Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

Catholic World News News Feature

The Long-Term Impact of Vatican II January 09, 2002

Rev. John Parsons

Thirty years after the end of any Council of the Church--whether Lateran IV in 1215, Trent in 1563, or Vatican I in 1870--intelligent and dispassionate observers are in a position to sum up the broad consequences of the Council in question, to see how far its goals and expectations have been realized, and to judge the general trend of events that have emerged in the Council's wake.

Traditionally there have been three broad heads of business at general Councils of the Church: the head of doctrine, the head of reform, and the head of union. For example, Lateran IV condemned the doctrines of the Cathari, who held there were two Gods or principles, a good and an evil one, who between them shaped the world. The Council also passed disciplinary measures for the reform of the internal life of the Church--for example, one urging Benedictine monasteries to group themselves into national congrega-tions for their better government. The cause of union with Eastern Christians led the Council to call for a new crusade to go to the relief of the Christian populations conquered and oppressed by the Muslims.

Thirty years later, in 1245, as regards those particular points, all men could see the Council's results. The Cathari had been preached against and militarily defeated; the call to form Benedictine congregations had been ignored except in England; a crusade commanded by a cardinal as papal legate, and accompanied by St. Francis of Assisi, had fought in Egypt with mixed but largely unsuccessful results.

Similar balance sheets could be drawn up for the results of Trent by 1593 and the results of Vatican I by 1900. In both these cases we could show, if space permitted, that the aims of the Council had been imperfectly achieved, but that events were moving in a positive direction regarding the matters that the Council had taken in hand, and that the Council members were not surprised or appalled by the turn of events since the day the Council closed.

Alas, we know that the same cannot be said for Vatican II. What was the state of the Church prior to the Council, and what did participants expect its results to be? In Lent 1962, while still Archbishop Montini of Milan, the future Pope Paul VI said: "Today there are no errors in the Church, or scandals, or deviations, or abuses to correct." In 1964, in his first encyclical, he wrote: "At the present time it is no longer a matter of ridding the Church of this or that particular heresy or of certain specific disorders. Thanks be to God there are none in the Church."

Two days before the Council opened on October 11, 1962, Cardinal Traglia, the vicar of Rome, said: "Never has the Catholic Church been so closely united around its head, never has it had a clergy so morally and intellectually exemplary as at present; nor is there any risk of a rupture in its organization. A crisis in the Church is not what the Council has to deal with."

Perhaps Montini and Traglia were exaggerating, but it is certainly true that there was no immediate crisis in 1959 to prompt Pope John XXIII to summon a Council. He called the Council suddenly and unexpectedly, without consulting the cardinals as Pius IX did before calling Vatican I. Pope John said on the Council's opening day, October 11, 1962, that the whole Council might be over before Christmas. In fact it lasted three years longer.


It is clear, then, that Pope John had completely misjudged the scale and scope of the Council he had launched. He seemed to be hoping for an ill-defined but universal improvement of every aspect of the Church's life, and that this could be brought about by a process of updating, or in Italian, aggiornamento.

What is the situation today, thirty years after the end of the great assembly? It remains as Paul VI described it on December 7, 1968: "The Church is in a disturbed period of self-criticism, or what would better be called self-demolition. It is an acute and complicated upheaval which nobody would have expected after the Council."

The Pope was factually mistaken there. At the Council, Cardinals Ottaviani, Brown, Ruffini, and many other traditionalists had warned that mistakes were being made and that trouble lay ahead. They were, however, laughed at for their pains.

Pope Paul continues: "It was believed that after the Council a sunny day in the Church's history would dawn, but instead there came a day of clouds, storm and darkness."

In February 1981 the present Pope summed up our situation very accurately in words which are still applicable in 1995: We must admit realistically and with feelings of deep pain, that Christians today in large measure feel lost, confused, perplexed and even disappointed; ideas opposed to the truth which has been revealed and always taught are being scattered abroad in abundance; heresies in the full and proper sense of the word, have been spread in the area of dogma and morals, creating doubts, confusions and rebellions; the liturgy has been tampered with; immersed in an intellectual and moral relativism and therefore in permissiveness, Christians are tempted by atheism, agnosti-cism, vaguely moral enlightenment and a sociological Christianity devoid of defined dogmas or objective morality.

In 1984 Cardinal Ratzinger said publicly that, on balance, the period since the Council had been a decidedly negative one for the Catholic Church. In so doing, he was only echoing what Pope Paul had said on November 23, 1973: "The opening to the world [he means the whole policy of aggiornamento or updating] became a veritable invasion of the Church by worldly thinking" and concludes, "we have perhaps been too weak and imprudent."


