The 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council is an opportunity to revisit the clear teaching of its documents and reject distortions and false interpretations that have gained traction in the Catholic Church, a council scholar says.

Alan Schreck, professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, spoke at the Graymoor Spiritual Life Center in Garrison on “Vatican II: World Church or Church of the Little Flock?”

Vatican II is still a sure compass for the church today, Schreck said, and each pope since the council reaffirmed its teachings as “God’s teachings in our time.” Nonetheless, he said, there has been tumult as the postconciliar church sought to understand what the council meant and how to implement it.

Schreck said extreme responses vary from those who thought the council did not go far enough to create a democratic church to those who thought it wrought too many changes and opened the door to secularism and modernist heresy.

“The documents of Vatican II are among the great unread documents of our time,” said Schreck, a theologian, author and scholar of the council. “People are not sure what it said. A lot of things that are blamed on Vatican II are not in the documents.”

Vatican II consisted of four sessions, each approximately three months long, in the years 1962-65.
Although the Catholic Church was clearly present worldwide long before Vatican II, Schreck said the council promoted a concept of “world church,” which he described as a mentality that redefined ecumenism. “Rather than expect all Christians to simply return to the Catholic Church, there’s more of an attitude of reconciliation and reunion, where the Catholic Church joins with other Christians seeking that unity for which Christ prayed,” he said.

Schreck said some people misinterpreted the new understanding of ecumenism as a rebuke to evangelization.

Schreck said distortions of the council teaching dismissed anything European or Western as being intrinsically paternalistic, colonial or oppressive.

One significant misinterpretation of the documents held that non-Christians would win salvation solely through the goodness and truth of their religions and not through Jesus Christ, Schreck said. “People asked, ‘If non-Christians can be saved, why preach the Gospel?’ It’s little wonder that Catholics rejected this false universalism,” he said.