Pope John Paul II is right to insist that the Second Vatican Council is the great spiritual event of our age. He is right too to declare that we need a new Synod to discuss Vatican II. For we must distinguish the true Vatican II from the impostors, the false-Vatican IIs that have been assailing the peace and unity of the Church.
The Catholic Church today is in as great a crisis as was the Church in the days of Arianism or of the Reformation. To distinguish the true spirit of Vatican II and its promise and demands from the false spirits—the deadly Legion, each of which claims, “I/we are the true council”—is the pressing task of Church leaders today.
This is no matter of conservatism vs. liberalism. The Church has always needed liberal Catholics and conservative Catholics. When they are deeply Catholic, they recognize each other as brothers and sisters in love, and mild discomfort. But today one set of false-Vatican IIs is so much more devoted to conservative principles than to the word proclaimed by faith that they reject renewing energies that the whole Church simply must accept. Other false-Vatican IIs are so devoted to liberal ideologies that they reject or ignore the most enduring aspects of the mystery of Christ.
The real Vatican II knew, of course, that we live in an age of change and crisis. It knew that expressions of faith are one thing and the faith another. But it equally well knew that God was able to have the faith successfully proclaimed in human words and that cultural relativism does not reduce us to virtual scepticisms about the central mysteries or about the duties that love surely brings to all who serve Christ. The true Vatican II wanted a Church renewed in the enduring things, in faith, hope, and love; it did not seek to bring forth a new Church, different from that of the saints, or a different idea of what faith is (learned from a world that did not believe).
The real Vatican II called for grand things from a renewed people. It wanted a new birth in personal responsibility, with enduring faith in the same (and preachable) mystery of Christ. It cried out for peace and justice and for guarding the rights of all. It also demanded that those to whom the light of faith was given, that the voice of those established by the Lord as authentic teachers and interpreters of the word be not merely “taken into account,” but rightly obeyed, in the unity of the family of faith. The real Vatican II wanted creativity in stating the enduring faith in a new age; it begged for concern for ecumenism (following carefully spelled out Catholic principles); it asked for courage in doing precisely those new things that would guard the things that must never change.
The false-Vatican IIs pretend to legitimacy by showing how earnestly they care about some of the things of which the true Vatican II said: they must all be respected. But they reveal their falseness by their failure to respect things that the saints always demanded and that Vatican II itself explicitly insisted on.
“Defend personal conscience!” they wisely shout. But they foolishly neglect to add—and form conscience in the light of insistent Catholic teaching. “State the faith in fresh ways!” they nobly proclaim. But they reveal little concern to see to it that it is the faith that is expressed in the novel messages. “Utilize new philosophies and the modes of thinking that attract your age!” they shrewdly tell us. But they wish to forget how great are the labors of baptizing philosophies born in families of unbelief, philosophies which tend to incorporate skeptical and relativistic themes that corrupt all the teaching they penetrate.
The evils the Church suffers from the false Vatican IIs are horrendous. Pastoral experience confirms what statistics declare: decline of faith, rejection of basic Christian moral values, and the rejection in Catholic schools and even churches of doctrines that the Saints, Fathers, and living magisterium have always taught. To so believe and so live is to separate oneself from Christ.
The stakes are the very highest, and we need the supreme voices of the Church, gathered in Synod, to proclaim to all firmly what Vatican II means and the importance of coming at last to the renewal in holiness she called for. Shakespeare reminds us that in Reformation days every damned error could find “some sober brow to bless it and approve it with a text.” The false prophets of the false-Vatican IIs do not even need texts of the council to swear that they speak the true meaning of Vatican II. They remain confident even when the solemn documents of the Council flatly contradict them. But the arrogance of false prophets is only too well known. What is needed is the unity of the Pope and bishops in the coming Synod, speaking the truth that the heart knows and requiring us to return to the unity and peace that all our being needs.