Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Pope Francis: Tough Talk about Vatican II

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 17, 2013

Pope Francis had some strong words to say today about those who resist, twist, or ignore the impetus of the Second Vatican Council, which he described as “a beautiful work of the Holy Spirit”. What does this mean for us?

The first thing to note is that the Pope’s remarks apply to all of us. We all tend to resist the work of the Holy Spirit; we all tend to try to remain within our comfort zones. Pope Francis was preaching on St. Stephen’s words before his martyrdom: “You stiff-necked people…you always resist the Holy Spirit.” One way or another, we are all guilty of such resistance.

The second thing to note is the Pope’s references to two of Our Lord’s own criticisms, which seem to identify two levels of resistance to the Holy Spirit. Our Lord rebuked his disciples on the road to Emmaus: “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (Lk 24:25). And he rebuked the scribes and Pharisees generally, saying:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you witness against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? (Mt 23:29-33)

We can guess from these references that Pope Francis sees in the Church two levels of obstruction of the action of the Holy Spirit in our own day, just as Our Lord did in His day. At the first level, again, are essentially all of those who seek to follow Christ, for we are ever slower than we should be to grasp and respond wholeheartedly to the will of God. And to take the Pope's particular example, this slowness includes a failure to respond as promptly and energetically as we should to the work of the Holy Spirit as manifested through the Second Vatican Council. We are dulled by our attachments, we fail to trust Christ completely, we do not wish to be moved by the Holy Spirit in new and surprising ways. Yet we are all obliged to make spiritual progress as rapidly as possible, and so to take the Council’s message for the Church in our times to heart.

Those at the second level, as the harshness of Our Lord’s language attests, are in a far more serious sort of opposition. Once again taking the Pope's central example, on this level we have all those who positively set themselves against the Holy Spirit's work through the acts of the Council. This can only refer to those who actually impede authentic Catholic renewal by denying the validity or appropriateness of the Conciliar texts.

On the one hand, we have all those who claim the Catholic name but prefer to alter its meaning to fit into the dominant secular culture. These assert that the Council was a wonderful revolutionary affair which changed Catholic teachings in light of mature modern insights, even though the alleged changes are contrary to what the documents actually say. In theological terms, these are the Modernists, aided and abetted by the lukewarm, who always use theology for their own convenience. For a time, they actually hijacked the legacy of the Council throughout much of the Church, making it very difficult for the renewal which Pope John XXIII envisioned to gather steam. Their power, praise God, is rapidly dwindling now.

On the other hand, we have those who claim to be more Catholic than pope or council. They agree that the Council was indeed a revolution, but a calamitous and ultimately illegitimate one. They argue that the Conciliar acts are replete with a combination of error, imprudence and vagueness which makes them positively harmful, and not at all a fitting inspiration for legitimate Catholic development. Often calling themselves Traditionalists, these almost literally stand on ceremony, ossifying the Church’s pre-Vatican II culture in accordance with their own comfortable piety.

Just as the Modernists ignore the Magisterium as a relic of the past, replacing it with the spirit of the current age, the Traditionalists ignore the contemporary Magisterium, replacing it with the spirit of some previous age. But please note that these descriptions are not perfect, and that one can have a fairly liberal or a fairly conservative outlook without really crossing the line into either camp. If we agree that the actual Conciliar texts are a great gift of the Holy Spirit for authentic Catholic renewal, it is safe to say we are in neither group. But in any case, the Pope rebukes both groups, insisting that the Council was a wholly legitimate and continuous growth or development of the Church, which everyone is bound to accept and act upon:

Everybody seems happy about the presence of the Holy Spirit but it’s not really the case and there is still that temptation to resist it…. The Council was a beautiful work of the Holy Spirit…. But after 50 years, have we done everything that the Holy Spirit said to us in the Council? In the continuity of the growth of the Church which was the Council?

Pope Francis, in other words, has the same view of the Council as his predecessors, which is really the only properly Catholic view. The same points were made by Paul VI; and by John Paul II; and by Benedict XVI. Every pope since the Council has insisted upon its faithful implementation. And yet too many of us still find ourselves either in one camp or the other, or else we are all too willing to accept things as they are, and to make a comfortable ecclesiastical place for ourselves in the status quo. Indeed, how many churchmen themselves fall into this more universal third category?

If we claim to accept the Council, Pope Francis charges, the fact that we have not “done everything that the Holy Spirit said to us…does not bother us. We do not want to change.” And “what is more, there are voices that want to go back.” But truly he seems to have not only those at the edges but those in the middle in mind, that is, the lukewarm and the comfortable of every stripe, when he says: “This is called being stubborn, this is called wanting to tame the Holy Spirit, this is called becoming fools and slow of heart.”

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: Niklas - Jun. 08, 2013 5:31 AM ET USA

    Beautiful work of the Holy Spirit - please where? The emperor has no clothes, Jeff. I like your site, but this analysis is plainly wrong.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 20, 2013 12:03 AM ET USA

    CCC synthesizes the VII teachings better than a syllabus while appealing to human desires rather than religious authority, a method of evangelization more suitable to modern man. Paul adapted to his hearers. To Jews he preached from Scripture. To Gentiles he preached philosophically. We must likewise reacb our audience on their terms.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 19, 2013 10:08 PM ET USA

    Most fine article, Dr. Jeff, one that opened my eyes quite a bit. For the longest time I've been pondering Christ's words, that the one sin that will not be forgiven is a sin against the Holy Spirit. While I had no trouble believing Our Lord, I had a difficult time imagining just what it would take to sin against the Holy Spirit. Now I know, so I got that going for me, which is nice. Many thanks.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Apr. 18, 2013 8:30 PM ET USA

    I'm not so sure a syllabus will realy do much. JPII gave us the CCC and still there is divide and errant opinion about what the Church teaches. Prayer is fundamentally important for healing and renewal. Ask the Holy Spirit to continue to inspire and change hearts. Father Spitzer's "Healing the Culture" is probably the best proposal put forward I have read providing a path to renewal.

  • Posted by: Defender - Apr. 18, 2013 7:44 PM ET USA

    I'm rereading a book first published in 1979 called the Vicar of Christ, a work of fiction which has as its central character a pope called, Francesco. From it comes the quote, "The reaction to Vatican II and its tendency toward theological and moral anarchy are obvious results." If VII documents were only followed and the "innovations" thrown out, things would certainly be better (and, like it or not, the Mass would be in Latin and Gregorian Chant would often be heard).

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Apr. 18, 2013 2:50 PM ET USA

    Good point, Jim. A syllabus would draw a line in the sand for both Modernists and those "more Catholic than the Pope." Given that the conciliar documents are sound Catholicism, it should not be difficult to fashion together a syllabus that might even include an "anathema sit."

  • Posted by: koinonia - Apr. 18, 2013 7:58 AM ET USA

    Card. Kasper stated recently: "Thus, the conciliar texts themselves have a huge potential for conflict, open the door to a selective reception in either direction." (L'Osservatore Romano, April 12, 2013) This phenomenon of contradiction has been present since the Council. Bishop Schneider's conclusion about the interpretation of the documents makes sense: "So there is truly a need for a Syllabus on the Council with doctrinal value..." It's hard to see how this could be detrimental to us.