Two Steps Ahead of the Spirit


Which pope said the following?

The family is a kind of school of deeper humanity. But if it is to achieve the full flowering of its life and mission, it needs the kindly communion of minds and the joint deliberation of spouses, as well as the painstaking cooperation of parents in the education of their children. The active presence of the father is highly beneficial to their formation. The children, especially the younger among them, need the care of their mother at home. This domestic role of hers must be safely preserved, though the legitimate social progress of women should not be underrated on that account.

Or this, in the context of the atheistic assertion that worshipping God is an offense to human liberty, or that man will achieve happiness only if he rejects his hope in a future life:

In her loyal devotion to God and men, the Church has already repudiated and cannot cease repudiating, sorrowfully but as firmly as possible, those poisonous doctrines and actions which contradict reason and the common experience of humanity, and dethrone man from his native excellence.

Or this:

Since the priestly ministry is the ministry of the Church herself, it can be discharged only by hierarchical communion with the whole body. Therefore pastoral love demands that acting in this communion, priests dedicate their own wills through obedience to the service of God and their brothers. This love requires that they accept and carry out in a spirit of faith whatever is commanded or recommended by the Sovereign Pontiff, their own bishop, or other superiors.

Or this, referring to the media:

Public authority, which properly concerns itself with the health of its citizens, has the duty of seeing to it in a just and vigilant manner that serious danger to public morals and social progress do not result from a perverted use of these instruments. This goal should be achieved by enactment of laws and their energetic enforcement.

It is a trick question. I’ve culled them — without much trouble, because they are typical of what one finds — from The Documents of Vatican II, edited by Rev. Walter M. Abbott, S.J. Those documents, as I read them, seem remarkably consonant with the Christian humanism of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI — indeed, of all of the popes going back at least to Leo XIII.

But they do not always accord with the notes and the other editorial apparatus that surround them in the book. Sacrosanctum Concilium, for example, upholds the dignity of popular devotions, stipulating only that they follow the laws and norms of the Church. These include veneration of the saints, especially the patron saint of a particular parish. But the response to this document, by the theologian Jaroslav Pelikan, is not so generous: “It does seem unfortunate that the Fathers do not speak out more strongly against the abuses connected with these observances and against ‘individual and quasi-private’ celebrations of the Mass.”

The same document extols the pipe organ as adding “a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies,” a recommendation that passes without note. Not so for a later comment: “The texts included to be sung must always be in conformity with Catholic doctrine; indeed they should be drawn chiefly from holy Scripture and from liturgical sources.” That sentence merits a piece of snideness from the annotator, Rev. C. J. McNaspy, S.J., who inserts a qualification of his own: “There is need for new music, both for the Mass and for devotions; new hymns should be liturgically and scripturally inspired, and not in the sentimental ‘devotional’ manner that has proved the bane of much Catholic hymnody.”

In the document on communications, the Council Fathers clearly remind us that there are limits to the “knowledge” to which the public should be exposed, and moral laws that restrict its manner of presentation: “In the gathering and publication of news the norms of morality and the legitimate rights and dignity of a man must be held sacred. For knowledge is sometimes unprofitable, ‘but charity edifies’ (1 Cor 8:1).” The annotator, Rev. Thomas J. M. Burke, S.J., goes to some lengths to show us that the sentence does not mean what it seems to mean, that journalists should exercise a great degree of prudent self-censorship. “In St. Paul’s context,” he writes, “the word ‘knowledge’ is used ironically. It pertains more closely to what we would call sophistication. The contrast St. Paul is making could be paraphrased as that between the blasé and the genuinely concerned.”


After a while, it occurred to me that my disagreement with the comments was not simply a matter of interpretation. Instead, it struck to the heart of what we believe these documents are. If the documents are considered as inspired by the Holy Spirit, in toto, then such changes as were recommended for the Church must be read in light of things that were preserved or reaffirmed, and vice versa. It is then just as significant that the document gives Gregorian chant pride of place in the church’s hymnody as it is that Catholic composers are encouraged to produce new works for the liturgy. But if the documents are instead treated as political bills, primarily the result of compromise among factions, then what they say in toto cedes to what they say that is specifically new. Almost before the ink was dry, people called for additional changes “in the spirit of Vatican II,” a spirit that is defined a priori as suspicious of tradition and “open” to “modern culture,” despite the fact that such a culture had heard its death knell in the cries of the prisoners in the concentration camps and in the explosion over Hiroshima.

