Evangelization, Vatican II, and Censorship

Evangelization can be frustrating. After 25 years evangelizing in my personal life and in official roles with the Church, including as a diocesan Director of Evangelization, I know this well. Few Catholics, of course, would be surprised that evangelization can be arduous. They may be surprised, however, at the way censorship in the Church poses a threat to evangelization. The little-known truth is that certain viewpoints, even though compatible with Catholic theology, are censored both by the institutional Church as well as many orthodox Catholic organizations—viewpoints that directly impact the success of evangelization efforts.

When the word “censorship” comes up, many people think of tyrannical authorities brutally enforcing censorship rules. Books are burned, people are arrested, and the masses cower in fear of retaliation if the wrong words are said or printed. Totalitarian governments and censorship go together like Fr. James Martin and the rainbow flag. But another form of censorship is more prevalent today, what I would call “soft censorship.” This type of censorship is enforced by keeping certain information and views from being published in official news outlets, mocking and vilifying anyone who holds to “wrong” views, and ignoring reality when it doesn’t conform to the official narrative. Soft censorship is rampant in the mainstream media and university campuses today, but those aren’t the only places it flourishes. Soft censorship is also at work within the Catholic Church.

Evangelization, however, cannot thrive in a censored environment. Evangelization means bringing people to the truth, and freedom is necessary for truth to flourish (and we know that conversely the truth will make people free). Topics that impact evangelization must be debated in a free and open way. And no event has had more impact on Catholic evangelization, and the modern Church in general, than the Second Vatican Council. Yet it is the topic of this very Council that is the most heavily censored within the Church.

Seeking the Truth Wherever It Leads
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 data clearly indicate a church that was booming and adding new members and new vocations at a healthy rate in the 1950’s became a church that was losing members and vocations faster than it could count them by 1980 (and that decline has continued essentially unabated since then). This decline began in earnest shortly after the end of Vatican II. Any good scientist knows that correlation does not equal causation, yet sometimes correlation is due to causation. Thus, if one wants to know the causes of the failure of Catholic evangelization in the second half of the twentieth century (and continuing into the twenty-first century), he needs to consider all possible factors. For example, the reasons for this decline might include many outside factors, such as:

  • The rise of secularism
  • An increase in material prosperity
  • Rapid advances in technology

But an objective observer would not look only at outside factors; he would also consider internal factors, including:

  • Changes made in the public worship of the Church
  • Changes in various teachings, such as in the area of ecumenism and interfaith relations
  • Overall changes in how the Church presents itself to the world

One thing an objective social scientist would not do is exclude certain possibilities a priori. The possibility that Vatican II and its teachings are a major cause of the Church’s evangelization failure—something unthinkable within the institutional Church—would be considered among all possible causes.

Acceptable Interpretations
Today there are only two acceptable interpretations of Vatican II and its impact within the Church: the Official Line and the Orthodox Concern (I’m not including the liberal interpretation that Vatican II was Step One toward “getting with the times” and essentially morphing the Catholic Church into the Episcopal church).

The Official Line comes from bishops and Church outlets like diocesan newspapers, parish bulletins, and even Vatican documents. The Official Line posits that Vatican II was largely uncontroversial, and in fact embraced by Catholics worldwide. It also suggests that the Council ushered in a new springtime that led to booming parishes and on-fire Catholics. If you listen to the typical bishop today, you’d think the Catholic Church is only days away from fulfilling the Great Commission, thanks to Vatican II. If someone thinks the liberal interpretation is fantasy, it is no more so than the Official Line.

The Orthodox Concern acknowledges the existence of problems in the Church that began in the 1960’s. But Vatican II is not to blame; no, the Council was simply coincidental to those problems, or perhaps even prevented them from being worse. Any post-Vatican II problems in the Church are due to the decline of the culture or a poor implementation of Vatican II. But nothing, absolutely nothing, can be laid at the feet of Vatican II itself. It was just minding its own business when crisis hit the Church. This, in fact, is the interpretation I clung to for many years.

