Vatican II and Aggiornamento

The central aim of Vatican II Council was the renewal of the Church in modem times. By every standard that was the main intention of Pope John XXIII in summoning the Council. The Pope himself gave expression to this idea through a word aggiornamento. It refers to renewal, updating, refreshing, revising and to their equivalents. E.Fouilloux clarifies the import of JohnXXIII’s aggiornamento in the following words:
But what else could the word aggiornamento be, in John XXIII’s use of it. In his view, the Church which he was leading had less need to confront the world around it by either affirmation or condemnation than to update itself in relation to its own true self in order to better respond to the new challenges with which the world was confronting it. In short, it had to adapt itself to the world around it, while remaining faithful to its principles, instead of simply presenting the world with its own conviction or with a blunt rejection.
One of principal changes introduced by Vatican II was a new attitude towards history and towards the world. Catholics had always been taught they were members of a Church rooted in eternity and established by Christ ‘in saecula saeculorum’. They believed that, despite the failure of its members, the Church established by Christ was in itself a ‘divine institution,’ and hence, in no need of Improvement. Suddenly they found themselves in a Church ‘tied to history’ attempting an aggiornamento with the modern world – ‘a Church of our times,’ as John Paul II calls it.
According to John Paul II, “the contemporary church has a particular sensibility towards history, and wishes to be, in every extension of the term, ‘the Church of the contemporary world.” Elsewhere he tells us that “the Second Vatican Council has laid the foundations for a substantially new relationship between the Church and the world, between the Church and modern cultures.” Surely it expresses a belief in Progress, Evolution, and the need for the Church to continually adapt itself to the world around it. Such an interpretation is more than justified if we accept the teaching of Vatican II that ‘the human race has passed from a rather static concept of reality to a more dynamic evolutionary one’ and the statements of Paul VI that ‘the order to which Christianity tends is not static, but an order in continual evolution towards a higher form’ and that ‘if the world changes, should not religion also change?’
For an historical and institutional reality like the Church in which traditions play a decisive role, the need for updating and renewal could hardly be underestimated. Traditions could be life giving sources, but they could as well be life-blocking forces. In a world undergoing rapid changes, unless the traditional heritage is renewed and integrated with new approaches, traditions turn out to be dead skeletons rather than a burning torch passing on its flames. Pope John XXIII perceived this need of the Church and intended that the Council incorporate it, as he underlined in his opening speech to the Council:
…it is necessary first of all that the Church should never depart from the sacred patrimony of truth received from the Fathers. But at the same time she must ever look to the present, to the new conditions and new forms of life introduced into the modem world which have opened new avenues to the Catholic apostolate.
Renewal of the Church that spring from her roots and fair encounter with the modem world were packed up in Pope John’s idea of aggiornamento. The rival term used was ressourcement which meant a return to earlier sources, traditions and symbols of the early Church.Many clergy could be categorised as belonging to either camp. Aggiornamentos were seen as looking to the future in a post-Tridentine Church, while ressourcement members were seen as attempting to look back to the church before Trent for a simpler liturgy and less Rome-orientated leadership style.Neither was satisfied with the Church as it stood immediately before the Council. Both however sought inspiration for the expected new style conciliar church in different eras.The Council has done its best to capture this insight of the Pope and formulate in simple and capturing language of the modem Man, especially in the Pastoral Constitution. On this point observes E.Klinger:
TheCouncil carries out programmatically the recapturing of the Christian truths in the Pastoral Constitution. One can from it specify the entire programme of the Council. The Vatican II is a Council of aggiornamento/renewal marked out in the Pastoral Constitution. This Constitution embodies the comprehensive programme of the Council.
The pastoral vision or a pastoral programme is the further specification of the renewal programme envisaged by Pope John and Pope Paul VI. Thus the key to the right interpretation of the Council lies in a meaningful grasp of the pastoral vision proposed by the Council. The profound implications of aggiornamento cannot be understood apart from the problem of contemporary historical consciousness. As in every species of the idea of reform, the aggiornamento of Vatican II had to deal with the question of the relationship between the past and the present. Such a relationship is implied in the very word aggiornamento. At every critical juncture in the Council this relationship was alluded to, usually in the form of an assurance that no substantial change was being made in the patrimony of the past.
