How do you solve a problem like Vatican II?
While perhaps not as catchy as the classic Sound of Music tune, this question is far more complex than trying to marry off the future Baroness von Trapp. Catholics have been arguing over the council since before it even ended in 1965. While it was intended to usher the Church into the modern world, there’s no question that Vatican II and how to properly interpret it has been the most divisive issue in today’s Church—and the raging debate shows no signs of subsiding. Perhaps, though, it’s time to move beyond the council.
For liberal Catholics, Vatican II represented freedom; specifically, freedom from the past. Instead of being bound to the dogmas and practices of previous generations, Vatican II gave the Church the opportunity to break those shackles and build a new church for a new time. From rejecting the Church’s teaching on the immorality of artificial contraception to advocating for women priests, Catholics of a liberal persuasion essentially became Protestants, molding their own beliefs—even when in direct contradiction to previous teachings of the Church—all, of course, in the “spirit of Vatican II.”
In response to this post-conciliar aberration, many conservative Catholics reacted by embracing what Pope Benedict XVI called the “hermeneutic of continuity.” By this, the pope meant that Vatican II should be interpreted in a way consistent with the previous 1,960 years of Catholic Tradition (“hermeneutic” is just a fancy word meaning “method of interpreting”). In other words, don’t read Tradition in light of the Council; read the Council in light of Tradition.
This is solid, Catholic advice. Ecumenical councils are not new revelations from heaven that supersede previous revelations. They are an organic part of the ongoing life of the Church and so should be treated as part of a larger whole, not a break in a new direction.
Unfortunately, that perfectly acceptable Catholic principle of the “hermeneutic of continuity” has morphed into something less than Catholic today. Instead of being used to put Vatican II in proper historical perspective, it has turned Vatican II into the very “supercouncil” that the hermeneutic was intended to prevent. More specifically, it has become a stick to bludgeon anyone who dares to criticize the council itself.
For example, if a Catholic suggests that perhaps certain passages of Vatican II are worded so poorly as to easily lead people into heresy, the HoC Squad jumps in to defend the council: “If it’s read in continuity with Catholic teaching, then it can’t be understood heretically!” Perhaps true for theologians who know all the nuances of Catholic doctrine, but that doesn’t mean the wording isn’t poor and confusing.
Or if a Catholic notes that the council had an unbalanced emphasis on the positive elements of other religions without noting their deficiencies, the HoC Squad shoots those criticisms down, arguing those statements must be balanced with previous teachings. Again, that’s all well and good for intellectuals who know this history deeply, but the average Catholic clearly takes that new emphasis as a sign that we shouldn’t mention the errors of non-Catholic religions. In other words, it’s perfectly legitimate to note that Vatican II gives an unbalanced view.
Yet the very thought of criticizing a council makes many orthodox, faithful Catholics blanch. How can it ever be proper to criticize the highest authority (aside from the pope) in the Church? To ease those concerns, let me share a quote from Joseph Ratzinger, the man who would later become Pope Benedict XVI:
“Not every valid council in the history of the Church has been a fruitful one; in the last analysis, many of them have been a waste of time.”
These words might shock Catholic sensibilities; they almost read like something off the keyboard of an anti-Catholic combox warrior, not the words of a future pope. Yet it is an honest assessment of history.
Catholics need to recognize that sometimes councils succeed, and sometimes they fail. A common misconception among Catholics is that the Holy Spirit guides every aspect of ecumenical councils; therefore, all councils are “successful.” This is not Catholic teaching. The Holy Spirit acts primarily as a protector—He protects the deposit of faith by ensuring that no council can definitively declare heresy as Catholic truth. It’s a negative, not a positive, protection.
Now, it’s true that the Holy Spirit can guide a council (and He wants to!), but the council fathers have the freedom to accept or reject that guidance—just as all men have that freedom in all things.
In the early 16th century, when the Church was in desperate need of reform, Pope Julius II convoked the fifth Lateran Council. Sadly, the council failed; the reforms it sought did not take hold, and seven months after the council’s close Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses, instigating the Protestant Reformation. It took the Council of Trent decades later to truly begin the process of reform. That didn’t make Lateran V an invalid council; it was just an inconsequential council (or a “waste of time,” as Ratzinger would call it).
And if entire councils can succeed or fail, the same is true of individual council documents—sometimes they are useful, sometimes they are not.
If we refuse to recognize that legitimate councils—and legitimate council documents—can fail in their mission, we act like cult members who whitewash and rewrite history in an effort to fool the world into believing the Church has never made any missteps. Conceived, perhaps, as a well-intended effort to protect the Church’s good name, in truth this is an attack on our God-given reason.
Catholics also must recognize that all councils are rooted in the times in which they are held. This doesn’t change the truth of any dogmatic statements they make, but it does allow us to properly interpret—and even later potentially dismiss—their practical advice and their contemporary worldview when no longer relevant. There is no doubt that the way the Vatican II council fathers saw and interpreted the world was heavily influenced by a 1960’s (mostly Western) worldview. For example, in hindsight much of the council seems excessively optimistic about the progress of mankind, particularly in light of how much the world has devolved into a nihilistic culture of death and deception since that time.
Further, the “tone” of a council is usually dependent on its contemporary milieu. Topics that a council emphasizes—or ignores—reflect a certain worldview, one which may no longer be appropriate for future generations. As I mentioned previously, Vatican II focused on the positive elements of other religions, never mentioning their errors. This decision was perhaps understandable since the council followed a horrific Holocaust of a people of a single religion. In today’s world, however, when most people—including most Catholics—are religiously indifferent, the need to distinguish between religions is of paramount importance.
So, how should Catholics approach Vatican II? First, to be clear, this is not a call to “reject” Vatican II or to declare it heretical. It’s a call to stop being handcuffed to that council, to move beyond it. Too often we’ve had binary debates about Vatican II: you either have to follow it slavishly (or, more precisely, follow a specific interpretation slavishly), or reject it completely. We need to put Vatican II in proper perspective—both the good and the bad—and stop seeing every problem through a Vatican II lens. Perhaps the council doesn’t have the answer to our problems; or, even more controversially, perhaps the Vatican II solution isn’t the proper solution for today.
Both liberal and conservative Catholics have made Vatican II into the raison d’etre of modern Catholicism, the lens through which the entire Faith is seen. This practice has transformed the council into an albatross, shackling Catholics to failed and outdated ideas and practices.
Catholics need not be cult members, desperately trying to save face by defending every jot and tittle of Vatican II. We can admit we have councils in our past that, in spite of good intentions, didn’t work out as hoped—or whose pastoral advice and worldview just don’t apply to us anymore. In the face of today’s (seemingly countless) problems, we should focus on those things in our Tradition that have worked and re-embrace them, for the good of the Church and the salvation of souls.