It has now been almost fifty years since the Catholic Church created waves by opening the Second Vatican Council. And for many, the tumult continues. Vatican II has become nothing less than a battle over the mission of the contemporary Church.
The progressive left sees the Council as an open-ended innovation whose revolutionary promise has yet to be fulfilled. The traditionalist right views it with deep suspicion and is sometimes heard to say (if not openly, at least sotto voce) that the Church would have been better off had it never occurred. But the vital center of Catholicism—if it can be called that—has always defended the Council as a necessary and faithful extension of the Church’s evangelical mission to the modern world. The historian Edward Norman gave voice to this perspective when he wrote:
The remarkable thing about the Council was that it was able to produce more or less exactly what it set out to do: a statement of the Catholic faith in modules of understanding intelligible to modern culture yet completely conformable to past tradition—an achievement the more remarkable in view of the incoherence of western culture in the 1960s.
Norman’s perspective is better appreciated today. John Paul II’s Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in 1985, and Benedict XVI’s insistence on a “hermeneutic of continuity” rather than rupture have both helped to recover a “deeper reception of the Council” as the Synod’s final report requested. The wonderfully clarifying universal Catechism was one of the Council’s greatest fruits. But even as Vatican II, properly understood, remains an achievement of the first order, its immediate consequences were anything but.
No sooner had the final session of the Council ended than dialogue gave way to worldly adaptation: Priests started abandoning their collars and nuns their habits, if not their orders. Large portions of the Catholic laity, flushed with a sense of unbounded freedom, stopped going to confession and Sunday Mass. Consciences once formed in the light of Catholic teaching began to morph into self-interest. The Church’s teaching against contraception, for example, was effectively thrown out the window by the laity. These events were not authorized by the Council, and somehow secularism and relativism had penetrated the Church.
Leading Catholics whose writings had done so much to influence the Council—men like Yves Congar and Henri de Lubac, Louis Bouyer and Hans Urs von Balthasar, Jacques Maritain and Dietrich von Hildebrand—sounded the alarm. By 1967, Congar was asking: “Where do we go from here? Where shall we be in twenty years? I, too, feel almost every day a temptation to anxiety in the face of all that has changed or is being called into question.”
But none of these men turned their back on the Council or the Holy See. As von Hildebrand stressed:
When one reads the luminous encyclical Ecclesiam Suam of Pope Paul VI or the magnificent ‘Dogmatic Constitution on the Church’ [Lumen Gentium] of the Fathers of the Council, one cannot but realize the greatness of the Second Vatican Council. But when one turns to so many contemporary writings…one can only be deeply saddened and even filled with grave apprehension. For it would be difficult to conceive a greater contrast than that between the official documents of Vatican II and the superficial, insipid pronouncements of various theologians and laymen that have broken out everywhere like an infectious disease.
Among those who share von Hildebrand’s concerns is Father Paulo Molinari, S.J., who was a contributor to Lumen Gentium. Several years ago, I had the privilege to speak to him in Rome. In our lively discussion, three things stood out.
First, Vatican II was not a bolt out of the blue from Pope John XXIII. It was preceded by twenty ecumenical Councils, and Congar writes that “the Church has always tried to reform itself.” Pius XI and Pius XII had seriously considered holding a new Council themselves. Next, John XXIII’s famously jovial personality has led many to believe he was an unabashed progressive, and this has colored many accounts of the Council. But Molinari, a close friend of the pope, told me that this popular image of “Good Pope John” as easygoing and tolerant of almost any proposal, is “absolute nonsense.” Finally, statistics about the Church in the pre-Conciliar years are misleading, because there were many trends afoot—in theology, morality, politics, science, and exegesis—that were already having an unsettling impact on the internal life of Catholics.
At the end of our discussion, I still had one question: “All that being said Father, and granting the necessity, beauty, and orthodoxy of the Council’s teachings—how did their implementation go so disastrously wrong in the immediate years that followed?”
“The Council called us to find fulfillment in Christ,” he said gently, “but many Catholics confused that with their own self-fulfillment.” Stunned, I finally murmured, “That’s a pretty big mistake.” “Yes,” he replied, with tremendous understatement.
The Second Vatican Council wasn’t about us, but about Christ’s call, lovingly offered, to fulfill our potential on his terms, in and through the moral and spiritual teaching of his Church. It is the transformation that awaits us all—if we are prepared to accept it—promised by Christ two thousands years ago: “He that finds his life shall lose it and he that loses his life for my sake shall find it.”
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII.
Cindy Wooden, Jesuit Expert Continues to Examine Vatican II’s Implementation
Paul Molinari, The Following of Christ in the Teaching of Vatican II
EWTN, The Final Report of the 1985 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops
Pope Benedict XVI, Address on the Hermeneutic of Continuity
Edward Norman, The Roman Catholic Church: An Ilustrated History
Gabriel Flynn, Yves Congar: Theologian of the Church
Yves Congar, True and False Reform in the Church
Dietrich von Hildebrand, Trojan Horse in the City of God
Mathew Lamb and Mathew Levering, Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.