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A leading Catholic intellectual explains why the teachings of the Second Vatican Council are essential to the Church's future—and the world's
The Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) was the most important Catholic event in the past five hundred years. Yet sixty years after its opening on October 11, 1962, its meaning remains sharply contested and its promise unfulfilled.
In To Sanctify the World, George Weigel explains the necessity of Vatican II and explores the continuing relevance of its teaching in a world seeking a deeper experience of freedom than personal willfulness. The Council’s texts are also a critical resource for the Catholic Church as it lives out its original, Christ-centered evangelical purpose.
Written with insight and verve, To Sanctify the World recovers the true meaning of Vatican II as the template for a Catholicism that can propose a path toward genuine human dignity and social solidarity.
The Documents of the Second Vatican Council
The Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity
The Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity
The Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church
The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation
The Declaration on Religious Freedom
Gaudium et Spes
The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World
The Declaration on Christian Education
The Decree on the Means of Social Communication
The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church
The Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions
The Decree on Priestly Formation
The Decree on the Eastern Catholic Churches
The Decree on the Appropriate Renewal of Religious Life
The Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests
The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy
The Decree on Ecumenism
WHY VATICAN II WAS NECESSARY
Crisis? What Crisis?
AS THE CATHOLIC CHURCH RECKONS THESE THINGS, THERE have been twenty-one ecumenical councils in two millennia of Christian history. Few were placid affairs. Little wonder, then, that St. Gregory of Nazianzus (a man later honored with the title “Doctor of the Church”) should have declined an invitation to a meeting of bishops in 382 aimed at sorting out the work of the First Council of Constantinople: “To tell the truth, I am convinced that every assembly of bishops is to be avoided, for I have never experienced a happy ending to any such council; not even the abolition of abuses… but only ambition or wrangling about what was taking place.”1
The first assembly of Church authorities to settle disputed questions dividing the Christian community was the apostolic council in Jerusalem described in Acts 15.1–30, thought to have been held c. AD 48. Although not numbered among the twenty-one ecumenical councils, that meeting, called to resolve the question of whether Gentile converts to Christianity would be required to undergo circumcision in order to enjoy the salvation won by Jesus Christ, set the pattern for the councils to follow: a dispute, often sharp-edged; debates over resolving the dispute; a resolution that could command an overwhelming consensus, even if some refused to join the consensus and continued straining the Church’s unity afterward.
The first ecumenical council, strictly speaking, was the First Council of Nicaea, in 325. Nicaea I was summoned by the emperor Constantine to end the bitter, Church-dividing quarrel associated with the teaching of the Alexandrian theologian Arius, which was roiling both the Church and the Roman Empire. According to Arius, there was a time when “the Son was not”; that is, he whom Christian orthodoxy believed to be the Second Person of the Trinity—the Son who was “begotten” by the Father and who became incarnate in history as Jesus of Nazareth—was not God, but a divinized creation of God. The occasional bitterness of the debate at Nicaea I is illustrated by the story that the bishop Nicholas of Myra, who had been tortured during the pre-Constantinian persecution of the Church, and whose reputation for charity later became the inspiration for “jolly old St. Nicholas,” took a most un-Santa-Claus-like punch at Arius during the Council’s deliberations; the tale is almost certainly apocryphal, but nonetheless instructive as to the temper of the times. The orthodox view prevailed at Nicaea, and the Nicene Creed (still recited today) was written to confirm that Jesus Christ was “Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father.” Yet Arianism and related heresies continued to disrupt the Church for decades, even centuries, and variants of Arianism have reappeared in different guises until the present.