Great religious orders such as those of the Jesuits and Dominicans, which were growing, and growing at an increasing rate, in the hundred years prior to Vatican II, stopped growing in 1965 and went immediately into rapid decline, often falling by between one-third and one-quarter in numbers. In rough figures, the Dominicans fell from ten thousand to six thousand, the Capuchins from sixteen to twelve thousand, the Salesians from twenty-two to seventeen thousand and the Jesuits, the largest order in the Church, from thirty-six to twenty-six thousand.

At exactly the same point, 1965, when the piecemeal demolition of the Mass of the Roman Rite began, Mass attendance in the Western world began to go into sharp and sudden decline. About 60 percent of nominal Catholics in Australia, for example, attended Mass weekly in 1962; less than 20 percent do so today. The drop is therefore on the order of 70 percent on the 1965 figure.

It is unnecessary to multiply quotations from popes or citations of statistics in order to prove the obvious. The hoped-for renewal of the Church simply has not occurred. Surely simple honesty demands that everyone abandon the game of the Emperor's new clothes, and join the honest but "ecclesiastically incorrect" little boy who proclaims that the Emperor is naked and that the marvelous new clothes are simply a fraud.

How is it, then, that the "ecclesiastically correct" can go on talking about a renewal of the Church? The answer must lie in the fact that they are evaluating some combination of factors other than the maintenance of traditional doctrine and worship, or the maintenance of previous levels of popular support for religious life and religious practice. There has been a qualitative shift which they regard as a good--good enough to outweigh the current doctrinal and liturgical confusion and collapse in practical support.

In the context of questions about the need for the Council, and the decline in Catholic practice that has followed it, the Pope said last year in the book Crossing the Threshold of Hope :

Since the Council, we have been witnessing a primarily qualitative renewal... Above all there has been a very radical transformation of our underlying model... The traditional quantitative model has been transformed into a new more qualitative model. This also is a result of the Council.

He then adds:

If the post-conciliar Church has difficulties in the area of doctrine and discipline, these difficulties are not serious enough to present a real threat of new divisions" because "the Church of the Second Vatican Council is marked by an intense collegiality among the world's bishops...[it] truly serves this world in a variety of ways... it remains a great force ... [and is] still present today in world politics and international organizations.

How are we to understand this view of the matter?


It seems there are today three poles of thought which, in varying degrees, influence those who call themselves Catholic. The differences among them stem from different attitudes to change in contemporary society. Since the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, philosophical and technological change has, it seems, been proceeding at an ever-increasing rate in nominally Christian parts of the world. A secularization, or decline of religious practice and religious influence, often connected with urbanization, has occurred simultaneously. It may not be too much to suggest that it was the rapid urbanization of Italy after the Second World War that persuaded Italian popes and a largely Italian Curia that the Church was in need of an overhaul. It is perhaps significant that from the time of Constantine to the time of Pius XII, there was open country immediately behind the Vatican, where now lies a great expanse of blocks of apartment buildings.

Of the three possible attitudes a nominal Catholic can take to this change, the first is to carry on regardless, resisting secularization by all legitimate spiritual and social means (including merely technical modernization), convinced that the traditional religion and culture of Christendom are the highest expressions of the human spirit we know, and are in fact the indirect fruit of the operations of God's grace. On this view, slow piecemeal--adaptations of the sort that have always occurred in the Church--are all that we need.

The second possibility is to be prepared to change all our past religious and moral beliefs and practices, to bring them into conformity with the most recent evolutions of the human spirit, convinced that the mystery of life is continu-al-ly unfolding before us and is incapable of being fixed by the mind in any immutable theoretical statements, or in any particular historically conditioned set of practices.

The third possibility is to attempt to separate the immutable divine and apostolic core of Catholicism as set forth in the doctrines of faith and morals which the Church has defined over the centuries, from everything else to do with religion, convinced that the survival of the Church and the welfare of mankind require us to re-express this inner core in an entirely new social form that will bring it as close as possible to non-Catholic (that is, chiefly modern secularist) styles and habits of mind.

As Cardinal Montini put it in October 1962: "The Council should trace the line of Christian relativism, laying down how far the Catholic religion must act as the iron guardian of absolute values, and how far it can and should bend in its approach, in its connaturality with human life as it exist in time."


