Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, which opened sixty years ago on October 11, 1962, has not been an easy time for the Catholic Church. 

Benedict XVI, describing the council's tumultuous effects, conceded that the implementation of Vatican II had indeed been difficult. He attributed the difficulty to a “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” which he contrasted with a “hermeneutic of reform”—understood as renewal and change within fundamental continuity. In other words, some have failed to emphasize the profound continuity existing between the pre-conciliar and post-conciliar Church.

I believe one overlooked element of that continuity is Vatican II’s reliance on St. Thomas Aquinas. Some may be surprised at this. But soon after the great synod ended, the distinguished theologian and ecumenist Yves Congar, one of the principal architects of Vatican II, stated: “It could be shown . . . that St. Thomas, the Doctor communis, furnished the writers of the dogmatic texts of Vatican II with the bases and structure of their thought.  We do not doubt that they themselves would make this confession.”  

How does Aquinas’s thought structure the texts of the council? I am convinced that Congar is referring to the principles of participation and analogical reasoning, central to the Catholic tradition, that undergird several of the council’s major documents.

An example: Vatican II wished to uphold the importance of the priesthood of the faithful—a concept supported by the Bible and highlighted by Martin Luther and other reformers—but without undermining the ministerial priesthood. The council accomplished this by invoking two crucial Thomistic themes, participation and analogy. Jesus Christ possesses the priesthood in its fullness; he is, as Aquinas calls him, the verus sacerdos, the true priest. But both the Christian faithful and the Church’s ordained ministers participate in Christ’s priesthood—formally share in his priestly role—in related (analogous), but essentially different, ways. The draughtsman of Lumen Gentium, Belgian theologian Gérard Philips, would say about this point, “once again, we return to an explanation on the basis of analogy.”

Another example: the term “mediatrix” applied to the Blessed Virgin Mary. All Christians know that the Bible stipulates that there is one mediator between God and humanity, Jesus Christ (I Timothy 2:5). How, then, can Vatican II use the title mediatrix for the Mother of God without contradicting pristine biblical truth and detracting from Christ’s unique mediatorial role?   

To explain this theologically, Philips again turned to the themes of participation and analogy he had employed when dealing with the priesthood. Just as the priesthood belongs pre-eminently to Christ and only secondarily to others, so “the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a sharing in this one source” (Lumen Gentium). In other words, just as Christ is the exemplar of priesthood, so also is he pre-eminently the one mediator between God and humanity. But his unparalleled status does not preclude others from participating in his mediatorial work.

A third example: the term “subsistit in.” An early draft of Lumen Gentium stated that the Church of Christ “is” the Catholic Church while the final document states that the Church of Christ “subsists in” the Catholic Church. Why the change from unvarnished equivalence to a term that has caused endless debate?

The reason is clear: The bishops and theologians at Vatican II wished to maintain the unique status of Catholicism while simultaneously affirming the many elements of grace and truth found in other Christian churches.  The task was to show how other churches participate truly and formally, even if to some extent imperfectly, in the Church of Christ. While Orthodox and Protestant Christians are separated from the Catholic Church, they are united to Jesus by baptism. As such, they are members of Christ’s body.

The council reasons that while the Church of Christ exists “in all its plenitude” in Catholicism, other churches participate in Christ’s Church with different degrees of intensity depending on the ecclesial elements maintained within them (Bible, creeds, and sacraments). Just as Jesus Christ is uniquely priest yet others participate in his priesthood, so the Catholic Church is uniquely the Church of Christ, while other churches formally participate in it. If the council had used the term “is,” indicating simple equivalence, there would have been no coherent way of affirming how other churches are truly part of Christ’s Church.  

While no one expects Orthodox or Protestant Christians to accept this view without objections, this approach constituted a significant advance for Catholicism—a theologically sophisticated way to speak of other Christian churches, not as schismatic and heretical (terms often used prior to Vatican II), but as fraternally and analogically related to the Catholic Church.   

Consider a final example, drawn from the Declaration on Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate), the council’s groundbreaking document on other religious faiths, principally Judaism. The declaration presents Christianity as the fullness of divine revelation, with Jesus Christ acknowledged as “the way, the truth, and the life” through whom all are saved. But as was the case with other churches, Judaism and other religions are now evaluated from the standpoint of their proportional similarity to and intensive participation in the truth proclaimed by the Catholic Church. Other religions are not decried as outcroppings of error. They are presented as embodying elements of grace and truth—with different levels of intensity—and, as such, related to Catholicism. Instead of accenting the differences between Christianity and other religions, Vatican II stresses the analogical similarity between Christianity and other faiths. 

While the council documents speak positively even of Hinduism and Buddhism, they speak at much greater length of the strong bonds that link Christianity and Judaism. With St. Paul, Vatican II affirms that to the Jews belong “the sonship and the glory and the covenants and the law and the worship and the promises; to them belong the fathers and from them is the Christ according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:4–5). The council further recalls “that the Apostles, the Church's main-stay and pillars, as well as most of the early disciples who proclaimed Christ's Gospel to the world, sprang from the Jewish people.” Taking divine revelation in its totality, Vatican II holds that Judaism, while always remaining the fons et origo of Christianity, participates in the revelation found fully in the light of Christ. By invoking analogy, Vatican II was able to affirm “similarity in difference,” a bond of unity with others, even absent full congruency.

Traditional Thomist language cannot be found in Vatican II’s documents because John XXIII was convinced that the conceptual arsenal of the thirteenth century would neither advance ecumenical dialogue nor resonate with the lives of contemporary Christians. But while new ways of speaking were necessary, Thomist ideas form the basis of several texts. Indeed, analogical reasoning so saturates the conciliar documents that if one wishes to speak of a “spirit of Vatican II,” then analogical thought has a solid claim to the title. Indeed, I think one can speak of analogy as the philosophical style beneath Vatican II’s conciliatory rhetorical style.

Sixty years later, the conciliar documents have proven to be supple and resilient guides, and still appear lively and relevant. Importantly, the thought of Aquinas helped Vatican II to express the proximity of others—other Christians, those of other faiths, even those seeking truth and justice—to Jesus Christ and to the Catholic Church.  

Rev. Msgr. Thomas G. Guarino is professor emeritus of systematic theology at Seton Hall University and the author of The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II: Continuity and Reversal in Catholic Doctrine

First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

Click here to make a donation.

Click here to subscribe to First Things.

Image by RandomShadow licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles