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A funny thing about Vatican II . . .

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 04, 2010

They say a funny thing happened on the way to the forum, and that’s certainly true of the fate of the documents of the Second Vatican Council on their way to the larger forum of the Church in which they were implemented. It wasn’t funny funny, you understand; it was funny peculiar. As an Englishman might say, it was damned peculiar.

This situation calls to mind the tendentious collection of essays by forty Catholic scholars published about 20 years ago under the title of Modern Catholicism: Vatican II and After. In a 1991 review, Piers Paul Read notes the unfailingly Modernist trajectory of the contributors, culminating in this:

Most revealing is a section by F. J. Laishley, head of the department of Christian Doctrine at Heythrop College, on the Council’s ‘Unfinished Business’. With a barrage of intimidating jargon, he appears to advance the theory that the Council fathers did not know what they were really saying and therefore did not mean what they actually said, particularly about such things as celibacy, birth control, the Pope, or the status of the Roman Catholic Church.

Read concludes that “this may be orthodox deconstructionism but it is not even heterodox Catholicism if the word is to have any meaning.” He is right; the intelligentsia took the supposed spirit of Vatican II and twisted it into something that was not so much an ineffective implementation of Catholicism as an effective implementation of something else entirely. That’s as succinct a summary of the damned peculiar thing that happened on the way to the Catholic forum as any I’ve seen.

Today I’m launching an intermittent (and therefore inevitably prolonged) series of commentaries on the individual documents of Vatican II, in which I intend to focus very briefly on their key ideas, illustrating their depth and beauty through select quotes, and highlighting the concepts that have become controversial, especially in light of the peculiar thing that happened to them between their approval by Pope Paul VI and their implementation. They were implemented, of course, by All the Usual Suspects—that is, by the nominally Catholic theologians, bishops, priests and sisters who abandoned the Faith without leaving the Church in the heady days of late 20th century secularization, and who have used their power to take as many unfortunate souls with them as possible. Now is an excellent time to review the documents precesely because the tenure of All the Usual Suspects in the halls of Catholic influence is finally nearing an end as ignominious as it was slow in coming.

Before turning to the individual documents, however, a few general remarks on the misinterpretation of the Council are in order. By far the biggest offenders have been the Modernists, who were extraordinarily excited (one is tempted to use the word “titillated”) by the Council’s fresh openness to Catholic interaction with the larger world after the siege mentality of the previous two or three generations. In their euphoria they really did claim there was a spirit at work in Vatican II that transcended the letter of the documents, which were viewed as but a temporary effusion of that spirit. They were certain that the Church would move down the new path they were so vigorously blazing. When the Church didn’t keep up, they saw it as proof that she was stifling the spirit of the Council. Never has there been so circular an argument.

Notice that I spell this favorite word “spirit” with a lower-case “s”. These neo-Modernists or Secularists (call them what you will) spoke of this spirit as if its first letter were capitalized and its first name was “Holy”. It was indeed a damned peculiar business, and here I am using the word “damned” advisedly.

But there were also some significantly misguided reactions to the Council on the other side, reactions caused only partially by the excesses and errors of the spiritists. Thus some champions of Catholic tradition also began to read certain conciliar texts as if they were breaks from Tradition when, in fact, there was never any need to do so. Having intellectual difficulty reconciling these (relatively few) texts, they fell back on various implausible arguments to the effect that there was so little spirit of any kind at the Council that its decrees and constitutions did not have to be taken seriously—a position emphatically denied by both John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Some have even bemoaned the “vague” language of the conciliar documents, which are actually generally quite clear and even inspiring, simply because that language contrasts with many earlier councils which had identified long series of formal propositions to be condemned. They seemed not to recognized that denouncing what is not true does not take one very far. For example, if the Magisterium condemns the statement that “the Church must conform herself with the modern world”, this anathema teaches us almost nothing about which attitudes, ideas and approaches to contemporary problems the Church may legitimately use, and which she may not. A positive exposition of how the Church ought to engage contemporary culture is far more enlightening—and far more difficult.

Vatican II offered such a positive exposition, and as a result struck a significant blow against the growing tendency of Catholics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to live their Faith prescriptively (obeying rules and fulfilling duties) rather than evangelistically (living the Gospel out of gratitude and love). The proof that this was a huge tendency, if any proof is necessary, can be found in what happened to Catholic life after the rules were relaxed, and after the consequences of breaking them were de-emphasized. While we are still struggling with the resulting chaos, it is also true that the slowly growing number of Catholics today who fully adhere to Church teaching do not live rightly because of rules. No, they live rightly because they love God and understand that the Catholic Church is the key to His Presence in the world.

As we examine the documents of the Second Vatican Council, we shall see that the text of the Council—and therefore its Spirit—almost invariably tends toward this sort of deep and genuine renewal. And in discovering this renewal, we will at last learn what the Council was all about.


