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A newly married layman and graduate student, I found myself in Rome in 1963 covering the second session of the Second Vatican Council, working as a freelance reporter for the National Catholic Reporter, Commonweal, and for any other publications that would run my work, while my wife, Karen, executed prints on Rome’s famous presses.

I remember the burning chestnuts in the streets of Rome; the taste of sambuca after dinner with my wife; the excitement of the press conferences every early afternoon; the perfect October air in St. Peter’s Square with the great dome glinting in the sunlight; the twenty-two hundred bishops of the world arriving in school buses every day for sessions in the bleachers set up in St. Peter’s. It was a wonderful time to be alive.

I had been in love with Rome from the time I first arrived in 1956 to study at the Gregorian University as I neared (I then hoped) my ordination to the priesthood. Being chosen to attend “the Greg” was a very lucky break. I am grateful that I had as my teachers such world-famous younger leaders of the reform in the Church as Bernard Lonergan—who had the most accomplished philosophical mind I have ever met, deeper by far than those of the men and women with whom I later studied at Harvard—and I was also privileged to be in the last classes taught by the giants of an older era.

Now almost completely forgotten, men such as Fathers Tromp, Zapelena, and Hürth had lectured there since the 1920s (since the 1400s, it sometimes seemed), through financial crises, world wars, the Cold War. They had been the ghostwriters (so it was said) of many a papal encyclical or proclamation, and were certainly the weightiest experts to be consulted in Rome. The structure in their theology, roughly put, was an unchanging, eternal logic (impervious to contingent history). I invented a name for it, “nonhistorical orthodoxy.” In England, France, and Germany, this was known as “Roman Theology,” and inspired no emulation. The Romans, in turn, alluded to “theology over the mountains” as fickle and unreliable.

Studying those living monuments and also under men such as Lonergan and Josef Fuchs and (across town) Bernhard Häring, my classmates and I experienced in the classroom what the whole Church was to experience four years later at the Council. We had had to think it through in our own minds before it happened publicly. Some of us even held a miniature Vatican Council just for international seminarians in 1958.

The era before the Council was in some ways like living behind thick walls and in other ways more like a Golden Age in Catholic history than the Dark Age described to this day by the postconciliar “progressives.” There were many glaring deficiencies in it, which I described with some vividness in The Open Church the next year, and yet it was in many respects healthier and more faithful to the gospel than much that came later in the name of “progress” and “openness.” Progress in history seems to come by rushing from one extreme to the other.

For young Catholics in the 1950s, a “Catholic Renascence” was occurring among such theologians as Guéranger, de Lubac, Daniélou, Rahner, and Guardini. There were also playwrights, poets, and major historians such as Bloy, Péguy, Claudel, Greene, Waugh, Mauriac, Böll, Gironella, Silone, Christopher Dawson, and Friedrich Heer. Among philosophers there were Marcel, Maritain, Gilson, and Pieper. In America, J. F. Powers, Edwin O’Connor, and Flannery O’Connor were enjoying national success.

Catholic parishes were alive with novenas, Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament, and Forty Hours devotions; parish missions preached with such visions of hell and heaven, sin and grace, as the New York Times doesn’t dream of. We learned all about the saints in those days, too.

Bishop Sheen’s was the most watched show on Sunday-night prime-time television, and Walter Kerr was the best drama critic around. At the better universities, scholasticism and the Middle Ages generally were commanding a new respect, and even political commentators like Walter Lippmann began writing about the West’s “perennial philosophy.” Seminaries and convents were not big enough to hold all the new recruits, and virtually all religious orders were putting up new buildings. Those were great years to be Catholic in America.

Nonetheless, young theologians and journalists at the Council, excited to see the Church opening its windows to the world, took to calling the Roman theologians “the prophets of doom” and “the School of Fear.” As things turned out two decades later, the old guard had seen human tendencies more clearly than we younger ones did. As world-weary Romans have long recognized, “Between optimism and pessimism, pessimism is the safer bet.”

Once the passions of those participating in the Council rose, the victorious majority (the progressives) acquired a vested interest both in stressing new beginnings and in discrediting the leadership and the ways of the past. That emphasis shifted the balance of power in the Church into their hands. To them accrued the glory of all things promising, new, and not yet tried. To their foes accrued the blame for everything wrong.

The more power the reformers wrested from the old guard, the more power they acquired for new initiatives. The more the past was discredited, the greater the slack cut for new initiatives. The politics of the postconciliar Church in the United States and some parts of northern Europe became an unfair fight. By 1980 or so, every major institution in the American Church and in many others was dominated by the progressives, under the sway of “the spirit of Vatican II.”

For us journalists, of course, it was much easier to portray the sheer novelty of the Council than to portray its continuities with the past. And not just the media, and not just the progressives, but Catholics of all sorts were caught up in the feeling that they were part of something profoundly new, a radical and necessary break with the past—the past represented for me and my fellow students at the Greg by the nonhistorical orthodoxy of Tromp, Zapalena, and Hürth. Ironically, the media brought us the opposite of nonhistorical orthodoxy: nonorthodox novelty, or “neodoxy.”

In no other period of my life have so many theological disputes been conducted so broadly and openly in the secular and the religious press. In such an era, theologians need to develop their own mechanisms for guarding the data entrusted to them. Alas, we didn’t. If theologians had watched over their own ranks, Rome would not have had to intrude.

