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Drinking the Kool Aid on Vatican II

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 15, 2010

Some of the responses I’ve received to my ongoing review of the documents of the Second Vatican Council have reminded me of the remarkable shallowness with which Vatican II has been received on all sides of the spectrum. The amount of Kool Aid of the Vatican II flavor that continues to be consumed in the Western Church is staggering. This column is for all those who are still sipping such poorly flavored sugar-water. What I have to say may make some readers very angry. In fact, I rather hope it does.

I’ll begin with just one caveat. It is one of the difficulties of an organization like Trinity Communications that its work is often read and sometimes pondered by Catholics who tend to reject or distrust Vatican II based primarily on what has come after it. But our work is seldom read, and certainly never pondered, by those who have falsely used Vatican II to cause what has come after it. What has come after the Council, at least to a considerable extent in the West, is a remaking of the Church in the image of those who have falsely appropriated the Council for their own purposes, an image of Modernism or “Catholic secularism”. I say this is a difficulty faced by Trinity Communications because it means that people like me sometimes end up yelling at conservative Catholics whose beliefs and attitudes are very close to our own. At the same time, I may seem temporarily to ignore those who have done their best to wreck the late 20th century Church in the West.

But sometimes yelling is in order, and my yelling today recognizes and even presupposes all the harm the Modernist-secularists have done. The flea I want to put in the “conservative” Catholic ear is that those who distrust Vatican II should be ashamed of themselves for having drunk the Modernist Kool Aid. My thesis is that precisely because the Modernists have been so successful in ascribing their diabolical influence on the Church to Vatican II, some conservative Catholics actually believe this must be true. They believe or at least seriously suspect that there must have been something fundamentally wrong with the Second Vatican Council.

Never was there a clearer case of Kool Aid poisoning. The Second Vatican Council was an ecumenical council of all the bishops of the world in union with the Pope, the largest ecumenical council in the history of the Church. Therefore, the presumption—no, the certainty—is that the Council was the setting for a remarkable outpouring of the Holy Spirit, giving rise ultimately to decisions which were guided by the Holy Spirit for the good of the Church.

I don’t mean to claim that every bit of pastoral advice enshrined in the Council documents must infallibly work out to the benefit of everyone in the Church throughout the world. That depends on too many variables, and on the unwillingness of huge numbers of people to be docile to the Holy Spirit, as by now we have certainly seen. Nor do I mean to claim that all of the Council fathers were above seeking to insert phrases into the text which resonated with their own pet theories, the easier to trot them out later for their own programs. Such textual tugs of war, both open and cleverly hidden, have gone on at every council. Not infrequently do they muddy the waters of interpretation here and there. Indeed, gratuitous interpretations are most easily avoided by the application of what Pope Benedict has described as a hermeneutic of continuity. This too applies to all Magisterial documents in all ages.

But I do mean to say that the influence of the Holy Spirit is not limited to infallible definitions. As Catholics, we are obliged to believe and trust that the pastoral advice of an ecumenical council is sound advice for the times—certainly far sounder than our own little ideas about what we’d like to see done.

I beg you to hold this thought, because if you can’t hold it, you’re essentially a Protestant, and you’ve developed an unfortunate fondness for private judgment. And while you’re holding it, I’d like to debunk a few myths about Vatican II which will make it easier for you to hold it in the future. For reasons of space, I’ll debunk just three of these myths today.

Myth One: Things Were Fine Until the Council

Vatican II is consistently bashed by those who are most ignorant of cultural history, and especially those unacquainted with the nature and history of Catholic academia in the 20th century. Such persons cling to the myth that the explosion of Modernist secularism in the Church was a direct result of the Council’s proposals. Even chronologically, this myth is incomparably ludicrous. The rapidity of change was far beyond the possibility of the Council to produce. Instead, the explosion of Modernist secularism in the Church was a direct result of an abrupt public secularization of Western culture at the same time as the Council, which had the effect of removing the leash from an already largely Modernist Catholic academic world, which had been more or less steadily rotting from within for the previous seventy-five years.

