What Happened at Vatican II

by John W. O’Malley

Harvard University Press, 372 pages, $29.95

Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition

edited by Matthew Lamb and Matthew Levering

Oxford University Press, 462 pages, $29.95

When asked what he thought about the French Revolution, Zhou Enlai, China’s urbane premier under Chairman Mao, is reported to have replied, “It is too early to say.” Such reticence has been in short supply when it comes to explaining the significance of the Second Vatican Council. Yet hundreds of books and tens of thousands of articles have not yet arrived at a settled consensus. The two books under review nicely represent the depth and sharpness of disagreements.

The Catholic Church counts twenty-one ecumenical councils, beginning with the First Council of Nicea in 325. Shortly after he was elected pope in 2005, Benedict XVI reflected on the confusion that sometimes attends the aftermath of a council. He quotes that great doctor of the Church, Saint Basil, who compared the period after Nicea to a naval battle fought in the darkness of a great storm. Basil wrote: “The raucous shouting of those who through disagreement rise up against one another, the incomprehensible chatter, the confused din of uninterrupted clamoring, has now filled almost the whole of the Church, falsifying through excess or failure the right doctrine of the faith.” Those who have lived through the years since Vatican II will recognize the description. “The question arises,” says Benedict, “Why has the implementation of the council, in large parts of the Church, thus far been so difficult?” A very good question, that.

At the end of their introduction to Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition , Lamb and Levering quote George Weigel: “No one knows whether, in the twenty-fifth century, Vatican II will be remembered as another Lateran V”a reforming council that failed”or another Trent”a reforming council that was so successful that it set the course of Catholic life for more than four hundred years.” Of course no one knows for sure. But Lateran V was small potatoes compared with Vatican II. Convened by Julius II in 1512 and concluded by Leo X in 1517, it was an off-again on-again gathering of mainly Italian bishops aimed against Louis XII of France, who had tried to convene an antipapal council at Pisa. In a parody of Lateran V, Erasmus put these words into the mouth of the dead Julius: “I told it what to say. We had two Masses to show that we were acting under Divine inspiration, and then there was a speech in honor of myself. At the next session I cursed the schismatic cardinals. At the third I laid France under an interdict. Then the Acts of the council were drafted into a bull and sent around Europe.” Papal historian Eamon Duffy says that Erasmus’ account “is a caricature, but not all that far wide of the mark.”

There would seem to be little chance of Vatican II being forgotten, even five hundred years from now. Unless, of course, the twentieth century is forgotten, an idea that some may think is not without its merits. It is commonly said, and with good reason, that the Second Vatican Council was the most important religious event of the twentieth century. If media coverage is a measure, it was second only to the war in Vietnam during the four council sessions from 1962 to 1965. It is also said to have been the largest deliberative meeting in history, with more than two thousand participating bishops from around the world, along with hundreds of theological experts ( periti ) and ecumenical observers who did much more than observe.

Four decades later, the arguments are still hot and heavy over what the council said and did. The two books under review represent the main lines of the argument. The very titles are revealing. O’Malley’s What Happened at Vatican II accents that it was a multifaceted event with viewpoints, personalities, and interests in frequently tumultuous conflict, and it makes for a rollicking good story. The important thing, he believes, is to understand the “spirit” of the council. Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition , by way of sharpest contrast, consists of twenty-two essays on the documents approved by the council. Here the important thing is to understand what the council actually said. (Full disclosure: I have a minor essay in the book.)

The main story line of the council was established from the beginning by Xavier Rynne (the pseudonym of the late Fr. Francis X. Murphy) in a series of “Letters from Vatican City” published in the New Yorker . The council, according to Rynne, was an epic battle between stuck-in-the-chancel conservatives and enlightened liberals who were striving mightily to bring a tradition-bound Catholicism into the light of the modern world. In this telling of the story, the key to understanding the council is aggiornamento ”usually translated as updating . Rynne and the thousands of reporters who followed his lead left no doubt that the Second Vatican Council was a great liberal triumph.

O’Malley calls Rynne’s account “delicious” and “gossipy but engrossing,” yet he wants to rise above its strident partisanship. And so, for instance, he eschews references to “conservatives” and “liberals,” preferring to speak of the minority and the majority, while not disguising that he is rooting for the liberal majority. From beginning to end, says O’Malley, the great question was whether the council would “confirm the status quo or move notably beyond it.” He says his purpose is “to provide a sense of before and after.”

