VATICAN CITY – Fifty years ago this October, Pope John XXIII and more than 2,500 bishops and heads of Religious orders from around the world gathered in St Peter’s Basilica for the opening of the Second Vatican Council.

Over the next three years, Vatican II would issue 16 major “pronouncements” on such fundamental questions as the authority of the Church’s hierarchy, the interpretation of Scripture, and the proper roles of clergy and laity.

Those documents, and the deliberations that produced them have transformed how the Catholic Church understands and presents itself within the context of modern secular culture and society.

Because Vatican II was one of the monumental events in modern religious history, its golden anniversary will naturally be the occasion for numerous commemorative events, including liturgical celebrations, publications and academic conferences.

At a Vatican II exhibition at Rome’s Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls, which opened in late January and will run until November 2013, the displays include original handwritten pages from Pope John’s speech at the council’s opening session, and a Vatican passport issued at the time to a young Polish bishop, Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II.

Yet Vatican II is not merely of historical interest; it is very much a living issue in the Church today.

Scholars still debate to what extent the council’s achievements, in such areas as interfaith dialogue and liturgical reform, were organic developments in the Church’s history or radical breaks with the past.

And clergy and laity alike differ over how expansively to apply the council’s pronouncements, whether sticking closely to the letter of the documents or following a more broadly construed “spirit of Vatican II”.

Pope Benedict XVI has rejected what he calls the “hermeneutics of discontinuity and rupture” in the present-day understanding of the council and has called instead for interpreting Vatican II as an instance of “renewal in continuity” with the Church’s 2,000 years of tradition.

Exploring and promoting that idea will be a major goal of the Year of Faith that begins this Oct 11, exactly half a century to the day since Vatican II opened.

A relatively small but highly vocal number of Catholics reject the council altogether, charging among other things that subsequent changes to worship have undermined the solemnity of the Mass and that a growing openness to other religions conflicts with the need to proclaim salvation through Jesus Christ alone.

The most prominent such group, the Society of St Pius X, effectively broke with Rome in 1988, when its founder, the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, ordained four bishops without papal approval.

Pope Benedict has made reconciliation with the traditionalist society a priority of his pontificate.

As a condition of reconciliation, though, the Vatican has asked the society to give its assent to a summary of certain non-negotiable doctrines. These have not been made public, but they presumably include the major teachings of Vatican II.

In early December, the Vatican newspaper published an article by Msgr Fernando Ocariz, the second-highest official of Opus Dei and a participant in talks with the Society of St Pius X.

In the article, Msgr Ocariz insisted that all the teachings of Vatican II require nothing less than “religious submission of intellect and will”, and that even the council’s apparent innovations in doctrine are properly understood as in continuity with tradition. But he also said “there remains legitimate room for theological freedom” in interpreting them.

The same month, Fr Jean-Michel Gleize, a theologian who has represented the society in discussions with the Vatican, published a response. Perhaps the most striking part of his argument was his rejection of the hermeneutic of continuity as overly “subjective” and neglectful of the “unity of the truth” necessary in Church teaching.

Reading such an exchange, it’s not easy to believe that the Year of Faith will end with anything like a consensus on Vatican II. But as someone well known to think in terms of centuries, Pope Benedict will surely be neither surprised nor discouraged by the continuing debate. - By Francis X Rocca, CNS

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