Someone has to say it publicly: The Holy Father does not understand the Catholic Church in the United States and he is doing her great harm. In an interview published June 14, he said, “Restorationism has come to gag the Council. The number of groups of ‘restorers’—for example, in the United States there are many—is significant.” The Holy Father’s remarks are baffling to just about anyone, other than the ideologically blinded, who knows the Church in the U.S. Unfortunately, he has said something along these lines enough times that it can no longer be excused as some slip of language. It is clear he believes this.
Perhaps there is some variant of Catholics here in the U.S. who reject the Second Vatican Council—but their number is very small, one could say negligible. They might have a loud voice in a remote corner of the internet (where they should be ignored and left to wither on the vine), but they do not occupy pews in parishes, and they certainly do not have leadership positions in the Church. There is not a single bishop here in the U.S. who rejects Vatican II, and you have to look very hard to find a priest who is stuck in some pre-conciliar time warp. Such priests do exist, but there certainly are not “many” of them.
There are some on the right in the U.S. (Fr. James Altman and Church Militant, among others) whose voices are strident and divisive, but I am not aware that they reject Vatican II. They should be dealt with in their own right, but they have a relatively small following and do not have influence over Church leadership. To grant them such influence is to give them too much credibility. The same can be said of those on the left, who are equally unrepresentative and keen to denounce.
By all serious accounts, Vatican II has been adopted by the Church in the U.S. as thoroughly as any country. The Novus Ordo is the Mass 99 percent of Roman Catholics attend. St. John Paul II, no rigid traditionalist, is beloved by most Catholics in this country. Latin is largely extinct. The clericalism of the pre-conciliar period, and blind loyalty to priests and bishops, is just a memory. The manualism of Catholic morality is dead. Contemporary music at Mass is the norm. Ecumenical and interreligious dialogue is taken seriously. Religious freedom is extolled. The list is practically endless.
There is certainly a living traditionalism that is attractive to some, but nothing that is opposed to the Council. This approach holds onto the timeless beauty of key expressions of the faith, but it does not reject anything from Vatican II. It is part of the mosaic of Catholicism that permits diversity within the context of one professed faith; what has been described as the pluriformity of the faith. Perhaps it does not celebrate the acoustic guitar, but neither does it reject the faith of the last sixty years.
If the Holy Father means there are many here in the U.S. who have rejected the “Spirit of Vatican II,” whatever that is, then he might have a point, but that is very different than rejecting the Council itself. The “Spirit of Vatican II” did not come from the Council and has proven itself to be sterile. The Church of 1978, its liturgical experimentation and moral confusion, was and is a failed project, but it is not the Church of Vatican II. To erect Karl Rahner as the sole and definitive voice of the post-Vatican II Church is as stultifying as the most arrogant forms of pre-conciliar scholasticism.
Those who reject the clear teachings of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992), or the Code of Canon Law (1983), or the many encyclicals from the pontificates of St. Paul VI (1963-1978), St. John Paul II (1978-2005), or Pope Benedict XVI (2005-2013)—all of which should be understood as fruit of the Council itself—seem to be the ones who are most against Vatican II. They deserve to be called out.
And yet Pope Francis extols the analysis of people like Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J., who wrote what can only be described as an embarrassingly superficial account of the situation in the U.S. in his article “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism: A Surprising Ecumenism.” He has elevated prelates who cannot get elected to any leadership positions at the USCCB because they do not reflect the sensus fidelium of the Catholic Church in the U.S.
Perhaps the Holy Father is simply listening to a select few voices who have their own ecclesiastical biases and agendas. But after nine years since becoming the successor to Peter, that is no longer an excuse. Whom he chooses to listen to is itself an act of discernment. There are vocal Jesuits who have a perspective on the life of the Church here in the U.S., but it is simply a perspective and one that is profoundly unrepresentative, and thus offers a distorted picture of the American Church. The Holy Father says that he wants the Church to be a listening Church. If so, then he should be listening to a wide variety of voices in the U.S. before casting stones and making claims that there are a significant number of Catholics in this country who reject Vatican II. The facts do not support this claim, and those who propose this narrative betray a bias against the Church in the U.S. that seems to be driven by an ecclesiology of exclusion that rejects any form of Catholicism that does not fit their theological and aesthetic predilections. This narrow partisanship is unfortunate for any Catholic, but it is dangerous coming from the Holy Father.
Jayd Henricks is former executive director of government relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article misquoted Pope Francis. We regret the error.
Help First Things expand our community of co-laborers by supporting our 2022 Spring Campaign with a tax-deductible gift today.
If you do not already subscribe to First Things, visit www.firstthings.com/subscribe to explore our subscription options.