Scholars discuss the newly published Vatican II: A Very Short Introduction

The Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism and the Department of Theology co-sponsored a roundtable discussion on Dr. Shaun Blanchard and Professor Stephen Bullivant’s book, Vatican II, with both authors and select members of the theology faculty on April 5. Oxford University Press recently published the book in its popular series A Very Short Introduction 

Dr. Blanchard, a lecturer in theology at the University of Notre Dame, Australia, is the author of multiple books, including The Synod of Pistoia and Vatican II: Jansenism and the Struggle for Catholic Reform. Dr. Bullivant is Professor of Theology and Sociology of Religion, and also Director of the Benedict XVI Center for Religion and Society at St. Mary’s University, London. 

The visiting speakers were joined by Notre Dame’s Professor Ulrich Lehner, the William K. Warren Professor of Theology; Dr. Kimberly Belcher, Associate Professor of Theology; Dr. Sarah Shortall, Assistant Professor of History; and Professor Thomas Tweed, the Harold and Martha Welch Professor of American Studies and Professor of History. Each panelist offered a short reflection on the book and on Vatican II itself, posing questions which were then answered by the visiting authors.

Speaking on liturgical reform, Dr. Belcher reminded the audience that “Notre Dame was the location in the United States for the preparation of that very first Easter Vigil.” The university was one of the first places in the world to celebrate the Easter Vigil in the night, after the Vatican II Holy Week reforms were instituted. Her reflection concluded with the observation that “we haven’t finished some of the reforms that were called for at Vatican II.”

 Professor Lehner, who has co-authored multiple volumes with Dr. Blanchard, offered a humorous reflection on the limericks created at the council by the Anglophone cardinals, while reading the following example:

Some theologians with keen exposition
Seem intent on destroying Tradition;
On theology’s new wave
They ride very brave
But they really lack true erudition.

Lehner praised the book, saying that it “wisely proposes a middle way, a hermeneutic of reform that can guide the Church to interpret the council’s document in light of their future.”

 Dr. Shortall, author of the monograph Soldiers of God in a Secular World: Catholic Theology and Twentieth Century French Politics, offered a reflection on the book’s treatment of “Vatican II more broadly in historical perspective.” She also raised the question of Vatican II’s reception by the Church outside the council, asking how much of the council’s work would have been understandable for normal Catholics.  

Professor Tweed, author of Religion: A Very Short Introduction, reflected on the challenges and merits of writing a book in the series. He noted that the texts in the series have the benefit of  “engaging readers that academics often don’t,” a quality which is both encouraging and challenging. 

Dr. Blanchard responded to questions posed by the panelists first by describing the motivations behind writing the book. Admitting that “the orbit of a topic like Vatican II is terrifyingly broad,” he articulated the belief that the Church’s memory of the council itself is fading. He stated that “Pope Francis is the first truly post-conciliar pope,” and that “we have entered a new phase of the reception or non-reception of the council.” He sees the book partially as a tool to inform a new generation of Catholics of the reality of the council.

Professor Bullivant also focused on the reality of the council in his response. He addressed a section in the book that explains the nature of an ecumenical council, and he argued that Vatican II was the first really “ecumenical” council. He explained this point, saying that due to the ease of travel, participants from the most remote regions of the Church could travel back and forth at their leisure—a reality that had never been the case before. However, this ease of travel meant that “the outside world was constantly impinging” on the council’s meetings, and so the nature of Vatican II was unlike any previous council.

The floor was then opened up for questions from the audience. The discussion had a particular focus on the role of devotions in a post-conciliar church. To this point, Professor Bullivant proposed a middle ground, stating that even after the conciliar stripping of devotion, these “things that were seen as incidentals, perhaps [through] a more realistic sense of the way human beings relate to the divine [the Church] can find a place for those.”

Bullivant followed this point with a discussion of the failures and successes of the council as inextricably intertwined, a theme repeated by both authors throughout. 

The authors also emphasized the major complications in reform after Vatican II, with Blanchard stating, “Ratzinger’s hermeneutic of reform is … continuity and discontinuity on different levels.” 

Throughout the panel, the participants emphasized that the book is not a polemic from either side, but tries to strike a middle ground by articulating various perspectives and continuously aiming at objectivity.

This event was hosted in conjunction with the Cushwa Center’s Jay P. Dolan Seminar in American Religion, which focused on Professor Bullivant’s recent monograph Nonverts: The Making of Ex-Christian America.

Vatican II: A Very Short Introduction is available from Oxford University Press and can be found at major booksellers.

Dorothy Tomko is a sophomore in the Program of Liberal Studies. She can be found in the PLS lounge drinking tea and researching embroidery techniques, or by email at

Photo Credit: Oxford University Press

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