With the question of Jesus’s relationship to God the Father seemingly resolved, Church controversy focused on the question of the relationship between Christ’s humanity and divinity. Was Jesus truly God and truly man, or was he God in a kind of human disguise, as the theologians known as “Monophysites” taught? Was it legitimate for the Church to honor Mary, Jesus’s mother, with the title “Mother of God,” or was that formula unacceptable? Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople, took the latter position, which was condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431, where Mary’s title as Theotokos, or “God-bearer,” was affirmed, and Christ’s divinity thereby reaffirmed. In 451, the Council of Chalcedon (influenced by an epistolary intervention from Pope Leo I) declared that there was both a divine nature and a fully human nature in the one person of Jesus Christ. As at Nicaea, the bishops of those councils, held under imperial authority, may have imagined that they had settled the questions at issue. Yet contrary to the decisions of Ephesus and Chalcedon, “Nestorianism” and “Monophysitism” continue today, to one degree or another, in several Eastern Christian Churches.
Such delicately calibrated theological arguments, conducted via metaphysical concepts and a technical vocabulary unfamiliar today, may seem arcane. Yet they were in fact Church-dividing in an era when “orthodoxy” was thought to be something worth fighting about, even dying for. Perhaps easier to grasp was the Church-dividing controversy over those masterpieces of Byzantine art—icons—that drove Eastern Christianity into warring camps for the better part of a century and a quarter. At issue was whether the veneration of icons violated the Second Commandment’s proscription on making “images” of God (Exodus 20.4), and whether their use violated the Church’s understanding of Christ’s divine nature. In 726, the Byzantine emperor Leo III banned the use of icons, ordered their destruction, and persecuted those who refused to obey his decree; monks were eventually martyred in defense of their icons. Subsequent emperors got involved and the controversy raged on until, under the influence of the icon-revering dowager empress Irene, the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 affirmed the veneration of icons and allowed them to be publicly displayed. The controversy did not end there, however; imperial politics exacerbated it further, until the Iconoclast Controversy eventually burned itself out in the Christian East with the death in 842 of the iconoclast emperor Theophilus. Even then, bishops elsewhere in the world Church refused to accept Nicaea II, such that the Iconoclast Controversy in Western Christianity finally ended in the tenth century—only to be revived by the radical Reformations of the sixteenth century in their destruction of representational Christian artworks.2
Ecumenical councils in the first half of the second Christian millennium attempted to resolve a wide variety of Church-dividing disputes, with varying degrees of success. One of the more successful was the Council of Constance (1414–1417), which ended the scandalous “Great Schism” in the West, during which three rival claimants to the papacy split the Church asunder; yet Constance also created a centuries-long controversy over the relationship between councils and popes. Far less successful was the Fifth Lateran Council (1512–1517), so called because it met in the Papal Archbasilica of St. John Lateran in Rome: a failed attempt at identifying and then implementing essential reforms in the late medieval Church.3
Historians dispute whether Lateran V’s failures of analysis and prescription were primary causes of the various sixteenth-century Reformations; whatever the outcome of that debate, Lateran V certainly failed to resolve the grave questions of ecclesiastical corruption that were one reason for the Protestants’ break with Rome.4 The Council of Trent, held over eighteen years in three stages (1545–1547, 1551–1552, and 1562–1563), thus had to deal with the ecclesiastical results of the splintering of Western Christendom. One might have thought that the greatest Christian crisis since the Muslim destruction of much of North African Christianity in the seventh and eighth centuries would have tempered controversies within the Council of Trent. But like so many of its predecessors, Trent was a difficult affair, given both theological controversies and the resistance of some clergy and political leaders to essential reforms. Trent eventually gave Catholicism a well-articulated doctrine and a solid basis for spiritual reform and growth. But it took decades for those “Tridentine” reforms to be implemented, and at least a century for the teachings of Trent to become the common self-understanding of the Catholic Church.
As these examples illustrate, ecumenical councils typically sought to address, and, if possible, to heal, divisions within the Church caused by doctrinal disputes and contradictory practices that led to the breakdown of ecclesial unity, or, in the technical term, ecclesial communion. Ecumenical councils, in short, were last-resort responses to Church-dividing crises when no other remedies had been found. It might be argued that the First Vatican Council, held in 1869–1870, was not such a last resort. But Vatican I certainly dealt with two Church-threatening crises: the profound challenge to Christian faith posed by Enlightenment rationalism, and the (not unrelated) attempts by various forms of political modernity to bring the Church to heel by fostering national Churches subordinate to the state. By affirming the reality of the supernatural order and the possibility of knowing the existence of God through reason, and by defining the pope’s universal jurisdiction within the Catholic Church, Vatican I met at least some aspects of the crisis that had disturbed the Church since the French Revolution—indeed, since the revolution’s intellectual antecedents in Voltaire and those other Enlightenment thinkers and publicists determined to, as Voltaire put it, écrasez l’infâme: “crush the infamy,” the Catholic Church.
