October 21, 2016

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

20th-century Church: More Vatican II documents

John F. Fink(Thirteenth in a series of columns)

Two important documents were promulgated during the Second Vatican Council on Nov. 18, 1965. The first was “Dei Verbum” (“The Word of God”), the “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation.” It said that God has revealed himself to his people especially through Jesus Christ, “and no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of Our Lord, Jesus Christ” (#4).

It said, too, that God’s revelation as it was completed in the New Testament came to us by Christ to his Apostles and from them to others either in written form or by their preaching. Thus, it said, there are two modes of revelation, Sacred Scripture and Tradition.

Receiving God’s revelation through these two modes, the Church interprets it authentically through its teaching authority, also known as the magisterium: “It is clear therefore that in the supremely wise arrangement of God, Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition and the teaching authority of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others” (#10).

“Dei Verbum” also acknowledged the fact that Scripture uses various literary forms, thereby canceling the fundamentalism that was once required to be taught in seminaries. It accepted the consensus of contemporary New Testament scholars regarding the authorship of the various books, and it encouraged Catholics to study Sacred Scripture.

The second important document promulgated on Nov. 18 was the “Decree on the Apostolate of Laity.” Prior to Vatican II, I was involved in what was then called “Catholic Action.” A lot was written about Catholic Action in those days, so I can still easily recall the definition of Catholic Action: the participation of the laity in the apostolate of the hierarchy.

The bishops in this decree reached back to a more ancient teaching of the Church that called every member of Christ’s Mystical Body to the same apostolate: “to spread the kingdom of Christ over all the Earth for the glory of God the Father, to make all men partakers in redemption and salvation, and through them to establish the right relationship of the entire world to Christ” (#2).

The decree emphasized that the lay apostolate is carried out “in the midst of the world and of secular affairs,” and that “men, working in harmony, should renew the temporal order and make it increasingly more perfect: such is God’s design for the world” (#2, 7).

Now the council was winding down. But there were still four documents to be promulgated, and that was done on

Dec. 7, the day before the council was closed. One of those four documents was the “Declaration on Religious Liberty,” which I’ve already discussed in this series. The second was the “Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church.” It has an introduction and then six chapters.

The “Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests” told priests to be attached to their bishops with charity and obedience; to cooperate with their brother priests for the building up of the Church; and to promote the role of the laity in the mission of the Church. It confirmed the law of celibacy for the Latin Church, but acknowledged that the nature of the priesthood does not demand it.

Next week: The final document. †

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