The years 2012 to 2015 mark the 50thanniversary of the Second Vatican Council. The Council was, and is, seen as the triumph of “la nouvelle théologie,” known in particular for its return to the Fathers of the Church, over neoscholasticism.
This general assertion is hardly disputed. I propose to study the place of the Fathers of the Church in the 16 documents of Vatican II in detail, answering three questions:
— Which Fathers of the Church did the Council refer to?
— Which documents quote the Fathers most frequently, and why?
— What doctrinal issues were most clearly supported by references to the Fathers?
Of the 16 documents, 10 include references to the Fathers. The leader is the Constitution on the Church, with 140. Next, perhaps surprisingly, is the Decree on Missionary Activity (53). The Life and Ministry of Priests, and Revelation, follow.
Most noteworthy is the fact that the Council used patristic references, in what appear as “thick” footnotes, to reinforce sensitive points: God’s universal salvific plan in Christ; the need for all to know the Scriptures; a revised understanding of the orders of the clergy (bishops, presbyters, deacons); and the Marian doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. In other words, the Council invoked the Fathers particularly to reinforce teachings that might be considered either innovative or controverted.