If ecumenical councils are responses to profound threats to the Church’s unity or its very life, what was the crisis that necessitated the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican?
That question was asked immediately after John XXIII announced his intention to summon Vatican II. It was asked during the Council itself, especially by those dismayed by the Council’s theological direction. And it continues to be asked today. So persistent a question deserves an answer.
The answer was given a century and a half ago by one of Catholicism’s greatest modern minds and spirits, the nineteenth-century theologian John Henry Newman, whom the Catholic Church now recognizes as a saint.
On October 2, 1873, Newman, a founder of the reforming Oxford Movement within the Church of England whose historical studies eventually led him into full communion with the Catholic Church, was asked to preach the sermon at the opening of a new English seminary, St. Bernard’s in Olton. It was a moment of great satisfaction for those who had long suffered under Great Britain’s anti-Catholic penal laws. Newman, however, chose to describe in the sharpest terms the challenges that would be faced by the future priests being trained at St. Bernard’s:
I know that all times are perilous, and that in every time serious and anxious minds, alive to the honour of God and the needs of man, are apt to consider no times so perilous as their own.… [S]till I think that the trials which lay before us are such as would appal and make dizzy even such courageous hearts as St. Athanasius, St. Gregory I, or St. Gregory VII. And they would confess that dark as the prospect of their own day was to them severally, ours has a darkness different in kind from any that has been before it.… [For] Christianity has never yet had experience of a world simply irreligious.5
For almost 1,900 years, Catholicism had contended with false gods, superstitions, and heresies. Now, Newman claimed, it was challenged by something new, different, and ominous—a world closed in upon itself, yet confident of its own powers to facilitate personal happiness and a just society; a world of spiritual emptiness that, as another English Catholic would later protest, had “no end beyond its own satisfaction.”6 This “epidemic,” as Newman called it, was widespread in “the educated world, scientific, literary, political, professional, artistic.” It had infected those who defined society’s mores and aspirations: the “thinking, speaking and acting England.” That it would spill out into all of society from the cultural elite, Newman did not doubt.7
In such a claustrophobic world, what would happen to modernity’s quest for a mature, liberated humanity, living freedom in justice and prosperity? If a society can only be as great as its spiritual aspirations, what would happen if there were no such aspirations—if the world should become, so to speak, ultramundane?
Eighty-six years before Pope John XXIII announced his intention to summon the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, John Henry Newman identified the crisis that such an assembly of Catholic leaders would have to address: the challenge of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ amid the civilizational crisis of a modernity that had cut itself loose from some of its deepest cultural roots.
Understanding that crisis and its impacts on the course of history between Newman’s prescient diagnosis and John XXIII’s bold initiative is thus essential to understanding the necessity of Vatican II.
