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The Reception of Vatican II: A Book Excerpt by Bishop Robert Barron

April 25, 2017


In a new and exciting book entitled The Reception of Vatican II, edited by Fr. Matthew Lamb and Dr. Matthew Levering, numerous contributors offer insights into the ways in which the documents and resolutions of the great evangelical Council have taken shape and been implemented.  

The book is described as, “in perhaps the most important religious event of the twentieth century, the Second Vatican Council met to plot a course for the future of the Roman Catholic Church. After thousands of speeches, resolutions, and votes, the Council issued sixteen official documents on topics ranging from divine revelation to relations with non-Christians. But the meaning of the Second Vatican Council has been fiercely contested since before it was even over, and the years since its completion have seen a battle for the soul of the Church waged through the interpretation of Council documents. The Reception of Vatican II looks at the sixteen conciliar documents through the lens of those battles. Paying close attention to reforms and new developments, the essays in this volume show how the Council has been received and interpreted over the course of the more than fifty years since it concluded.”

Bishop Barron was honored to contribute a chapter to the book entitled, “Optatam Totius and the Renewal of the Priesthood”. Today, we offer an excerpt from Bishop Barron’s contribution. 




Optatam Totius, Vatican II’s document concerning the formation of priests, was approved by an overwhelming majority of the Council fathers (2318 to 3), and promulgated by Pope Paul VI on October 28, 1965.  The massive support for this relatively brief statement would seem to indicate that its recommendations were rather straightforward and uncontroversial.  However, in the years following its publication, a crisis in the priesthood has unfolded, especially in the West.  In the immediate wake of Vatican II, priests in the United States and Western Europe left the active ministry in droves, and in relation to the growing population of Catholics, the number of priests worldwide has, over the past fifty years, dropped dramatically. 

There are, of course, many reasons for this decline—enormous cultural shifts, the sexual revolution, loss of confidence in established institutions, the clergy sex-abuse scandal, etc.—but what is particularly interesting for our purposes is that the crisis in the priesthood has conduced, over the past fifty years, toward an intense focus upon the priesthood and the training of priests.  Accordingly, the reception of Optatam Totius is complex and includes, to mention just a few of the most prominent, the following documents:  Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis from the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, Paul VI’s Encyclical letter Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, The Directory for the Ministry and the Life of Priests from the Congregation for the Clergy, John Paul II’s remarkable series of Holy Thursday letters to priests, as well as his year-long Wednesday audience catechesis on the priesthood in 1993, and most importantly his Apostolic Exhortation Pastores dabo vobis, Benedict XVI’s letter proclaiming a year for priests, and, in the American context, the Program for Priestly Formation (now in its fifth edition) issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.  There is, obviously, an embarrassment of riches here, and in the context of this brief article, we could never cover all of this material adequately.  Thus, I have decided to concentrate on what I take to be the most important “moments” in the reception process, namely, Pastores dabo vobis and the Program of Priestly Formation.  Drawing on my own experience as rector of the largest Catholic seminary in the United States, I should also like to include some of my own ruminations on how Optatam Totius might best be applied in the present ecclesial situation. 

Optatam Totius

Before considering the reception of Optatam Totius over the past half century, it would be useful to provide a brief overview of the document itself.  The first significant observation that the Council Fathers make is that the duty of fostering vocations is incumbent upon the entire Church and is not the responsibility of priests and bishops alone.[1]  Congruent with Lumen Gentium’s stress on the universal call to holiness and the priesthood of all believers, Optatam Totius wants to cultivate a culture of vocations throughout the life of the entire Christian community.  John Paul II would echo this theme in Pastores dabo vobis, especially in his call for the family to be the “first seminary,” and it would provide the theological foundation for the innumerable vocations societies that have flourished in the Church around the world since Vatican II.[2]  Optatam Totius also calls upon priests themselves to recruit vocations through their “apostolic zeal” and the joyfulness of their lives.  Though this might sound like something of a velleity, it has been shown over and over again in more recent years that priests are in fact among the happiest people.[3]  Oddly, this state of affairs, though established with remarkable consistency, has not impressed itself on the popular consciousness.  A common though demonstrably false perception is that priests are lonely, bored, and unhappy, and unfortunately for vocational recruitment, the general attitude seems more influential than the truth on the ground.

Continuing in the tradition established by the Council of Trent, OT clearly affirms the importance of major seminaries for the formation of priests.  In these “seed-beds,”—and not in universities or mere houses of formation—seminarians should be shaped according to the mind of Christ, who is priest, prophet, and shepherd.[4]  In using that famous triplet, OT shows its indebtedness to the thought of John Henry Newman, who had borrowed and adapted the priest, prophet, king motif from the thought of John Calvin.  It also demonstrates continuity with Presbyterorum ordinis, which uses the same figure to articulate the nature of the priesthood.[5]  In accord with both Lumen Gentium and Prebyterorum Ordinis, OT maintains that the primary focus of the seminary should be training in the proclamation of the word of God.  This emphasis is a function of a strict theologic:  if faith is the door to the spiritual life, and if, furthermore, faith only comes from hearing, the first and most important pastoral task, the primum officium, is indeed the ministry of the Word.  Hence, apprenticing to Christ in his prophetic mode is fundamental in the seminary. 

