First, Vatican II was a statement of the desperate need of the Church to look at itself, to reassess its identity, so to speak, in the light of Scripture, Tradition, and history. The very act of calling a council nearly a century after the declaration of the doctrine of infallibility reawakened the Church to earlier days of identity, mission, and governance while rescuing the Church from the excess of a “monarchical papacy” which would have diminished the role of the Holy Spirit in all of the baptized.
Second, the Vatican II established a new template for “engagement” with the world, religious and secular. It is often forgotten that in the early sessions of the Council of Trent (1545-1563) an effort had been made to invite early Protestant leaders such as Melanchthon into the Council debates, but for many reasons this did not occur and even during Vatican II some prelates—and certainly much of the Curia—referred to all non-Catholic Christian communities as “dissidents” who must confess their errors before any meaningful dialogue with Catholicism could begin. Popes John XXIII’s and Paul VI’s warm embraces during the Council years with Orthodox Churchmen and the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, by contrast, symbolized a basic communion of faith in Christ that superseded doctrinal hostility.
Third, Vatican II played a large role in rescuing the image of the Church from that of a late medieval court to an entity deeply emerged in the joys and sorrows of the present day world. In his autobiography Kung reports that the ritual of the opening of Vatican II included the pope being carried in by multiple attendants on a throne, and the kissing of his ring by the bishops, and his feet by religious superiors. The entire rite lasted seven hours. It is hard to conceive of such a papal rite taking place at the end of the Council; Pope Francis may have driven the final nail into that coffin during his pontificate.
Fourth, Vatican II—in a number of its documents—strongly endorses a more rigorous study of Catholic theology in tandem with the best of contemporary thinking in philosophy and the sciences. Had Vatican II never occurred, Catholicism was well on its way to the abandonment of Aquinas and the medieval university model of interdisciplinary study. Moreover, given the Council’s particular attention to the academic excellence of seminaries, greater attention to the academic and preaching skills of future priests became standard—though this exhortation has not been always greeted with high energy, particularly as bishops grow more restive about declining numbers and the need for “warm bodies,” as the saying goes.
Fifth, the Council emphasized a return to a Bible centered understanding of the Church and its spirituality. The post-Trent description of the Church as the Kingdom of God on earth was gradually shifted to that of the Church as “The Pilgrim People of God.” Given our common status as sinners, we begin with a unity of identity and purpose. Prior to Vatican II, Catholic devotion was very private. After the Council, emphasis upon “community” came to the fore in prayer, sacraments, and service to the world. This is easily seen in the RCIA, where the unbaptized receive baptismal washing on the night of greatest Church unity, the Easter Vigil; and the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance in common during Lent and special occasion such as retreats.
Sixth, the Council laid down the principles for the full participation of the laity in the sacraments, most importantly the Eucharist, described in Council documents as “the source and summit” of all Christian life. The celebration of Mass in the vernacular or local language, and reception of the Eucharist under the form of the bread and the cup, are but two examples. The integration of the laity into liturgical ministry—as lectors and ministers of communion, among others—is another indication of the Church’s desire to draw the laity closer to the center of the Celebration.
Fairness obliges me to mention two areas of liturgical life where the Council’s (and the Roman Rites’) directives have not been adhered to: the quality of preaching and the proper use of music in the Mass. In the United States, for example, immediately after the Council the American Church adopted a “four hymn sandwich” approach to the Eucharist, where the directives call for antiphonal use of the Psalms. In recent years the missalette companies, probably for financial reasons, are now producing assembly line hymnody for missalettes and ecclesiastical jumbo-trons. Poor music and substandard preaching are not products of Vatican II, but rather examples of where the “Spirit of Vatican II” has been sidestepped for a number of reasons.
Seventh, the Council declarations on religious orders mandated all communities to return to the founding charisms of the orders’ founders. For my own Franciscan training, this effect of Vatican II led to considerable struggle. My branch of the Order was primarily priests, living what were then middle-class comforts. The founder of the Order, St. Francis of Assisi, by contrast, lived in austerity in an early community of non-ordained brothers. From a distance today, I would have to say that my former Order has done quite well in adapting its apostolates to the immediate service of the poor.
Vatican II has been blamed for a lot of things, notably a decline in vocations, Mass attendance, religious literacy, and closings of Catholic schools. But in these cases I caution against post hoc ergo propter hoc thinking. (That is, if event B occurs after event A, A must have caused B.) In truth, a number of historians and analysts are now coming to the conclusion that “the grand old days of the Church” prior to the Council in the United States were, numerically speaking, something of a statistical spike corresponding to such diverse events as the Depression, WW II, the GI Bill, and the post-war economic boom. Seminaries, for example, provided the only opportunities for young men to get private secondary and college educations during the Depression in many parts of the country. Such was not the case during the height of the post-War recovery of the 1950’s and 1960’s.
But I think that G.K. Chesterton, who has provided us with a good many insightful witticisms over the years, probably has it right about Vatican II as he had it right about Christianity: “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” And so we keep trying.