In deciphering the contents of this pastoral vision, we will come to grasp the answer of the Church to the challenges of modern times. If the Vatican II Council is rightly hailed as a Pastoral Council, the idea is neither to be mixed up with the traditional understanding of pastorality, nor is it to be taken for a non-dogmatic significance. The pastoral dimension of the Council proceeds from the very heart of the priority set by Pope John XXIII found often in his speeches and writings since announcing the Council. Paul VI went on to adopt Pope John’s motto for himself, as he stated in Ecclesiam Suam :
We cannot forget Pope John XXIII’s word aggiornamento which We have adopted as expressing the aim and object of Our own pontificate. Besides ratifying it and confirming it as the guiding principle of the Ecumenical Council, We want to bring it to the notice of the whole Church. It should prove a stimulus to the Church to increase its ever growing vitality and its ability to take stock of itself and give careful consideration to the signs of the times, always and everywhere “proving all things and holding fast that which is good” with the enthusiasm of youth.
Jesus presented himself both as teacher and good shepherd of the people, prophet and leader of His times. The Church has the task to represent Jesus Christ to the world by preaching and witnessing to Him. Her words have to be embodied in deeds, and the deeds are to be turned into a message. The Church is endowed with gifts of the Spirit and the offices to organise and to prolong her saving mission to the world. While the offices of papacy, and of episcopacy, helped by the ‘magisterium’ endeavour to safeguard the orthodoxy of Christian faith, they are bound to foster the authentic witness and growth in the interpretation of Christian faith. Orthodoxy relies on traditions and preserves links with the original events, but can easily get settled in the past and refuse to adjust and accommodate to the newness of life. In the Church too there are constant tensions between the demands of orthodoxy and the needs of the times. It was the express wish of Pope John XXIII that the Council be a new Pentecost, a step forward, and harbinger of a new spring. Was it just a wishful thinking? Behind the flowery words of the Pope lay a programme of action. As already pointed out, aggiornamento was the goal, the shaping of a pastoral Council was its agenda. If the Vatican II Council is rightly hailed as a Pastoral Council, the idea is neither to be mixed up with the traditional understanding of pastorality, nor is it to be taken for a non-dogmatic significance.
In the Church there is a traditional understanding of pastorality divorced from the doctrinal understanding of an issue. ‘Pastoral’ in such sense implies in the first place, the application of teachings and principles set down by the authority in the Church, and when the situation warrants the Church-person would use his discretion to interpret their implications in favour of the affected persons. Such a measure is called in the Church language bonum animarum or the greater good of soul. Again, a type of ‘pastoral’ is taken to mean the greater involvement of the lay faithful in the activities of the Church. But Gaudium et Spes departs from these notions of pastorality. The conciliar document most often associated with the aggiornamento is Gaudium et Spes. The document was not drafted before the council met, but arose from the floor of the council and was one of the last to be promulgated
Obviously, the grand conception of renewal of the Church through a pastoral programme was an unprecedented shift in the task to be fulfilled by the Council. As in the past general Councils, there was no avowed heresy and schism to be fought out, nor any settlement of doctrinal errors or disciplinary measures to be striven as the goal of the Council. Pope John XXIII envisioned a most positive task for the Council. The schemata prepared by the Curial persons were discarded in the very first session of the Council and new ones had to be worked out that reflect the main thrust of Pope John XXIII’s conception of the Council.
The root problem of the discarded schemata was their dichotomy between doctrine and pastoral, teaching and life, in which the former remains subdued to the latter. Given this thrust, the pastoral emphasis set by Pope John XXIII cannot be contained. Thus, the old dogmatic approach of the Curia and the pastoral programme of the Pope were running parallel as the Council was about to be opened. On the priorities and plans of the Council, we see Pope John XXIII focusing his thoughts in two of his addresses: His radio address to the world on 11 September 1962.
