Review: Vatican I and Vatican II: Councils in the Living Tradition

Vatican I and Vatican II: Councils in the Living TraditionVatican I and Vatican II: Councils in the Living Tradition by Kristin M. Colberg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As Kristin Colberg rightly observes, there can be a tendency among theologians, commentators and the Christian faithful – especially of a particular theological bent – to see the Second Vatican Council as a ‘correction’ to the First Vatican Council. This is particularly true in the area of ecclesiology, the understanding of Church that is contained in the deliberations of these two Councils.

Colberg’s thesis, however, is that:

Vatican I and Vatican II are linked by more than just geography. Inadequate, noncontextual interpretations have led some the conclusion that these councils are mutually exclusive and that the only connection between them is their setting in St. Peter’s Basilica. This assumption proceeds from a false and dangerous dichotomy. Choosing either Vatican I or Vatican II is unnecessary because both Vatican I’s and Vatican II’s presentations of the church are authentic and interrelated representations of the Christian faith. Insisting on a choice between either Vatican I or Vatican II is also perilous because it contradicts the church’s own hermeneutic principles while calling into question its fundamental conviction about the presence of the Holy Spirit guiding the church. (p 202)

At the heart of Colberg’s argument is the belief that Vatican II stands in direct succession to Vatican I and, while Vatican I is usually and largely considered to be only about the concept of papal infallibility, both councils are, in fact, about the understanding of Church both internally and in relationship to the world.

Through an examination of the historical context of both councils, and by asking why, how and what both councils taught what they taught in relationship to ecclesiology, Colberg elucidates a compelling case for see Vatican II as the natural successor to Vatican I. Her assertion that because of the proroguing of Vatican I because of the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War (it was never reconvened) many of the other issues that were not addressed by Vatican I as originally planned remained loud silences in the Church’s self-understanding until they were subsequently picked up in the preparation for Vatican II and addressed during that council.

The argument is compelling if for no other reason that it puts forward a way of reconciling what is often seen as two different ecclesiologies from two different councils. It is possible, when viewed together and in succession to each other, to see Vatican II completing the unfinished work of Vatican I in the area of ecclesiology and thus coming to a fuller and more complete understanding of the self-understanding of the Church and the Church’s relationship with the world.

A very well-constructed and engaging read.

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Article by Andrew Doohan

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