OK, so what sort of renewal did Vatican II prescribe?
Pope Francis recently insisted once again on the importance of implementing the renewal called for by the Second Vatican Council. Unfortunately, every time I insist (with the last five popes) that the Second Vatican Council gave us the program of Catholic renewal that we are supposed to be following, I receive messages which (usually at great length) run something like this: “If the Council was so great, why has the Church suffered so much since that time? I’m tired of hearing about the Council. Clearly we need to go back before the Council to find authentic Catholicism.”
It is really hard for me to accept that the answer to that question is not obvious by now. But to understand the renewal that the Council called for, I am afraid we need to answer this question correctly. Let me break it down into four clear and simple points:
- The popes had been fighting a running battle with Modernism in the universities and seminaries throughout the first half of the twentieth century. (Modernism is essentially a secularizing of Catholicism in accordance with the prevailing ideas in the larger culture.)
- There was an enormous revolution—or dissolution, really—in Western culture beginning in the 1960s. Suddenly it was no longer necessary to maintain an aura of religious respectability. The mainstream culture made its interior abandonment of Christianity formal and public and began praising and lionizing all those within the Church who would take the Church in a less Catholic direction.
- The pre-conciliar Church was in serious need of renewal. She had gradually slipped into what we might call a comfortable institutionalism, with Catholics tending to live the faith prescriptively (“follow the rules, get to heaven”). There was an unfortunate lack of deep interiority with Christ and a lack of engagement with the Church as mission.
- Under these circumstances, the pre-conciliar Church was powerless to protect itself against the cultural shift which occurred. This is why things changed almost overnight in dioceses, parishes and religious orders around the world. Key personnel throughout the Church, who had either been formed by the faulty Catholic intellectual establishment before the Council or had a prescriptive notion of the Faith (“hey, if you can change this rule, you can change ANYTHING”), rushed to embrace a new and culturally-fashionable secularism. They wanted, after all, to appear relevant.
Now please note: Pope John XXIII clearly saw these weaknesses of the pre-conciliar Church, and that is why he called the Council. But the Church did not have time to implement the Council before the storm hit, and the Council was used as an excuse to gut the Church in favor of the ideas emanating from the surrounding culture. Ever since that time, those who care—including every pope—have been fighting a rear guard action to “recover the council” and implement the true renewal for which it called.
Moreover, the marked difference between what the Council actually decreed and what the same bishops returned home and did in the immediate aftermath is yet another stunning justification of the Catholic faith in the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in an ecumenical council. As a general rule, the contrast between the bishops in council and the bishops at home on their own could hardly have been greater.
That, in a nutshell, is the true story of Vatican II. This does not mean that the pre-conciliar Church was a terrible place, any more than the Church now is a terrible place. But it does mean that the pre-conciliar Church had certain specific deep problems which needed to be addressed (just as the Church does in every age), and it means that the first wave of alleged “renewal” after the Council did not, in general, address those problems. In fact, in many cases it actually made things worse.
Have you ever wondered how we fell instantly in the late 1960s and 1970s into a sort of institutionalized Modernism which almost totally ignored the rights of the faithful? Here is a clue: Simply consider the Church in the first half of the twentieth-century, with its division between “professionals” in religion and all others who were supposed to follow their instructions, and then replace prescriptive adherence to the old rules with a slavish following of the prevailing culture. Voila!
Still, we have to be honest. All of us get sick of hearing about it. To paraphrase Patrick Henry on March 23, 1775, “We may cry, Vatican II, Vatican II—but there is no Vatican II.” When the popes insist, again and again, that the renewal proposed by the Council simply must be carried out, what do they mean? It does no good to pound on the necessity of the Council if nobody really knows what we are talking about.
With this in mind, I decided to review my own series on the documents of Vatican II (on our website, the series starts with A funny thing about Vatican II…; or get the ebook). My mission: Identify precisely what the Council wished to correct in the pre-conciliar Church and outline the specific program of renewal the Council decreed.
