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Book review: Vatican II: A very short introduction by Shaun Blanchard and Stephen Bullivant

20 October 2023

Alexander Faludy admires a guide

SIXTY years after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the meaning of its decrees (as well as their reception by Latin and Eastern Catholics) remains contested ground. In their new volume, Shaun Blanchard and Stephen Bullivant provide a crisp, accessible, and entertaining overview of “the Council”: one that balances treatment of it as historical event, textual corpus, and process of change.

Chapters 1-3 set out important definitions and present the Council as an event in time. The latter is especially interesting on how the search for Christian unity affected proceedings.

John XXIII’s speech (25 Jan 1959) announcing the Council extended a “cordial invitation to the faithful of the separated communities [non-Catholic Christians] to participate with us in this quest for unity and grace”.

Protestant, Anglican, and Orthodox observers were unable to speak in council sessions, but their visible presence affected the register in which debates were conducted. Informal conversations with conciliar colleagues during coffee breaks influenced documents on many themes — well beyond Unitas Redintegratio (the decree on ecumenism).

An overview of the texts themselves is done by grouping the 16 council documents under four chapter headings: liturgy, divine revelation, ecclesiology, and mission in the world.

Chapters 4-6 cover ground that may be relatively familiar to many readers regarding how the Council sought to foster lay participation, deeper engagement with scripture, and a sense of the Church as sacramental “mystery” more than juridical structure.

Chapter 7, however, contains surprising material especially on Inter Mirifica — the decree on mass communications. The authors point out shrewdly that relative inattention to this document in conciliar debate (and subsequent reception) may have left the Church ill-prepared to meet the challenges of the digital age and of social media.

Chaper 8 (“Conciliar Hermeneutics”) sets out competing strains of intra-Catholic interpretation of Vatican II objectively. Readers are left to decide whether a “Spirit-Event” or “Text-Continuity” framework offers a better account of the Council — and are left guessing which of these the authors themselves prefer.

Blanchard and Bullivant’s summaries of complex material are relieved with archival photos, period cartoons, boxed text of eyewitness testimonies, and even humorous verses penned by bored bishops during debates. Only consideration of Tom Lehrer’s “Vatican Rag” musical skit could have improved the work further.

The Revd Alexander Faludy is a freelance journalist based in Budapest.


Vatican II: A very short introduction
Shaun Blanchard and Stephen Bullivant
OUP £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.09

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