Vatican II, 50 years later: a Baptist appreciation

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council by Pope John XXIII on October 11, 1962. My service as a member of the Baptist World Alliance delegation to a series of bilateral ecumenical conversations with the Roman Catholic Church held from 2006 through 2010 has given me a deepened appreciation for many aspects of the work of that council and its legacy.

In particular, I’ve come to see that the Catholic Church is not unlike the Baptist tradition in terms of the role that forms of dissent play in the theological development of both traditions (though Catholics do not describe it as “dissent”—more on that distinction later), and that this feature of Vatican II suggests some ways Baptists might see themselves as participants in the ongoing formation of a larger tradition that includes the Catholic Church along with all Christian churches. I’ve also recognized that Baptists even made their own historical contributions to one of the official declarations issued by the Council and thus can arguably claim to have participated indirectly in the formulation of Catholic magisterial teaching, but I’ll save the explanation of that assertion for a future ABPnews Blog post.

While doing research for a paper offering a Baptist perspective on the Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum that I presented to the 2007 meeting of the Baptist-Catholic dialogue in Rome, I discovered that not only the Second Vatican Council but also the sixteenth-century Council of Trent were marked by intra-magisterial divisions and debates that preceded the official approval of their decrees. In both councils there were Catholic voices within the magisterium arguing for rather Baptist-like positions on the normativity of Scripture in relation to the tradition of the church, for example.

In 1546, the bishops assembled for the Council of Trent were deeply divided about the most appropriate Catholic response to the challenge of the Lutheran insistence on “Scripture alone” as the normative authority for faith and practice. There were initially thirty-three votes for a statement of the parity of Scripture and tradition, but there were eleven votes in favor of amending this affirmation with a Latin word suggesting that Scripture and tradition were similar but not equal, plus an additional three votes in favor of a statement that traditions should be regarded with respect but without language declaring their parity with Scripture. As debate continued over proposed revisions, Bishop Giacomo Nacchianti insisted, “To put Scripture and Tradition on the same level is ungodly.” In response to the interjection by another bishop, “Are we ungodly people?”, Nacchianti replied, “Yes, I repeat it! How can I accept the practice of praying eastward with the same reverence as St. John’s gospel?”

While Bishop Nacchianti’s position did not carry the day, in the final text of Trent’s Decree Concerning the Canonical Scriptures language declaring the truth of salvation to be found “partly” in Scripture and “partly” in tradition was dropped in favor of the affirmation that truth is revealed in Scripture and in tradition, but without a parceling out of some truths to Scripture and others to tradition. In retrospect Baptists would readily join the dissenting Catholic position that opposed the equation of the authority of Scripture and tradition, and they would find the nod to the minority in the wording of the final version of the text more amenable than the “partly” in Scripture, “partly” in tradition language that it replaced.

A comparable difference of opinion over the proper relation of Scripture and tradition emerged in the long and tumultuous process leading from the initial presentation of a preparatory draft of Dei Verbum in 1960 to its final approval as a dogmatic constitution in 1965. In a debate on a draft under consideration in 1964, Bishop Hermann Volk of Mainz in Germany argued in favor of a greater emphasis on Scripture as the norm of tradition:

[A] special importance attaches to sacred scripture because it is in itself the word of God and does not simply contain it. In the sacred liturgy we incense sacred scripture and not tradition, and in this hall we are solemnly exalting sacred scripture and not tradition.

Counting the preparatory draft, the text that became Dei Verbum had nine incarnations. Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, participated in Vatican II as a theological adviser and observed in a commentary on Dei Verbum:

The text…naturally reveals traces of its difficult history; it is the result of many compromises. But the fundamental compromise which pervades it is more than a compromise, it is a synthesis of great importance. It combines fidelity to Church tradition with an affirmation of critical scholarship, thus opening up anew the path that faith may follow into the world of today. It does not entirely abandon the position of Trent and Vatican I, but neither does it mummify what was held to be true at those councils, because it recognizes that fidelity in the sphere of the Spirit can be realized only through a constantly renewed appropriation. With regard to its total achievement, one can say unhesitatingly that the labour of the four-year long controversy was not in vain (Joseph Ratzinger, “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation: Chapter II, The Transmission of Divine Revelation,” trans. William Glen-Doepel, in Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, ed. Herbert Vorgrimler [New York: Herder and Herder, 1967-69], vol. 3, p.164-65).

As with Trent, the magisterial teaching that emerged from the contention and compromise of conciliar theological deliberation at Vatican II had taken into account a range of positions that included some with basic similarities to Baptist perspectives. Even if such positions did not triumph over the others in the final formulation of the dogmatic constitution, they did influence it and to some degree were incorporated into the “compromise” document that is Dei Verbum.