These three attitudes are polarities of thought, not mutually exclusive boxes into which individuals can be placed; still a given man will be found to hold views which approximate more to one than to another. Of the three, it was the first that prevailed in the Vatican until the death of Pius XII, and the third that was taken up by the Council. The "renewal" that has indisputably happened, is the official shift from one to the other.

This change remains a fact, no matter how many "difficulties in the area of doctrine and discipline" there may be, provided the institutional Church itself does not break up through a schism in the hierarchy. The "very radical transformation of our underlying model" from "the traditional quantitative" to a "new more qualitative" one thus seems to mean a shift in interest from the question "How much of the world have you converted to Catholicism?" to the question "what kind of relationship does Catholicism have with the world?"

And if the Church has been brought culturally and philosophically closer to the non-Catholic, non-Christian and non-theist world that surrounds her, then the whole operation has been a success, from this third point of view, provided the Church survives as an institution and its defined doctrines are not theoretically abandoned. This seems to be how the Roman Curia, particularly the Secretariat of State, and Catholic officialdom in general, view the present situation.


One further factor, without which the evolution of events since 1958 cannot be explained, is the widespread confusion that had existed at all levels in the Church for a hundred years prior to Vatican II, ever since the Catholic revival in the mid-19th century, between papal infallibility and papal inerrancy. Papal infallibility, as defined by Vatican I in 1970, means that the Pope is divinely preserved from teaching error in his most solemn pronouncements on doctrines of faith and morals. Papal inerrancy, on the other hand, is the wholly unauthorized theory that the Pope is also immune from error in his pastoral government of the Church, or at least in his major pastoral and prudential decisions. This latter theory is in no way taught by Vatican I, and does not form part of Catholic doctrine. Indeed an acquaintance with Church history makes such a theory scarcely tenable. Many Catholics nevertheless drew, and still draw, no practical distinction between these two ideas.

Thus it was that when the papacy swung from the first to the third attitude to social change, and adopted the policy of aggiornamento, many Catholics--in fact most--mistak-enly assumed that the decision to adopt the new attitude was covered by papal infallibili-ty and therefore unquestionably right. They naturally regarded those few who did question the shift as bad Catholics and treated them as practical heretics, for whom there was no room in the Church. As Cardinal Ratzinger has put it, belief in the rightness of aggiornamento has become for many a super-dogma which takes precedence over the whole of Catholic belief. Assent to doctrines which are guaranteed by the Church's infallibility has in practice become optional as a condition for membership of the Church, but assent to the policy of aggiornamento, a pastoral and prudential strategy which cannot be a doctrine of the faith and cannot be infallibly guaranteed, is in practice compulsory, at least for all those who wish to be thought reliable and fit to hold any official position, whether administrative, academic or other.

Up to 1958, Roman authority, as we have said, upheld substantially traditional positions on all questions. After the Council Roman authority, followed by the hierarchy and those influenced by a belief in papal inerrancy, or by their own personal desire to conform with modernity, imposed a policy of cultural transposition on the Church, in pursuance of the third of the three attitudes toward secularization outlined above. Because the new aim was to bring the Church culturally closer to the non-Church, condemnations of current errors were simultaneously abandoned, as running counter to the spirit of accommodation to the world.

As Pope John announced in his solemn speech opening the Council on 11 October 1962, henceforth in her attitude to error the Church "prefers to make us of the medicine of mercy, rather than of the arm of severity." She will resist error "by showing the validity of her teaching, rather than by issuing condemnations." On moral errors the Pope says that today "at last it seems men of themselves"--that is without refutations and condemnations--"are disposed to condemn (such errors); in particular those ways of behaving which despise God and His law." This policy of non-resistance to error was enshrined in the transformation, thirty years ago on December 7, 1965, of the Holy Office into the present Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The old body had had the task of condemning doctrinal and moral errors when they arose; the new task was defined as promoting truth, but as far as possible without condemning any errors--a strange logical feat to attempt, but one which led in practice to the complete cessation between 1965 and 1975 of all censure or condemnation of unorthodox books and publications. Error was in practice given immunity from any institutionalized or procedural resistance. This new Roman attitude was copied by bishops round the world in relation to their own universities, teachers' colleges, seminar-ies, and schools.

Pope Paul's surprise at the sudden storm that broke upon the Church in the mid-1960s stemmed from the fact that he had failed to foresee the revolutionary effect of a combina-tion of factors. These were: - First: the sudden and wholesale switch from the first or traditional attitude to change, to the third or liberal attitude, which seeks to abstract the essence of Catholicism from its historical traditions and reincarnate it in a form as little different as possible from the modern secular outlook; - Second: an end to institution-al resistance to unorthodoxy; and - Third: the debilitating belief that all policies proceeding from the Roman Curia must necessarily be correct, and therefore never need critical evaluation by any orthodox Catholic.

