Addressing a “Different Kind of Crisis”? A New Introduction to Vatican II

…and Interview With the Authors, Shaun Blanchard and Stephen Bullivant.

Note: The book under discussion here represents only one of a number of interpretations of Vatican II and it’s fruits which are found at this website. See Labels / Categories for others. — Editor.

There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that sometime in the 1950s, when Archbishop Angelo Roncalli finished reading the French Dominican priest Yves Congar’s controversial book True and False Reform in the Church, he asked himself: ‘A reform of the church: is such a thing really possible?’ On 25 January 1959, less than three months after he was elected Pope John XXIII, Roncalli answered that question himself with a resounding ‘yes’. But what did John XXIII, Congar, and others mean by ‘reform’? And what were the ways in which they wanted this new ecumenical council to reform the Catholic Church? To better understand these goals and aspirations, we should also examine the deeper roots of Vatican II, which take us back much further than Paris and Rome in the 1950s—to Oxford University in the 1840s, Germany in the aftermath of Napoleon’s fall, and Tuscany during the Enlightenment…’

The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), or Vatican II, is arguably the most significant event in the life of the Catholic Church since the Reformation. The Council initiated, intentionally or not, profound changes not simply within Catholic theology, but in the religious, social, and moral lives of the world’s billion Catholics. It also reconfigured, intellectually and practically, the Church’s engagements with those outside of it – most obviously with regard to other religions.

The sixteen documents formally issued by Vatican II constitute some of the most influential writings of the whole twentieth century. Debates over their correct interpretation and authority are constant, but they remain an indispensable point-of-reference for all areas of Catholic life, from liturgy and sacraments, to the Church’s vast network of charitable and educational endeavours the world over.

In this Very Short Introduction, Shaun Blanchard and Stephen Bullivant present the backstory to this event. Vatican II is explored in light of the wider history of the Catholic Church and placed in the tumultuous context of the 1960s. It distils the research on Vatican II, employing the first-hand accounts of participants and observers, and the official proceedings of the Council to paint a rich picture of one of the most important events of the last century.”

ABOUT THE SERIES: The Very Short Introductions series from Oxford University Press contains hundreds of titles in almost every subject area. These pocket-sized books are the perfect way to get ahead in a new subject quickly. Our expert authors combine facts, analysis, perspective, new ideas, and enthusiasm to make interesting and challenging topics highly readable.

1. What is an ‘ecumenical council’?

2. Before the Council: roots of reform

3. The event of the Council: what happened and when?

4. Liturgy

Shaun Blanchard and Stephen Bullivant

Dr. Ralph Martin: Christian Universalism. Not Christian, Not Universal

Progressivist Theology, What It Is.

Nothing but the Truth’: A reader’s guide to Archbishop Gänswein’s memoir

Luke Coppen, The Pillar


It’s 2003: Vatican doctrinal chief Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger asks the young priest Fr. Georg Gänswein to serve as his personal secretary, believing that the appointment will be short-lived as he hopes to retire soon. To Gänswein’s surprise, he remains at the cardinal’s side as he is elected pope, dramatically resigns, and lives out his remaining years as “pope emeritus.”

Throughout, Gänswein sees “the true face of one of the greatest protagonists of the history of the last century,” a figure caricatured as the “Panzerkardinal” and “God’s Rottweiler.” He says that the recollections that follow will offer a “personal testimony” to Benedict XVI’s greatness, “shed some light on misunderstood aspects of his pontificate,” and “describe from the inside the real ‘Vatican world.’”

Chapter 1
Entitled “The ‘predestined’ outside the box,” the chapter recounts Gänswein’s early impressions of Ratzinger following his appointment as his personal secretary. He presents him as indifferent to Vatican gossip, “moving on a decidedly more ethereal level” than his fellow cardinals, and longing for quiet retirement among the books of the Vatican Library.

The chapter presents Ratzinger’s ascent through the Church hierarchy as a work of Providence rather than ambition. Unlike some priests prizing Roman positions, Ratzinger did not focus on fluency in Italian. He learned it during the Second Vatican Council, “albeit somewhat poorly, using the didactic method of 33 rpm records.” He only got to grips with the language after arriving in Rome in 1981.

Gänswein explains that Ratzinger agreed to serve as prefect of the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation on condition that he could still publish his own theological reflections. Gänswein comments that “without the outlet of theological production, the ‘pressure cooker’ of his intellect would not have had a safety valve and would have exploded.”

Chapter 2
Entitled “The philosopher and the theologian,” this chapter describes the close working relationship between Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II, despite a “clear difference in character and style.” Gänswein presents the two men as complementary personalities, with the German’s “theological clarity and interpretative rigor” balancing the Pole’s “philosophical questioning and intellectual research.”

A “trusting openness” enabled the two men to cooperate even when they disagreed. One such “moment of dissonance” was an inter-religious meeting for peace in Assisi in 1986, which John Paul convened but Ratzinger skipped. Gänswein suggests that the pope eventually took on board Ratzinger’s concerns about the dangers of syncretism.

Chapter 3
Entitled “The fall of the axe,” the chapter describes the end of John Paul II’s pontificate and Ratzinger’s election as his successor. Gänswein argues that, with a conclave on the horizon, the German cardinal ran an election campaign “‘in reverse,’ to convince possible supporters to set him aside.” He illustrates this by describing Ratzinger’s behavior at the funeral of Communion and Liberation founder Fr. Luigi Giussani. John Paul had asked Ratzinger to preside, but Milan Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi desired “at all costs” to do the same, while Vatican Cardinal Stanisław Ryłko wanted to read the papal condolence letter. Gänswein writes that Ratzinger modestly limited himself to delivering the homily.

The author did not believe that his boss would emerge from the 2005 conclave as pope, or even play the role of “popemaker.” He says that Ratzinger’s homily before the cardinals entered the Sistine Chapel was an attempt to rule himself out of the running, with its “strong reiteration of his own ‘war horses.’”

Gänswein, who stayed at the cardinals’ Vatican residence during the conclave, describes how he accompanied Ratzinger to the Sistine Chapel on the afternoon of April 19, 2005. Ratzinger, wearing a black sweater as insulation against the chapel’s draughts, was “very pensive” and did not talk. “On a psychological level, it was the most tiring walk of my life,” writes Gänswein. “I sensed that I was living through a historic and almost dramatic moment, with Ratzinger giving me the impression that I was walking toward a cliff.”…. Continue