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In assessing the milestones created by Vatican II, it is important to keep in mind that, not only did Vatican II experience the election of a new pope in mid-stream, which brought about a new configuration and a somewhat different dynamic to the procedures, but there is also the difficulty to determine what precisely are conciliar documents. Technically, of course, only documents approved by the entire body of council members are official contributions to the body of church doctrine by Vatican II. Yet, in the course of the three years of the various sessions, a host of other documents saw the light of day, notably papal encyclicals, such as John XXIII’s testament of sorts, Pacem in Terris. Nominally not part of Vatican II procedures, the most important of such additional documents made public during the years of the council—and during the more than two years of the preparatory period— crucially influenced council procedures and attitudes. One should, moreover, note that such papal encyclicals were often more uncompromising and ‘radical’ documents than straightforward council decrees, declarations, and constitutions, as a pope did not have to heed expert advice by others in the course of the encyclicals’ formulation to the same extent as the makers of products of council debates constantly reformulated by various committees.


Alberigo, Brief History, p. 12.


Alberigo, Brief History, p. 26.

In fact, council documents were invariably products of long-winded discussions, drafts, redrafts, and all sorts of negotiations, so that the final product was often a compromise solution, including hidden and not-so-hidden inbuilt contradictions that make interpretations of certain text passages difficult at best. Paul VI’s tendency to go to greater lengths than John XXIII in order to soften the impact of the progressive majority’s numerical preponderance at the council on the traditionalist and conservative minority further emphasizes the ‘contradictory pluralism’ which, in effect, in the end, often shaped the ultimate documents.[1] And literally the entire corpus of Vatican II documents was voted on and approved with Paul VI in the Holy See, rather than the less hesitant John XXIII! Small wonder that, in Giuseppe Alberigo’s words: ‘The Council as a whole, the Council majority, and the directive bodies coordinated by the majority gradually lost cohesion and efficiency. The sense that the body of bishops was the real main character of the Council, a sense that had been widespread during the first two periods, began to lose its intoxicating effect. What came to replace it, in addition to a greater sense of uneasiness, was a certain sense of fatigue.’[2] Still, Vatican II became the keynote event in twentieth-century Catholic history not because of the sometimes acrimonious dissensions amongst church fathers or its compromise formulations, but more importantly because of its conclusions voted on and approved.

  • [1] Note the cogent discussion of the multiple factors playing a role in the formulation ofcouncil documents in Peter Hunermann, ‘Redecouvrir le “texte” passe inaperju. A propos del’hermeneutique du concile’, in Melloni and Theobald (eds), Vatican II, pp. 251-4. A brilliantguide towards an interpretation of key texts of official church doctrine, above all the documentsemanating from Vatican II, can be consulted with much profit in the section entitled, ‘Exkurs.Regeln zur Interpretation kirchenamtlicher Texte—und insbesondere des Zweiten Vatikan-ischen Konzils’, in Otto Hermann Pesch, Das Zweite Vatikanische Konzil (1962-1965).Vorgeschichte—Verlauf—Ergebnisse—Nachgeschichte (Wurzburg: Echter, 1993), pp. 148-60.
  • [2] Alberigo, Brief History, p. 90. The changing context and atmosphere of the later sessionsare well described in Luis Antonio Gokim Tagle, ‘The “Black Week” of Vatican II (November14-21, 1964)’, in Giuseppe Alberigo and Joseph A. Komonchak (eds), History of Vatican II,Vol. IV: Church as Communion. Third Period and Intersession (September 1964-September 1965)(Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2003), pp. 386-452, a week during which various tensions came toa head.
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