Brothers and sisters:Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another;for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.The commandments, "You shall not commit adultery;you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be,are summed up in this saying, namely, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no evil to the neighbor;hence, love is the fulfillment of the law. (Rom 13:8-10)
Now, as I held a squirming toddler in the vestibule last Sunday and listened to this reading, I had fresh in my mind some recent debates about the worth, or lack thereof, of Vatican II. (More on those later.) And it struck me: In a way this passage has all the same problems that I often hear people complain about in Vatican II.
What Paul is doing here is taking a bunch of prohibitions and turning them into a positive command. Don't think that you just need to not steal, not kill, not covet, not commit adultery. All of these are partial ways of saying, "Love one another, for each human being is a unique and valued creature of the Lord your God." And so Paul seeks to innoculate us against our pharisaic sides by saying, "Don't focus on what you don't do, focus on what you must do."
One of the glosses of Vatican II that I've read which really rings true to me is that in a mood of profound optimism, the council fathers essentially sought to say: "Children, you have shown by your obedience to the law that you truly love God and wish to make yourselves pleasing to him. Thus, we would like to draw your eyes away from the law a bit encouragerage you to enter a more mature form of spirituality, not merely to 'do not' but to 'do'."
Now, I think they were right at a very deep level, in that to be spiritual adults we must not merely obey God's commands and the Church's disciplines but grow to have an understanding and love for God that is active in the world. But the danger is, if you say, "Let's stop emphasizing the letter of the law so heavily and start thinking about the spirit of the law" and your audience really was only up to understanding the letter of the law, their response will be "Oh goody! We don't have to follow that law any more."
And I think, honestly, that this is much of what happened with the chaos that Vatican II ushered in. The council fathers were right to think that many of the laity (and indeed the clergy) were on autopilot, going through motions and following laws that they didn't understand very well. The problem is, many of these people were so stuck on the motions and the laws, that all they heard from the council was "You don't have to worry about those laws so much anymore."
For instance, think of the Friday fast. This had, for many Catholics, simply become an identity exercise. So when the bishops advised people that instead of abstaining from meat on Fridays they could, if they so chose, substitute another act of penance or charity to be performed on Friday's in commemoration of Christ's death what happened? People didn't hear the "substitute another penance or charity" part of the equation, they just heard the "you don't have to abstain from meat" part. So now even most church attending Catholics do no particular Friday penance.
It's easy to say, as many do, "Vatican II just produced a bunch of vaguely worded 'pastoral' guidance that destroyed the solid old church." But given the way the practice of Catholicism fell apart so quickly in many areas, there must have been something wrong in the first place. Furthermore, we find Christ and the apostles themselves often making these kinds of "vague" pastoral statements. After all, how much have we seen statement's like the above passage from Romans abused by those who object to traditional Christian morality. "Christ told us the greatest command is to love one another, so how can we say that it's wrong for two men to love one another." What these people forget is that Jesus (and Paul in the passage above) is not saying that people do not need to obey the law, rather he is explaining to them why they must obey the law. The commands such as "do no kill, do not steal, do not commit adultery" are the training wheels: they help us form a proper understanding of what "to love" is. You cannot throw someone with an unformed conscience out into the deep by saying "Just love everyone and you'll be fine." Before someone can get by with only the command "love one another" he must first have a firm idea of why having relations with his neighbors wife could never be an example of "loving".
Without question the implementation of Vatican II in many places was deeply deficient, but at root the documents of Vatican II did us no greater disservice than Christ himself: they gave us not only the precise, training wheel-style moral instructions, but also the general principles on which they are based. And like Christ's words, Vatican II's more general statements have been twisted by those who object to it's specific teachings, in order to turn it back as a weapon against itself.