…A true joy for the universal Church of Christ is what the ecumenical council intends to be. Its reason for existence is the continuation, or better still the most energetic revival, of the response of the entire world, of the modem world, to the testament of the Lord,…
These issues resonate in his Opening speech:
The salient point of this Council is not, therefore, a discussion of one article or another of the fundamental doctrine of the Church which has repeatedly been taught by the Fathers and by ancient and modem theologians, and which is presumed to be well know and familiar to all. For this a Council is not necessary. But from the renewed, serene, and tranquil adherence to all the teaching of the Church in its entirety and preciseness, as it still shines forth in the Acts of the Council of Trent and First Vatican Council, the Christian, Catholic, and apostolic spirit of the whole world expects a step forward toward a doctrinal penetration and a formation of consciousness in faithful and perfect conformity to the authentic doctrine, which, however, should be studied and expounded through the methods of research and through the literary forms of modern thought. The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another. And it is the latter that must be taken into great consideration with patience if necessary, everything being measured in forms and proportions of a magisterium which is predominantly pastoral.
The new perspectives of the Pope were a challenge to the magisterial Church gathered in Council to review and re-formulate her teachings which incorporate the pastoral on par with the dogmatic. Such a new forward step demands a shift in the understanding of dogma as being predominantly pastoral. This approach involves a view of life as impregnated with doctrine; the latter enlightens the former and at the same time is enriched by life. The result of this stance was a unique brand of a Constitution, Gaudium et Spes, officially titled as ‘Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modem World.’. It is of utmost importance to see the centrality of the pastoral on par with the dogmatic in the documents of Vatican II Council. A close view of the Gaudium et Spes will reveal that its doctrinal and the pastoral parts are so well interwoven that one can hardly pinpoint any one of them as purely pastoral or doctrinal. In fact the so called ‘pastoral’ is the most original and precious contribution of the Council and as such must dominate any authentic intetpretation of Vatican II Council. The observations of E.Klinger bring out the significance of Gaudium et Spes:
The Pastoral Constitution is the key to the Council and its main event…In fact, it is an outline of the future of the Church drawn out at the highest teaching-office of the Church. It shows that the oldest tradition has set off to new shores…It has a dogmatic weight and thereby becomes the Magna Charta of a Church emerging from the Council.
Thus, the new vision of the Council that makes pastorality as the seedbed of doctrine and doctrine as the reflection of the right pastoral praxis must not be diluted in accounting for the significance of the Vatican II Council. We have then highlighted one of the more significant changes introduced by Vatican II. The Church of All Times has been changed into ‘the Church of our times’. A ‘static’ Church has been converted into an ‘evolutionary and progressivist’ church committed to continual adaptation. But, it will be asked, does the post-Conciliar Church apply these dubious principles to doctrine? Despite a certain ambiguity, the majority of theologians hold that it does. The catchword is ‘development’ which allows for various shades of meaning. It has been used by the Fathers of the Church to describe the legitimate expression of principles in new ways, analogous to the growth and flowering of a tree.
It is very much enlivening to hear as Pope Benedict XVI, who was present in the Council, commenting:
I would merely like to recall how a word launched by Blessed John XXIII, almost as if to establish a programme, resurfaced continually during the course of the conciliar sessions: the word aggiornamento…Fifty years on from the opening of that solemn gathering of the Church some people may ask themselves whether that term was perhaps, from the very beginning, not entirely appropriate. Choice of words is something that can be discussed for hours without reconciling contrasting opinions, for my part I am convinced that the intuition which Blessed John XXIII summarised in that word was and remains correct. Christianity must not be considered as ‘something that has passed,’ nor must we live with our gaze always turned back, because Jesus Christ is yesterday today and forever. Christianity is marked by the presence of the eternal God, Who entered into time and is present in all times, because all times are brought forth of His creative power, of His eternal ‘today’.

John W. O’Malley, S.J., Reform, Historical Consciousness, and Vatican its Aggiornamento, Theological Studies, University of Detroit, 573-601.
Roque D’Souza, Poverty and Human Dignity: K.S. Kârantha Encountered from Vatican II Council. (retrieved on September 29, 2013)
Rama Coomaraswamy, Creed and Cult in the Post-Conciliar Church:A study in Aggiornamento.
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About bodhicap

This is the journal-blog from the Capuchins at Bodhi Institute of Theology, Tillery, Kollam, India.
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