Peter Henriot once described Catholic social teaching as "our best kept secret." The same can be said about Vatican II. Lots of things have been claimed in the "spirit" of the Council, but what the Council actually said remains, in many ways, "our best kept secret."
Alan Schreck, professor of theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, wants to lift that veil. His book, structured in question/answer format, explains the teaching of the sixteen documents of Vatican II. He also provides background on how the Council came about and what has fueled the "crisis" that lead various extremes to heap blame for ecclesiastical problems on the Council itself.
Pope John Paul II described the Second Vatican Council as "the great grace bestowed on the Church in the twentieth century." The Council was, after all, about what it meant to be a Catholic today.
Schreck's book emphasizes the bracing challenge of being a Catholic in the modern world. He puts special stress on the role of Catholic laity who, from a conciliar perspective, remain the Church's hope for setting the contemporary world ablaze for Christ.
So just who are we?
"We are the people gifted with God's Word, who are challenged to know and live that Word as it comes to us in sacred Scripture and sacred Tradition and through the teaching office of the pope an the bishops. We are the people whose worship of God as a community in the liturgy is the fullest expression of who we are and the summit of our life. Thus we are challenged to worship our Lord reverently and faithfully, in spirit and truth. We are the people of God whose fullness resides in the Catholic Church. Yet we recognize the gifts and grace of God at work in other baptized believers. We are the people of God, challenged to take up the mission of Christ in every sphere of human life: the family, politics, economics, social and cultural life, education and the mass media. Our aim is that Christ may be truly Lord of all, in every aspect of life" (pp. 279-80).
Obviously, the best introduction to Vatican II would be for Catholics to read the Conciliar documents themselves. Since its documents remain, four decades after the Council, "best kept secrets," Schreck's book provides a good summary survey of each text's salient points. Key themes like the universal call to holiness, the Church as communion and People of God, the reform of the liturgy, the apostolate of the laity, the renewal of religious life, ecumenism, and the theological anthropology of Gaudium et spes are all explained in understandable language. The author also provides citations to post-Conciliar documents to show the continuity of Catholic teaching, properly noting that Conciliar teaching should be read together with what preceded it and what followed it. Vatican II was about adaptation, not innovation. The Council itself (as opposed to the "meta-Council" of some writers) frequently based its reforms on appeals to a more broadly understood past: liturgical renewal, for example, was supposed to be "reform by remembering," recognizing that the Church's liturgical tradition did not reach back only to Trent.
My major criticism of the book is Schreck's somewhat superficial and imbalanced presentation of the sources of the ecclesiastical "crisis" some attribute to Vatican II. No one can deny the problems the Church has faced these past forty years, but in perspective the Lefebvrists were minor players in that "crisis." To begin-for lack of a better term-with the extreme right's critics of the Council lacks perspective. "Catholic" theology faculties in the U.S. have not been roiling with people who say Paul VI went too far. Furthermore, to lump a Catholic critic like James Hitchcock in with a revisionist like Gregory Baum is distortive. Schreck's analysis of Conciliar "crisis" is particularly disappointing when compared with his superior exposition of the Council's "promise." Lopping off the first 35 pages (the "crisis") would lose little and help the rest of this book a lot.
A useful book for parish discussion groups, adult religious education, and general readers, this book fills a gap by making the teaching of Vatican II available to all. Recommended.
(My review originally appeared in the Dec 4 NATIONAL CATHOLIC REGISTER)