As a matter of convenience, I will simply proceed document by document in the order issued. Please note that in each “Problem” section, the identification of the problem is necessarily overbroad and somewhat simplistic, as demanded by a summary. Every era of the Church has a combination of strengths and weaknesses running side by side. The “problems” identified here are, in essence, tendencies “on balance”. They are hardly absolute; they inhibit without destroying the essential goodness of the Church.
- Problem: Many bishops were concerned, along with Pius XII, that the liturgy of the Church (usually called the Tridentine Mass) had devolved into a form which had lost the “noble simplicity” which is to be characteristic of the Latin rite, and had suffered a progressive decline in active participation among all the faithful.
- Solution: The Council emphasized that the Mass is supposed to be an action of the whole Church, a foretaste of the heavenly liturgy, the summit toward which all the Church’s activity strives, and the font from which it flows. The text insists on a distinction between unchanging and changeable elements of the Mass and prescribes the following: An increase of the use of Scripture in the readings and in preaching; increased participation by the laity through acclamations, responses, psalms, antiphons, hymns, actions, gestures and bodily attitudes; purification of the Tridentine rite by stripping away its needless repetitions and its tendency toward obscurity; extension of the use of the vernacular, while retaining Latin in the key Ordinary parts of the Mass and giving pride of place musically to Gregorian chant.
- Problem: Mass media in the contemporary world was developing rapidly and tending toward an increasingly pronounced secularism, and an increasingly monolithic control on the part of the rich, the powerful, and government. In some places, the main problem was decadence; in others, totalitarian control.
- Solution: The Council Fathers emphasized the right to information, the need to establish a proper relationship between art and the natural law, the importance when depicting evil of doing so in a way that does not glamorize evil but illuminates the good, and the tremendous responsibility of those with influence in the media. They enjoined on the faithful the task of exploring all forms of media and applying them to the apostolate.
3. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium)
Note: Lumen Gentium is in many ways the cornerstone of the Council, so the treatment here is somewhat longer.
- General Problem: As I’ve already said, there was growing concern that the Church in the first half of the twentieth century suffered from a sort of prescription-based institutionalization (with bishops as junior administrators), an arbitrary professionalization which largely ignored the laity except as a source of funds, a failure to adequately engage the intellectual tendencies of the culture (think of Modernism), and a tendency to ignore key elements of the identity of the whole Church.
- General Solution, Part 1: The Council wished to increase the Church’s self-understanding so that all the faithful would contribute to her mission. The text emphasizes that the Church is the kingdom of Christ “now present in mystery”, and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. The Church “strains toward the completed kingdom and, with all its strength, hopes and desires to be united in glory with its king” (5). She is both the body and the bride of Christ, emphasizing both the unity of the faithful with Christ and their nuptial relationship with Him. She is a visible society, a living organ of salvation: “Established by Christ as a communion of life, charity and truth, [the Church] is also used by Him as an instrument for the redemption of all, and sent forth to the whole world as the light of the world and the salt of the earth” (9). Given the centrality of the Church in God’s plan, the Council went on to discuss all other human groups in relationship to the Church.
- General Solution, Part 2: Lumen Gentium is the core of the Conciliar corpus, though much of its teaching is already found in Pius XII. The Council emphasized that the concept of Mission is essential to the church in order to (a) fulfill Christ’s command; (b) overcome the deceptions of the devil; (c) save people from despair; and (d) “snatch them from the slavery of error and of idols…so that through charity they may grow up into full maturity in Christ” (17). The Fathers also emphasize that the Church “preserves from destruction and purifies whatever is good in the minds and hearts of peoples or latent in religions and cultures, raised up for the glory of God.” This concept of the Church as the embodiment of the mission of Christ was the understanding in which the whole Church was to grow in the work of renewal.
- Specific Problem 1: Bishops tended to be regarded as junior administrators serving under the centralized Church in Rome, and not as vicars of Christ in their own dioceses.
- Specific Solution 1: The Constitution contains a major, pivotal section on the nature and dignity of the episcopate which encourages bishops to come fully into their own as successors of the apostles and part of the college of bishops which presides, in union with its head, over the Church.
- Specific Problem 2: The laity tended to be regarded as second-class figures in the Church, whose job was to do whatever the clergy told them.
