VATICAN II’S NEW VISION OF REVELATION: CONTEXT
Richard Gaillardetz in his book, BY WHAT AUTHORITY?, A Primer on Scripture, the Magisterium, and the Sense of the Faithful through its Introduction under the title of “Vatican II’s Theology of Revelation” prepares the reader for a game-changing interpretation of how God relates to humankind. What God has spoken to mankind in Christ constitutes the basis for the foundational truths of Catholic belief. The importance of revelation lies in the strength of its credibility, what is and how do we know the UNKNOWN OTHER. This new vision was generated in the context of an ecumenical council where 2500 plus church leaders from all over the world, including the Vatican bureaucracy, had been summoned by the Pope John 23rd to update pastoral approaches needed to attend to the millions of Catholic believers who had to find God in this world.
Pope John himself had witnessed the impact produced by technological breakthroughs in almost every field of learning and endeavor, including the art of war with nuclear bombs, on economic structures, millennial old cultures, and evolving new patterns of social behavior. While the bureaucratic leadership in the Vatican was still fighting modernity through requiring oaths of loyalty and control tactics like the index of forbidden reading against anything new, John as a diplomat in France and Eastern Europe had been dealing with a rapidly changing world on the verge of self-destruction. The Council would produce pastoral oriented documents that would remap a believer’s path to God without overtly requiring doctrinal changes.
Prior to the council the RCC (Roman Catholic Church) understood revelation to consist of formulations or propositions, something equivalent to an official ledger of church doctrine/and or dogma developed from evidences of the hearer, man, and God the speaker, as handed down through sacred writings and traditions from the early Church. Over the centuries the RCC considered itself the interpreter and guardian of this sacred exchange. This view was a fitting instrument for the role of enforcing a religious belief on the subjects of an Emperor who for centuries was considered a divine ruler.
Underlying the RCC’s pre-council vision of its membership two mutually enforcing non-foundational beliefs had been used to mark the signposts for their journey to God. In this post we refer to the first, the doctrine of Original Sin. Supported by a theologically friendly philosophical environment and endorsed by St. Augustine, one of the all-time most influential church intellectuals in history, the church as the official religious representative of the Holy Roman Empire with power of the sword was able over time to make this belief an operative element of its pastoral strategy with an abundance of negative consequences for the reality of man known in today’s world.
Adam and Eve were the culprits through sex in the garden of Eden passing down a fallen nature to all humankind. The necessity of baptism to remove it made way for the grace of God to take root in the sinner’s soul which belief among all Europeans became imperative. A special attitude of privilege status was thus conferred on the church which in turn generated a zeal to maintain its privilege vis-à-vis the rest of the world. Built on this interpretation of a sacrament and its requirement for grace a sacramental system gradually developed to nurture and provide more opportunities for God’s grace to grow and mature. For many centuries question of the salvation of the non-Catholic world, the greater portion of mankind, without fault of its own would become a much disputed question. Related to the experienced goodness and even apparent holiness of persons that had never heard of the church and its sacraments turned out to be an unintelligible stumbling block to pastors trained in the church’s sacramental tradition.
With that backdrop the participants at the council welcomed the new vision of God’s communication of himself clarified by recent, in terms of church years, advances in historical research and science, knowledge of the complexity of man himself, and methods of linguistic and literary analysis. Within the council the three to four years of mutual interchange about different pastoral challenges, the study of pertinent theological questions at the feet of expert theologians, the front line of the Catholic intelligentsia at the time, convinced them of the need for updating their approach. As Joseph Ratzinger later Pope Benedict 16 elegantly comments in his personal memories of the council discussion of history: “…the problem of the historical dimension in theology which underlay the problems of revealed truth, scripture and tradition….The method of historical criticism, which saw the bible in an entirely new light, had won its first victories. The sacred books, believed to be the work of a very few authors to whom God had directly dictated his words, suddenly appeared as a work expressive of an entire human history, which had grown layer by layer throughout millennia, a history deeply interwoven with the religious history of surrounding peoples.” (Kindle Edition, Locations1089-1100).
Driven by a pastoral zeal the council’s thus interpreted revelation, that is, what God had spoken throughout history to mankind by both communication through creation and the actual giving its life to all men in the Word, Jesus Christ. Revelation is to be understood as a manifestation of an ongoing relationship between God and all men in history. In our spiritual journey the better we know how THE UNKNOWN OTHER relates to us and what God expects of us, for example, more a father than a judge, the more genuine and loving our response can be. And our relationship with God at the end of the day is the bottom line of our spiritual life.