, but between the Roman Pontiff by himself and the Roman Pontiff along with the bishops, a description borrowed from the famous Nota praevia explicativa. These remarks are followed by descriptions of collegiality in a broad sense ... What is interesting here is not only the very selective references to the Council's discussion of collegiality, the effort theologically and ecclesially to deflate the various expressions of collegial spirit, and the curious mixture of things considered to exemplify collegiality, but the total absence of any reference to the many problems raised in the responses of the churches, in the Initial Report, in the synodal interventions, and in the Second Report, about the practical implementation of collegiality. Here is the clearest indication that, in the Final Report, invocations of 'communion' and 'collegial spirit' have triumphed over frank admission of serious problems of structure and relations in the Church today. (Italics in the original text)

Tillard noted that a more pessimistic tone was evident in the deliberations of the Extraordinary Synod compared to the optimistic character of the Vatican II texts. The pessimism extended to a preoccupation with the Church in itself including pernicious tendencies within the Church identified as secularism and pluralism. For Tillard

the emphasis is no longer that of Vatican II, disposed rather to take the risks associated with 'dialogue', cooperation, welcoming questions, and sympathy (in the etymological sense) with all men and women who try to release humankind from harsh suffering. It is significant, for instance, that the declaration Dignitatis humanae on religious freedom is not referred to especially when there is mention of 'the dignity of the human person, the basic rights of man. Peace, freedom from oppression, impoverishment and injustice' (II. D, 3). Of course (and I repeat the point to make sure that it is grasped), it is a matter of differing emphases and never of a rejection of what was worked out at Vatican II. But this difference of emphasis shows how the Catholic bishops intuitively (or implicitly) believe that, in the great task of evangelisation entrusted to the Church (a theme on which the Synod spent some time), the moment has surely come for, so to speak, a diastolic effort by which vital forces can be brought to the heart for renewal. (Italics in original text)

Note Tillard's reference to the sidelining of the Council declaration on Religious Liberty consistent with Hebblethwaite's observation above about Pope John-Paul's attitude to this document.

Cardinal Aloisio Lorscheider OFM, a Brazilian bishop and former president of the Brazilian Bishops' Conference, outlined a number of concerns by participants in the Extraordinary Synod. In particular 'the main concern was with the internal problems of the Church, beginning with the concept of the Church itself.' The cardinal reinforces Komonchak's and Tillard's critique on the 'people of God' when he said,

the desire to stress the Church as mystery, and so the tendency to give priority to the image of the body of Christ and the temple of the holy Spirit, and not so much that of the people of God, was very evident. There was a fear in some quarters, hinted at rather than openly expressed, that the image of the 'people of God' had been misunderstood, and had given rise to a view of the Church which was 'sociological' rather than 'theological', creating the danger of a degeneration into a merely 'democratic' view of the Church. There was great stress on the idea of communion, much less on that of participation'¦.Also in this connection, there was some criticism of the principle of subsidiarity, which was felt by some to be valid in sociology but not in ecclesiology.

As a Brazilian there was particular disappointment for Lorscheider in the Synod's treatment of liberation theology:

The efforts made to draw attention to institutionalised injustice and the growing phenomenon of domination in the modern world were fruitless. They appeared in the final report and in the message the Synod addressed to the world as a change in the signs of the times. The preferential option for the poor as such appeared in very muted form, and without the necessary urgency'¦.The idea that the Church should change its position in society has still made very little headway at the level of the universal Church. Care was even taken to avoid the word 'liberation', which appears only once in the final report. The expression 'integral salvation' was preferred. For my part I do not see much difference between integral liberation in Jesus Christ and integral salvation in Jesus Christ.


A tangible outcome of the 1985 Extraordinary Synod was the call for a universal catechism which duly appeared in the early 1990's. A Commentary on the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994, Michael Walsh ed., Geoffrey Chapman, London) was published to coincide with the publication of the English language edition of the catechism. There were contributions from a number of highly regarded theologians. Robert Murray SJ, a biblical scholar, reviewed the catechism's first chapter and concluded:

Looking back on this chapter of the Catechism, one must appreciate how extensively it reflects the greatest teaching document on revelation and Scripture in the Church's history. Yet detailed examination can cause anxiety. The activity of the Holy Spirit among all members of the Church is underplayed in comparison with Dei Verbum [Vatican II's Constitution on Divine Revelation] particularly as regards scholars and teachers, whose role is only grudgingly mentioned; magisterium as centralised authority is emphasised far more than in Dei Verbum. But most disappointingly of all, the handling of the Bible and biblical interpretation is less than impressive, and opportunities are missed.(p.28)

Another contributor, Dermot Lane, in his review of the Catechism's doctrine of faith enumerates a number of omissions (p.44). He then says:

These particular omissions, however, are related to a more serious issue, namely the extent to which the Second Vatican Council has influenced the Catechism on faith. One of the aims of the Catechism ... is to present the faith of the Church in the light of Vatican II. Now it would be quite unfair and factually inaccurate to suggest that the Catechism does not draw on Vatican II. After the Bible, the documents of Vatican II are among the most frequently quoted sources. In spite of this, however, one gets the impression from time to time that the spirit and substance of Vatican II is not always the driving force behind the Catechism's treatment of faith. There are significant statements from Vatican II on faith that do not appear in the Catechism.

These comments suggest that the Catechism does not always fully reflect the teaching and spirit of Vatican II. Given that the Catechism is promoted as being the benchmark for Catholic doctrine those who are unfamiliar with the conciliar texts may, by relying on the Catechism, become unaware of the fullness and ethos of the teaching of Vatican II. However, in Catholic Church teaching the Council documents rank above the Catechism in authority and should be the ultimate reference to ascertain doctrine. The Council is the voice of the teaching Church.

Although disagreement with and criticism of conciliar teaching in some quarters already existed before the 1985 Extraordinary Synod, this event provided a platform to formalise and institutionalise a re-interpretation of Council teaching which would continue to gather momentum. The Catechism became an additional tool in consolidating this process. It was also aided by the longevity of John-Paul II's papacy as his participation in the Council and understanding it was determined by the Polish context, as described by Hebblethwaite, and his exercise of papal primacy over and against a collegiality intended by Vatican II ensured a revised direction from the one many anticipated in the immediate aftermath of the Council. Many feel that this revision is continuing under the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI at an accelerating rate.

In spite of these trends it is the objective of Vatican II – Voice of the Church website to present the Council and its teaching through commentary by authoritative voices especially those who had direct experience or involvement in the Council. Even though this may be 'like a voice crying in the wilderness' in the current climate the editorial team can only echo the canonist Ladislas Orsy:

Whenever the Fathers gathered at St. Peter's Basilica, their prayer was the traditional exclamation, Adsumus – we are present and listening. ... Now it is the turn of the universal people to say, Adsumus, to be present and attentive, and the Spirit will not fail them. All the more that the Spirit who 'hovered over' the Council did it for the sake of the people. He is adest, present, to them – intent to bring to good conclusion the work that he initiated, sustained, and completed through the ministry of his good servant Pope John and his Council.
(Receiving the Council – Theological and Canonical Insights and Debates, 2010, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota)

Further Reading

Vatican II: A Forgotten Future , Alberto Melloni and Christoph Theobald eds., Concilium, 2005/4