This is why literally thousands of Catholic scholars went from publishing the expected orthodox works to publishing heterodox works all at once, in the first few years after the Council closed; it is why priests poured out of the seminaries immediately espousing ideas that they weren’t permitted to repeat in public before; it is why whole religious orders went bad overnight; it is why the majority of theologians, including Paul VI’s own theological commission, advocated a change in the Church’s teaching on contraception immediately following the close of the Council; and it is why most Western Catholic journals (and not a few major publishing houses) became Modernist rags in a matter of months. All of this was waiting to happen; it was a cultural shift in what was publicly acceptable that finally enabled these largely-hidden things to begin to dominate public discourse. Those who had been waiting for the public mood to favor them showed their true colors as soon as it became fashionable to do so.

A friend recently reminded me of a particularly telling example of the process I have just identified. Those watching the world of Church architecture (which is less easy to prove “wrong” than the written word) were actually able to observe in Church buildings the same dark processes which had been more secretly at work in Catholic universities and theological schools throughout the first half of the twentieth century. To quote Duncan Stroik, professor of Architecture at Notre Dame, “Current church architecture is not merely the child of modern theology, it is also a child of the ‘masters’ of Modernism: Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Alvar Aalto, Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright and others. The Church willingly accepted and even adopted the architecture of the secular realm for its sacred buildings” forty or fifty years before the Council convened—well before (dare I say it) the change in the liturgy.

The plain fact of history is that the intellectual classes in the West had already long since gone secular, which means that the intellectual classes in the Western Church, hoping to retain their respectability, had already long since gone Modernist to keep up. Only a thin wall of propriety and sobriety kept this from infecting the total culture in the post-war years of the late 1940’s and 1950’s (look back to the inter-war period, especially the 1920’s, and you’ll see it affecting the larger culture very clearly, but it was forced underground again in more sobering times of depression and war). Once the cultural and sexual revolution of the 1960’s made it at last broadly popular to express the forbidden views of academe—very popular indeed, especially among those dreary step-children of academe, the mass media—the cat fairly leapt out of the bag.

Our ordinary daily world changed almost overnight. The Catholic intelligentsia were already poised to take the Church right along with the world. Note that all the traditions of the Church, whether human or Divine—including the Tridentine rite itself—had failed to restrain them in the least.

Myth Two: The Entire Church Has Been Ruined by Vatican II

This one is quicker. If you are already sensing the problem with the phrase “by Vatican II” in this heading, you’re probably beginning to realize how bad Kool Aid tastes. It truly is a drink for children, who have little or no discernment. Perhaps you’ll spew it out of your mouth when you also consider that in those regions of the world in which the documents of the Second Vatican Council have been actually taken seriously in their reality rather than as a Modernist media myth, the Church (priests and sisters and laity) is growing stronger and more numerous by leaps and bounds. The best example of this is Africa, but it is also true of significant sectors of Asia and even some areas of Latin America—the regions generally known as the global south. Many areas of Eastern Europe have also largely been spared the Modernist onslaught, with significantly improved results. The debilitating revolution within the Church has taken place primarily in the West, where the Church is simply mirroring the vain and catastrophic collapse of the surrounding culture (except that she is, as always, far better than the surrounding culture—and, in fact, she is slowly righting herself, as the culture is not). Worldwide, the Church is both growing and growing stronger as a whole. But like the Modernists, we Westerners tend to discount the importance of anything outside our enlightened European consciousness.

Myth Three: The Council Documents Do Not Need to be Followed Because . . .

You’ve read the subtitle. Now, because why? Because the Council was primarily called for the pastoral purpose of giving guidance on renewal, and such guidance is not delivered in infallible propositions? Or because the Council didn’t intend to define anything new (the Church, by the way, never defines anything new)? On this reading, either the Council didn’t intend to teach anything (and what looks like teaching is a slip of the pen) or, when it did teach, it was unprotected by the Holy Spirit, so that it could teach falsehood.

