Vatican II at 60: Stop the Cheerleading

With all due respect to the Second Vatican Council, it does not meet the demands of a secular world. For that we need a virile, unequivocal, and full-throated Catholicism.

On October 4th, Basic Books released George Weigel’s latest work, To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II. It left much of the Catholic world slightly confused, except for that dwindling minority still starstruck by Vatican II’s promise of a “new Pentecost.” Far be it for any faithful Catholic to call into question its legitimacy or validity. 

With that full disclosure out of the way, isn’t it possible—after sixty years—to ask some quite relevant questions about its expediency or its design? It seems Mr. Weigel is of a generation that accepted uncritically the weltanschauung of a mid-20th century European Catholic elite still swooning over Roncalli’s mirage of aggiornamento

Call to mind that it was entirely of a piece with that dizzying headiness of going to the moon, supercomputers, and the Age of Aquarius. A time of the intoxications of Teilhard de Chardin and his beloved Noosphere, Rahner and his Anonymous Christian, and Hans Urs von Balthasar’s apokatastasis. And even more: Sr. Corita Kent’s “damn everything but the circus,” Harvey Cox’s Secular City, Rogerian Self-actualized Man, and, who can forget the new frontiers of John Robinson’s Honest to God. Ah, they were times that left men dreaming dreams. And every one of them became a nightmare.

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Out of this fanciful period was Vatican II convened. Sadly, it allowed its antinomian exuberance of the age to fall like magical dust on more than a few of the Council’s principal architects. When Pope John XXIII announced his intention to summon the Council, Cardinal Heenan of London warned, “This is tempting the Holy Ghost!” Why such a monition from an otherwise prim and circumspect British Prince of the Church? 

Councils were only convened to confront great crises threatening the Church. Where was the crisis compelling this one? No Catholic could see one, but an elite illuminati did.

It seems as though Mr. Weigel has been swept up in the dreamscape of that Catholic cognoscenti. After citing Pope John’s opening address about the “council’s greatest concern” presenting more fully “the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine,” Mr. Weigel goes on to say, “That would not happen, however, if the Church merely guarded this (then quoting Roncalli again) “precious treasure…as if we were only concerned with an antiquity.” 

Weigel proceeds to explain, “Nor would it suffice to repeat familiar formulas of faith, like those in the simple question-and-answer catechisms that Catholics had long known.” For an otherwise sterling orthodox Catholic thinker, those are strange words indeed. How else can one explain them except to wonder that perhaps he inhaled too much of the questionable assumptions of the European bien pensant?

How else to comprehend this counterintuitive and utterly ahistorical defense of Roncalli’s myopic vision?

John XXIII knew that the defensive Catholicism of the Counter-Reformation, however successful a salvage operation, had run its course. It was time to raze the bastions that Catholicism has erected and turn its robust institutions into platforms for evangelization and mission in order to engage a deeply troubled modern world. The Church, he believed, existed to proclaim and compassionately witness the Christian truth for the world’s healing and sanctification. It could not hide that truth like the frightened servant in Christ’s parable of the talents.

Mr. Weigel seems to be parroting the Old Thinking of the septuagenarian and octogenarian Shepherds in the Church. This Old Guard is presently splenetic at the cry of young Catholics for the undiluted Ancient Faith rather than the Synodal Way that is so giddily embraced (and tightfistedly enforced) by their betters.

How could someone as gifted as Mr. Weigel repeat without embarrassment Roncalli’s indictment of 500 years of Post-Reformation Catholicism as “guarding a precious treasure as though it were an antiquity”? He knows better than most St. Paul’s mandate to Timothy: “custodi depositum” (guard the deposit). Yes, the Church jealously “guards” so that she can boldly proclaim. And, indeed, she did. And she did it with supernatural gusto during all those centuries to which Mr. Weigel happily bids a fond farewell.