“Before and after””that gets to the heart of most of the disputes about the council. Up through the 1980s, self-identified liberals routinely spoke of the pre - Vatican II Church and the post - Vatican II Church , almost as though they were two churches, with the clear implication that a very large part of the preceding centuries had been consigned to the dustbin of history. To describe that depiction of the council, philosopher Robert Sokolowski employs a football metaphor: “The impression was given that the tradition of the Church was not a continuous handing on through the centuries of something received; it was more like a long pass from the apostolic age to the Second Vatican Council, with only distortions in between, whether Byzantine, medieval, or baroque.” That’s an exaggeration, of course, but an exaggeration in the service of an important part of the truth.

In the decades following the council, many liberals made no secret of their belief that aggiornamento was a mandate for radical change, even revolution. They excitedly hailed as renewal what others saw as destabilization and confusion. Some traditionalists farther to the right of center blamed the council itself, employing the logic of post hoc ergo propter hoc” after which, therefore because of which. Liberals, on the other hand, demanded an early convening of Vatican Council III in order to, as they said, complete the revolution. Given the changed climate in the Church after thirty years of the pontificates of John Paul the Great and Benedict XVI, it is not surprising that it has been a long time since we’ve heard progressives calling for Vatican III.

The confusions in the aftermath of Vatican II are beyond denying. O’Malley says he wants to treat the “before and after” of the council, but in fact he limits himself to the before and at the council. Slight attention is paid to the consequences of the changes that he celebrates. Theologians openly dissented from Church teaching and did so with impunity, indeed often being rewarded by the guild of academic theology for their putative courage. Tens of thousands of priests abandoned their ministries, convents were emptied as sisters embraced the vaunted freedoms of the secular world, Gregorian chant was replaced by Kumbaya, the number of seminarians preparing for priesthood plummeted, and not a few of the priests who remained decided on their own that celibacy is optional.

Not incidentally, a majority of Catholics stopped going to Mass every week and decided, or were given to understand by progressive priests, that moral truths taught from the beginning are, at most, advisory in nature. What happened after the council, if not because of the council, is a familiar and mainly depressing story, perhaps too familiar and too depressing in its telling. One wishes Fr. O’Malley had addressed the after in “before and after,” since there were also constructive changes usually ignored in conservative accounts.

A few years ago, Francis Cardinal George of Chicago declared, “Liberal Catholicism is an exhausted project.” There has been surprisingly little dissent from that judgment on the part of the aging members of the Boomer generation who still dare speak the name of their liberal love. They spent their lives pinning their hopes on “the next pope” or “the next council,” but now they seem resigned to the fact that it is not to be. A measure of bitterness is understandable as they contemplate the “reactionary” takeover by John Paul and Benedict.

Perhaps most galling is the spectacle of a younger generation of Catholics inspired by these supposed troglodytes to dream dreams of radical discipleship. As witness, among many other signs, the stunning success of World Youth Day, most recently in Sydney, Australia. The youth were supposed to belong to the progressives, who are now left wondering what went wrong with their children and grandchildren. Then there are the bishops once or twice or thrice in succession to the bishops of those heady days at the council. Whether by conviction or by an astute reading of “the signs of the times””a much quoted phrase from the council”they recognize the need for a re-stabilizing of the Church’s teaching and life. Some are reluctant to call this conservatism, preferring to speak of a “reform of the reform.”

Enter Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition . The book shamelessly pulls rank on O’Malley by opening with a reflection by Pope Benedict XVI on the proper interpretation of the council. The question is one of hermeneutics, says the pope. There are, he suggests, two quite different ways of understanding the council: “On the one hand, there is
an interpretation that I would call ‘a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture’; it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology. On the other, there is the ‘hermeneutic of reform,’ of renewal in the continuity of the one subject, the Church that the Lord has given us. She is a subject that increases in time and develops, yet always remains the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.”

The distinction between conservative and liberal does not quite catch the difference between a hermeneutic of reform and a hermeneutic of rupture. The teaching of the council as advanced by John Paul and Benedict is emphatically liberal in, for instance, its embrace of democracy and its call for a new way of engagement between faith and reason. A great difference between the Lamb and Levering hermeneutic and the O’Malley hermeneutic is that the former is primarily theological and attuned to what is believed to be divinely revealed truth as it has been handed on and its understanding faithfully developed over the centuries. The O’Malley interpretation is dominantly sociological, psychological, and linguistic, aimed at demonstrating how the council moved beyond “the status quo.” For instance, O’Malley rightly notes the council’s vigorous condemnation of anti-Semitism but fails to connect that with its theological treatment of the unique relationship in God’s universal plan of salvation between the Church and the people of Israel.

