Reading List for Understanding the Council | National Catholic Register


For those who wish to delve deeper into the riches of the Second Vatican Council, two Catholic commentators offer reflections on the wealth of books available on Vatican II.

Editor’s Note: Alan Schreck is a professor of theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville whose specialties include the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and Pope Saint John Paul II. His many books include Vatican II: Crisis and Promise.

Vatican II Documents

Nothing replaces reading all 16 official documents of the Second Vatican Council. Church historian James Hitchcock wrote that these “remain among the great unread documents of modern times” (Catholicism and modernity, 223). He observes that while virtually everyone has an impression of what Vatican II taught, “few demonstrate intimate familiarity with its actual statements.”

This is tragic, because the Holy Spirit guided what the Council Fathers actually wrote in these documents. Don’t be put off by the apparent length of the books containing these documents. Most printed publications include commentaries or other post-conciliar material, which are not necessary for most readers. And the vocabulary of the documents is generally accessible to the average reader. You don’t need a theological dictionary to understand them, but keep a Bible handy to refer to the many texts cited.

“Reading guides” of the documents

These may be useful for the average reader, but some that present “keys” to the Council or “essential texts” omit important points or even certain Council documents. They can highlight new accents or perspectives of the teachings of the Council (such as its approach to other Christian or non-Christian religions), while neglecting other points (such as the need for missions and evangelization, as has been underlined in the work of Ralph Martin Will many be saved? : What Vatican II Really Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization, Eerdmans, 2012). I seek to present a balanced overview in my book, Vatican II: the crisis and the promise (Franciscan Media, 2005). by Edward Hannenberg A Concise Guide to Vatican II Documents (Franciscan Media, 2007) includes some of the context of the wording of the documents at the Council.

History of the Council

A beautifully illustrated, fact-filled (but “expensive”) book is Vatican II: The Complete Story of the John XXIII Foundation for Religious Studies in Bologna, directed by Alberto Melloni (Paulist Press, 2015). John W. O’Malley’s What happened at Vatican II (Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2008) is the Council’s best short story. For a complete scientific history, there are the five volumes History of Vatican IIGuiseppe Alberigo, ed./Joseph A. Komonchak, English edition (Orbis/Peeters, 1995-2006).


There is a plethora of books and collections of essays interpreting the Council. Herbert Vorgimler edited a five volume Commentary on the Vatican II documents shortly after the Council (Herder and Herder, 1966-68). One of the first short comments was that of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla Sources of renewal: the implementation of Vatican II (1972, English edition Harper & Row, 1979). Some single author books are by Massimo Faggioli Vatican II: the battle for meaning (Paulist, 2012) and Ormond Rush’s The vision of Vatican II: its fundamental principles (Liturgical Press, 2019) which is comprehensive (over 550 pages).

There are many collections of essays on the Council. I love a first collection edited by Anthony J. Cernera Vatican II: the ongoing agenda (Sacred Heart University Press, 1997) and, more recently, Vatican II: a revival in traditionedited by Matthew L. Lamb and Matthew Levering (Oxford University Press, 2008).

final thought

Once again, nothing replaces the reading of the conciliar documents, starting with the four constitutions: Sacrosanctum Concilium, Dei Verbum, Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes. Read them prayerfully in small sections, a paragraph or two at a time – a contemporary lectio divina!

Alan Schreck, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville.

The choice of Teresa Tomeo

As my husband and I returned to full fellowship with the Church, we had what seemed like countless “V8” moments, so to speak. Many people may remember that old vegetable juice ad, where people would proclaim after eating or drinking something unhealthy, “Wow, I could have had a V8!” This is how we felt once we began to read and study Church documents, including Vatican II documents. Where were we all those years away from the Church, soaking up all that cultural junk food, and why didn’t we know all the incredible writings readily available at our fingertips?

That’s why I highly recommend, The Word on Fire Vatican II Collection, of Word on Fire ministries. Not only is it a one-stop resource of the four main Vatican II documents, including Dei Verbum, Lumen Gentium, Sacrosanctum Concilium and Gaudium and Spes, this book also offers excellent commentary and reflections by beloved Catholic professor and philosopher, Bishop Robert Barron, as well as words of wisdom from Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Saint John XXIII, not to mention the speech of closing of Vatican II of Pope St. Paul VI, at your direct disposal. It’s a win-win.

Journalist Teresa Tomeo is the host of EWTN Radio Catholic Connection and EWTN TV The Catholic point of view for Women.


About Author

Comments are closed.