Modernity as Ideology
THE CHALLENGE TO CATHOLICISM POSED BY THE MODERN world was fundamentally a challenge in the order of ideas and culture. There was, of course, a political dimension to the challenge, the gravity of which sometimes masked the depth and seriousness of the cultural challenge—as did the often wooden-headed approach to new ideas of certain nineteenth-century churchmen. To recognize the severity of the challenge that modernity posed to Catholicism, however, and to grasp what was at stake in that confrontation, means recognizing that “modernity” ought not be understood as merely “the ways things are.” Much more was afoot, according to conciliar historian John W. O’Malley, SJ:
Modernity is a handy catchword for summing up what was at stake. The thinkers of the Enlightenment turned their backs on the past, turned their faces resolutely to the future, and looked forward to ever better things to come. Among those things was a new era of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Religion and monarchy would no longer shackle the human spirit. Freedom of expression and freedom of the press were rights that could not be denied. No more religious dogma, for Reason was the only god to be adored.… Modernity had become an ideology, perhaps several ideologies, all of them antagonistic in some measure to Catholicism.1
“Modernity” was not just the way things happened to be in the modern world. Modernity’s expressions in social, cultural, and political life were carriers of an implicit (and sometimes explicit) anthropology: a concept of the human person.2
One root of the spiritual emptiness and self-absorption that threatened to shut modern humanity up within a dungeon of its own making could be found in the philosophical work of René Descartes, the inaugurator of the “turn to the subject” in Western philosophy. Descartes was a brilliant man who made significant contributions to mathematics and science. His most enduring cultural impact, however, was the result of his attempt to ground philosophy in the self-conscious subject. In a world in which everything could be doubted, the one thing Descartes could not doubt was that he was doubting—and doubting was a form of thought. And so Descartes devised his famous formula, “Cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am), by which he intended to relaunch the entire Western philosophical enterprise from the self-reflective subject. Epistemology (thinking about thinking) subsequently displaced metaphysics (thinking about reality, and the deep truths embedded in reality) as the center of philosophy. And ideas, as ever, had consequences.
Over time, thinking about thinking would become thinking about thinking about thinking, and Western philosophy found itself caught in what the late twentieth-century Polish philosopher Wojciech Chudy once called the “trap of reflection.”3 Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason seemed to drive a stake through the heart of classical metaphysics and its claim to have identified the deep structures of reality. Post-Kantian Western thought thus found itself with no secure grasp on the permanent truth of things—no brake on the sloping path to a profound skepticism. That slippage became an avalanche when G.W.F. Hegel taught the West that history was everything. The flow of history judged the past—including what centuries of Christians had understood to be divine revelation—rather than history being judged by permanent (even divinely warranted) standards of truth and falsehood, nobility and baseness that human beings could actually know.
Ideas begotten in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries came to full flower in the ideology of modernity in the nineteenth: the century of what the French theologian Henri de Lubac, SJ, would later dub “the drama of atheistic humanism.”4 Building on the Enlightenment critique of Christianity that had eventually led to the enthronement of a Goddess of Reason in Paris’s Notre-Dame Cathedral, that intellectual and cultural drama reversed Western high culture’s relationship to biblical religion.
Through the People of Israel and later through Christianity, the God of the Bible entered the civilizational story of the West as a liberator. Unlike the fierce Canaanite gods who demanded and got human sacrifice, and unlike the gods of Olympus for whom even supremely powerful Greeks—think of Achilles—were ultimately playthings on a cosmic game board, the God of the Bible was neither bloodthirsty nor wantonly, whimsically cruel. The God of Israel did not demand the sacrifice of children; the God of Israel and the prophets who spoke in his name passionately decried such savagery. The God of Israel and the God of Christians did not play with humanity; that God entered the human story, first in his revelation of himself to Israel, and later in the person of his Son, to ennoble and redeem humanity by inviting men and women into communion with divinity.
According to de Lubac, the “atheistic humanists” of the nineteenth century taught precisely the opposite: that the God of the Bible, rather than being one of the inspirations of the Western humanistic tradition, was the enemy of human maturation and liberation. Various points in this indictment can be quickly noted from among the many thinkers de Lubac analyzed. Auguste Comte taught the nineteenth century that the only certain knowledge was empirically verifiable knowledge, and that natural science offered the only secure paradigm for understanding the world and the human condition: which rather read the God of the Bible out of the story. Ludwig Feuerbach went a step further and taught that “God” was a mythological projection of humanity’s noblest aspirations. Karl Marx took Hegel beyond Hegel and taught that history was merely the exhaust fumes of impersonal economic processes, the “means of production.” And Friedrich Nietzsche, drawing what seemed the appropriate conclusions from all this, stressed that the will to power, not the quest for truth, goodness, and beauty, was the driver of the human condition.