There are other differences of great consequence. Whether, with Lamb and Levering, one focuses on the texts of the council or, with O’Malley, on the spirit of the council, there are interesting parallels with American legal debates between proponents of “original meaning” and proponents of “the living Constitution.” O’Malley’s living council, so to speak, is wondrously malleable in response to the spirit of the times, or what he takes to be the spirit of the times. Moreover, O’Malley’s interpretation tends to reflect a particular moment in the progressive thought of Europe and America, while Lamb and Levering have in view a universal community through time with now more than 1.2 billion members, and with most of them in the Global South. Thus O’Malley’s account is preoccupied with somewhat parochial European and North American discontents over relationships of power within the Church, while Lamb and Levering keep in view the universal mission of the Church through the centuries.

All that having been said, however, O’Malley’s book is much the better read. As Xavier Rynne and the editors of the New Yorker understood, personalities, politics, factional fights, and dark conspiracies make for high drama. Especially when combatants are cast as good liberals versus bad conservatives. More than forty years later, however, the hermeneutic of reform in continuity is prevailing, and serious readers who want to understand the significance of the council will be better served by Lamb and Levering.

This is not to deny, however, that O’Malley’s account is instructive on several scores. In the long history of church councils, Vatican II was different. While there is continuity in teaching, something remarkable really did happen at the council. The liberal proponents of a hermeneutic of rupture are not making up their argument out of whole cloth. The very calling for a council by John XXIII struck many as strange and puzzling. Unlike the reasons for earlier councils, O’Malley notes, there was no obvious crisis troubling the Church. “In fact, except in those parts of the world where Christianity was undergoing overt persecution, mainly in countries under Communist domination, the Church in the decade and a half since the end of World War II projected an image of vigor and self-confidence.” It is no secret that some at higher levels of the Roman curia thought the pope was making a big mistake, and maybe was becoming just a little dotty.

Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani was the perfect foil for the liberal interpretation of the council. His enthusiasm for the council was conspicuously contained. He was secretary of the Holy Office, later called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. (Until Paul VI changed it, the pope was head of that supreme congregation, an arrangement that Benedict has de facto, if not de jure, restored.) The motto that Ottaviani chose for his coat of arms was Semper Idem ””always the same.” Like Rynne, O’Malley, and many others, Ottaviani recognized “the spirit” of the council and he didn’t like it one little bit.

As O’Malley tells it, Ottaviani and those of like mind represented a “long nineteenth century,” going back to Pius IX’s war against modernity and extending through a “reign of terror” during which Catholic thinkers trembled in fear of ecclesiastical censure for having a thought of their own. To be sure, O’Malley exaggerates, but even so orthodox a thinker as George Cardinal Pell of Australia acknowledges that something was very wrong. In the foreword to a recent book on the theology of Joseph Ratzinger, Pell writes: “Certainly most of the Scholastic manuals, written in Latin, which we studied in philosophy in the 1960s, were arid, out of date, impersonal, and mechanistic . . . . Ratzinger’s skepticism about the Thomism of the manuals was shared almost universally among the seminarians of the sixties.” That skepticism was no doubt shared by many, if not most, of the bishops who gathered for the first session of the council in 1962.

Soon the drafts for conciliar texts prepared by Ottaviani and his curial colleagues, which steadfastly adhered to the spirit of Semper Idem , were being sharply criticized, and then rejected one after another. By the second session, in 1963, O’Malley says, the assembled bishops were beginning to feel their oats, having gotten a taste of real “collegiality.” A central theme in his account is that the council witnessed a movement of authority from “the center to the periphery.” The center, of course, is the pope and the curia, with the periphery being the pastors of local churches, the bishops. He emphasizes that Vatican II eschewed the “power language” of earlier councils, with their juridical pronouncements and condemnations, preferring the “humility words” of shared responsibility in the government of the Church. At the same time, O’Malley’s story is all about power struggles between entrenched Roman conservatism and the bishops who were more accurately reading the signs of the times.

In this view, the conservatives were resisting the birth of nothing less than the third epoch of Christian history. O’Malley approvingly quotes the German Jesuit Karl Rahner, who said the first epoch was the brief period of Jewish Christianity; the second, including Hellenism and European Christianity, ran up to Vatican II; and third period, the post-council present, is the epoch of the world Church.

