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To Sanctify the World:
The Vital Legacy of Vatican II

by george weigel
basic books, 368 pages, $32

There probably will never be a consensus on Vatican II and its legacy: to what extent it channeled the Holy Spirit, and how much its implementation was hijacked by the world, the flesh, and the devil. But all those who read George Weigel’s fine new book, whatever their points of view, will find his account informative and clarifying. Weigel has a mastery of the sources, correctly understands the basic thrust of the conciliar documents for continuity and not rupture, and threads his way adroitly through the postconciliar era right up to the time of Pope Francis, in which clarity is not always seen as a virtue and grave errors are permitted to linger undisturbed.

The story of the 1962–65 ­Council still has many lessons for us, not least about unintended ­consequences. The aftermath of the Council led even Pope Paul VI to acknowledge in 1972 that “the smoke of Satan has entered the Church.” During that decade, it became clear that the universal unity of one Church around the apostolic tradition is not always easily retained. That truth is especially relevant to today’s Church, which is faced with the prospect of multiple national and continental synods, open to all comers—even those who are determined to “improve” the apostolic tradition or reject parts of it.

Pope John XXIII’s opening address to the Council on October 11, 1962, given in Latin, was brief and beautifully Christocentric. “Christ Jesus,” said the Pope, “still stands at the ­center of history and life”; the Church’s task is to present the message, to evangelize. Some of the great themes that run through Weigel’s book were already present in this speech. The Council should breathe holiness and stir up joy; the Church is to use the medicine of mercy rather than the weapons of severity; the truths of the deposit of the faith are one thing, but the fashions in which these same truths are to be presented is another, as the Church discerns the signs of the times. Meanwhile, Pope John took issue with the “prophets of doom” who, despite their religious fervor, saw “only ruin and calamity in the present conditions of human ­society.”

Was that last remark a hostage to fortune? Many think that the blessings the Council has brought, such as episcopal collegiality, the enhanced role of the laity, religious freedom, ecumenism, liturgical accessibility, and the use of the vernacular were always present in the Church. A small minority are tempted to blame it exclusively for our present woes.

I know the difference between post hoc and propter hoc and have spent all my fifty-six years of priesthood implementing, explaining, and defending the Second Vatican Council as the work of the Holy Spirit. During my time in Australia, Catholic services in education, health, social work, aged care, and overseas relief have increased; and yet, the Sunday Mass-going rate is barely one quarter of what it was in the 1960s, most religious orders (not all) are nearing extinction because of an absence of vocations, the number of seminarians for the diocesan priesthood (outside Sydney City and Wagga Wagga) is dangerously low when not disastrous, and over the last ten years the total proportion of self-identifying Catholics has fallen some percentage points. The situation is much worse in many other Western countries. Australia has so far avoided a collapse like those in Belgium and Holland. But one need not be agnostic, antagonistic, or superficial to ask the question: Doesn’t this mean that the prophets of doom have been vindicated, at least as far as the Church in the West is concerned? And if not, why not?

One answer involves pointing to the enormous variety of the postconciliar Church, ranging from steady expansion and vitality in Africa to secular erosion and an almost uncontested exodus into Protestant sects in Central and South America, to the minority situation of Catholics in most parts of Asia, and the expulsion of Christians from the Middle East. Sometimes the Church’s response to its ­conditions defies expectations: Despite the hostility of the Chinese Communist Party, China has sixty to ninety million Christians, whereas in Japan, which enjoys a genuine religious liberty, the tiny Catholic Church, heir to its sixteenth- and seventeenth-century martyrs, is dormant if not dying. Such variety can hardly be traced to the Council.

Weigel, in his own understated, thorough, and massively learned way, gives a different kind of answer. He is true-blue Vatican II, not at all tempted to join the romantic nostalgists, to follow the rad trads or even the glad trads. Nor does he pose the question in my melodramatic, somewhat polemical terms. Rather, by telling the whole story in detail, he issues a challenge both to the conservative partisans who see the Council as a terrible mistake, and to the progressive extremists who see the Council as instigating a paradigm shift like the Copernican Revolution, so inaugurating a Brave New Catholicism.

The first part of Weigel’s volume deals with why the Council was judged to be necessary. It was a response to the crisis of modernity—not just the horrors of Nazism and ­communism, but also the challenge to traditional Christianity posed by such phenomena as the Enlightenment, violent political revolutions, the spectacular progress of science and technology, and the legacy of ­Darwin, Marx, and Freud.