Therefore, OT called for a revision of ecclesiastical studies in seminaries.  Its first recommendation is that the students be grounded in the humanities as well as in the physical sciences, so that they might be able to facilitate a dialogue between the ancient faith and contemporary culture.  It also called for a “keen promotion” of the teaching of Latin, so that the treasures of the theological tradition might be unlocked more easily, and Greek and Hebrew, so that the Bible might be more thoroughly understood.  Further, it strongly promoted the study of philosophy, more specifically a consideration of the issues of “humanity, the world, and God.”[6]  And this investigation ought to be carried out, it argued, according to “that philosophical tradition that is of permanent value,” meaning apparently the great philosophia perennis stretching from the ancients to the scholastics of the high Middle Ages.  At the same time, it recommended that the intellectual formation of seminarians ought to be supplemented by contemporary forms of thought, especially those that are dominant in their respective countries.  The authors of OT hope that the study of philosophy helps future priests to understand the mysteries of the faith more profoundly but also to sense the limitations of human knowledge. 

In regard to theology, Optatam Totius stresses, first, the intimate link between doctrine and spirituality.  The dogmas of the Church ought to be presented in such a way that they are not simply data for the mind but signposts on the spiritual itinerary. Secondly, it wants theology to inform a healthy and culturally engaged apologetics, so that future priests can defend the faith in a public setting.  Thirdly, it wants Sacred Scripture to be taught in such a way that the students appreciate the Bible as the “soul of theology.”[7]  This last suggestion, of course, is congruent with the renewal of Scriptural study called for by Dei Verbum.  Dogmatic theology ought to be arranged so that Biblical themes come first and then the meditations of the church fathers, both east and west.  It is not difficult to see the influence of the resourcement tradition in this manner of laying out the starting points for dogmatics.  Having taken in the Scriptural and patristic foundations, the seminarians are then to be instructed in the theology of St. Thomas:  “let the students learn, with the aid of speculative reason under the guidance of St. Thomas, to penetrate them (the mysteries of the faith) more deeply and see their connection.”[8]  We will return later to this vexed issue of the use of Thomas Aquinas in the intellectual formation of seminarians; for the moment, we will observe only that the formula used by Optatam TotiusThoma magistro (with Thomas as master)—was meant to mollify both those who wanted Thomism strongly emphasized and those who felt that only the method and not necessarily the content of Aquinas’s theology should be recommended.    

In line with the instincts of the liturgical movement and the strong Vatican II stress on the Sacred Liturgy, the document suggests that liturgy ought to be a privileged interpretive lens for the understanding of Christian dogma.  This represented a significant shift from the relegation of liturgy to the arena of pastoral practice.  One of the most important and seminal recommendations of Optatam Totius is that moral theology ought to be radically renewed:  “its scientific presentation ought to be more based on the teaching of Scripture.”[9]  This turning away from the rationalistic and purely deductive moral calculus of neo-scholastic moral theology has been slow in coming but has emerged in the last two decades as an extremely significant development.[10] 

Finally, Optatam Totius insists that all of seminary formation be geared toward pastoral formation:  “Therefore, all the methods used in training—spiritual, intellectual, and disciplinary—are to be coordinated by joint action towards this pastoral purpose.”[11]  In the sixth section of OT, the council fathers specify the focus of this pastoral instruction:  “The pastoral concern which should inspire the whole training of students also requires that they be instructed in matters especially concerning the sacred ministry:  that is, in catechesis and preaching, in the liturgy and the administration of the sacraments, in works of charity, in the duty of helping those in error and unbelievers, and in all other pastoral tasks.”[12]  Relatedly, seminarians should be encouraged to cultivate those virtues that “favor dialogue with people,” including “the capacity of listening to others, and of opening their hearts in a spirit of charity to the various circumstances of human need.”[13]  We will see how thoroughly this last point is developed, under the rubric of “human formation,” by both John Paul II and the authors of the Program for Priestly Formation. 


To read the rest of Bishop Barron’s essay, and the other essays in the book, be sure to pick up a copy of The Reception of Vatican II.


[1] Optatam Totius, no. 2, in Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, Vol. II, ed. Norman Tanner, S.J. (London:  Sheed and Ward, 1990), 948.

[2]John Paul II,  Pastores dabo vobis (I Will Give You Shepherds:  On the Formation of Priests in the Circumstances of the Present Day) (Washington, D.C.:  United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1992), no. 41.

[3] See Stephen Rosetti, The Joy of Priesthood (Notre Dame:  Ave Maria Press, 2005, passim

[4] Optatam Totius, no. 4.

[5] Presbyterorum Ordinis, no. 13, in Tanner, 1060.

[6] Optatam Totius, nos. 14 and 15.

[7] Ibid., no. 16.

[8] Ibid., no. 17.

[9] Ibid., no. 16.

[10] See for example among many Servais Pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics (Washington, D.C.:  Catholic University Press, 1995), passim.

[11] Optatam Totius, no. 4.

[12] Ibid.  19.

[13] Ibid.