We've all heard about "The Spirit of Vatican II." But what do we mean by "the spirit"? I mean basic orientations, themes, issues that run through the Council. They appear in many documents but transcend any particular document.
The Council issued 16 documents, which make up close to 25 percent of the documents of all 21 Ecumenical Councils held in 2,000 years of Church history. So I consider Vatican II a language event.
Vatican II operated differently from the basic model for councils. Let's take the first Ecumenical Council, the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., convoked by the Roman Emperor Constantine. It made certain laws, and with laws you get a penalty if you don't observe them. They heard the criminal case of the heresy of Arius and condemned him.
This is the pattern followed until Vatican II (1962–1965). Instead of making laws, Vatican II holds up ideals. It has a new vocabulary, not new in the Christian tradition but new for a council: Friend, brother, sister, partnership, cooperation, peace, freedom, dialogue, conscience. These occur again and again in the documents. So it's not simply dealing with what you can do wrong but rather what you can do right, and, therefore, is a universal call to holiness. That becomes a leitmotif of the Council.
Its documents build on one another, quote one another, paraphrase one another. There is coherence among those documents, and, therefore, you can have themes, you can have an orientation, you can have a spirit. To give you the kind of spiritual shift Vatican II tried to effect, here's how it goes: from threats to persuasion, from adversary to partner, from hostility to friendship, from exclusion to inclusion, from monologue to dialogue, from fault finding to common ground, from laws to ideals, from coercion to conscience, from behavior modification to conversion of heart.