The Future of Vatican II

What has the Second Vatican Council wrought? This question was asked almost as soon as Vatican II concluded its work in 1965. It remains a question. Given the perspective provided by the distance of thirty years, what now can be said? No response can give a full measure of the impact of the Council without a clear, even if incomplete, idea of the Church as it approached that remarkable event.

As the number of us who attended the Council inexorably continues to dwindle, so too do those with sharp memories of pre-conciliar Catholicism. Let me recall, without nuance or qualification, some of the most familiar and evocative details of American Catholic life at that time.

Liturgy and prayer: The priest celebrated Mass in Latin, often inaudibly, with his back to the congregation. The homily often seemed to be an afterthought. It was common practice to recite the rosary, to make the stations of the cross, to weigh the ounces of the Lenten meals scrupulously, to go to confession regularly, to be taught by strict, pious, but not highly educated nuns, and to collect indulgences. Certain pious practices ensured that, having died and entered into eternity, one would be freed from purgatory on the Sunday following one’s death.

The hierarchical structure: The different levels of membership in the Church were markedly evident in gaps in communication. For a member of the laity to criticize the clergy publicly, however respectfully, or for a theologian (almost invariably a cleric) to criticize a bishop, or for any of these to criticize the pope was to invite widespread opprobrium on the critic. Respect for the office of the bishop was expressed by kneeling to kiss the Episcopal ring. The Curia was secure in its large bureaucratic control. “Councils come and go; popes come and go; the Curia remains.” The Catholic press was docile and bishops were shielded by a largely indifferent secular press that was content to accept the official handouts. There was minimal investigative reporting on internal church matters. The overall attitude about this structure was nicely encapsulated by the cardinal who told some lay people: “We are the Church; you belong to the Church.”

Morality, ethics, and culture: Clear definitions, set rules, and rigid regulations were expected and accepted. Nice calibrations distinguished venial from mortal sins. Seminary studies were based on a static neo-scholasticism, an ossified Thomism. Intellectual and artistic ferment was low and not widely encouraged. The Index and the imprimatur were lively facts of life, and a prominent cardinal could condemn a movie because, among other things, it used the word “virgin.”

This complex of beliefs and practices shaped a community that was in many ways comfortable and practical—it made great strides in terms of labor, parish formation, building schools, and hospitals, all enclosed, seemingly secure, and stable.

For intellectual Catholics at least, the years immediately preceding the Council were also an exciting period, for outside this country, under the surface of mainstream Catholicism, on the fringes of the acceptable, new ideas were stirring. Congar, de Lubac, Danielou, Adam, Bouyer, and Maritain were looking at old structures in new ways; Mauriac, Claudel, Bernanos, Waugh, and Greene, all decidedly Catholic, wrote for audiences far beyond the Catholic ghetto. These were all signs that things could change, that underneath the placid surface there might be a quickening seed.

No one, however, was prepared for John XXIII’s call for a Council. And no one—not the pope, the Curia, the conciliar Fathers, the rest of the clergy, or the Catholic laity was prepared for the transforming work of the Holy Spirit that swept through the Council almost from its opening days. As Avery Dulles wrote soon after the last days of the Council, “When the Council Fathers came together, they immediately saw the need of setting forth a radically different vision of the Church, more biblical, more historical, more vital, and dynamic.”

In different terms, the Council undertook to consider the Church in terms of continuity and change, renewal and reform, tradition and creativity. The result was to displace, in Michael Novak’s most succinct and telling description, the reigning “non-historical orthodoxy.” The ferment in those days was heady, and the range of reactions among Catholics and others was wide. We should probably not have been surprised that disturbing a settled order unsettled a good number of people, some of whom became, as it were, casualties of rapid change.

The late 60s and early 70s was a time of political and cultural turmoil in the United States and other countries. A number of Catholics, with the best of intentions, claiming to follow the directives of the Council and wishing to put themselves in service to this world, became social activists. Although they did not explicitly adopt the misguided slogan of the National Council of Churches, “The world should set the agenda for the Church,” in practice they followed it. The Church, they asserted, its teachings and its practices, should be relevant to the pressing problems of the time. Too frequently they transferred to the political order the confidence and certainty they had previously invested in the Church. For some of these activists the transcendent became lost in what was immediately relevant and demanding.