- Specific Solution 2: In a section on the laity, Lumen Gentium insists that the laity must regard themselves as fully called to holiness and responsible for engaging in apostolate for the good of souls and the renewal of the temporal order.
- Final Aids: To give point to its vision of the Church, the Council devoted a major section to the Church’s eschatological identity, seeing the Church as the body through which Christ, having been lifted up, draws all things to Himself. Lumen Gentium also includes a closing section on the importance of Mary and the role she plays in nurturing the Church and bringing the faithful to perfection in Christ. These concepts were to be at the core of a renewed understanding of the Church.
- Problem: Essentially, Eastern Rite Catholics tended to be regarded as somehow inferior to those of the Latin Rite.
- Solution: The Council emphasized that they were not inferior, that they had legitimate traditions and liturgies in their own right, and that these traditions, liturgies and also the full honor of their prelates were to be diligently preserved.
- Problem: The Church seemed to have fallen into a long period of contentment with division among Christians, where members of the Church were happy to be right without attempting to overcome divisions and foster unity.
- Solution: The Council emphasized the importance of Christian unity, both according to Christ’s desire and as necessary for effective witness to the world. It encouraged efforts to open communication and explore differences with our separated brethren, and emphasized the goods within the separated bodies which led people to Christ and so impelled them to unity with the Church. Ecumenical activity must be “fully and sincerely Catholic, that is to say, faithful to the truth which we have received from the apostles and Fathers of the Church, in harmony with the faith which the Catholic Church has always professed, and at the same time directed toward that fullness to which Our Lord wills His Body to grow in the course of time” (24). Also note: “This Sacred Council exhorts the faithful to refrain from superficiality and imprudent zeal, which can hinder real progress toward unity.”
- Problem: As already indicated, there was tendency for the episcopate to regard itself primarily as part of the administrative apparatus of the universal Church rather than as successors of the apostles making Christ present and active in their local communities.
- Solution: The Council enjoined bishops to preserve and profess the truth, dispense the sacred mysteries, care especially for their priests, and be solicitous for the welfare of all within their jurisdiction, as well as understanding their collective responsibility for the universal Church. All in the Church are to collaborate with their bishops for the good of souls; local rights of presentation, nomination and reservation of pastors are to be suppressed; religious orders must be subject to the bishop in the matter of the care of souls. Councils of advisors should be established to assist the bishops. (There is nothing about vast bureaucratic episcopal “conferences”.)
- Problem: Many religious communities had strayed from their initial charisms, both in their spirituality and in the kinds of work they had become involved in; many were also in need of adaptation to the changing conditions in which they found themselves in the modern world. Religious spirituality was increasingly unfocused, and there seemed to be excessive divisions into higher and lower ranks within many communities.
- Solution: The Council directed the religious institutes to review their methods of operation to ensure applicability to time and place, and to drop those activities which were not central to their spirit and nature (charism). In addition, concerns about rank were to be reduced, with all members of each community sharing a common dignity. The heart of religious renewal must be the evangelical counsels, of which the Council provided an extended treatment, and after that there must be a return to the sources and traditions of each community, all under the guidance of the Church. The ultimate norm is to follow Christ as set forth in the Gospels. Religious must strive “to foster in all circumstances a life hidden with Christ in God” and “must resolutely cultivate both the spirit and practice of prayer.” They must live and think ever more in union with the Church, becoming dedicated totally to its mission.
- Problem: The Council was concerned about a certain lack of quality in priestly formation and education, in terms of narrowness of focus, a tendency to rely on manuals without sufficient depth of study, and of course the somewhat hidden problem of Modernism.
- Solution: The Council mandated that priests were to be prepared for a threefold ministry: ministry of the word, ministry of worship and sanctification, and ministry of parish community. The essence of spiritual formation was neither pious practices nor priestly “affectation” but living according to the Gospel in faith, hope and charity. Priests should have a broad education in the disciplines typical of their cultures before entering the seminary. Once in the seminary, theology and philosophy were to be explored in a unified curriculum and should be so “taught that the students will correctly draw out Catholic doctrine from divine revelation, profoundly penetrate it, make it the food of their own spiritual values, and be enabled to proclaim, explain, and protect it in their priestly ministry” (16).
