Boston College theologian Richard Gaillardetz, speaking at the conference at Saint Paul University Sept. 27-29, compared the council to an "unfinished building site."
In summing up the contributions of several theologians during the conference before 300 participants, Gaillardetz recalled St. Peter's Basilica in Rome "was built in the 16th century while the old building was still standing." The work of the council fathers remains unfinished.
Gaillardetz pointed to six pillars of Vatican II teaching.
1. Vatican II brought a more Trinitarian and personalist view of divine revelation, instead of the old propositional model that equated doctrine with revelation, he said. God is inviting us into a personal relationship with the Father, through the Son, Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
While doctrine guides Catholics towards the truth, it can only point to revelation, he said.
2. The council stressed engagement in dialogue, something Saint Paul University theologian Catherine Clifford said "deeply marked" the experience of the council fathers in the 1960s.
"Their experience was one of deepening awareness of the Church as a communion of all the baptized, whose inner vitality and outreach are contingent upon the synergetic cooperation of all as we place our gifts at the service of God's Spirit. "Without a true dialogue the creative dynamism of that communion is at risk."
Clifford spoke of dialogue in concentric circles: within the Church; with other Christians; with religious believers of other faiths; and with the world.
3. The council stressed baptism as the sacrament through which all the baptized participate in the priesthood of Christ, so that the gifts of the people of God might be released, Gaillardetz said.
4. The council placed a new emphasis on the Holy Spirit, Who gives both hierarchic and charismatic gifts. The gifts that bring order and governance to the Church and those that reside in the lay faithful come from the same source, Gaillardetz said. The role of the priest is to test gifts among the faithful, not to extinguish them.
5. The council stressed ecclesial collegiality while at the same time embracing papal primacy and infallibility. This was a move away from what Gaillardetz described as a monarchical model of the Pope that had developed during the feudal era to an older model of primacy of the Bishop of Rome in unity with the other bishops.
6. The council called the Catholic Church to "the humility of a pilgrim church." It's not only that individually we are pilgrim, Gaillardetz said, "The Church itself is on a journey" until the end of history.
Gaillardetz explained that these six new pillars are set against the old structure of the Church, which he called the "Gregorian edifice." Pope Gregory VII established a monarchical structure to protect the Church against the interference of the nobility about 1,000 years ago, making him "a quasi-imperial figure."
Prior to that the model had been collegiality and the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, he said. In the very early Church, there had been less focus on hierarchy and more on discipleship.
The older Church model also had a more static model of the Church as founded by Christ in history rather than being continually renewed and re-founded by the Holy Spirit since then, he said.
The older Church model took an "illuminist theory of divine revelation," in which revelation came "from on high," illuminating Church leaders, with divine revelation "trickling down to the rest of us," Gaillardetz said. "The beauty and substance of divine revelation were identified with doctrine."
The duty of the lay people, he noted, was to obey. The council stressed that the Christian faithful should also be able to discern the truths of the faith.
The sacral nature of the priesthood separates clergy and people on an ontological basis, he said. We must believe in the Real Presence in the Eucharist to accept that "the Eucharist transforms us into Christ's Body."
Clifford pointed out Pope John XXIII made it clear "the council must do more than simply repeat the teachings of the past," though the Pope carefully distinguished between the "perennial 'substance' of the faith' and 'the way it was being presented.'"
The council fathers "carried out an important balancing act" between "ressourcement," a going back to the Gospel and Patristic sources, and "aggiornamento," or the updating of Church teaching to make it more easily understood by contemporaries, Clifford said. "The Church is called to mediate a timeless truth in a changing social, cultural, and historical context."
"We have a tendency to answer questions nobody's asking," Gaillardetz said. "We have to recognize the new contours of human existence, to allow the newspaper to talk to Scripture."
Gaillardetz said the council calls the Church to "holy conversion." Dialogue is not relativistic, wishy-washy, or weak, he said. "It's a demanding ecclesial habit" that requires "eschatological humility" and acknowledges "we don't have answers to every question."
"Dialogue requires the risk of ongoing conversion, that ever-deepening penetration into the Paschal mystery," he said.