Even though some aspects of the Council have been superseded by subsequent events, we are still coping with its full implications. The results are observable in our liturgy, in our understanding of the Church itself, its place in our political and cultural life, in our ideas of religious education, in efforts at ecumenism, in the national Episcopal conferences, in our views of Catholics in other countries, in our notions of freedom.

Some of the changes still seem to be somewhat experimental. Surely our liturgy is not doomed to remain in its present state, or the various Episcopal conferences to remain captive to partisan political agendas. Others changes mark very real advancement. The Catholic press is more lively and independent, and the bishops deal with the secular press more adequately than the press deals with church matters. The Church is also more publicly accountable for transgressions within the clergy. It is learning that admitting faults openly is better than the suppression of information about scandalous behavior among its ranks.

From among the many issues to which the post-conciliar Church is directed by the Council itself, I will select two. The first is, to adopt the title of one of the richest documents of the Council, the Church in the modern world. What is, what should be, the stance of the Church in America’s present political and cultural life? More particularly, what should it be when the mainstream has assimilated so much of what is harmful, undesirable, questionable, and crude from what was once called the counter-culture? In practice that question has received a mixed response. There are always those, usually outside the Church, who would confine religion to the private sphere, a position not to be countenanced in a free society. Some Catholics, faced with public practices that call for public judgment, have cast aside the public responsibilities that necessarily flow from their proclaimed beliefs.

Others, including some clerical leaders, would enter the mainstream, go with its flow, invoking “the spirit of Vatican II” to justify their views and actions. By referring to the spirit of Vatican II, they feel relieved, apparently, of the onerous duty to reference the particular documents that purportedly support their views. It is just such an approach that once led T. S. Eliot, in quite a different context, to remark ironically, “The spirit killeth, the letter giveth life.” The documents of Vatican II, the letter, are still there for reference and further study. They remain large, positive, generous statements in the service of life. Those who are truly inspired by these documents, for example, could hardly fail to be opposed to abortion and euthanasia— whether advocated in Cairo, Beijing, or in the United States. When the reigning culture of a country has become morally vacant or worse, actively pernicious, when it harms and destroys life, it becomes necessary for those with other standards to take a stand against that culture. We must decide whether this is the situation in which the Church, and so all Catholics, find themselves today.

The second issue is closely related to the first. In speaking of freedom in the context of the Council, John Courtney Murray remarked that “the word and the thing have wrought wonders in the modern world; they have also wrought havoc.” Although Father Murray was not fully satisfied with the document on religious freedom, to which he made a great contribution, it remains one of the great achievements of the Council. Its influence continues to radiate throughout the world today, as religion becomes for many a liberating force, even as others justify the most aggressive violence in the name of religion.

Freedom is a term that recurs frequently in the other documents of Vatican II. While it has inspired some of the most eloquent statements and heroic actions of our time, it also has been perverted to signal whatever possibilities of human action that the human person can conceive. This interpretation of freedom has even led one benighted though well- known critic to describe the Marquis de Sade as the freest man in the world. Much in modern life, in high philosophy and in popular culture alike, urges us to follow that path. Vatican II, which treated with great respect the high accomplishments of humankind, points in another direction. That direction and the reasons for following it, are sketched out in its documents.

The spirit and influence of the Council continue to inspire those who attend to it. We are far from exhausting its resources. It continues to speak to each of us in our different roles. If we think and act in the spirit and letter of the Council, we will appropriate insights that can strengthen our actions and so bring us close to the perfection to which we are called. During the Council, Bishop Tracy of Baton Rouge remarked:

From Council to Council though 2000 years, God takes care of his Church in ways that men can never fathom or understand. And it is consoling to know that, in spite of the little human qualities that are bound to appear in any human gathering, the hand of the Lord is still at work,  operating in this Church forever and for the good of souls.

There is another description by a pre-conciliar writer. Its full-blown romantic quality may not appeal to some readers, but I think it is true of the Church in the modern world:

In my view the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect. — G. K. Chesterton


  • James Finn

    James Finn is author of Protest: Pacifism and Politics, a study of the Vietnam peace movement, and, when Crisis was originally published in 1982, he was editor of Freedom at Issue, the bimonthly journal of Freedom House.

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