In The Trojan Horse in the City of God, Dietrich von Hildebrand accuses the self-styled postconciliar “progressives” of an incorrect view of virtue and truth. They behave, he says, as if one error could be counterbalanced by another, so that laicism is seen as the cure for clericalism, or contempt for tradition could counterbalance an ignorant attachment to it. It is like believing that what the coward needs is a dose of rashness, or what the prude needs is a visit to the brothel. But virtue is not an arithmetic mean between vices, and truth is not an arithmetic mean between errors. Indeed vices and errors that seem opposed to one another often spring from the same bad soil.

The progressive responds by asserting that his deepest allegiance is not to some stated decree regarding virtue or truth now, but to the direction that the decree can be seen to take. As long as democratic machinery seems to run in that direction, then “democracy” is valued above tradition, even above truth: for there are no settled truths. It is fascinating to note how exclusivist and antidemocratic such a position is. For instance, those who studied and deeply appreciated Vatican II’s warnings and bold reaffirmations of Catholic doctrine, are not among the elites who are working “in the Spirit of Vatican II.” Their votes do not count. What G. K. Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead,” not traditionalism but a humble willingness to continue to hear what our forebears have to say to us, is eliminated. Their votes do not count either. A Pope Pius XI, for instance, is honored according to the degree to which he seems to have anticipated the changes we favor, while the rest of his pronouncements can be ignored.

The “progressive,” then, sets his sight on a Christ of the imagination, always fading beyond the horizon ahead, in the land of Would Have: So Jesus, who notably did not choose any women among the twelve, must cede to the Christ Who Would Have, had He been among us now. People of every political stripe can play this game. The Jesus who said, “One cannot serve both God and Mammon,” must cede to the Christ Who Would Have defined our salvation in material terms, whether procured by free enterprise or the socialist leviathan. The Jesus whose clarion call for sexual purity forbids divorce must cede to the Christ Who Would Have smiled upon fornication, which is to set divorce at the very heart of the sexual act. The “progressive” is thus always two steps ahead of the Holy Spirit.

All of which begs the question, again, of truth. For if you are walking down into hell, progress is the last thing you need.

Anthony Esolen


Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

  • bill bannon

    If you are actually here. Theologian Yves Congar, I believe in “Traditions and tradition”, parsed Councils as being guided by the Holy Spirit not inspired by the Holy Spirit such that things could have been said better or more completely. For example LG 25’s “religious submission of mind and will” for certain (not all) non infallible papal themes makes it seem that sincere dissent is impossible in those areas. Yet post LG 25, a conservative Germain Grisez in “Christian Moral Principles” ( for seminaries) was continuing the little known theme also found prior to the Council in Ludwig Ott….that sincere dissent is possible in suc areas given competency in the given area.
    Ergo LG25 could have been more completely stated and was not inspired by the Holy Spirit but what it did contain as partial was guided to by the Holy Spirit. Francis Sullivan recounts the anecdote that three Bishops wanted the section enlarged to include the caveat that was buried in the moral theology tomes that a minuscule number of Catholics read or know about. The Theological Commission at the Council denied them and simply directed them to the answer in the moral theology tomes that few read.
    In short…..the Counciliar process is not pristine as it would be if the Holy Spirit really inspired rather than guided. Trent’s very dogmatic nature may border on inspiration….I don’t know what Congar saw in its regard.

  • G.

    Re: the comment on music: The great irony is that what was swept in as “new” is becoming an ossified canon all of its own, only this one is a snapshot of the 1970s.

    We seem “stuck” there in our hymnals, especially if the alternative is the trend toward intense simplification that has often characterized modern “praise and worship” music.

    But I think it also shows people *do* want a musical tradition, a canon of common repertory that further unites us. Not that the doors should be shut to new composition by any stretch of the imagination, but the goal should certainly be to build on tradition, not to “fix” it.

  • digdigby

    C. J. McNaspy, S.J. You couldn’t make up that name!
    It isn’t far from Snidely Whiplash, S.J.

  • Barbara

    I don’t think that the correct formulation is “inspired by the Holy Spirit” but rather “guided”, as Mr. Bannon points out. However, the Council Documents form a part of the body of work that is the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, and as such, constitute its teachings. As such, dissent is a real impediment to unity and orthodoxy. That the claimants to Vatican II now say that Benedict XVI and his blessed predecessor are the dissenters is an understandable perspective. Mr. Esolen does a fine job of dissecting the implications of the progressive approach.

    And thanks for the offering from Dietrich von Hildebrand. It’s so destructive, not to say idiotic, to propose that the solution to a problem is whatever is the opposite of the problem. It’s like two generations of thinkers have forgotten the “baby/bathwater” dictum of our grandmothers.