Or is it possible that the Council documents need not be followed because they are “vague”, or because the Council foresaw that many details of the renewal for which it called would have to be worked out by others in various committees and commissions over time? Amazingly, the Council is accused by the Right of vagueness and irresponsible experimentation because it gave guidelines for renewal and called upon all Catholics to bestir themselves to fill in the particulars according to their vocations and offices. (In truth this sounds like offering sound principles for forming Catholic culture while at the same time understanding that the details will have to be worked out through the application of these principles by countless men and women, in countless varying situations, over time.)

Does anyone seriously believe that a council of some 2,500 bishops could have worked out all the details of the liturgical renewal as a sort of committee of the whole? Could a council of 2,500 bishops, meeting once and for all over a three-year period, have spelled out a detailed response to every step of future ecumenical discussions? Do guidelines for renewal admit of the same kind of meticulously clear and comprehensive formulation as doctrinal definitions? Is there something fundamentally (and suspiciously!) wrong with clearly enunciating goals and guidelines and then telling the Church to get on with the job? Is it now the Church’s fault if we do not follow her advice?

Do some actually believe that it is just as easy to state comprehensively what is right, and to articulate a detailed, locked down, step-by-step program for the next hundred years, as it is to condemn a doctrinal or moral error? But in truth I am engaging in a largely rhetorical exercise. To raise any of these questions is to answer them.

Strong Evidence of the Holy Spirit

If you read the documents of Vatican II without Kool Aid swishing around your tongue, you’ll begin to taste and see the goodness of the Lord. In particular, you’ll see in a moment that what has happened in the Church in the West is something very unlike what the Council called for. But it is even more striking than that. In fact, what happened in the West is that the vast majority of bishops immediately abandoned the principles of the Council under the onslaught of a simultaneous cultural shift, particularly the intense public shift in the stance of Catholic academia (which was already largely rotten) and the mass media. Thus these bishops (and their successors, who were already being trained to do so) ended up accommodating and even facilitating a whole series of changes, doctrines, and spiritual failures which at every stage contradicted not only the guidelines issued by the Council in its pastoral mission but most of the positive teachings of the Council on such things as the nature and authority of the Church, the roles of priests and laity, the purpose and power of the liturgy, the impetus and value of missionary work—the list goes on.

Note carefully what this means. I am saying that, as far at least as Westerners go, the selfsame body of men who approved a clear set of ideas and recommendations in the Council documents actually immediately went off and did something else entirely. Under what could only be regarded by any of the Church’s martyrs as the slightest of cultural pressures, a large body of bishops and leaders of religious orders abandoned both the letter and the vision of the Council in favor of accommodation to secularism, Modernism, banality and trivia.

“Aha!” you say? “We see what sort of men made the Council, and can now explain why it was so inevitably bad!” Sorry, no, this is the ultimate Kool Aid. Indeed, we do see what sort of men made the Council. But this forces us to an exactly opposite conclusion. For in seeing their weakness and comparing it with the Council documents themselves, we are struck immediately, as in a vision, by how decisively the Holy Spirit worked at Vatican II. Given the men who made the Council’s decisions, it is impossible to explain the beauty, strength and even clarity of the Council’s documents in any other way. By the way, this can be said with considerable justice of every ecumenical council in the Church’s history.

This is why, when you read the remarks of Pope John Paul II or Benedict XVI on Vatican II over the past thirty-plus years, you’ll hear them again and again stating that the Council must be accepted, but the reform must be reformed. This is because the Holy Spirit was behind the work of the ecumenical council that met at the Vatican from 1962 to 1965, but, once untethered from the Spirit’s control, the mere men who had once been Council Fathers chose, again and again, to run and hide from the Holy Spirit’s work.

Now, in case the dubious reader has not gotten my point, let me say it very plainly. Indeed, I pray God that I may never need to say it again. We must stop drawing our understanding of Vatican II from the Modernist media blitz. If you are blaming the Council documents in any way for the temporary triumph of Modernism in the West, you are still drinking the Kool Aid. You are also part of the problem, not part of the solution. In fact, you are resisting the Holy Spirit’s course for the authentic renewal of the Church.