- Problem: Education was becoming increasingly fragmented with the explosion of knowledge and the emphasis on research, and also increasingly secular. This affected even Catholic schools.
- Solution: The Council insisted that Catholic students are to be always made aware of the gift of Faith, the importance of worship, and the need to be conformed to Christ the new man, so they can develop into the “mature measure of the fullness of Christ” and so they can bear witness to the hope that is in them, assisting in the Christian formation of the world.
- Problem: As with the problem of ecumenism, there was a sort of complacency or even smugness in the twentieth-century Church, a contentment with the conventional distinctions concerning who is in and who is out of the Kingdom of God, and an insufficient emphasis on God’s love for all.
- Solution: The Council reminded us that we are all one community of the children of God, and we “all share a common destiny, namely God” whose “providence, evident goodness, and saving designs extend to all men.” The document insists that the members of the Church approach non-Christians with these profound truths of Revelation in mind, striving to recognize what is good in them, helping to situate them within God’s plan, and sacrificing to bring them into the fullness of Christ.
- Problem: The classic charge that Catholics neglected Scripture certainly had some truth; there was a tendency to rely on authority without realizing its relationship to the deposit of Faith.
- Solution: The Council dealt with both Tradition and Scripture, together containing the fullness of the Father’s revelation in Jesus Christ. But the Fathers mostly focused on Scripture, with its ability to acquaint us with Christ, for we must understand that “to see Jesus is to see His Father.” The Old Testament is completed in the New, and the Church’s preaching must be nourished by Scripture. In addition to emphasizing the need for all members of the Church to explore and permit ourselves to be enriched by Scripture, the Council stressed that Our Lord consigned this fullness of Revelation to the teaching authority of the apostles. These in turn handed it on to the other bishops “to keep the gospel forever whole and alive within the Church” (7). Thus the Church is exhorted to fully recognize in our own time the connection of the apostolic succession and the authority principle with the full revelation of God.
- Problem: As previously noted, in the first part of the twentieth century, the laity were scarcely regarded as full partners with Christ in the mission of the Church. In Russell Shaw’s famous phrase, the laity were “to hunt, to shoot, to entertain” and to follow the rules, though there was a limited sense of the lay apostolate in Catholic Action.
- Solution: The Council insisted on the importance of “apostolate” for every member of the Church, by virtue of baptism. It defined “apostolate” as all activity of the Mystical Body directed to the goal for which the Church was founded, namely “the spreading of the Kingdom of Christ throughout the earth for the glory of God the Father, to enable all men to share in His saving redemption, and that through them the whole world might enter into a relationship with Christ” (2). The Council insisted that the laity share in the priestly, prophetic and royal office of Christ, having an important role to play in announcing the gospel; explaining, defending and applying Christian principles; transforming the temporal order; and directing all things to God. The document prophetically emphasizes the importance of marriage and family, and insists that the lay apostolate is to be devoted to the mission of the Church, under the guidance of pastors and bishops.
- Problem: In many places in the world, the Church and Christianity in general were being suppressed; in the West, Christianity and any connection with God was increasingly being excluded from both culture and public life. In some places, the Church seemed unaware of what would happen if religion were marginalized in a culture. Among some in the Church, there was also a tendency to insist on freedom for Catholics while denying it to others.
- Solution: The Council insisted that man’s response to God must be truly free, and the document emphasizes the right to religious liberty within due limits. The text also insists that the Church herself must have complete freedom of operation, and that a healthy social and political order must be developed with this in mind, since the freedom of the Church is the fundamental principle of productive relations between the Church and the civil order.
- Problem: We have already identified what we might call the Church’s comfortable institutionalism and frequent failure to perceive herself in terms of mission. The Council wished to address this more specifically.