What will not be found in either of these interpretations is the view that perhaps Vatican II itself has fundamental problems; problems of ambiguity and perhaps even erroneous teachings. Anyone suggesting these ideas, even mildly, is immediately consigned to the arena of kooks and tin-foil hat conspiracy theorists, or worse, Latin-loving Traditionalists! This perspective is not voiced in official Church outlets or even most orthodox-leaning publications. Anyone who questions both the Official Line and the Orthodox Concern is treated like a pro-lifer at a university’s diversity day: beyond the bounds of “dialogue.”

Suppressing the Truth
Let’s consider why both the established viewpoints refuse to entertain questions about Vatican II itself. I think there are two primary reasons, plus an additional one for those who subscribe to the Orthodox Concern viewpoint.

First, bad theology: many believe that since Ecumenical Councils are guided by the Holy Spirit, nothing erroneous or even harmful can come from them. Yet this is a distortion of true Catholic teaching. The Holy Spirit protects the Church from error, but he does so only under certain conditions: no official teaching of the Church, whether it comes from a pope or an ecumenical council, can contain error if (1) it’s in the area of faith and morals; and (2) it’s to be binding on all the faithful. But popes and councils can be ambiguous and unclear. Both popes and councils can even be erroneous when teaching in matters outside faith and morals or when not presenting a teaching as binding. The protection of the Holy Spirit only covers official, binding teaching, not every word produced by popes and councils. So it is not contrary to Catholic theology to suggest that an Ecumenical Council is ambiguous or erroneous.

Institutional bias is another reason questions regarding Vatican II itself are censored. The Church and its supporting institutions have heavily invested themselves on the idea that Vatican II was beneficial to the Church. We are a “Vatican II Church.” To question that is to put a deep-seeded worldview in peril. How things have “always been done” is a powerful force in any institution, and to rethink Vatican II would require a complete reevaluation of most of the Church’s current practices and ideas. Too much is invested by both those in official Church circles and the orthodox Catholic market to do that. So any conflicting views are silenced and ignored.

Another reason exists for those of the orthodox persuasion to avoid the topic of Vatican II itself: financial support. If an orthodox organization questioned Vatican II, its speaking engagements and invitations from parishes and dioceses would disappear. Most such organizations exist to reach out to the mass of pew-sitting Catholics, but those opportunities would dry up faster than a Baptist during Prohibition. Better to keep quiet any concerns or even publicly embrace either the Official Line or at most the Orthodox Concern.

Being Set Free
Censorship in the Church is not restrictive to Vatican II; it also touches on other aspects of the Church’s life. Aside from Vatican II, perhaps no subject is more censored within the Church than debate about the teachings and practices of our current Holy Father. This should not be surprising, since in many ways Pope Francis is the incarnation of Vatican II, and the lines of debate are similarly drawn. But a healthy institution allows—and even encourages—internal debate and discussion, and Pope Francis himself has noted that he believes debate and constructive criticism to be healthy. Strong institutions do not seek to censor views that might question how things are run, but instead welcome ideas for improvement and self-criticism, even if those ideas might undercut existing assumptions.

If the Catholic Church is to be successful at evangelization again, it must be open to a full-range debate, including debating previously untouchable topics. The only topics off-limits are those that have been definitively settled, such as the doctrine of the Trinity or the immorality of abortion. An open debate might make us uncomfortable, it might make us uneasy, but it’s essential. Souls are at stake.

Eric Sammons

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Eric Sammons, a former Evangelical, entered the Catholic Church in 1993 and has been involved in Catholic evangelization efforts for over two decades. He is a freelance writer, editor, and the author of several books, including The Old Evangelization: How to Spread the Faith Like Jesus Did (Catholic Answers, 2017) and Holiness for Everyone: The Practical Spirituality of St. Josemaría Escrivá. He holds a Master of Theology degree from Franciscan University. He can be followed on Twitter @EricRSammons and his website "Swimming Upstream" can be found at ericsammons.com.

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