European high culture was deeply influenced by these men and by another towering figure in nineteenth-century European thought, Charles Darwin. On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man certainly challenged traditional views of human origins. But more thoughtful Christians, recognizing that Genesis was not a history book as moderns understand “history,” knew that the “descent” of Homo sapiens from more primitive life forms could be squared with the biblical account of humanity by stressing the unique, divine creation of the human soul. The more immediate, and lethal, problem with Darwinian evolutionary theory came from its translation into “social Darwinism,” which in turn fueled a host of cultural pathologies, including eugenics and radical theories of racial superiority and inferiority.5 Combined with nationalist passions and the Nietzschean will to power, these ideas not only challenged Catholic orthodoxy but also helped create a political tinderbox in Europe. Then, on June 28, 1914, the spark of the bullets from Gavrilo Princip’s FN Browning M1910 set the European world aflame.
The New Thirty Years War
IN THE PREFACE TO HIS STUDY OF THE ATHEISTIC HUMANISTS, Henri de Lubac noted that, whatever their other differences, their common rejection of the God of the Bible ineluctably led to “the annihilation of the human person.” That rejection of the biblical view of humanity, its origins, and its destiny had the gravest historical consequences: “It is not true, as is sometimes said, that man cannot organize the world without God. What is true is that, without God, he can only organize it against man. Exclusive humanism is inhuman humanism.”1 Modernity-as-ideology thus led to a New Thirty Years War, which shattered Western civilization between 1914 and 1945, leaving in its wake a Cold War that threatened the survival of the human race.
In the retrospect of more than a century, the “Great War,” World War I, seems an exercise in civilizational suicide. Europe had experienced wars for millennia, but Europe had never experienced anything like this: as the historian Philipp Blom put it, “an overwhelming dystopia of technology run amok, leaving in its wake a trail of mangled corpses.”2 Europe went to war in 1914 with many of its traditional concepts of chivalrous military service intact. Those ideas, Blom recounted, were destroyed by a tsunami of artillery shells, especially in the trench warfare of the Western Front:
Soldiers on both sides of the conflict experienced this mechanical apocalypse as a deep betrayal of their bravery and their will to sacrifice themselves for a just cause. Their courage was no match for industrialized slaughter; their very bodies were transformed into a raw material of death, almost indistinguishable from the grayish-brown mud around them, pounded and churned up so often by shells and grenades that it became transformed into an omnipresent slime reeking of corpses and human excrement, and swallowing boots and whole bodies like a putrid swamp.3
In his 1983 Templeton Prize Lecture, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn described the Great War in terms of civilizational self-destruction and made the appropriate connection to the drama of atheistic humanism:
The failings of human consciousness, deprived of its divine dimension, have been a determining factor in all the major crimes of this century. The first of these was World War I, and much of our present predicament can be traced back to it. That war… took place when Europe, bursting with health and abundance, fell into a rage of self-mutilation that could not but sap its strength for a century or more, and perhaps forever. The only possible explanation for this is a mental eclipse among the leaders of Europe due to their lost awareness of a Supreme Power above them.4
Solzhenitsyn’s analysis is even more persuasive when the question turns from “Why did World War I begin?” to “Why did World War I continue?” When the guns of August 1914 first shattered the peace of Europe, everyone expected a short, brisk war, like the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871. As things turned out, the more accurate model was the American Civil War of 1861–1865, and that became clear sooner rather than later. By early 1915 at the latest, it was obvious that the war was stalemated, both on the Western Front, where impenetrable trenches ran from the English Channel to the Swiss border, and on the Eastern Front, where neither Russia nor Germany and its ally Austria-Hungary could land a decisive, war-winning blow. Why, then, did no one have the authority to say “Stop!”—to pull the emergency brake that would keep the train of Western civilization from careening off a broken bridge into a chasm of destruction that would eventually leave behind the debris of four empires and three historic monarchies?