- Solution: The document states that missionary work proceeds on a basic incarnational principle, which requires the missionary to become one with the culture to which he is sent, rather than to seek to preside over it from a position of cultural superiority. The first principle of mission is “to lead a profoundly Christian life”. Again, the rationale for missionary activity was stressed, not reduced, by the Council: “The Church, being the salt of the earth and the light of the world, is more urgently called upon to save and renew every creature, that all things may be restored in Christ and all men may constitute one family in Him and one people of God” (1).
- Problem: As I have already noted, there was a tendency on the one hand to emphasize the priest’s administrative role in the Church, especially with respect to the bishop, who alone had the fullness of orders; and on the other to stress the priest’s hierarchical superiority to the laity, a superiority which could be thought to confer a sort of automatic holiness from which others were excluded. These reasons, among others, contributed to a sense of isolation among priests.
- Solution: The Council insisted on the dignity of the priest, who by ordination is promoted to “the service of Christ the Teacher, Priest and King”. The priestly dignity derives from what is unique to priests, the “sacred power of orders to offer sacrifice and to forgive sins” (2). In this context, the priest has a spiritually rich and indispensable role in the Church, to proclaim the Gospel, to perform the sacred functions, and to gather the family of God together in Christ. The text also insists that fidelity to Christ cannot be separated from fidelity to the Church, and that priests must renew their lives and ministries through humility and self-emptying, celibacy, and detachment from material goods. The Council also noted that the key to avoiding what we might now call burnout was found neither in constant pastoral activity nor in constant acts of piety, but in union with Christ. As a practical matter, the Council enjoined upon priests frequent reception of the Sacrament of Penance along with meditation on Scripture and suitable pastoral studies, and insisted on proper remuneration, social assistance and health insurance funds for priests, along with suitable opportunities for fellowship with each other and their bishop.
- Problem: Consider modern Catholic history, with the Church being increasingly marginalized over several hundred years, with one pope even refusing to leave the Vatican, and with the Church gradually becoming more closed in upon herself as her public and social influence waned. In the first half of the twentieth century, the Church as a whole seemed to have almost no idea of how to escape this trend of increasing irrelevance in the modern world.
- Solution: This is the second major constitution on the Church, the two together providing a virtual charter for the immediate future. This pastoral constitution, of course, is concerned not primarily with self-understanding but with strategy. It concentrates on how the Church can speak more effectively with mankind, and tries to identify key factors in fulfilling this necessary purpose. In particular, the Council identified the problem posed by the modern evolutionary and dynamic viewpoint (which tends to denigrate wisdom and tradition) and the growing hope for total emancipation by human effort alone. But because this hope was doomed to frustration, it was offset by increasing despair over the lack of meaning in life. To this problem, the Council posed the person of Christ as the solution. Christ is the fulfillment of all human aspiration. It is in Christ that we find the nature and destiny of man, in Christ that Catholics insist on a fundamental reverence for man in all social situations and solutions, in Christ that we find an antidote to the false aspects of the contemporary stress on human autonomy, and in Christ that man is opened to his true goal.
- Itemized Issues: The Council also clearly insisted on the ultimate responsibility of the laity for the temporal order and rather prophetically identified five special problem areas which required priority of attention: (a) Marriage and the family; (b) the proper development of human culture; (c) the centrality of the person in the economy and social life; (d) the absolute necessity of opening space for God in politics and in attitudes toward human liberty; and (e) the need for peace.
As I indicated at the beginning, it would be unfair to insist that the Church in 1950 was all “this way” or “that way”, just as it is unfair now to do the same thing. What we are talking about is a series of characteristic deficiencies within the life of the Church in the period leading up to the Council, some of which had been developing and worsening for a considerable period of time as Western culture increasingly moved away from the Church. This is of necessity a very broad examination, but it should provide a concrete sense of what Pope John XXIII, Pope Paul VI, and the Second Vatican Council saw—under the influence of the Holy Spirit—as the tendencies which the Church would have to correct if she were to effect an authentic renewal, so that she might more effectively manifest the fullness of Christ to the world.
