Let’s stop pretending: something DID go wrong after Vatican II

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Aug 23, 2017

Something went wrong—seriously wrong—in the Catholic Church in the years after Vatican II. Can we all agree on that much? Leave aside, for now, the familiar debate about the causes of the problem; let’s begin with the agreement that there is, or at least certainly was, a problem.

Eric Sammons makes the point in a provocative essay that appeared in Crisis last week:

If an entirely objective social scientist were to study the Catholic Church in the second half of the twentieth century, he would see one fact staring him straight in the face: the Church experienced a precipitous decline in the Western world during that time.

The problem (whatever it is) is compounded, Sammons remarks, by a general refusal to acknowledge the reality of our post-conciliar difficulties: what he terms a “soft censorship” of unpleasant news. Bishops and pastors, diocesan newspapers and parish bulletins have bombarded us for years with reports that the Church is “vibrant,” that programs are booming, that the liturgy is beautiful, that religious education is robust. Never is heard a discouraging word. Yet we know better. We know about the shortage of priests; we see the news of parish closing; we notice the empty pews on Sundays. Something is wrong; we know that.

Sammons argues persuasively that this “soft censorship,” this see-no-evil approach, is now an impediment to evangelization, because it thwarts serious discussions about the current state of the Church. Evangelization means bringing people to the truth, he reasons, and that process “cannot thrive in a censored environment.”

In another excellent essay, which had appeared a week earlier in First Things, the German author Martin Mosebach explored the catastrophic confusion and disorientation that visited the Church in the years after Vatican II, as the lives of ordinary parishes were disrupted by radical theological views and liturgical experiments. He notes:

To be fair, we should remember that the popes attempted to counter this—with a weak voice and above all without the will to intervene in these aberrations with an organizing hand as the ruler of the Church. Only a very few individual heresiarchs were disciplined—those who with their arrogant insolence practically forced their own reprimand. But the great mass of the “new-Pentecostals,” unrestrained and protected by widespread networks, could continue to exercise a tremendous influence on the day-to-day life of the Church. So, for outside observers, the claim that with Vatican II the Church had broken with her past became ever more probable.

Both Sammons and Mosebach see three standard interpretations of Vatican II:

  • The “liberal” or “progressive” interpretation sees the Council as a decisive break with Catholic tradition, and welcomes it. Citing the “spirit of Vatican II,” proponents of this interpretation have implemented radical changes in the Church, and push for more.
  • The “official” interpretation sees Vatican II as a great success, and denies that any serious problems arose in the Council’s aftermath. There was some understandable friction as changes were implemented, the partisans of this theory will concede. But ultimately the changes are proving successful and all is well.
  • The “conservative” or “orthodox” interpretation cherishes the documents of Vatican II, but believes the implementation of the Council was generally hijacked by the “progressive” party within the Church. If only we would adhere to the true teachings of the Council, this party says, the Church would thrive once again.

According to this “conservative” or “orthodox” interpretation, the hijacking of the Council created the incorrect impression that the Church had repudiated past teachings. My favorite quick exposition of this view was made by Philip Trower in his excellent book, Turmoil and Truth, in which he formed a vivid image to explain what happened:

Six men are pushing a heavily loaded car which has run out of fuel. Three of them, who have been riding in the car, want to push it 20 yards to get it into a lay-by. The other three, who have offered to help, mean to push the car 50 yards and shove it over a cliff followed by the car owner and his two friends. Once the pushing begins and the car starts moving it is probable the car is going to come to rest more than 20 yards from the starting point even if it does not end up at the cliff’s foot.

Now let us imagine what a group of people watching from a nearby hilltop will make of the incident. They will start by assuming that all six men have the same intentions. The car is moving steadily forward. Then they see three of the men detach themselves from the back of the car, run around to the front and try to stop it. Which are the troublemakers? Those surely who are now opposing the process that has been started.

The “liberal” interpretation is obviously wrong, because it ignores both the content of the Council’s teaching and the truth of Catholic history. As Pope Benedict XVI took pains to explain, the work of the Council must be understood in the context of the Church’s constant teaching. Only a “hermeneutic of continuity” can ensure a proper understanding. The Council was not a break with previous Church teaching; the Church, by her very nature, cannot break with her own past. To suggest that previous teachings were wrong, and only now are we getting things right, is to deny that the Church is and always has been guided by the Holy Spirit.

The “official” interpretation is also obviously wrong, because it ignores the reality that—despite the censorship exercised by house organs—we see all too clearly around us. The life of the Catholic Church is, sadly, not vigorous. Congregations are shrinking; young people are leaving. Yes, there are success stories; the Spirit has not abandoned the Church. But the overall trend-lines, which veered so steeply downward through the latter half of the 20th century, are still not encouraging.

But what about the “conservative” interpretation? Is it persuasive? Can it be reconciled with the facts? Sammons and Mosebach argue that the time has come for a frank—that is, uncensored—discussion of these questions.

