Kristen M. COLBERG, Vatican I & Vatican II. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016. pp.162. $19.95 pb. ISBN 978-0-8146-8314-9. Reviewed by Marie CONN, Chestnut Hill College, Philadelphia, PA 19118.


Colberg’s goal is to challenge the popular assumption that Vatican II ignored Vatican I. To the contrary, she claim, “Vatican I shared many of the same concerns and intentions as Vatican II.” (vii)

Vatican I opened on December 8, 1869 and closed abruptly on October 20, 1870. The 737 participants were mostly European. The council produced 51 schemas or proposed decrees but discussed only six and acted on only two. A large factor in the sudden ending of the council was the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War.

Vatican II opened on October 11, 1962 and closed on December 8, 1965. 2600 bishops from around the world participated. The council approved sixteen documents: four constitutions; nine decrees; and three declarations.

Colberg repeatedly insists that Vatican I and Vatican II are not incompatible and that their relationship is crucial to ecclesiology. Not seeing the harmony between the two councils leads to a sort of Catholic “identity crisis,” giving a sense that the church cannot grasp its own teaching and that it suffers from a critical lack of self-understanding. “If Vatican I and Vatican II cannot be reconciled, and Vatican I is deficient as some perceive, then can we say that the Spirit is always reliably present, especially in the work of councils?” (8)

The perception that Vatican I and Vatican II have contradictory views on the key issues of authority and freedom creates major problems for the modern church. “Some fear that Vatican I’s definition of papal infallibility is fundamentally irreconcilable with modern views of freedom so that is affirmation only confirms the incompatibility of the church’s worldview with modern sensibilities.” (9) The overemphasis on the question of infallibility makes it difficult to discern the council’s true meaning and overall theology.

Polarizing the two councils creates the sense that Catholics must choose either Vatican I’s strong sense of papal power or Vatican II’s affirmation of collegiality. “The impressing that there are two distinct options or models of church leads to a sense that there is more than one type of Catholic…and that one of these is more ‘authentically Catholic’ than the other.” (9)
Colberg also asserts that this perceived incompatibility generates critical problems in the ecumenical sphere. “For ecumenical dialogue to flourish, the church must find ways to see Vatican I as part of a larger whole and demonstrate that it is compatible with the view of episcopal collegiality presented at Vatican II.” (10)

Vatican II, on the other hand, suffered from the inclination to discuss each document separately, which also ignored its overall theological perspective. Colberg, building on the work of John W. O’Malley, SJ, and of Steven Schloesser, SJ, regarding the interpretation of Vatican II, points out that there are seemingly conflicting and unresolved position not just between documents but even within some of the documents themselves. This makes it easier to read the documents selectively rather than holistically.

Colbert offers three critical insights to interpret each council more adequately:

  • Understand what the council teaches by recognizing how it expresses its teaching, in other words, pay attention to form or style and not just to content.
  • Recognize how Vatican II broke with the past while remaining true to the tradition.
  • Consider the historical context, the why of the council’s teaching
  • A proper contextualization of Vatican I and Vatican II in light of these questions (what? how? why?] illumines that the councils share many common questions, commitments, and proximities.”

    This review has focused on Chapter One. The rest of the book develops Colberg’s approach in great detail. Chapter 2 examines the why of Vatican I. Chapter 3 uses how and what to show how Pater Aeternus has been misunderstood. Chapter 4 examines the period immediately following Vatican I. Chapter 5 looks at the why of Vatican II in light of this better understanding of Vatican I, while Chapter 6 examines how and the what Vatican II taught, demonstrating that its teachings are compatible with those of Vatican I. Chapter 7 attempts to discern the relationship between the two councils and to articulate the character of the church’s living tradition.

    The book is meticulously researched; there are persuasive arguments; and it is certainly a resource for scholars of the councils. I would not recommend it for undergraduate students, and I would hesitate to suggest using it with adult study groups, but graduate students could get a lot out of it.