As we listen to the media offer their analyses of Pope St. John XXIII’s legacy (likely to be reminiscent of the National Catholic Reporter editorial above), we would do well to understand one false notion which has sown confusion among Catholics — Pope John XXIII’s statement that the Second Vatican Council was to be a “pastoral” council. We should not take this to mean that doctrine was henceforth to be unimportant - after all, Pope Paul VI promulgated two dogmatic constitutions (on the Church and on Divine Revelation), and there are numerous references to dogmatic teaching in the pastoral constitutions of Vatican II. To clear up this confusion it is best to read from the relevant portions of Pope John XXIII’s address opening the council (bolded emphases mine):
In calling this vast assembly of bishops, the latest and humble successor to the Prince of the Apostles who is addressing you intended to assert once again the Magisterium (teaching authority), which is unfailing and perdures until the end of time, in order that this Magisterium, taking into account the errors, the requirements, and the opportunities of our time, might be presented in exceptional form to all men throughout the world….
The great problem confronting the world after almost two thousand years remains unchanged. Christ is ever resplendent as the center of history and of life. Men are either with Him and His Church, and then they enjoy light, goodness, order, and peace. Or else they are without Him, or against Him, and deliberately opposed to His Church, and then they give rise to confusion, to bitterness in human relations, and to the constant danger of fratricidal wars….
Illuminated by the light of this Council, the Church -- we confidently trust -- will become greater in spiritual riches and gaining the strength of new energies therefrom, she will look to the future without fear. In fact, by bringing herself up to date where required, and by the wise organization of mutual co-operation, the Church will make men, families, and peoples really turn their minds to heavenly things....
In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, we sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin. They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse, and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history, which is, none the less, the teacher of life. They behave as though at the time of former Councils everything was a full triumph for the Christian idea and life and for proper religious liberty….
The greatest concern of the Ecumenical Council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously. That doctrine embraces the whole of man, composed as he is of body and soul. And, since he is a pilgrim on this earth, it commands him to tend always toward heaven….
In order, however, that this doctrine may influence the numerous fields of human activity, with reference to individuals, to families, and to social life, it is necessary first of all that the Church should never depart from the sacred patrimony of truth received from the Fathers. But at the same time she must ever look to the present, to the new conditions and new forms of life introduced into the modern world, which have opened new avenues to the Catholic apostolate.
The manner in which sacred doctrine is spread, this having been established, it becomes clear how much is expected from the Council in regard to doctrine. That is, the Twenty-first Ecumenical Council, which will draw upon the effective and important wealth of juridical, liturgical, apostolic, and administrative experiences, wishes to transmit the doctrine, pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortions, which throughout twenty centuries, notwithstanding difficulties and contrasts, has become the common patrimony of men. It is a patrimony not well received by all, but always a rich treasure available to men of good will.
The salient point of this Council is not, therefore, a discussion of one article or another of the fundamental doctrine of the Church which has repeatedly been taught by the Fathers and by ancient and modern theologians, and which is presumed to be well known and familiar to all.
For this a Council was not necessary. But from the renewed, serene, and tranquil adherence to all the teaching of the Church in its entirety and preciseness, as it still shines forth in the Acts of the Council of Trent and First Vatican Council, the Christian, Catholic, and apostolic spirit of the whole world expects a step forward toward a doctrinal penetration and a formation of consciousness in faithful and perfect conformity to the authentic doctrine, which, however, should be studied and expounded through the methods of research and through the literary forms of modern thought. The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another. And it is the latter that must be taken into great consideration with patience if necessary, everything being measured in the forms and proportions of a Magisterium which is predominantly pastoral in character.
Misunderstanding and misapplication of the final sentence of this excerpt has resulted in great confusion on the laity’s part following the council. A major reason for such obfuscation was the infelicities, not to say inaccuracies, and omissions in the Abbot-Gallagher translation of the conciliar documents. It was by taking advantage of the Council’s often looser terminology that, since the Council, theologians in rebellion against the Church have been able to introduce changes of meaning under cover of the Council’s authority. Here a close reading of the Pope’s speech reveals that the Council was convened under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit not to put forth new definitions of doctrine, (indeed Pope John called Catholics to be ever more faithful to authentic doctrine) but to present the timeless deposit of the Church’s doctrinal truth more effectively through an active engagement with modernity, principally by imitating more closely her Master. In this sense it was to be a “pastoral” Council.