Examining three landmark documents of Vatican II at the beginning of the Holy Year of Mercy

By Monsignor Arthur A. Holquin, Stl Episcopal Vicar for Divine Worship     12/3/2015

This is the first part of a three-part feature story written by Monsignor Holquin that will appear this month in Orange County Catholic in which he discusses three of the most significant documents produced by the Second Vatican Council on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the council’s closing.

This Dec. 8, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, we mark the 50th anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council. To celebrate this watershed moment in the history of our Church, Pope Francis will inaugurate a Holy Year of Mercy. It is providential that this auspicious anniversary will be marked by a Jubilee Year of Mercy. At the famous speech given by Pope St. John XXIII on the first day of the council on October 11, 1962, he presciently spoke these inspiring words:

In these days, which mark the beginning of this Second Vatican Council, it is more obvious than ever before that the Lord’s truth is indeed eternal. Human ideologies change. Successive generations give rise to varying errors, and these often vanish as quickly as they came, like mist before the sun.

The Church has always opposed these errors, and often condemned them with the utmost severity. Today, however, Christ’s Bride prefers the balm of mercy to the arm of severity. She believes that present needs are best served by explaining more fully the purport of her doctrines, rather than by publishing condemnations.

In the course of four fall sessions beginning in 1962 and ending in 1965, 16 conciliar documents would be promulgated that would definitively speak of the enduring work of this great council.

In the final session that took place in the fall of 1965, three critically important documents were promulgated for the life of the Church in our times. The first, Nostra Aetate dealt with the Catholic Church’s relationship to non-Christian religions with specific reference to our Jewish brothers and sisters. The second document, Dignitatis Humanae was concerned with the pressing issue of religious freedom. The third document, Gaudium et Spes on the Church in the modern world, would definitively bring to a close the “siege mentality” of a post-Tridentine Church as we opened ourselves in dialogue to a modern world.

These documents point to the critical dynamic of “doctrinal development” within the life of the Church. It is sometimes said that the Church is “unchangeable.” While it is true that the core dogmas and doctrines of our faith retain elements of unchanging truth, how those truths are expressed down through the centuries can indeed develop, expand and change with the exigencies of the present age.

In reflection on these pivotal documents of the council, it is important to keep in mind that the thrust and tone of the council would not be that of condemnation or rebuking of error, but rather a pastoral council, keen to enter into dialogue with the modern world, enabling the perennial truth of the Gospel of Christ to ring with greater clarity to the men and women of this present age.

The groundbreaking insights of the first document, Nostra Aetate, would radically change our Church’s relationship to non-Christians, and specifically to our Jewish brothers and sisters. The history of the relationship between Catholics and Jews had been tendentious at best. While never a formal part of our teaching, many in the Church laid the sin of deicide—the killing of God—at the corporate feet of the Jewish people of Jesus’ time and their descendants. Such a charge insidiously fed the prejudice and mindset that led to the persecution of the Jewish people, their sequestration into ghettos, and ultimately planted the demonic seeds of the Holocaust in Germany.

The document Nostra Aetate would unequivocally affirm the fact that God did not rescind his special covenant with the Jewish people nor should the sin of deicide be laid upon the whole Jewish race. In the words of the document itself:

True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in his passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. The Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the Word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ. Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone. (NA #4)