  • Stuart Koehl

    Well done, Tony.

    As a Greek Catholic, I am struck by two things: first, the extent to which Vatican II was mainly concerned with issues pertaining to the Latin Church; second, the extent to which the numerically insignificant Melkite Greek Catholic Church contributed to the Council. Led by Patriarch Maximos IV, the Melkite delegation included his two successors, Maximos V and Gregorios III, as well as other noteworthy theologians of the so-called Cairo School, such as Archbishops Joseph Raya and Elias Zoghby. Their interventions had a dramatic impact, beginning with the first address by Patriarch Maximos IV–in French!–making the case for liturgy in the vernacular. Throughout the Council, the Melkites insisted on statements and solutions that were consistent with the Tradition and the dignity of the Eastern Churches, and in particular, the Eastern Orthodox Churches. Not for nothing did the Orthodox observers rise every time Patriarch Maximos spoke, but later they praised him as being the voice of and bearing witness to the “missing bretheren”.

    As an Eastern Catholic, three conciliar documents are of particular relevance to me. The first is Lumen Gentium, which radically altered the ecclesiology of the Catholic Church, adopting the “ecclesiology of communion” developed by Henri Lubac from the “Eucharistic ecclesioogy” of the Orthodox theologian Nicholas Afanasiev: the Catholic Church is a communion of particular Churches, and true Churches can exist outside of communion with the Church of Rome. Two words, “subsistit in” (as opposed to “est”) have made a huge difference in the relationship of the Catholic Church to the Eastern Churches.

    The second document is Orientalium ecclesiarum, the Decree on the Eastern Churches, which declares that the Eastern Churches in communion with Rome are true particular Churches (Ecclesiae sui juris), rather than mere rites of the Roman Catholic Church; that all are equal in dignity to each other and to the Church of Rome; and that all are entitled by right (rather than dispensation) to the fullness of their unique Traditions, in liturgy, theology, spirituality, doctrine and discipline.

    Finally, there is Unitatis redintegratio, the Decree on Ecumenism, which not only made pursuit of Christian unity a mandate for the Catholic Church, but also singled out for acknowledgement those Eastern Churches NOT in communion with Rome as true Churches, with true sacraments and valid holy orders. As such, it acknowledged that very little was required for the reestablishment of full ecclesial communion.

    Orientalium ecclesiarum and Unitatis redintegratio created an entirely new direction for the Eastern Catholic Churches. Freed from the shackles of the “praestantia ritus Latini”, they have begun a process of de-latinization (adoption of Latin liturgical forms, spirituality and modes of expression) and rediscovery of their own authentic patrimonies. They have been given an entirely new raison d’etre: no longer intended to seduce the Orthodox into the Catholic fold, but to bear witness to both the Orthodox and Latin Churches of the possibility of being fully Eastern while maintaining communion with the Church of Rome. It hasn’t been an easy task, and we struggle daily with it, but it is a worthy goal. As Bishop John Michael of the Romanian Greek Catholic Eparchy of Canton, OH has said, “Our vocation is to disappear”–that is, to be reabsorbed by our Orthodox Mother Churches on the blessed day that communion is restored, and many of us anxiously look forward to that day.

  • Anna

    I have the Abbott translation, as well as the Flannery one currently in print; I’m not the Latinist I would need to be to say authoritatively which is better – but the differences are very striking. I do know that the first passage you chose about children needing “the care of their mother at home” is now something like “the importance of a mother cannot be ignored.” It seems to me that the reinterpretation of the documents stopped being confined to the commentary and began to be included in the available translations as well. Any thoughts on that, as I’m sure you have far more knowledge than I on the subject?

  • Steve

    Wasn’t Vatican II actually DICTATED DIRECTLY by the Holy Spirit: with every single word the most perfect and prudential possible wording? No, the Holy Spirit is the primary author only regarding Scripture–and even then it was not directly dictated in the way that Muslims claim the Koran was. Scripture is infallible, and a love letter from God, but not merely transcribed.

    But isn’t Vatican II the One True Council and the center of Catholic life? No, Vatican II was only one of 21 Councils. So, they were all perfect? The Church has NEVER made any such claim–that simply is not a Catholic teaching. And Fr. John Neuhaus and George Weigle have both claimed that Councils have sometimes been prudential failures–such as Lateran V.

    But how is that possible? Councils are only protected against actual error. All error? No, only error concerning teachings of faith and morals.

