Commentary on Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church
I will be adopting a slightly different style for the remaining documents of Vatican II, choosing short sections (perhaps even phrases) for explanation, and posting shorter essays overall. In part, I am going this route because I have less time to work with than when I started, if I wish to finish before the Year of Faith ends. But another reason for this is simply the length of the documents itself.
This observation raises one difficulty interpreting the entire phenomenon of Vatican II. The documents are numerous and many of them quite lengthy. In the Tanner edition of the documents of all the ecumenical councils, the documents of Vatican II take up well over a quarter of the entire text. This is the case in spite of its being only one of twenty-one recognized councils. And we should further note that the previous ‘record holder’ for most verbiage coming out of a council was accomplished by the Fathers of Trent, whose output was slightly less than one-half of that of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council. This means that the highly important first seven ecumenical councils are completely dwarfed when placed next to these two highly ‘Latin’ councils. The text of Trent is slightly longer than all seven of these foundational councils combined. This surely presents certain kinds of problems for theologians and other interpreters.
What are these difficulties? First of all, the sheer length of Vatican II makes the absorption of the texts a demanding process in terms of time and study. It is much more difficult to pin down central teachings, and then once these are identified, to unfold them with the guidance of the rest of the text. For example, many ‘catch-phrases’ came out of the council, but in my experience, they are frequently used out of context without reference to the rest of the text. But surely most people who use the catch-phrases are unfamiliar with the rest of what the documents say, even if they have read them once or twice. There is just a lot to mull over.
The length can also give the impression of greater magisterial weight, which I doubt the bishops were intending. If one sets out to become familiar with all of the ecumenical councils recognized in the West, one will simply spend a lot more time on Vatican II than Nicea I, since the former will take you about fifteen times as long to read. Yet surely Nicea I should enjoy a certain pride of place. I wonder how many interpreters of Vatican II actually attempt to read it in light of the great seven ecumenical councils of the first eight centuries (or even Trent!), giving theological priority to the central Trinitarian and Christological tenets articulated at those early councils.
This is a general difficulty in the modern Catholic Church in general. Popes are much given to writing encyclicals, adding more words. Building on precedents developed especially by Leo XIII and Pius XII, Bl. John Paul completed the transformation of the encyclical from simple ‘circular letter’ to full-scale intellectual monograph. Veritatis Splendor, his masterpiece of moral theology, runs to 80 (large) pages in the monastery’s collected edition (the book in its entirety runs to 900 pages, with brief commentary, and without including his last, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, on the Eucharist). In my experience, reading JPII is always a fruitful undertaking, and yet…
The downside of this flow of words is that, like all inflation, it tends to lower the value of the more central and important words that communicate the Word. “Value” is, of course, a human construct, and so we can always learn to ground our reception of the tradition in the liturgy and the Scriptures, as taught by our pastors in the faith. But for a modern, ecclesially-minded Catholic, this move is not obvious.
Therefore, I’m adopting this new approach not because it will save me time—it almost certainly won’t accomplish that. Rather, I hope to assist the reader by pinpointing the cardinal points of each text with regard to the background tradition and the contemporary need it was intended to address. I hope that this approach will prove to be more fittingly ‘contemplative’, but you will be the judges of that.