Great Grace Conference - Receiving Vatican II Today

Last edited 12th June 2013

Great Grace Conference - Receiving Vatican II Today

Plenary - Intention and Text, Spirit and Letter - Professor Anthony Kelly


To appreciate “the great grace” of Vatican II, two terms are unavoidable—“spirit” and “letter”. Are they opposites? Can one be used against the other? Are they complementary? Do they express different perspectives on Vatican II as a still unfolding event in the life of the Church?

The "letter” of the sixteen conciliar documents is there in black and white. Fifty years later, these documents continue to make us ask how they might be best presented, more precisely translated and best received. After all, the world in which they were written is a world that has rapidly and vastly changed—no internet then, and the Soviet Union was the bastion of atheistic communism. And since then, we have had a Polish and now a German Pope—both of whom participated in the Council.

It is most likely that the next Pope will not have been one of the “council fathers”. That will give a new complexion to our theme. In the meantime, it is instructive to ponder on how the times have changed, and how that affects our reading of Vatican II.
In other words the question of the “spirit” of the Council arises: obviously it has to be beholden to the “letter”; and yet it would be a distortion to be so fixated on the “letter” as to be without a sense of the larger event that was occurring, and of the way the Holy Spirit was, and is, acting. When the “letter” is read in the wrong spirit, a war of words can easily result, with no one the wiser.

One useful way of combining the values of both “letter” and “spirit”, is to ask, What spirituality derives from the Council? Other questions are implied dealing with our way of praying, our sense of God, our understanding of Christ and the Holy Spirit, and the meaning of Christian responsibility in the Church and in the world...

Anthony J Kelly, CSsR, a Redemptorist priest, is at present a Professor of Theology at Australian Catholic University.