This combination of factors (in which a crucial element was the de facto suppression of the traditional Roman Rite of Mass, and liturgical innovation on a scale unknown in Catholic history) had the effect of so destabilizing, disarming, and disorientating the Church, that many Catholics drifted psychologically toward the second attitude to change. As we expressed it above, that attitude was characterized by the belief that "we should be prepared to change all our past religious and moral beliefs and practices, to bring them into conformity with the most recent evolutions of the human spirit, con-vinced that the mystery of life is continually unfolding before us and is incapable of being fixed by the mind in any immutable theoretical statements or in any particular historical-ly conditioned set of practices." This is the skepticism and radical historical relativism condemned by Pope St. Pius X in 1907 under the name of Modern-ism; and it is into the arms of this heretical Modernism that the attempted shift from a traditional to a liberal Catholicism has delivered much, if not most, of what nominally constitutes the Catholic Church today, thirty years after the Council's close.


Wherein lies the Church's salvation in 1995? If the outline I have traced is substantially accurate, then the obvious first step is one of metanoia--that is, a repentance and complete about-face of one's mental assumptions concerning aggiornamento. The notion of papal inerrancy must be clearly distinguished from the Catholic dogma of papal infallibility, and room must be frankly and fully made within the Church for those who, with the benefit of thirty years’ hindsight, come to the conscientious conviction that the policy of aggiornamento has, on balance, proved counterproductive. If, in Pope Paul's words "the opening to the world became a veritable invasion of the Church by worldly thinking," then we may reasonably conclude that it was imprudent and wrong to make that particular kind of opening, and that the right pastoral strategy would have been to redouble the Church's efforts to convert all and sundry not only to traditional Catholic doctrine, which the papacy of course has theoretically maintained throughout, but also the traditional Catholic practice which is that doctrine's living embodiment.

Second, the lex orandi--that is, the norm of Catholic worship--must be restored. This will not mean the abolition of the Missal of 1968, though it may require its revision and retranslation. It will also involve a vindication and reclaiming of our liturgical heritage, and of the historic ethos of Catholic worship. Part of this process must be the restoration of full freedom for all Catholics of the Latin Rite to celebrate the traditional Mass of the Roman Rite in its most recent standard form, namely the 1962 typical edition of the Roman Missal.

In 1988 Pope John Paul established the Ecclesia Dei Commission, publicly giving it competence to allow any priest to celebrate the Roman Rite in accor-dance with the norms given in the report of the committee of cardinals assembled to consider the question in 1986. Despite this explicit reference to the cardinatial report, that report has still to be published, thanks to a switch in policy. The reason for its continued official suppression is the embarrassing fact that the cardinals found that the traditional Roman Rite had never been abolished, and that therefore all priests have, and have always had, the right to celebrate it whenever it seems pastorally appropriate. That report should now be published so that the true legal position may be correctly interpret-ed by the whole Church. A celebration by the Holy Father, as Bishop of Rome, of the historic Roman Rite used by his predecessors from time immemorial would also help to build confidence in the Church's liturgical tradition, as would the production of noble and accurate translations of the 1962 Missal for use in all the major vernacular languag-es.

Third, but most fundamental of all, the lex credendi, or norm of Catholic belief, must be vindicated, in actual practice, by the widespread and mandatory use, by bishops and those in authority under them in schools and seminaries, of the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, which has so splendidly integrated the doctrinal instruction of the Second Vatican Council into the great stream of historic Catholic orthodoxy. This providential instrument of truth, in which an accessible, comprehensive, systematic, and winning statement of the faith has been set forth more wonderfully than ever before, should be for all a great source of joy and comfort. Perhaps too, the re-imposition of the oath against Modernism as a prerequisite for ordination as deacon, priest, or bishop, would emphasize the need for a renewed faith in the Church's infallible doctrinal tradition.

If energetic measures along these lines are taken now, there is every reason to believe that a robust and flourishing Catholic revival will be evident throughout the world before another thirty years have flowed their course.

[AUTHOR ID] Father John Parsons serves a parish in Dickson, Australia, and writes regularly for both religious and secular publications in that country. This essay is reprinted, with permission, from AD2000, an Australian Catholic monthly magazine, in which it appeared as a two-part series in the issues of March and April 1996.