‘Oxford Handbook on Vatican II’ is, pun intended, magisterial

By Michael Sean Winters, 10 May 2023
A view of the Second Vatican Council. Image: Dave582/Wikimedia Commons.


The Oxford Handbook of Vatican II attempts a Herculean task. Part reference book, part introduction to a complex historical subject, part analysis of a still ongoing reception of the conciliar teaching, part international symposium, this Hydra of a book proves to be a Herculean achievement. Those in the English-speaking world who teach Catholic theology now have a book at hand that comprehensively considers virtually every important post-conciliar subject, filled with references and additional resources, against which scholars and average Catholics can crosscheck their arguments and intuitions.

The first section of the book looks at the context and the sources of the Second Vatican Council itself, and the first chapter was penned by the late Jesuit historian John O’Malley. “Vatican Council II did not fall out of the heavens,” O’Malley begins. “Like any institution and most especially any institution of the Catholic Church, the council can be understood only in the context of the situations and the issues it inherited from the past that the fathers of the council decided to address.”

O’Malley’s treatment of the theological ferment between Vatican I and II, equally attentive to the interplay of theological ideas and practical, often political realities, gives way to the second chapter from one of the volume’s editors, Villanova theologian Massimo Faggioli. “The Catholic Church in the period between Vatican I and Vatican II makes a transition from Christendom to what philosopher Charles Taylor calls the ‘age mobilization,’ in which religion is no longer ‘a community mentalité, but a partisan stance.’ ” The loss of papal temporal power, and the defeat of theology that supported it, “was also translated into a magisterial response to the challenges of social and political modernity.”

Faggioli keenly analyzes the way the catastrophic wars of the 20th century affected Catholic theology and the church’s pastors. He notes, also, that post-World War II migration from Catholic countries and cultures to mixed or largely Protestant ones, had this result: “religion ceased to be associated primarily with specific denominations and denominational creeds and came to be associated with broad ethical and political trends along ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ political lines.” The Catholic faith, so long carried by the culture, became more notional, more propositional, with increased polarization then becoming an inevitable outcome.

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With thanks to the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) and Michael Sean Winters, where this article originally appeared.


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