A Pastoral and Dogmatic Council

We all have things that bother us more than they probably should. For me, one of those things is when I hear someone describe the Second Vatican Council as a “pastoral, not a dogmatic” council. “So you haven’t actually gotten around to reading any of the documents, then, I take it,” I’m always tempted to reply.

The numbers alone tell the tale. Of the fifteen official documents of the Second Vatican Council, three have the title “Constitution.” Two of these have the title “Dogmatic Constitution,” the one on the Church (Lumen Gentium) and the one on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum). Then there were three “declarations”: one on Christian education (Gravissimum Educationis), one on the relationship of the Church to non-Christian religions (Nostra Aetate), and one on religious freedom (Dignitatis Humanae). Along with these, there were eight “decrees” on: (1) the mission activity of the Church, (2) the ministry and life of priests, (3) the apostolate of the laity, (4) the training of priests, (5) the renewal of religious life, (6) the pastoral office of bishop, (7) ecumenism, and (8) the Catholic churches of the Eastern Rite.

Notably, only two of these documents (out of fifteen) contain the word “pastoral” in their titles: The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) and the Decree Concerning the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church (Christus Dominus). And both of those are “doctrinal” through and through.

Now look, please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not arguing that the Second Vatican Council wasn’t in important ways pastoral. The problem, rather, is the dichotomy some people like to set up – which the Council clearly didn’t – between “pastoral,” on the one hand, and “dogmatic,” on the other, as though these were two very different ways of being “religious.” To set up this sort of dichotomy in the Council is not only to violate the “hermeneutics of continuity” with the Church’s centuries-old tradition that Pope Benedict has insisted upon. It is to attribute to the Council a rupture in a “hermeneutics of continuity” with itself.

Consider the following selection from an essay by noted intellectual historian A.H. Armstrong, who exhorts his readers “to appreciate what an unprecedentedly odd and original phenomenon the [early] Christian Church was when looked at from the point of view of traditional Hellenic religious observance and piety. . . . Hellenic religion was a matter of cult, not creed, what really mattered was the due performance of the sacrifices and sacred rites according to what was believed to be immemorial tradition.”

In nearly all of the religions of the ancient world, “doctrinal teaching and moral instruction” were simply never considered any of the clergy’s business.

           Pope St. John XXIII enters the opening session of the Second Vatican Council

“The contrast with the Christian Church is obvious,” says Armstrong. “Here cult developed rather casually and only reached a high degree of elaboration comparatively late.” Although sacraments and public worship “have always been central in Christian life,” nevertheless, “what is taught in the church and out of it, about that worship and the god to whom it is directed and the way in which his true worshippers ought to live has always mattered to Christians in a way which cannot be paralleled in the old Hellenic world.”

Another key difference, says Armstrong, was this: “Any preaching and teaching of religion or morals which was done in the ancient world was done by philosophers, who had no more to do with cult-celebration than anybody else and never held anything remotely resembling the position of the authoritative teachers of a church-type community.”

What the early Church accomplished – especially in the office of the bishop and his brother priests – was an amazing integration of these two functions: the role of the philosopher, on the one hand, to teach and preach the truth with, on the other, the role of the temple priest to perform the sacred rites.

There are plenty of Catholics on both sides of the traditional “conservative-liberal” divide who would prefer to have “priests” of the pre-Christian type, for whom “what really matters is due performance of the sacrifices and sacred rites according to what is believed to be immemorial tradition” – the only difference being that “conservatives” generally believe they’re showing fidelity to a medieval tradition (which is usually mostly Renaissance and late Baroque) while “liberals” take themselves to be hearkening back to early patristic practice (which is often, in fact, an imaginative reconstructions produced by mid-twentieth century liturgists, most of which has been shown by subsequent scholarship to be largely false).

Be that as it may, many in both camps would prefer to leave all the “philosophical-intellectual” discussions about “the God to whom the church’s worship is directed and the way in which His true worshippers ought to live” (of the sort exhibited by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI) out of the church altogether – the only difference here being what the particular congregant in question would prefer the priest talk about instead of actual church doctrine. For some, exhortations to internal piety are thought best; for others, vague platitudes about “helping the poor.”

Do we really want the priest to preach and teach about the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Resurrection of the Body, Salvation, Justification, Sanctification, and our moral duties to our neighbors? Do we really want in-depth instruction so that we can grow in our understanding of the faith? Do we really want the priest to challenge us morally – both in terms of our interior, personal lives, and also in terms of our obligations and responsibilities to others in society?

Make no mistake: if this were the early Church, and your bishop had been Ambrose or Augustine or Basil of Caesarea, that’s exactly what you would have gotten — in spades.

Vatican II was a great pastoral council precisely because it was a great dogmatic council. Thinking you can give adequate pastoral care without proper doctrinal formation is like thinking you can do heart surgery without the wisdom gained in medical school.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.