Vatican II at 60: Time for Retirement

The constant demand to implement Vatican II is holding back authentic reform in the Church.

Today is the 60th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. Undeniably the most influential event in modern Church history, Vatican II impacted every facet of Church life, from how the pope exercises his ministry to how parishes operate.

Since Vatican II, however, the Church has suffered many losses: millions leave the flock every year, the Church’s moral standing in the world is shattered, and she is deeply divided. While a small (but vocal) segment of Catholics place the blame for these losses at the feet of the Council, most Catholic leaders, particularly among the ranks of the bishops, argue that we must look to Vatican II to reverse these disturbing trends: only through the Council can we revitalize the Church. Some argue that this will be done by correcting mis-implementations of the Council, while others fight for a “fuller” implementation, in line with the “spirit of Vatican II.” But perhaps there is a better option, one that leaves behind the rancorous debates that have dominated Church life for decades: retiring the Council.

Of course, retiring Vatican II is anathema in most Church circles today, especially in chanceries and rectories. Not a week goes by without a bishop or priest or Catholic public figure arguing for the need to continue implementing the reforms of Vatican II. Pope Francis in particular sees the Council as the instrument through which the Church is reformed. His views are shared by many bishops, even those who differ with the pontiff on how such a reform would take place. 

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The desire among bishops and other Church leaders to either continue or restart the implementation of Vatican II may be well-intentioned in that it recognizes our crisis and our need for reform. Whether it is wanting a liturgy more faithful to Sacrosanctum Concilium, or a more expansive ecumenism in the light of Unitatis Redintegratio, or a better understanding of the role of the laity in keeping with Lumen Gentium—no matter if the desire for reform comes from a “conservative” or “liberal” perspective—all share a common presupposition: the problems of today’s Church will be solved by looking to Vatican II. 

After 60 years, though, is that presupposition still valid? 

Pope Paul VI, soon after Vatican II ended, noted the Council’s “pastoral character.” After all, pastoral concerns—not doctrinal debates—dominated the agenda at the Council. While the doctrinal sections of the Council documents mostly re-stated traditional teachings, the emphasis—and purpose—of these texts was to give pastoral advice on how the Church should operate in the 20th century. The Church, however, is quite different now.

This is the nature of pastoral advice: it is typically time-limited. How the Church ministers to the world has certain timeless principles, to be sure, but the details of how this ministry occurs changes over time. The pastoral needs of Christians in the 2nd century, for instance, are radically different from those in the 12th century or in today’s 21st century.

Yet doesn’t the pastoral advice given by an ecumenical council of the Church transcend generations? Actually, no. The Council of Nicea in the 4th century decreed that bishops should not be transferred to another diocese (a common practice today). The Fourth Lateran Council in the 13th century stated that Jews should not hold public office. The Council of Vienne in the 14th century ordered bishops to publicly condemn any priests who “engage in the butcher’s trade.” Pastoral advice, even from an ecumenical council, clearly can have limitations to specific times and places. 

So the question no one seems to be asking is the one that should be addressed: is the pastoral advice given 60 years ago at Vatican II still applicable today? The world and the Church have changed immensely over those six decades, and many of the concerns of that time are not our concerns. The Council Fathers were not facing a Church which had lost millions of members to secularism and evangelicalism. They weren’t part of a Church with almost no moral standing in the world. Their flock did not consist of the woefully under-catechized as it does today. The sexual revolution was only in its embryonic stages; now it’s a demented adult.

The Council Fathers, in other words, were children of their times. They could not see into the future to know what challenges the Church would face in the 21st century. No matter how well-intentioned they may have been, they were still human beings with finite knowledge.

Of course, in the light of Church and world history, 60 years might not seem like that much time. It’s likely, for instance, that the issues the Church faced in 760 AD were similar to those faced in 820 AD. But due mostly to technological advances, the pastoral needs of the modern world shift much more rapidly. The past 100 years alone have seen more changes in how humans live than occurred in the 1,000 years prior. 

Two examples should bring this point home. One of the often-ignored factors in the decline of Catholicism in the West is the rise of the suburbs. The life of the average Catholic parish in the West radically changed over the course of the 20th century: from the hub of a geographically small local community to a Sunday pitstop in a car-dominated life. The growth of suburbs began before the Council, to be sure, but its impact was little understood or even acknowledged at that time. Using Vatican II as our pastoral model, however, results in either ignoring this issue altogether or forcing an awkward Vatican II solution onto a 21st century problem.

Another major factor in the decline of Catholicism—and religion in general—didn’t even exist in the early 1960’s: the internet. The ways in which the internet have changed how we live, how we conduct our relationships, and how we form communities are extreme. And while Vatican II did issue a decree on social communications, the Council Fathers had no way of anticipating the adverse consequences the internet and particularly social media would have on the practice of religion. 

With rapid world changes comes the need for new pastoral advice, not advice bound to a different time’s council. Just as we don’t turn to the Third Lateran Council for pastoral advice today, so we shouldn’t look to Vatican II anymore. The advice given by bishops in the early 1960’s simply doesn’t resonate today; it addresses a different time and a different Church culture. Looking slavishly to Vatican II as the primary means for guiding the Church today only hamstrings efforts for authentic reform. 

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Thus I propose that we “retire” Vatican II. We leave behind the acrimonious debates about the Council and recognize that whether Vatican II was a good council, a good council with a bad implementation, or a bad council is an irrelevant question. We no longer debate the merits of VHS over Betamax. Trying to drag Vatican II into the 21st century isn’t helping to save souls. 

After sixty years of controversy and conflict, Vatican II has earned its retirement. The Council can no longer be a lens for reform; we must see the Church and her mission with new eyes. Let’s give Vatican II a golden watch, retire the council, and restart the work of evangelizing the world.

  • Eric Sammons

    Eric Sammons is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine.

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