Father Blake Britton reminds the Church what the Council was really about

Irish Rover managing editor Elizabeth Self sat down in November with Fr. Blake Britton to discuss his new book, Reclaiming Vatican II. Fr. Britton is a priest of the Diocese of Orlando, Florida, and his book, released in October by Word on Fire, has reinvigorated conversation in the Church on a topic concerning the clergy, theologians, and the Church at large.

Besides popular misreadings of Vatican II, hurtful and unhealthy categorizations of the faithful within the Church motivated Fr. Britton to write his book. He believed that “the answer to how we can reconcile and transcend these factions in the Church is in Vatican II.” The book discusses both the Council documents as well as the renewal in the Church that truly embodies the spirit of the Council.

During his research, the answer for the first problem came to him with Henri de Lubac, a 20th century Jesuit who wrote an essay called “On the Paracouncil,” Fr. Britton told Self. “When I read that essay,” Fr. Britton said, “I immediately knew I’d found gold, because he was writing within a decade of the closing session of Vatican II and was already noticing that there is this group of theologians and persons who were using Vatican II as an opportunity to promote their own personal ideologies … because they themselves were disappointed that Vatican II was not as radical as they thought it should have been.”

Revisiting the documents

When asked what documents of Vatican II he thought were most neglected, Fr. Britton responded that the Church should revisit all four of them. He found that Sacrosanctum Concilium, the document on Sacred Liturgy, has dominated in conversation on Vatican II as the “so-called liturgical wars” have intensified, with “a lot of false claims on both sides” in regards to the content of the document.

Fr. Britton stated that he believes Lumen Gentium in particular has been overshadowed, and therefore the richness of the Council is a mystery to most of the Church: “This document really highlights over two centuries-worth of theological development the likes of which the Church had not seen since the councils of Nicaea, Chalcedon, and Ephesus. It is a magnificent document that reclaims a lot of these patristic, ancient, apostolic concepts of the Church and particularly her relation with the Blessed Virgin Mary.”

Fr. Britton considered the other documents in turn. Gaudium et Spes, he said, is much more than a social justice document. He noted: “Its notion that marriage and the family will really be one of the saving graces of the future of the world is a very bold claim that has not really been reflected on.”

When asked if he believes that the domestic church—parishes and the family—has a central role in Vatican II, Fr. Britton responded with emphatic affirmation. He referred to From Christendom to the Apostolic Age by Monsignor Shea, which (in the spirit of Vatican II) emphasizes that in the current age, evangelization requires “a return to this apostolic notion of the Church, which is to say: the future of the Church is going to be small, compact powerhouse communities that influence it locally. Local church populaces explode into fountainheads of grace.”

In regards to Dei Verbum, the document on Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, Fr. Britton said that if she does not read it, the Church remains ignorant of various tools that we should be using to understand Sacred Scripture: “The importance of tradition, the writings of the Church Fathers, understanding the origins and the original documents of the Church from the first several centuries of Catholicism—all those things are not really spoken about in the wider populace of the Church, especially among the laity, and there are not many clergymen or religious women who are promoting or teaching those things either.”

The Council’s call

The current burst in Catholic innovation, Fr. Britton affirmed, was anticipated by the Second Vatican Council as a “movement of the Holy Spirit.” He said: “We already had inklings of that taking place with movements like Opus Dei before the Second Vatican Council that were gaining popularity into the 1950s. This was already a movement in the Church, so it’s not like Vatican II invented it… The Spirit was already moving through the Church, so what Vatican II did was recognize it, foster it, and encourage it.”

When asked what Vatican II showed us about the place of theologians in the Church, Fr. Britton first noted that the vision for theologians that the Second Vatican Council provided was not followed: “This led to what we call the ‘paracouncil’ or to this anti-council, this false so-called ‘spirit of Vatican II.’” He suggested that “the role of the theologian needs to be disciplined … As a professional theologian, I have to regularly keep in mind that my premier responsibility is to Catholicism, not to myself—to you and to your salvation, not to my ideology. And Vatican II is adamant on that.”

On the positive side, Fr. Britton summarized the vision for theologians provided at the Council: “That wonderful balance spoken about by Saint Paul, caritas et veritate. Charity and truth. If you want to be a theologian of the Church, that means that we have to be rooted in what’s given to us. In the end, theology is not mine: theology is Christ’s. It belongs to him. He is the ultimate Theologos, the ultimate theology. All that it is to me is a responsibility. Now I have to pass it on in faithfulness but of course with innovation as well. There’s an innovative spirit that accompanies theologians. There’s a way that we’re able to balance the beauty of the tradition and history of our Church while also seeking innovative new ways to proclaim that same truth.”

The real spirit of Vatican II

In elaborating on this relationship between charity and truth at the heart of the Second Vatican Council, Fr. Britton turned to St Paul of the Cross: “I think one of the greatest quotes in history comes from Saint Paul of the Cross when he says, ‘Love is ingenious.’ I am absolutely enthralled with that phraseology because what he means by that is love always finds a way … Love has to get out of itself, it has to go to someone. And that’s true of the love of Jesus and the love of the Church, that the gift I’ve been given in the tradition and the beauty of Catholicism can’t just be mine … That’s just the very logic, the very foundation of the Incarnation. Jesus seeks us and then in seeking us He gives Himself away (which is the Crucifixion), and in giving Himself away He then becomes something new (which is the Resurrection). And that’s what has everlasting life.”

The Church participates in this transformation, Fr. Britton said: “We’ve been given something beautiful, and in giving it away we become something new. That newness becomes salvation for people. And we’ve seen that happen over and over again throughout Church history, in all the different time periods from the apostolic age, going to the Byzantine era, going to the Medieval, the Renaissance, the Baroque, and even leading up to our own modern or postmodern era. So I’m looking forward to seeing that unfold.”

Fr. Britton recalled that so many things working in the life of the Church at this moment, such as World Youth Day, could only come about as a result of Vatican II. He noted: “A lot has been taken for granted at the cost of the real brilliance and beauty of Vatican II. So we need to go back and try to plumb some of these gems, if you will, out of the mine of the Second Vatican Council.”

World Youth Day itself represents a return to forgotten traditions; pilgrimage has returned to the lives of the faithful. Fr. Britton shared that he even relies on the old-school penance of pilgrimage as a confessor. “One of the old definitions that Vatican II gives of the Church based on apostolic and patristic writings,” Fr. Britton mentioned, “is the pilgrim people of God. That phraseology is renewed by the Second Vatican Council. We are people on the way.”

At his own parish, Fr. Britton honors the richness of traditions in the Church. Eucharistic processions, seasonal chant, Latin Masses, and pilgrimages to local shrines unify his community. He shared: “I’m very Benedictine insofar as I believe in the theology of place, meaning all of us have been given a history, we come from a ‘somewhere.’ And in the United States we actually have a lot of rich history even though we’re a relatively young nation … Our faith is a very fleshy, incarnate faith, and we need to reclaim that.”

Elizabeth Self is a senior in the Program of Liberal Studies and theology and minoring in Constitutional Studies. At this time, she is not fielding conversations on her postgrad plans and thesis, but please reach out to her to discuss anything else at eself@nd.edu.

Editor’s note: This article was shared and edited with the permission of VIGIL November 2021

Image credit: Ave Maria Press, Word on Fire