Next in series: The English Editions of the Documents of Vatican II

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Show 13 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: koinonia - Feb. 09, 2010 10:49 AM ET USA

    Vatican II is an anomaly. Just one example: a Kan. St. Univ. of Christian history stated in lecture that Vatican II at long last ended the Catholic Church's historical condemnation of the concept of religious liberty. The victory of religious liberty is one of the council's "triumphs." Councils elucidate and define the Faith, they do not contradict. If most people (on both sides of the issue) "misinterpret" it, one must look to the document itself for answers. The damage has been done.

  • Posted by: tim.moore1408 - Feb. 08, 2010 8:10 PM ET USA

    Perhaps an old question from pre-Vatican 2 religion classes (or from those in the pews) would help to sort out rule vs. love. "How late can I come to Mass and how early can I leave and still fulfill my obligation?" reflects a slightly(?) parsimonious view of the Mass. "How far can I go" on a date belies a rather use oriented view of both sex and sexuality. Anyone asking either question would seem to seek "fulfilling" the Law, with no clue what the Law is about.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Feb. 08, 2010 12:27 PM ET USA

    I have unwittingly led sorbonnetoga, and others who responded privately, to think I have no use for rules. Not so! Sorbonnetoga is right that we should follow the rules out of love; the whole point of rules is to lead us to a love for the deeper reality the rules represent. Living the Faith prescriptively means that one's Catholic identity is primarily found in keeping the rules, not in a deep interior commitment to the reality they represent — a common problem, in my opinion, in, say, the 1950s.

  • Posted by: wojo425627 - Feb. 08, 2010 11:32 AM ET USA

    @GymK- You can read the documents of Vatican II right off of the Vatican website. Or I think they are also here on Catholic culture's site in the library.

  • Posted by: dannac - Feb. 06, 2010 2:11 PM ET USA

    Tremendously important work, Mr. Mirus. Thank you for taking it on.

  • Posted by: sorbonnetoga - Feb. 06, 2010 8:57 AM ET USA

    Am I the only person seeing a false dichotomy in Jeff Mirus' otherwise excellent summary? The problem is neither rules nor love but a false over-emphasis on one at the cost of the other. We need rules, simple manageable guides as to how to live well which we follow because we are motivated by love. There are, as ever, equal & opposite dangers and as ever, in medio virtus stat.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Feb. 05, 2010 9:09 PM ET USA

    To respond to GymK's question about translations, no two translations will ever be the same, and there have indeed been quarrels over the quality of the translations of Vatican II, but this is hardly unique. It is a common (and inevitable) issue in different renderings of Latin originals throughout Church history. In close questions regarding disputed texts, one must refer directly to the Latin as a benchmark for the discussion. Fortunately, there are very few passages in need of that level of scrutiny.

  • Posted by: spledant7672 - Feb. 05, 2010 7:32 PM ET USA

    Thank you for this concise description. I found the book, Ratzinger's Faith: the theology of Pope Benedict XVI by Tracey Rowland (which I learned about from CatholicCulture.org) especially good in faithfully sorting through this history.

  • Posted by: - Feb. 05, 2010 7:20 PM ET USA

    Your reference to the similarity of the "spirit" of Vatican II and the Holy Spirit raises the question: when - and why - did we Catholics decide to abandon the nomenclature used by our Saxon forebears, Anglo-Catholic brothers and Germanic co-religionists - the Holy Ghost?

  • Posted by: Steve214 - Feb. 05, 2010 6:50 PM ET USA

    It is all well and good to rail against the "usual suspects", but the changes in the Church were overseen by the bishops in communion with the Pope. The Church is reformed by saints, not Councils: Councils define doctrine, or they do not work at all most of the time. The importance of keeping in mind sin and hell is from Christ: the decision to de-emphasize that violated His example: He knew that we needed to BOTH love and to abhor sin & hell. It's not either/or as we have come to believe.

  • Posted by: GymK - Feb. 05, 2010 5:39 PM ET USA

    I look forward to your essays on Vat II. One thing that might help the readers is an accurate translation of the documents. If I am correct, there have only been two translations widely published and they contradidict each other throughout. Which translation/publication do you use and recommend for accuracy, and a true understanding of the Council, as you write the essays? Do you anticipate a new translation will be published in the near future?

  • Posted by: sparch - Feb. 05, 2010 10:32 AM ET USA

    I too am looking forward to the upcoming essays. Any kind of historical insights that show how the liberal views came to be shaped would be helpful as well. I know some of the cultural pressures of the late fifties and sixties and early seventies that led people to look for the church conforming to the existing culture. Any insights you might offer would be enlightening

  • Posted by: dqualk - Feb. 04, 2010 7:59 PM ET USA

    I'm very excited for the upcoming essays on Vatican II. The only thing that bothers me more than our conservative brothers denouncing Vatican II, like SSPX, is when people treat the SSPX like they are in some grave moral error, and are excessively condeming towards them, while there are "catholics" claiming things that are contrary to our faith, like claiming homosexuality is not a sin, but their "suggestions" are seen as honest discussion.

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