My wife and I met at a conference hosted back in 2012 by the Pontifical John Paul II Institute at the Catholic University of America on “The Challenge of Vatican II,” commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the twenty-first ecumenical council. While I got to meet and talk with such Catholic superstars as Cardinal Francis George and David L. Schindler (which put me into a Catholic nerd Beatlemania frenzy), the highlight of my night was meeting the pretty and intelligent lady from Poland who would become my wife. 

Around the time of that conference, my wife was new to America, particularly to the Catholic Church in America. Listening to all the discussions about the postconciliar debacles prompted her to ask me why the Catholic Church in America was so different and seemingly more confused than it was in Poland. (Note: I do not claim to know the full history of the reception of the council in Poland. But what I do know is that they had Wojtyla and Wyszynski, which is saying a lot—take a look at Wojtyla’s Sources of Renewal: The Implementation of Vatican II to get a sense of understanding of its implementation.)

My wife’s confusion has not abated in the last eight years. We have met more and more American Catholics who are openly suspicious of Vatican II. Some even claim that it creates a new religion. Reigniting debates about the orthodoxy of the council is a bit strange given that we have had two postconciliar popes (John Paul II and Benedict XVI) who were at the council and now with Pope Francis who clearly pronounced, “[Vatican II] is the magisterium of the Church.”  

In her rather traditional Poland, my wife never heard such suspicions, but she can understand why people are distrustful of what they claimed came from the council. This includes everything that was a part of the sex abuse crisis. But the question is whether those abuses (doctrinal and sexual) were truly from the council. It is true that there was a tendency following the council—and it still exists with growing force—to water down the faith for a false irenicism. Ecumenism was in the air. But the council warned about this (see Unitatis Redintegratio, 11). In order to better explain things to my wife, I have tried to better understand the council and the history of its reception. I have had to become more familiar with the history preceding the council, its documents, the details of the conciliar debates, and the important changes in schema so as to better understand the subtleties of the texts, making sure not to misunderstand them. Obedience to the Church is sufficient for Catholics, but some Catholics may be called to enter the fray. 

I recently filmed a course on Vatican II for the Word on Fire Institute with the purpose of helping people better understand its four constitutions and the history of its reception. At the time of filming, little did I know that discussion about the council would erupt in the summer of 2020. But this made me all the more convinced that the resources I used for the course should be more widely known. I have compiled a list of books that helped me in putting together my course. It should be a good start in better understanding and appreciating this great council that so often gets no respect. 

1) The Conciliar Documents

First, read the documents themselves and make sure to pay attention to what is in them and what is not in them. Also, know the meaning of the terms. I am shocked to see people blame the council for things that are not even in the documents. Word on Fire just released its own collection of the four constitutions. If you want to read all the documents, be careful what English translation you choose. The best would be to read the translation on the Vatican’s website

2) The Final Report of the 1985 Extraordinary Synod on the Celebration, Verification, Promotion of Vatican II  

This report details the concerns the bishops had in the proper reception and implementation of the council. One of the most significant suggestions that was made by the bishops was the need for a universal catechism, which led to the development of the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church.

3) Pope Benedict XVI’s 2005 Christmas Address to the Roman Curia

In this address, Pope Benedict XVI outlines a “hermeneutic of reform” in contrast to a hermeneutic of discontinuity or rupture.

4) Investigating Vatican II: Its Theologians, Ecumenical Turn, and Biblical Commitment by Jared Wicks, SJ

This book is an excellent history of the council, helping us better understand Pope John XXIII’s intentions for convoking the council. Fr. Wicks highlights the key moments in the council and the importance of many uncelebrated theologians such as Pieter Smulders, helping to broaden one’s understanding of the influences at the council.

5)The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II: Continuity and Reversal in Catholic Doctrine by Thomas G. Guarino

In this book, Fr. Guarino does an excellent job helping “students and others understand how Vatican II is properly integrated into the theological tradition of the Catholic Church even as it significantly reorients Catholicism in some crucial areas.” 

6) The Liturgy Guys 

Listen to the podcast episodes on the Liturgical Movement, Sacrcosanctum Concilium, and the postconciliar liturgical documents.

7) Communio’s “Keeping the World Awake to God”: The Challenge of Vatican II 

This is a collection of talks given at the conference where I met my wife. The Pontifical John Paul II Institute has hosted many conferences since then on conciliar documents (including Lumen Gentium, Gaudium et Spes, and Dignitatis Humanae). Videos from the conferences can be found here.

8) The Reception of Vatican II and Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition by Matthew Levering and Matthew L. Lamb (editors)

These collections from a wide range of authors offer very insightful commentaries on the individual documents, reading them in light of the Tradition. Dr. Matthew Levering also wrote the afterword for The Word on Fire Vatican II Collection.

9) More Paradoxes by Henri de Lubac, especially part II: “Council. Collegiality. Para- and Post-Council.”

Henri de Lubac was at the council (read his Notebooks on the Council) but lamented the developments that quickly followed the council, especially in vernacular translations of the liturgy. Fighting against the postconciliar trends that he saw as a distortion of the meaning of the council, he co-founded the international theological journal Communio with Joseph Ratzinger and Hans Urs von Balthasar.

10) What Happened at Vatican II by John O’Malley, SJ.  

O’Malley’s reading of Vatican II is more along the lines of seeing it as an “event.” The Bologna school of interpretation of conciliar history took such a stance. The collection that best represents this school is the five-volume History of Vatican II by Joseph A. Komanchak and Giuseppe Alberigo.

11) Freedom, Truth, and Human Dignity: The Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty by David L. Schindler and Nicholas J. Healy. 

The Declaration on Religious Liberty is one of the most contentious documents of the council. In this book, Schindler and Healy correct a misunderstanding of the text by showing how it is based on an earlier schema and does not include the changes made in the final schema.

12) The One Church of Christ: Understanding Vatican II by Stephen A. Hipp

Many presentations of the ecclesiology of Lumen Gentium lack sufficient depth and insight. In this book, Dr. Hipp elucidates one of the most disputed terms of the council: subsistit in.

13)
An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine by St. John Henry Newman

Though he died more than seventy years before the council, Newman can be seen as a theologian who had great influence at Vatican II. It is very interesting and telling that many of the objectors to Vatican II rarely mention this saint. Certain Thomists sometimes misread him as foreshadowing modernism, but the Thomist scholar Reinhard Hütter has put that idea to rest in his book on Newman, showing that while the Angelic Doctor is not explicitly mentioned in Newman’s writings, he nevertheless is always implicitly informing his thought. In many ways, this council can be called “Newman’s Council.” Bishop Barron has a brilliant twelve-lesson course on the thought of Newman. This Word on Fire Institute course would help you better understand the theological principles informing Vatican II.