- “Weigel is perfectly suited to the task of re-presenting the history and theology of Vatican II to naysayers on both ends of the spectrum. And he does just that in this accessible, thorough, and honest account of the Council… George Weigel has done the Church a great service in defending the Council, taking its problems seriously, and explaining the way forward.”—Washington Free Beacon
- “With characteristic fluency, [Weigel] defends not only Vatican II but the entire centuries-old process by which bishops, meeting in council and praying for divine guidance, have wrestled with subtle doctrinal points and expressed them in complex texts that took decades to digest fully... The argument is artful.”—The Economist
- “A watershed study of Vatican II.”—Catholic World Report
- “This work by George Weigel is a very important read not only because of the recently celebrated 60th anniversary of the beginning of the Second Vatican Council but because Vatican II continues to be misunderstood by many and manipulated by some as a justification for ideas the Council Fathers would never have countenanced. Weigel helps one to understand the meaning and importance of the Council like no other.”—National Catholic Register
- "George Weigel’s new book is a colossal contribution to modern Church history."—Catholic Herald
- “Superb… an accurate understanding of the council has value to persons well beyond the borders of the church. And that’s why To Sanctify the World is so important.”—National Review
- “Weigel delivers a probing study of the figures and theologies that influenced Catholic policy… there is much valuable work in this fluid reevaluation of Vatican II’s origins and impact.”—Publishers Weekly
- “George Weigel is perhaps the most well-known and influential Vatican-watcher and public theologian in America.”—Claremont Review of Books
- “In this book, Weigel gives a masterful interpretation of the Second Vatican Council that could not come at a better time for seminarians, theologians, pastors, and all who seek to understand its documents. He provides important keys for understanding the legacy of Vatican II, helping us through the contemporary debates about the Council. Weigel’s engaging book is a watershed in studies of Vatican II.”—Eduardo J. Echeverria, Sacred Heart Major Seminary
- “In explaining why Vatican II was necessary and what it taught, George Weigel has given us a rich history of the Catholic Church’s efforts to meet the challenges of modernity. Viewed in their intellectual, social, and political context, the personalities, debates, and documents of that momentous event emerge with new clarity in this remarkable work. Meticulously documented, yet eminently readable, To Sanctify the World is a matchless guide to the meaning and import of the Second Vatican Council.”—Mary Ann Glendon, author of A World Made New
- “Historians tell us that the genuine interpretation of an Ecumenical Council’s teaching usually at least takes sixty years to settle. That means we are now at the point of serenely and sanely understanding the authentic magisterium of Vatican Council II. And count on Weigel to provide an attractive and compelling synthesis of it.”—Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York
- “Anyone interested in a bold, yet authentic interpretation of Vatican II should read this book, in which George Weigel persuasively demonstrates that the Council—the Holy Spirit’s greatest gift to Catholicism in the twentieth century—was not so much about reinventing and ‘modernizing’ the Church as Christifying and converting the world.”—Robert Barron, bishop of Winona-Rochester and founder, Word on Fire Catholic Ministries
- “All of Weigel’s best qualities are displayed here—penetrating intelligence, erudition, clarity, breadth of vision, remarkable range of insider’s knowledge. I doubt that Vatican II—still bitterly contested in some quarters sixty years after the event—will ever be more interestingly or more accurately understood than in this deeply moving book.”—Lance Morrow, author of God and Mammon
- “In a time of widespread Christological amnesia and even denial, Weigel’s new book offers a bracing remedy. He provides a magisterial recovery of the Christological vision and commitment that permeate the documents of the Second Vatican Council and that illuminate the Church’s way forward. It is the way toward the sanctification of the world through living and sharing faith in Jesus Christ, who is the true joy of the Gospel.”—Robert Imbelli, author of Rekindling the Christic Imagination
- “This is a must-read book for anyone interested in understanding the event of Vatican II. Rich in historical and theological context, it offers a clear and readable argument for understanding Vatican II as in continuity with the whole Catholic tradition and as a call to re-center the Church and its mission on the person of Jesus Christ. I can think of no more important message for this historical moment.”—Patrick Kelly, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus
- On Sale
- Oct 4, 2022
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Basic Books