On the occasion of this past week’s 60th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, I confined myself to recalling Pope Saint John XXIII’s hopes for what the Council could accomplish, rooted in his appreciation of the great accomplishments of the Council of Trent. Opening the Council in 1962, he revisited the role of ecumenical councils in the history of the Church. Whenever Councils are held, he declared, they « solemnly proclaim this union with Christ and his Church, and they spread everywhere the light of truth, give correct guidance to the lives of individuals, of families, and of societies, stir up and fortify spiritual energies, and continually raise minds towards true and eternal goods. » Undoubtedly, I observed, he hoped that something similar would result from this Council. Implicitly, I suggested that something different, something less inspiring may have resulted, contrary to Pope John’s hopes and expectations. I assumed – correctly as it turned out – that others with greater knowledge and intellectual credentials would soon address these issues.
And so they have. In a well worth repeated reading essay in The NY Times (« How Catholics Became Prisoners of Vatican II, » October 12, 2022), Ross Douthat tried to cut through the ideological fog which gets in the way of any serious discussion of this subject. He contends that « the council poses a continuing challenge, it creates intractable-seeming divisions, and it leaves contemporary Catholicism facing a set of problems and dilemmas that Providence has not yet seen fit to resolve. »
Specifically, he makes three claims that are intended to be taken together as a whole. « First, the council was necessary. … in the sense that the church of 1962 needed significant adaptations, significant rethinking and reform. These adaptations needed to be backward-looking: The death of throne-and-altar politics, the rise of modern liberalism and the horror of the Holocaust all required fuller responses from the church. And they also needed to be forward-looking, in the sense that Catholicism in the early 1960s had only just begun to reckon with globalization and decolonization, with the information age and the social revolutions touched off by the invention of the contraceptive pill. … but Vatican II was called at a moment when the need for such change was about to become particularly acute. »
Second, accepting the Council on its own terms, on the terms it set for itself, « The council was a failure. … It was supposed to make the church more dynamic, more attractive to modern people, more evangelistic, less closed off and stale and self-referential. It did none of these things. The church declined everywhere in the developed world after Vatican II, under conservative and liberal popes alike — but the decline was swiftest where the council’s influence was strongest. »
There is, of course, nothing new about this claim. It was being made by those with reservations about the Council already in the 1960s, the facts Douthat points to having become indisputable by the 1970s at the latest. (Balancing this, many have long argued that the Council was interpreted and implemented differently in the « Global South, » with better outcomes, but that is a separate discussion.) Different people still have different takes on exactly what happened in the calamitous aftermath of the Council and why. That is only to be expected. Yet, as Zac Davis put it bluntly in America (« Did Vatican II Fail? Are we allowed to ask the question? » October 12, 2022), « To act like there are no open questions about the council’s relationship to the state of the church is an act of denialism and pearl-clutching. » All too often, Davis reminds us, « we are blinded by ideology to our own particular interpretation or idea of how things should be. »
An unfortunate example of such « pearl-clutching » may perhaps be seen in Michael Sean Winters’ polemical response to Douthat (« Vatican II at 60: Is Pope Francis or Ross Douthat right? » NCR, October 14, 2022). Unsurprisingly Winters wants to identify his position with that of the Pope. He quotes Pope Francis. « Yet let us be careful: both the ‘progressivism’ that lines up behind the world and the ‘traditionalism’ that longs for a bygone world are not evidence of love, but of infidelity. They are forms of a Pelagian selfishness that puts out own tastes and plans above the love that pleases God, the simple, humble and faithful love that Jesus asked of Peter. » Winters somewhat confuses the issue with a further riff on Pelagianism, which he strangely links to « the Calvinism of dominant colonial culture. » Of course, any self-respecting Calvinist would be horrified by any such connection! Ultimately, however, all such name-calling is beside the point and really just gets in the way of what we ought to be talking about.
Winters acknowledges that both progressivism and traditionalism have proved problematic – the former adopting « attitudes and ideas with no « Catholic pedigree » and the latter having « too often collaborated with fascism. » But both of these are straw men. Progressive preoccupations with « non-binary sexual identity issues » are an easy target, as were 20th-century Catholic integralist fascists and neo-fascists. Neither fully nor fairly represents the progressive and traditionalist critiques, both of which are at least partly legitimate, and both of which can claim authentic Catholic and conciliar roots.
The perpetual « pearl-clutching » about whether Vatican II was the ecclesiastical equivalent of Trump’s « perfect phone call » can get us nowhere. One reason is Douthat’s third point, which is that « The council cannot be undone » in the sense that the world has irretrievably changed and – as I often like to say in response to extreme liturgical traditionalism, Catholics now live and express and very different sensibility, very different from that of 60 years ago.
What Douthat means is « that there is no simple path back. Not back to the style of papal authority that both John Paul II and Francis have tried to exercise — the former to restore tradition, the latter to suppress it — only to find themselves frustrated by the ungovernability of the modern church. Not to the kind of thick inherited Catholic cultures that still existed down to the middle of the 20th century, and whose subsequent unraveling, while inevitable to some extent, was clearly accelerated by the church’s own internal iconoclasm. Not to the moral and doctrinal synthesis, stamped with the promise of infallibility and consistency, that the church’s conservatives have spent the last two generations insisting still exists, but that in the Francis era has proved so unstable that those same conservatives have ended up feuding with the pope himself. »
Winters dismisses Douthat’s argument as « only a rightwing talking point. » But the problems Douthat highlights will not go away by cavalierly dismissing them with such « pearl-clutching » wish fulfillment. » Whether the current condition of the Church is because of the Council or in spite of the Council, it factually remains the opposite of what the Council aspired to. and that is the reality which must be accepted as the context within which all evangelization, « new » or re-evangelization, and just plain old pastoral ministry and pastoral care must take place.
In the realm of « secular » politics, polarization makes a certain sort of sense, since the point of politics is to acquire and use political power (hopefully for some telos above and beyond the mere possession fo power and the dispossession of one’s rivals). Unfortunately, for 60 years now, the Second Vatican Council and its aftermath have been filtered through a polarized political binary, that began with the politicized journalism of « Xavier Rynne » and has continued virtually unabated ever since. Yet the Church is not supposed to be primarily about the acquisition of political power. Only when that secular purpose has been subordinated, will we make any authentic progress in re-evangelizing ourselves and our society.
Zac Davis favorably cites Pope Francis’ request that we prepare for the upcoming Holy Year by rereading the Council’s four Constitutions. That’s a fine idea – provided we are willing to get beyond our present polarized political binary about the words and the « spirit » of those four documents. The Church today in the United States and Europe is no longer the community it was when those constitutions were written and for which those constitutions were written. they were written in a very different society at a very different time. Nor does the Church today meaningfully resemble any community that those constitutions appeared to aspire to.
Contrary to the claims of progressives and traditionalists both, that is not the end of the story. But it is where we must begin.