This is presentism on speed. It is also, and despite the global language, a very Eurocentric view of Christian history, ignoring the pre-Islamic Christianity of the Middle East and, along with it, Byzantium and most of the patristic tradition, which figures such as Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar were so mightily laboring to restore under the banner of ressourcement , or renewal. In What Happened at Vatican II , O’Malley acknowledges three dominant themes of the council” aggiornamento, ressourcement, and development of doctrine”but, in his telling, the latter two are always in the service of the first, with aggiornamento bearing a convenient resemblance to the dominant habits of thought in the Society of Jesus as embodied in institutions “in the Jesuit tradition” such as Georgetown University.

O’Malley neatly sums up the reading of Vatican II according to the hermeneutics of rupture:

It suggests, indeed, that at stake were almost two different visions of Catholicism: from commands to invitations, from laws to ideals, from definition to mystery, from threats to persuasion, from coercion to conscience, from monologue to dialogue, from ruling to serving, from withdrawn to integrated, from vertical to horizontal, from exclusion to inclusion, from hostility to friendship, from rivalry to partnership, from suspicion to trust, from static to ongoing, from passive acceptance to active engagement, from fault-finding to appreciation, from prescriptive to principled, from behavior modification to inner appropriation.

In almost all those pairings of different visions of Catholicism, who would not vote for the second? Clearly, the “post-Vatican II Church” wins hands down. O’Malley does not claim that the bishops in council actually voted to launch a new Catholicism. In this version of the spirit over the letter, what the council said is far less important than how it was said. The council was, he says, a “language-event.” The style is the substance is the spirit of the council. Eschewing scholastic language, “it thus moved from the dialectic of winning an argument to the dialogue of finding common ground.” In documents such as Gaudium et Spes , the council employed the genre that ancient Roman authors called ars laudandi , or the panegyric. “Panegyric,” O’Malley explains, “is the painting of an idealized portrait in order to excite admiration and appropriation.”

The modern world as portrayed by the council is one with which the Church should want to get in tune. There is merit in O’Malley’s linguistic analysis. It is striking, for instance, that, in the aftermath of the slaughters of world wars and while much of the world and of the Church was dominated by the evil empire of Soviet Communism, the council could speak in such serene terms of approbation about the modern circumstance. But it is quite another matter how or whether the language employed bears on the doctrine taught.

Some essays in the Lamb and Levering volume weigh in so heavily on the side of the hermeneutics of continuity that one might get the impression that not much happened at Vatican II. Obviously, that is not the case. After allowing that the liberal leaders at the council were sometimes elitist and manipulative, O’Malley gives this telling reflection on how the council is interpreted:

During the council, the media often pilloried “the conservatives” for obscurantism, intransigence for being out of touch, and even for dirty tricks. One thing can surely be said in their favor. They saw, or at least more straightforwardly named, the novel character and heavy consequences of some of the council’s decisions. The leaders of the majority, on the contrary, generally tried to minimize the novelty of some of their positions by insisting on their continuity with tradition. It is ironic that after Vatican II, conservative voices began insisting on the council’s continuity, whereas so-called liberals stressed its novelty.

There is indeed irony, but it is not the irony that O’Malley proposes. What Happened at Vatican II is a 372-page brief for the party of novelty and discontinuity. Its author comes very close to saying explicitly what is frequently implied: that the innovationists practiced subterfuge, and they got away with it. Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and his Society of St. Pius X are right: The council was a radical break from tradition and proposed what is, in effect, a different Catholicism. The irony is in the agreement between Lefebvre and the liberal party of discontinuity. O’Malley and those of like mind might be described as the Lefebvrists of the left.

It is almost half a century after the council. The pontificates of Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, along with the scholarly arguments represented by books such as Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition , make it evident that the hermeneutics of continuity is prevailing, if it has not already definitively prevailed. Fr. O’Malley may suspect that is the case. His book has about it the feel of a last-ditch effort to defend the story line of the post-Vatican II Church vs. the pre-Vatican II Church that was popularized by Xavier Rynne all these many years ago. The final irony is that if, in the twenty-fifth century, the Second Vatican Council is remembered as a reform council that failed, it will be the result of the combined, if unintended, efforts of the likes of Marcel Lefebvre and John O’Malley in advancing the argument that the council was a radical break from the tradition that is Catholicism. I do not expect they will succeed.


Richard John Neuhaus is editor in chief of First Things .

Articles by Richard John Neuhaus

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