Readers will vary in their assessment of how much of the Council’s program has been accomplished, how much has been ignored, and how much has been deliberately opposed and thwarted. Clearly, God has quite a sense of humor, and it is possible to identify some things which have changed for the better precisely because of the failure of other things. One thinks, for example, of the far more extensive involvement of lay persons in the life and mission of the Church now, which most likely came about not primarily through the Council’s teaching but through the failure of so many bishops, priests and religious to represent the Church properly, thus leaving the laity with no choice but to fill the breach.
If we were to seek a dominant theme in the Council’s program of renewal, it would seem unquestionably to be the need to see everything in terms of the fullness of God’s plan in Jesus Christ. This emphasis on the person of Christ, and the Church’s embodiment of Christ’s mission, is extremely clear. Pope Francis could not have been far off when he preached a few days ago, after focusing on our tendency to ignore the Council, that “even in our personal lives the Spirit prompts us to take a more evangelical path.” Indeed, the New Evangelization is a direct outgrowth of Vatican II.
Finally, this survey should suggest three things. First, it should indicate concretely what the popes since the Council have meant when they kept insisting on Vatican II, properly understood. Second, it should enable everyone to see that the spectacular failures within the Church in the first generation or so after the Council are very clearly not the work of the Council, but were merely symptoms of the inability of the Church to renew herself as the Council desired before what we may call the deluge.
And third, it should reveal the proper response to the question Pope Francis raised in that same homily. It is “not really the case,” he asserted, that we are all happy about “the presence of Holy Spirit”, because “there is still that temptation to resist.” And then he asked: “After 50 years, have we done everything the Holy Spirit said to us in the Council?” Some may not have known what he was asking, but that question should not be hard to answer now.
An appeal from our founder, Dr. Jeffrey Mirus:
Dear reader: If you found the information on this page helpful in your pursuit of a better Catholic life, please support our work with a donation. Your donation will help us reach seven million Truth-seeking readers worldwide this year. Thank you!
Progress toward our January expenses ($14,166 to go):
All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!
Posted by: John J Plick -
Apr. 23, 2013 8:07 AM ET USA
The Vatican II documents ARE NOT VAGUE... Basically they are an antithesis of the prescriptionist method, which is really a "watered down" Christianity for laymen. The essence of Christianity has been and will always be "relationship with God..." Like an unconsumated marriage, no relationship, no Christianity. "Rules" either support that, or contradict it. And that is the message of Vatican II.
Posted by: John J Plick -
Apr. 21, 2013 9:11 PM ET USA
If the Church was “not renewed” whose fault was it? The Popes involved, the Council itself, the Bishops, the Cardinals? And was it our prerogative to lie back in “Vatican I” easy-chairs and accept the “renewal” passively? That in itself is a contradiction of Vatican II, which demands, as Francis himself so eloquently put it, a response. Even the protestants, whose term for renewal is “revival” have more sense than that. “We have met the ‘enemy,’ and he is us!”
Posted by: Ray and Ann -
Apr. 21, 2013 12:15 PM ET USA
I concur with the sentiments of "dover beachcomber"; the Vat II documents that I have read contain exceedingly vague language and i believe, have opened the door to many unfortunate misinterpretations. Lots of words, but hardly any illumination.
Posted by: dover beachcomber -
Apr. 20, 2013 12:08 AM ET USA
Perhaps one lesson our bishops can learn from the last 50 years is one made familiar by many public-speaking gurus: "be clear, be brief, be seated." The documents of Vatican II were agonizingly vague and astonishingly verbose, and thus invited the disastrouse misinterpretations that followed. Despite the undoubted inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Council will long stand as one of the most staggeringly inept efforts in Church history.
Posted by: jamesbell431857 -
Apr. 19, 2013 11:47 PM ET USA
Great summary, Jeff! Love it.
Posted by: koinonia -
Apr. 19, 2013 7:26 PM ET USA
"As regards the initiative for the great event which gathers us here, it will suffice to repeat as historical documentation our personal account of the first sudden bringing up in our heart and lips of the simple words, 'Ecumenical Council.' ...It was completely unexpected, like a flash of heavenly light, shedding sweetness in eyes and hearts." (Pope John XXIII in opening speech) This "completely unexpected" inspiration was the impetus for the Council, and Pope John insisted this be understood.