    Where did some people get the crazy notion that Vatican II was a pastoral council? Ah, that was from the Pope.

    Won’t all the problems in the Church be solved if only we debate about the meaning of Vatican II for another 50 years? Perhaps not.

  • William Taylor

    I am an old guy who was a seminarian during the Council and then spent the next ten years trying to figure out what the Council was about. One thing it was about is compromise. It did not adopt a single point of view, but was a consensus experience. Therefore, the documents represent more than one point of view, and it is possible for all sides to cherry pick the documents and find the quotes that support their position.

    I finally came to see how important it was to study the trajectory of each document. What ideas were there in the beginning? What new ideas came in? What kind of discussion was there? Where did the discussion seem to be going when it was finally put into document form and accepted by the bishops?

    A good example would be The Constitution on the Church. The Curia proposed the usual hierarchy is the Church discussion, but the bishops rejected it. After much back and forth, came the document we now have. There was a definite trajectory there. A person could go in and mine the statements about the hierarchy without noting that they were part of the third chapter, not the first.

    Because its documents were the result of compromise, it is dangerous to say that this or that was the mind of the Council without discussing the trajectory the documents took.

  • Tony Esolen

    Thanks to all for your thoughtful and enlightening responses. Indeed I should have written, “guided by the Holy Spirit.” My point was less centrally about the second Vatican council than about the emptiness and presumption of the “progressive” argument.

    Mr. Taylor’s point is well taken, if one is writing a history of the council, or even a history of dogmatic or pastoral pronouncements of the Church. Beyond those bounds, however, I am in vehement disagreement with it. It may well be an interesting hunt for the historian to track down cloak-room discussions, unanswered requests, and tabled motions, but for the Catholic attempting to obey the teachings of the Church it is entirely irrelevant. “Trajectories” are, I find, highly imaginary things, depending upon where one chooses one’s endpoints, what arcing object one is looking for, and what future behavior of the arc one can extrapolate from its previous behavior. Dietrich von Hildebrand’s point can well be applied also to the divining of such arcs. It is remarkable to me that the Trajectorist finds it easy to assume that man’s struggling and wavering attempt to live the faith is unidirectional – the Whig theory of Church history. But what struck me, when reading the documents – and, since I don’t know how to conduct a séance, and I do not hail from Endor, I cannot actually summon up the Ghost of Vatican II from the vasty deep, and thus I am constrained to read what is written, and not what would have been written or would yet come to be written in the unwritten future – is that they are a great deal more sensible than I had expected. The Council Fathers, as I long had thought, did not ignore the sexual revolution. It is only that the Interpreters ignored what the Fathers said about it.

    If indeed the new translations of the documents have altered the text to defer to miserific feminism, that is a scandal. It is flatly dishonest and should be condemned by all.

  • Sam Schmitt

    From what I can tell the old Abbott edition of Vatican II has been superseded by the edition of Austin Flannery, O.P., first published in 1975. In fact, the Abbott edition, although widely distributed in its time, has been out of print for quite a while now. Curiously, though, the Abbott translation (or one based on it) seems to be the one at the Vatican website.

    @Steve – I’ve often heard this argument that since Vatican II was only a “pastoral council,” we can safely ignore it. In calling Vatican II a “pastoral council” Cardinal Ratzinger (in an address to the bishops of Chile in 1988) was basically arguing against what he would later call a “hermeneutic of rupture” – the idea that Vatican II “had made itself into a sort of superdogma which takes away the importance of all the rest.” He was far from supporting the ideas of Archbishop Lefebvre on Vatican II (in fact, in this same address he speaks of the necessity of “defend[ing] the Second Vatican Council against Msgr. Lefebvre”).

    True, Vatican II issued no anathemas, but this assumes a rather minimalist Catholicism, as if adhering to the Church only on dogmatic matters of faith and morals while ignoring discipline and the legitimate oversight of bishops on non-dogmatic matters is sufficient; or to put it another way, it reduces the faith to adherence to dogmas. Vatican II was an ecumencical council, not just a synod or gathering of bishops to share ideas and issue documents. It clearly is an expression of the mind of the Church, and as such , demands at the very least deference (if not adherence on every last point) from faithful Catholics. As the old Catholic Encyclopedia puts it: “in a council’s decisions we see the highest expression of authority of which its members are capable within the sphere of their jurisdiction.”

    Lateran V is not a really a parallel here – it was grossly insufficient for the times, but it’s hard to say that it would have been harmful for the Church to follow its decrees. If anything, most of the current criticism of Vatican II is much the other way.