An open church cannot be built if those with the crown jewels—the data of revelation—do not hold these life-giving truths precious. The truths of the faith are essential for a true humanism. To treasure them, many in our blood-soaked time have given up their lives. We early interpreters of the Council did not always show the same respect.

In the Church in America, at least, I was among the first purveyors of “the spirit of Vatican II”—to the neglect of the actual Conciliar texts, which were more balanced and exact. I deserve to be shamed for some of the extreme things I wrote about experimental liturgies, about dissent in the Church, and about that elusive “spirit.” I particularly regret the advice I gave to nuns in articles with titles like “The New Nuns” in Commonweal and in the Saturday Evening Post. I fancied myself a leader among the younger reporters, a witness to the events at Vatican II, part of a “new breed” that would accomplish great things.

I have come to know the irony and tragedy of the Council—themes that the antiquity and tangled passions of the history of Rome impose upon the mind with every mocking fountain. How they laugh at the passing generations, those fountains! How they laughed at ours. Now I feel keenly the irony inherent in our hubris in those days, our pride of life, our sense of being special. In The Open Church, I noted the ironic smiles of the jesters, but did not apply them tightly to myself.

If I did not do worse damage, it is largely because after 1965 I turned my attention to problems of unbelief in the secular world and to issues of public policy, believing that there were plenty of theologians around to worry about the inner life of the Church. Thus did Providence snatch me off the path toward even worse sins. My purgatory is bound to be very long and very painful, even if all it were to consist of would be the contemplation of my past words and deeds.

Yet the story of the victory of the progressives after the Council is not the whole, and certainly not the final, story. Just in time, as I saw it unfold over the next forty years, John Paul II (who took his name from the two popes who led the Council, John XXIII and Paul VI) rescued the Council’s original purposes. He and Cardinal Ratzinger, who were both numbered among the most serious progressives at the Council, recalled that Vatican II was a call to holiness.

Eventually, the Council will be recognized as a success only if that call is heeded many times over, in critical mass. God sheds abundant graces among us. To become holy is hard, but not impossible. That is what John Paul II and Benedict XVI have been calling us to, in their own visions of opening up the Church to the world, so as to open the world to God’s gracious mercies.

In my observation, in no nation in the world did the Council have a deeper influence than in Poland. Buoyed by the Declaration of Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanae, the churches of Poland threw open their doors to lay activists, agnostics, and secularists who believed in liberty to discuss how to bring freedom and justice to their country. Many young people prepared themselves for heroic efforts before the end of their lives.

Both these popes have proposed the following principles for the authentic development of the Council: that the chief ideologies and intellectual currents of modernity (Marxism, liberal secularism) are exhausted; that the world needs and seeks a new and authentic universal humanism; and that it is just this humanism that the Church was called into existence to offer.

Consider just these few points: The Creator of the universe calls human beings to be his friends, in freedom and not in slavery. He made them so that by nature they seek and inquire—restlessly, urgently. He infused an eros of understanding into their hearts, so that they might turn away from all that falls short of or falsifies truth. This faithful pursuit of nothing but the truth makes their freedom actual.

To seekers of a new humanism, the Christian mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation unveil the community, freedom, and eros of inquiry embodied in the human person. Our Creator and Father wills a universal humanism, a civilization of friendship modeled on the fire of caritas that constitutes the Trinity itself.

The Church is the forerunner of human destiny. It must be a witness to the communion of persons and to hope. God has called humans toward his own infinite beauty. He unites them in communion with one another and with him. Communion is the inner tendency of creation.

This is a far richer vision, theologically, than I had in The Open Church. But in my poor philosophical way I was heading in its direction. The unrestricted, relentless drive of inquiry that I used as the interpretive key to the Council lies at the heart of human community and personhood. It is a humanistic key, and it is deeply embedded in the theology of salvation. Had I known Karol Wojtyla earlier—I did not meet him at the Council—I might have come to this theological depth much sooner.

Over the years, liberals have often told me that they really liked The Open Church and thought it was my best book—the suppressed conclusion being that the speaker stopped reading me around 1965. These are kind words, when I consider that most of those who utter them are progressive in outlook and dislike my later work on democratic capitalism. Nearly all add, “I especially liked your discussion of nonhistorical orthodoxy.”

But there is more to be said, fifty years on. Despite the manifest faults, sins, and weak minds of many of us during and after the Second Vatican Council, the Holy Spirit did preside over it and brought the world immense fruits through it. Without the Council, we could never have had the enormously important pontificate of Pope John Paul II, and perhaps not the long-hidden but energetic stirrings of Eastern Europe that erupted so magnificently in 1989.

In the old days, before the Council, at Mass the priest and all the people faced toward the East, toward Jerusalem, the blessed soil of our covenant and our salvation. The eyes of all were turned in the same direction, toward God.

That vision of the Church is something we have learned anew, partly through the Second Vatican Council. In true love, rather than in gazing into each other’s eyes, the lovers face together outward toward the One who first set fire to their love, the love that moves the sun and other stars.

Michael Novak has recently retired from the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and is a member of the advisory council of First Things.

Image by Archives diocésaines de Besançon via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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