Then there is this: “It was time to raze the bastions that Catholicism has erected and turn its robust institutions into platforms for evangelization and mission in order to engage a deeply troubled modern world.” We expect this kind of cant from self-loathing Catholics, but not from a gifted Catholic intellectual of Mr. Weigel’s rank. Was that summons due to a momentary memory lapse? Mr. Weigel pleads for a Church “to proclaim and compassionately witness to Christian truth for the world’s healing and sanctification.” Surely Mr. Weigel recalls the global and prodigious efforts of the Church in the past centuries doing just that. To name a paltry few:

  • The Jesuits’ monumental missionary efforts in South America, to say nothing of their staggering accomplishments in covering all of Europe with its finest educational institutions.
  • St. Isaac Jogues’ heroic efforts to bring the Holy Gospel to the Indians of North America.
  • Fr. Junipero Serra’s breathtaking missionary work and foundations in California.
  • The Holy Ghost Fathers’ dazzling missionary accomplishments in Africa.
  • The Maryknoll Fathers’ dauntless work in China, which accumulated for that Order countless numbers of martyrs.
  • Innumerable Religious Orders of Women who marched into Africa to open hospitals and schools.
  • St. Katherine Drexel’s founding of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament specifically to bring the Gospel to Native Indians and Blacks.
  • The St. James Society, which sent scores of priests to work in the missions of South America.
  • Mother Teresa’s missionary work in India.

Was all of this evidence of a Church obsessed with “guarding antiquity”?  Perchance Mr. Weigel was thinking of a Church insufficiently engaging the world on high intellectual matters? In that case, he certainly must know the amazing philosophical and theological work of Catholic scholars in those “fortress years” who transformed the intellectual landscape. To cite just some:

  • Jacques Maritain’s guest professorships at Columbia, Princeton, and the University of Chicago, all the while publishing some of the most significant works on St. Thomas Aquinas and influencing the entire academic world.
  • Etienne Gilson’s guest professorships at Harvard and the Sorbonne, as well as delivering the esteemed Gifford Lectures at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.
  • Fr. Stanley Jaki’s impressive oeuvre in reconciling physics and the sciences with the truths of the Faith.
  • Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange’s work in Thomistic philosophy and his polemical works engaging the philosophies of the day.
  • Learned Catholic academic societies in every major scientific, literary, philosophical, and theological discipline.

Add to this impressive work of evangelization the fact of thousands of Catholic schools with an average student population of one thousand children; seminaries filled to capacity, and novitiates as well; religious brothers conducting some of the finest schools in America.  

Does all of this sound like a Church enclosed in upon itself? This ever-mushrooming evidence of Catholic universal reach prompted the imitable Karl Adam to write in his memorable 1934 Spirit of Catholicism

What [the Church] wishes to establish is the fact that human reason, while remaining true to itself, can by its own principles advance to a point where God becomes visible as the fundamental basis and ultimate meaning of all reality, and where knowledge passes over into faith, philosophy into theology. Whenever men have doubted or denied the capacity of the human mind to transcend the limits of experience, whenever they have attempted to paralyze or kill man’s profound yearning for absolute truth, then the Church has come forward in defense of reason, whether against Averroes and Luther or against Kant. And the more our own age becomes weary of subjective idealism and seeks to rediscover the objective world, the more grateful will it be to Pope Pius X that in his much abused anti-Modernist Encyclical Pascendi he denounced all positivism, pragmatism and phenomenalism and defended the power of reason to transcend and surpass experience, thus exorcising those twin bugbears of solipsism and skepticism which menace all knowledge.

If Vatican II deserves all the encomia showered upon it by the Old Thinking, then how does one explain the censorious comment of Pope Paul VI, in 1972, that “the smoke of Satan has entered the Church.” Lest I be accused of violating post hoc ergo propter hoc, we must be clear that there is no cause-effect between Montini’s lament and Vatican II. But their uncomfortable proximity raises eyebrows. To quote Mark Twain, “history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” Clearly, the “smoke of Satan” was not a consequence of Vatican II, but it does seem to rhyme. 

Moreover, the vigorous stretching that Pope Benedict XVI performed in articulating a “hermeneutic of continuity” is demonstration that Vatican II could not stand alone. It contained undeniable weaknesses. They could only be redressed by supplying the necessary unambiguous statements made by the Church’s Magisterium. Other ecumenical councils never required such embarrassing backtracking. Their reasoning was as tight as a drum and the meaning of their words as clear as the sun.

Isn’t it time to move past the Old Thinking that lauded Vatican II? With all due respect to the Second Vatican Council, it does not meet the demands of a secular world. For that we need a virile, unequivocal, and full-throated Catholicism.  

Yes, take from Vatican II what was good, but stop the cheerleading. It is simply unseemly of an intelligent and faithful Catholic.

Mr. Weigel, isn’t it time to admit that the bloom has come off the rose?

  • Fr. John A. Perricone

    Fr. John A. Perricone, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor of philosophy at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York. His articles have appeared in St. John’s Law Review, The Latin Mass, New Oxford Review and The Journal of Catholic Legal Studies.

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