Did the problems that arose after Vatican II come solely because the Council’s teachings were ignored, or improperly applied? Or were there difficulties with the documents themselves? Were there enough ambiguities in the Council’s teaching to create confusion? If so, were the ambiguities intentional—the result of compromises by the Council fathers?

Suggesting that there could be difficulties with some Vatican II documents does not mean denying the authority of the Council’s teaching. No document drafted by human hands will ever be perfect. There may be a need for clarification, elucidation, explanation, even correction.

More to the point, while it is certainly true that the “spirit of Vatican II” that is often cited in support of radical changes cannot be reconciled with the actual teachings of the Council, it is also true that the proponents of change can cite specific passages from Council documents in support of their plans. So are those passages being misinterpreted. Are they taken out of context? Or are there troublesome elements of the Council’s teaching, with which we should now grapple honestly? One thing is certain: we will not solve the problem by pretending that it does not exist.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

Sound Off! CatholicCulture.org supporters weigh in.

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!

Show 11 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Retired01 - Aug. 27, 2017 11:33 AM ET USA

    Amen! Moreover, a logical consequence of the "Spirit of Vatican II" is Pope Francis. See the following article for a logical consequence of his Amoris Laetitia.https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/3945601/How-Amoris-Could-Destroy-All-Catholic-Morality.pdf

  • Posted by: Jim.K - Aug. 24, 2017 5:43 PM ET USA

    If your house is being flooded or is on fire is NOT the time to look for cause or place blame (bad weather, poor forest management) nor is it helpful to engage in handwringing. It is time for action! What are Church leaders doing to address our dismal situation? What can I do? Many have supported VII, while opposing the "spirit of VII," for 50 years without success. "The sky is falling" & "woe is me" are not productive, nor is leaving the One, True Church! Forget the past. What can we do now?

  • Posted by: filioque - Aug. 24, 2017 12:52 PM ET USA

    Excellent article. Back in the early '80s I complained to my pastor that the Council did not seem to be producing much in the way of good effects. Everything I saw was not an improvement. He tried to reassure me by saying that it takes 50 years for the fruits of a Council to be seen. Well, here we are! Right on time. What a mess.

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Aug. 24, 2017 12:47 PM ET USA

    There are "breaths of fresh air" and "calling a spade a spade" and etc. and etc. But this fantastic analysis is way beyond. Bravo! Well done. It will take an enormous amount of time and energy to straighten this all out or God might choose to act more expeditiously.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Aug. 24, 2017 12:25 PM ET USA

    In the past year, so many startling things have transpired. I've seen several things I thought not possible. Donald Trump is the President of the United States of America, a rocket has taken off, gone into space and then returned successfully to the launch pad, landing in reverse. And now this essay. I cannot say which of those 3 is most astonishing. But I believe this essay in this place might possibly be the most important.

  • Posted by: Comares - Aug. 24, 2017 4:05 AM ET USA

    I am delighted that for once that I find a balanced article on this site. Too often there is bias that does the site a did-service. Well done.

  • Posted by: WBSM - Aug. 24, 2017 3:56 AM ET USA

    Yes, there were/are some problems in the Church today that arose from a defective interpretation of the council. But you can't blame all the Church's problems on Vatican II aftermath. Just one example is the decline of vocations which began in the 1940's and not after the council. Some people think if the council hadn't taken place everything would be hunky-dory. They are plain wrong. To get a fuller picture we need to see other causes and the coucil's mitigating their effects as well.

  • Posted by: iprayiam5731 - Aug. 23, 2017 11:09 PM ET USA

    Excellent article, but in very important thing not mentioned: external factors. We have to weigh them as well. Is it possible that some of the same cultural issues that spurred V2 have caused the decline of Church life?

  • Posted by: Scapular - Aug. 23, 2017 10:05 PM ET USA

    JMJ If I coulud witness what Our Lord termed "the fruits" of Vatican II I would know VII was of God. I send my children to the local Catholic School they were scandalised by the Assumption Mass, I have forbiden them from attending another school mass until Father can work within the NO rubrics. Rubrics I reckon you could drive a bus through anyway! Only 12% of Children from the Catholic School keep the precepts of the Church. Howmany % will once they leave?

  • Posted by: Lucius49 - Aug. 23, 2017 7:38 PM ET USA

    Yes an excellent and provocative essay. In discussions with other Catholics we nicknamed the "everything is great" narrative Home On the Ranger theology: Where never is heard a discouraging word and the skies are not cloudy all day.

  • Posted by: polish.pinecone4371 - Aug. 23, 2017 6:27 PM ET USA

    There are those who hold that last position, Phil, and they're known as members of the SSPX. Granted, they're not quite saying it in the kind, nuanced and genteel way you are, but that's essentially their argument when it comes to Dignitatis humanae and Nostra aetate. And you know where that got them.