If what I read and hear is correct, there are a fair number of Catholics who believe that Vatican II was a dangerous mistake that has led the Church down a bad road in the past half century. It is amazing to attempt to count the number of websites devoted to “undoing the Council” by recreating the Church of an earlier day (1950? 1900? The Council of Trent?). Even Benedict XVI, a Conciliar peritus in his youth, was known to say from time to time that Vatican II was one of over twenty councils in the history of the Church, not the only one. As I wrote last week, a very close friend expressed to me the question of assessing the overall impact of the Council in light of its implementation.
Thus I felt it might be a good idea to devote at least one entry to the troubles of the post-Conciliar Church, followed by another on its successes next Monday. A good place to begin is with the term “Council.” When John XXIII announced the convocation of the world’s bishops in 1962, only historians understood with any degree of precision exactly what a “council” was. The last council, Vatican I, took place during the Grant Administration in the United States. There was no living memory of such a thing, and in truth Vatican I’s definition of papal infallibility in 1870 made councils seem superfluous anyway.
The understanding of the genuine need for a Council of reform was not easily understood by Catholics. John XXIII, taking the long view, understood that the Church as a whole had been morally impotent to predict and forestall two world wars and the Holocaust. French bishops after World War II could see Catholic workingmen abandoning the Church for socialist-communist sympathies to their plight (so much so that France’s “worker priests” began to work side by side with blue collar laborers in factories and on docks to show Church solidarity and understanding.) The Catholic European academic community outside of Rome itself well understood the creakiness of the Catholic scholastic system then imposed in seminaries and other Church institutions. The crises were mounting and their roots were deep, but they would not have been evident to most Catholics in the pews.
Many Catholics in the United States had the benefits of an elementary school education, but the state of higher Catholic education for bishops, priests, teaching sisters. and laity was poor. In 1955 the American Catholic historian Father John Tracy Ellis essentially called out the American Church in a still-famous 40-page essay on Church intellectual life. The major issues proposed by the Council would not have registered in Catholic pulpits or classrooms. Remember that when Xavier Rynne began his reports from within the Council, his agent recommended New Yorker magazine as the place where intellectuals would most likely follow his commentary. Grassroots interest as there was in the Council most typically centered on practical matters of English Mass and simpler habits for nuns—changes that were hardly universally welcomed in the 1960’s, and still fuel thousands of blog debates today.
Vatican II extended throughout my high school years—in the seminary, no less—and I cannot recall a single reference to the Council in class or in prayers. Some students—upper classmen—were following the Council through the New York Times or informal discussion with informed friars, and in my junior year the spiritual director held a “Bible Vigil” or what we would call today a Liturgy of the Word in English. That same year a young friar delivered a Sunday sermon on the civil rights demonstration in Selma, Alabama, calling for us to join in through spiritual solidarity. That was unusual for our seminary. In my first year of college my French professor brought in issues of Paris Match to show photos of “experimental Masses” conducted by Dutch churchmen and to condemn the “blasphemy” in no uncertain terms.
Looking back, I think that was how a lot of Americans eventually came to frame Vatican II and its meaning—somewhat helter-skelter, piecemeal, from churchmen who themselves were deeply divided on the outcome of the Council. The term “Spirit of Vatican II” (sometimes capitalized, sometimes not) emerged as a kind of shorthand for many forms of experimentation and change, along the lines of “well, if the Council had just gone a few more rounds, it would have approved this, too” or “the Council is more than its documents.” In truth, there was a stated “Spirit of the Council” proclaimed by Pope John—a call for renewal of the heart, for more profound living of the Gospel, for more justice, for inclusion, and for internal reform of the Church’s machinery, specifically the Curia. Four years of a laborious and at times contentious Council tended to mute the trumpet.
Despite the fact that the documents of Vatican II run to about one thousand pages single-spaced, or maybe because of that, the Council adjourned without having imparted an official unity of purpose and direction, and there was a “no-man’s land” until each sacramental rite and text could be composed and disseminated (in the case of Canon Law, it was eighteen years.) It would be five years, for example, before the official rite of the Mass, the Novus Ordo, was promulgated (this rite in turn was reformed in 2011). In the interim, Rome issued a series of “hybrids” incorporating new elements with the older Tridentine Rite. I can recall that as a sacristan in the late 1960’s I would have to keep in mind the liturgical sensitivities of all the priests, some of whom insisted on all the older style vestments including the maniple.
In the years immediately following the Council, there was an absence of direction which admittedly led to excesses. Authority was a particularly dirty word, as a superior might be “quenching the Holy Spirit” by imposing limits on behaviors and policies, some of which were questionable at best. A very good example of this is religious education. Catholic schools were beginning to shutter as early as 1970 and on the whole there was a reluctance to shore up the system on the supposed grounds that CCD programs would be equally as good as Catholic school education. Recently I did read “To Teach as Jesus Did,” the United States Bishops’ 1972 statement on Catholic education, and it is a true monument to both utopian hopes and fear of taking a stand.
I have said little so far about the life of priests and religious in the post-Vatican II era, and here I can only say that it was a difficult time. The freedom brought about by the elimination of archaic structures revealed that a fair number were unable to live productively in a relatively unfettered religious setting. I will address that in more detail on Monday.
One can fairly ask if indeed Vatican II was worth all this trouble. To answer that, we would need to ask what would have happened if John XXIII had never called a council. And that we will look at on Monday.