Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Afterword: The Mythology and the Reality of Vatican II

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 20, 2010 | In On the Documents of Vatican II

I began our survey of the documents of Vatican II (starting with A Funny Thing about Vatican II) because it seemed to me that the Church was just now becoming capable of responding to them as the Council Fathers would have wished. The period between the closing of the Council in 1965 and 1985 was marked by a wholesale distortion of the Council’s message by the Modernist intelligentsia, which had an overwhelming influence over the Church in the West. The battle for the meaning of the Council commenced during the pontificate of John Paul II and gathered critical mass at the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops he called in Rome in 1985. Since that time, there has been a painfully slow but more or less steady attempt to “reform the reform.” The current pope has described this in terms of applying a hermeneutic of continuity to the Council instead of a false hermeneutic of rupture.

The Modernists rightly saw from the first that the Council emphasized collegiality among the pope and the bishops, that it called the laity to assume a more mature role in the Church, that it encouraged Catholics to engage the modern world in a way that demonstrates how Christ and the Church provide the deepest answers to all legitimate human aspirations, and that it saw a great need for renewal of just about everything: spirituality, culture, scholarship, socio-economic life, politics, liturgy.

Knowledgeable observers interpreted these things (rightly) as evidence that the Council Fathers believed the Church was losing the battle for souls partly because of her own contemporary weaknesses, specifically her own tendencies to be authoritarian, isolated, condemnatory and self-satisfied—the all-too-human tendency to proceed by formula and by rote. The Council called every rank—indeed every person—in the Church to go deeper, and to respond proactively to the challenges of contemporary culture with a keen personal sense of the power and wisdom of Christ.

But after a little experience in the conciliar sessions, it also became clear to the Modernists that what they really wanted was not going to be enunciated in the documents. The Council was calling for renewal; it was not attempting to remake the Church in the Modernist image. The Fathers were not abandoning the sacred hierarchy for democracy, jettisoning tradition in favor of modernity, exchanging doctrine for fashionable cultural ideas, or substituting the signs of the times for the authority of Christ and His vicar.

Faced with this (to them inexplicable) intransigence the Modernists developed a mythology of the Council. Beginning with the earliest press reports, they misreported what the Council was calling for and, when checked against the letter of the texts, they proposed that their interpretation was either what the Fathers really wanted (but were afraid to say) or that their interpretation was the undoubted goal of a process the Fathers had set in motion. Thus they justified their own program not by the letter but by the so-called “spirit of Vatican II.”

The Traditionalists (the term here refers to those who make an “ism” out of tradition, applying their own version of it against the living authority of the Church) also saw the real trajectory of the Council, but they seldom agreed that the flaws the Council saw in the contemporary Church were really flaws at all. In general, they liked the authoritarian tendencies of early 20th century churchmen, they were satisfied with the ecclesiastical tendency to keep modern culture at a distance and to condemn its shortcomings from the heights, they were comfortable with a certain degree of clericalism, and above all they tended to view the Tridentine Mass as very close to perfect and irreformable. They also thought the Council was taking the wrong tack in emphasizing ecumenism, the possibility of salvation for non-Catholics, and the role of religious liberty in man’s effort to know and follow God. The Traditionalists even believed (wrongly) that the Council had contradicted earlier infallible teaching in some of these matters.

Imagine their horror, then, at what followed. The Western Catholic intelligentsia at the time of the Council was already more or less secretly modernist, and the cultural shift toward secularization in the 1960’s enabled them to garner enthusiastic support by becoming openly so. It also turned out that the bishops in the West had been too much formed by this intelligentsia, and were far too willing to put all of the committees, commissions, consultative bodies, faculties, and programs—advocated by the Council to assist in an authentic renewal–into their tendentious hands. At the same time, Western culture generally denigrated any sort of discipline. Thus the vast majority of ecclesiastical developments in the West took on a distinctively Modernist slant.

To explain this, the Traditionalists promulgated a mythology of their own. Vatican II, they said, was directly responsible for this problem (the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy). Then, when faced like the Modernists with contrary evidence from the texts, they modified the myth to suggest that at the very least Vatican II, in calling for a positive and outreaching renewal when the Church was so weak, was really a colossal exercise in naïveté.

Alas, even good seed often falls on stony ground or among thorns, as evidenced by the fact that both sides are still saying that they are right. But both sides are also shrinking as an increasing number of Western bishops, priests and theologians have been inching forward over the past twenty-five years in accordance with the papal effort to recover the meaning of the Council.

Meanwhile, it is only fair to say a word about an unfortunately large number of Catholics who have not responded to Vatican II on any level. If left alone, they would have no particular ideological axe to grind. Modernists are hell-bent for spiritual destruction. Traditionalists have their own blind spots, but at least they try very hard to take God seriously in a hostile universe. But what of all those who have failed to enter into the renewal called for by the Council out of sheer spiritual laziness? They followed the rules in the 50’s when living prescriptively was the norm, and they became hostile to Magisterial authority in the 70’s when hostility was all the fashion—dull sheep who always follow the most convenient voice without any serious reflection on its message.

So here we have an ecumenical council—a universal assembly of the bishops of the entire world whose collective acts are promulgated by the successor of St. Peter himself—and I am very much convinced that we need to stop arguing about it based on the myths of the opposing camps and instead study and take to heart what the Council actually said. The summaries of the sixteen documents in our series were designed to make it easy to do just that, to see that the Council had a great many important things to say about the Church, her need for renewal, and her action in the modern world.

It should surprise nobody that these summaries, relying heavily on the actual text, do not much resemble what many others have said about the Council. But they will have served an admirable purpose if they help readers to understand why Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have worked so hard to recover the authentic meaning of the Second Vatican Council, and—at long last—to see it implemented in the Church of Christ.

Previous in series: Vatican II on the Church and the World: Special Problems

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: bsp1022 - Oct. 22, 2010 7:54 PM ET USA

    Bravo, Dr. Mirus. I'll keep an eagle eye out for the ebook. The whole Vatican II thing does remind me, just a bit, of John Godfrey Saxe's famous poem "The Blind Men and the Elephant." To wit [final stanza]: "So oft in Theologic wars; The disputants, I ween; Rail on in utter ignorance; Of what each other mean; And prate about an Elephant; Not one of them has seen". God bless.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 21, 2010 2:40 PM ET USA

    Brilliant. Common sensical. Moderate. Truthful. In keeping with the teachings of the last two Pontiffs (and for that matter, their predecessors). Why is this so difficult? Shall we try the same approach when referring to societal and political issues? Moderate. truthful. Charitable, even? We can start with ditching politically-charged terms. Basically, no nicknames that Olbermann or Beck would use.