The impetus for a Council, then, was broader than the explanation given in the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, whereby Pope John has “a sudden inspiration of the Holy Spirit” (the story we Roman seminarians believed back then). As Weigel shows, other major figures, such as the young Joseph ­Ratzinger’s mentor Cardinal Frings, likewise spoke of the need for a council; the ultramontane Roman cardinals Ottaviani and Ruffini urged the idea of a short, sharp council on the then-Cardinal Roncalli the night before his election. That said, there was no pressure for a council in the English-speaking world, and many Australian bishops, with their Roman friends, anticipated that the council would be done in one ­session—all be over by Christmas.

The more radical Continental reformers received a huge boost with the publication in 1962 of the bizarre document Veterum Sapientia, which compelled seminary lecturers around the world to speak in Latin. This impossible requirement seriously damaged the credibility of the conservative Roman party among other bishops. The Continental reformers had gained the upper hand—a fact reflected early on in the Council by the decision to reject the first schemata (drafts), a decision backed by Pope John that opened the way to bolder reforms.

The second section of the book outlines and analyzes the sixteen documents produced by the Council, in particular the heavyweight constitutions on the Church and divine revelation, and the three documents that most immediately affected daily Church life: the constitution on the liturgy, the declaration on religious freedom, and the decree on ecumenism. Weigel is particularly insightful on Gaudium et Spes, the pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world, which reflected the optimism of an increasingly prosperous postwar Western Europe shaped by Catholic statesmen such as Adenauer, De Gasperi, Schuman, and (later) the great General de Gaulle. The constitution lacks bite and drama, underplaying the continuing hold of original sin, which makes discerning the signs of the times so difficult. Weigel describes the document as essentially a ­snapshot of its time, which unsurprisingly failed to identify many of the developments and surprises of the next sixty years.

The final section of the book is built around Weigel’s claim—surely a correct one—that the Council itself did not provide an authoritative key to the proper interpretation of these controversial documents. The Council offered no creed, no canons, no anathemas. Weigel locates the interpretive key, instead, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, produced with worldwide participation after the Extraordinary Synod of 1985, and in the writings of St. John Paul II and Pope ­Benedict XVI. Weigel begins this section with a chapter on the writings of Jacques Maritain, whom Pope Paul VI dubbed his “maestro.” Maritain acknowledged the contribution of the Council to our better understanding of the Church, to the defense of true humanism in an age of degraded humanism. But he warned, six years before Paul VI’s words about the “smoke of Satan,” that some invoking the “Spirit of the Council” were already heading for apostasy. I remember particularly the publication in English in 1968 of Maritain’s The Peasant of the Garonne. Maritain could never be listed among the usual prophets of doom, but his political incorrectness in this work provoked dismay and consternation among the great enthusiasts for the Council, then a clear majority everywhere in the Western Church. Maritain had foreseen what Pope Benedict later called the dictatorship of relativism. He was prophetic; he was right.

The Council was desperately unlucky to be called just as the contraceptive pill began to be widely used, permanently transforming human relations. The sexual revolution has turned sexual activity into a recreational child-free right, devastated marriage and the family, and produced legions of young adults frightened of marriage, afraid to repeat the failures of their parents and unsure of their capacity to be good mothers and fathers. Some, of course, are more selfish than frightened.

The sexual revolution coincided with, and helped to foster, a broader revolutionary spirit, which reached an early peak in the 1968 uprising in France. This tide of change ran through the Catholic clergy and religious, often producing a revolutionary fervor that saw (to take the highest estimate) as many as 100,000 priests leave their posts. In some parts of the West, vocations to the priesthood and the religious life dried up, in some ­places disappearing completely.

The Second Vatican Council has come and gone, and in most Catholic quarters even its memory has disappeared. Yet it remains worthy of study. A philosopher has warned that those ignorant of history are condemned to repeat its mistakes. All lovers of the Church today, and not just those dismayed by our present situation, will read this learned, wise, and discerning work with profit. In today’s West the Catholic Church nowhere has the numerical strength to sanctify the world, but we do have the capacity to ­continue the work of the ­Kingdom. We should read, ponder, and beware.

George Cardinal Pell is prefect emeritus of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy.

Image by Lothar Wolleh via Creative Commons. Image cropped.