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: koinonia - Feb. 26, 2010 11:58 AM ET USA

    Far be it from us to disparage any one of this site's fine contributors as an "old-timer." Nonetheless, if Vatican II cannot be considered an historical catalyst, there is absolutely no such thing. It is certainly a fascinating albeit troublesome time to be a Catholic, and the recent dramatic pastoral decisions of Pope Benedict XVI are not likely to result in any "breaks" from discussion any time soon.

  • Posted by: - Feb. 20, 2010 9:16 PM ET USA

    Boomers seem fascinated with "their" Council in the same way they are fascinated with "their" war (Vietnam). Since it happened to them, it is the most important event ever in the history of everything and the rest of us are expected to listen with rapt attention as they go on and on and on about it the way old-timers will. Give it a break. It's a Council just like the rest, no more, no less.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Feb. 19, 2010 12:17 PM ET USA

    The situation since Vatican II has resulted in a fundamentally problematic mess for lack of a better term. Certainly the origins were extant long beforehand, but even the the Holy Father admitted that the "smoke of Satan" had entered in. Remarkable. Nonetheless, the turmoil alone, this very discussion even, is an indictment of the fruits. Pope Benedict XVI has done an astonishing job to date of "owning" the problem, and is exeplifies the work of the Holy Spirit in the Vicar of Christ.

  • Posted by: Don Vicente - Feb. 17, 2010 9:09 PM ET USA

    Dr. Mirus is right about the Modernist Kool-Aid test. 40 years ago, I knew a very orthodox young monk in a monastery with the Latin Office, etc. He is now an Archbishop from the society of St. Pius V. (St. Pius X isn't right-wing enough: gotta be St. Pius V.) Asking him where his turning point came, the future Archbishop told me that it was when he became convinced that the Modernists had been right all along: the post-Conciliar nonsense was what the Council REALLY wanted in the first place...

  • Posted by: wojo425627 - Feb. 17, 2010 3:17 PM ET USA

    I have found it very helpful to read Father Most's writings and commentaries. His writings encompass all of Catholic Teaching and I am constantly referring to his footnotes which reference Vatican II and all previous councils as well as the writings of the Popes as well as Scripture. No one could do better than to read his works. They are true to teachings of the Church. Thanks Catholicculture for preserving them.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Feb. 17, 2010 9:00 AM ET USA

    On a number of occasions I have had to defend VII. Most people are only aware of what they see locally and are loath to inform themselves of what was called for in VII. I was discussing this with a number of deacons and stated that many of the troubles we now face are the result of poor leadership from Bishops, priests, deacons and influential lay. I was shocked when these deacons shouted me down. Just curious. Is there a listing of leaders that bear the blame for the Modernist cult?

  • Posted by: extremeCatholic - Feb. 17, 2010 12:04 AM ET USA

    Just as the "commerce clause" unleashed the federal government to intrude into all aspects of life in the US, a few words and phrases from V-II like "subsists in" and "active participation" allowed that Modernist "blitz" to have all of the momentum of the 60's, 70's and 80's. I would attribute the new sense of reform to two sources: the Holy Spirit acting in the Church today, and to the mortality of the Modernists and their spiritual and intellectual infertility.

  • Posted by: Justin8110 - Feb. 16, 2010 6:31 PM ET USA

    You're right in some ways; the documents themselves weren't bad but the way they have been interpreted is making Catholicism seem about as trite and dead as Protestantism. Many times I've contemplated becoming Greek Orthodox because, quite frankly, they haven't fallen apart and thrown out tradition and reverence the way the Church has. Personally I get nothing out of the watered down homilies, poor Liturgy or endless focus on ecumenism and novelty that has plagued the Church yet I remain in her.

  • Posted by: jjen009 - Feb. 15, 2010 8:33 PM ET USA

    It has been for me a wonderful fact that I came to the Church through a study of history. A broad scope is necessary if one is not to become trapped in Church whose beginnings really go back not much before World War II. In the Protestantism from which I came to become a Catholic, a kind of idolisation of the 1950s had a similar effect. But as one who lived through the 1950s, I know that it was them that produced the revolution of the 1960s.