These processes of Catholic doctrinal debate exemplify what Baptists might call “dissent”—constructive dissent that contributes to the clarification of doctrine. Catholics reserve the term “dissent” for public rejection of Catholic teaching by Catholics, which is not the same thing Baptists have in mind when they describe themselves as dissenters.

Baptists are dissenting lower-case “c” catholic Christians. They are quantitatively catholic in the sense of acknowledging that they belong to the whole church, even if points of their dissent preclude for the time being their full visible unity with large segments of the whole church. They are qualitatively catholic to the degree that they share the incarnational and sacramental pattern of faith and practice that characterized ancient catholic Christianity, even as they dissent from certain developments of catholic Christianity that are features of the faith and practice of upper-case “C” Catholic Christianity.

While Baptists as dissenting catholics cannot offer an unqualified endorsement of Dei Verbum and other documents of Vatican II, they can find a place within the pattern of theological contestation that produced them. Fifty years later, the Baptist future may depend on finding that place and owning it, and the Catholic future may depend on embracing once again the healthy theological contestation that belongs to that pattern.

Steve Harmon

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About the Author
Steven R. Harmon teaches Christian Theology at Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. His most recent book is "Ecumenism Means You, Too: Ordinary Christians and the Quest for Christian Unity" (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade Books, 2010). Dr. Harmon blogs at Ecclesial Theology. He and his family are members of St. John's Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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  • Irene Niravalambana

    Thank you for this great article! As a Catholic I greatly appreciate seeing this Baptist perspective on Vatican II and I also enjoyed your take on the role of dissent, which, I believe, is very close to my own (e.g., see here:

    • Istvan

      Irene, you’re a moron, and about as Catholic as Hans Kung

      • Jason Mendez

        tell us how you really feel

    • Steven Harmon

      Irene, thanks for your kind comment. I’m grateful for your own perspective.

  • Lara

    Steve the whore – the Baptists are mostly this now, that is why no good man can darken their church doors anymore…

  • Dr. Chau Thien Phan

    Thank you, Dr. Harmon.
    The peace of the Lord be with you! I very much appreciate the spirit of love that you have displayed in promoting the cause of Christian Unity among Baptists, especially when other Baptists are not so kind and Christian-like toward you because of your stand. As children of the same God, and saved by the Blood of the same Lord Jesus, let all Christians adopt what John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, had to say about communications among Christians of various traditions:

    In the name, then, and in the strength of God, let us resolve,
    first, not to hurt one another; to do nothing unkind or unfriendly to each
    other, nothing which we would not have done to ourselves. Rather let us
    endeavor after every instance of a kind, friendly, and Christian behavior
    towards each other.

    Let us resolve, secondly, God
    being our helper, to speak nothing harsh or unkind of each other. The sure way
    to avoid this is to say all the good we can both of and to one another; in all
    our conversation, either with or concerning each other, to use only the
    language of love, to speak with all softness and tenderness, with the most
    endearing expression which is consistent with truth and sincerity.

    Let us, thirdly, resolve to
    harbor no unkind thought, no unfriendly temper towards each other. Let us lay
    the axe to the root of the tree; let us examine all that rises in our heart,
    and suffer no disposition there which is contrary to tender affection. Then
    shall we easily refrain from unkind actions and word, when the very root of
    bitterness is cut up.

    Let us, fourthly, endeavor to
    help each other on in whatever we are agreed leads to the Kingdom. So far as we
    can, let us always rejoice to strengthen each
    other’s hands in God.

    JOHN WESLEY, “Letter to a Roman
    Catholic”, 1749.With fraternal love. Your brother in service of the Lord of Unity,Chau Thien Phan, Ph.D., Coordinator, Flagler Churches Together in Prayer and Song, Palm Coast, Florida.

  • Dick Prudlo

    Steve, the reason the equilibrium between Tradition and Scripture was dropped is due to the Holy Spirit in action. Something a meeting of elite Baptists would find absent.

  • Kimberly Meredith

    I think it is interesting that Vatican I happened and the session was ended in 1870 about when the unification of Italy occurred under Garibaldi, which included the invasion of the Papal States (formerly about 1/3rd of Italy) militarily and the siege of Rome. Rome did not get back its status legally with Italy until I think the Concordat between Rome and Italy under Mussolini decades later. Mike M.

  • miniatureminimin

    Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church says this in chapter three: “Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held. This is even more clearly verified when, gathered together in an ecumenical council, they are teachers and judges of faith and morals for the universal Church, whose definitions must be adhered to with the submission of faith.” ( The 20 ecumenical councils before it are still infallible, like the ecumenical council of Trent that declared that Catholics with faith can lose salvation from unrepented mortal (grave) sin. And that baptism or the implicit desire of baptism is necessary for salvation.