Sixty years of Vatican II

Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council officially on October 11, 1962, which is sixty years ago today. When you have fun, time really does fly.

Many Catholics view Vatican II as the most significant disruption in the history and development of the Church. This applies to both the Council’s critics and its supporters.


Progressives believe the Church needs a little disruption. Pope Francis stated, “I want to make a mess.” The Church was ensconced in narrow Scholastic theology and Baroque ceremony, as well as reactionary politics. Vatican II reduced the Church to its bare essentials. It enabled the Holy Spirit to dress her in clothes more appropriate to our liberal, democratic order.

Traditionalists claim that the liberal democratic order was primarily against catholicism. Danish Lutherans and French Calvinists inspired the Church’s “simplified” liturgy. Her new theology draws largely on heretics such as Hans Kung and Karl Rahner. Her politics, with its emphasis on self-government and human rights, is a surrender to France’s Revolution. Any attempt to accommodate modernity, by definition, is an act of surrender.

The conservatives are a large and unhappy group that is stuck in the middle. They claim that Vatican II was not intended to cause a breakup. The Council did try to improve things. They tried to ground the Western Church in the pre-Christian era. The teachings and practices from the Early Church were not well adapted to the new postChristian era. This is resourcement or “resourcement”. (Cool kids use French all the time.

Because it is so obscure, the conservative position can be the most difficult to grasp. The Council was led only by bishops. If they didn’t want revolution, why was there one? Conservatives will respond with one word: bureaucrats. The Roman Curia is the invisible army functionaries who actually run the Holy See. It’s also known as the Deep Church.

Since the Roman Curia’s inception, men of progressive sympathies have ruled. They gave us “praise band” when Vatican II specifically called for the restoration Gregorian chant. When the new rubrics clearly state that priests should be and orientem (facing East), they encouraged Mass to be celebrated against populum (facing people). So on.


Most traditionalists are not opposed to this reading. The main problem is with Dignitatis Personalae which states that “every human being has the right to religious freedom”. Traditionalists claim this contradicts numerous older Church documents, such as Pius IX’s notorious Syllabus Of Errors. The syllabus states that “in the present day it is not expedient that Catholic religion should be held to be the sole religion of the state, to exclusion of all forms of worship.” This means that error is not protected.

Conservatives have come up a lot of creative arguments to prove that Dignitatis follows Church teachings. Thomas Pink’s is the best-known. He claims Vatican II has changed “policy and not doctrine”. True, errors have no rights. The Church might be more open to error in certain ages than others.

You may now be asking yourself: “Why is this dumpster still on fire after sixty years?” It’s why no one has put it out yet. It’s not clear how.

Five popes have ruled since Vatican II, each with their own interpretations of Council documents. Each pope has brought to the See of Peter his own liturgical, theological, and political agendas. They could convene a Third Vatican Council. However, there is already a civil conflict at the College of Bishops. He would be smeared with blood if he tried to force them all into one room and have them work out their differences.

The Council is therefore irrelevant at some levels. It will never be understood if its meaning remains unclear after six decades. Traditionalists, conservatives, and progressives alike can continue to argue the documents until their eyes are blue (and they will). They’re actually arguing about first principles. Dignitatis Humanae at this point is more like an Oxford-style resolution than any other–not a directive but a prompt.

This argument is designed to upset just about everybody. Because all factions want a clear win. This is true for Pope Francis too. Yes, the Holy Father desires a mess. He wants a progressive mess. He wants a vigorous, bold debate that leads to everyone arriving at the same conclusions as he does.

Why not? Chesterton was correct: “The modern custom of saying “This is my opinion but I may not be right” is completely irrational. I will not say it is my opinion if I think it might be wrong.

Francis made his mess. It’s amazing that his lot will win the scrum. Vatican II made it clear that we still don’t understand the mechanism of authority in the Catholic Church. That’s okay.

This may not be acceptable. Our Orthodox brothers will remind us that we Latins are obsessed by clear hierarchies and neat formulas. They tend to be more inclined toward legalism than we are toward unhealthy mysticism. We are uncomfortable with uncertainty. That’s a good thing. The whole point of being Catholic, however, is that even though we may not have clarity at the moment, it doesn’t mean that we will never.

This realization was what finally convinced John Henry Newman, to swim the Tiber.

Anglicans of the old school believe that the “depositof faith” is drawn from the first five century anno Domini. The Church is responsible for passing down these teachings as she received them from Our Lord and the Apostles.

Newman attempted to defend this thesis within the context of Arian crises in the fourth century. He believed that the trinitarian creed, promulgated at the First Council of Nicaea only confirmed what Christians had taught. It was only used to subdue the rebellion of Arius, an arch-heretic who rejected the traditional formula and preferred his “adoptionism.”

Newman’s theory didn’t work, much to his dismay. Newman found ample evidence that pre-Nicene Christians believed in Arian adoptionism. The view was already supported in Europe by Catholic theologians such as Denis Petau. It proved the necessity for a central authority to “develop” doctrine. It was not possible in the Protestant world.

Newman’s interpretation of the Arian Crisis is still the most popular. His argument has been advanced by many scholars including Rowan Williams, David Bentley Hart. They believe that Arius was the “traditionalist” faction of the Council of Nicaea.

Hart stated that “the Semi-Arians and Arians were theological conservatives and not wild innovators.” The Nicene party on the other hand was pushing a conceptual and doctrinetrinal vocabulary with no contestable antecedent. The Nicene party had the best arguments. They “made sense” of a wider range of Christian beliefs and spiritual expectations. They “offered a richer theology about the intimacy between God’s creatures and God.” Theirs was, it turned out, the more coherent metaphysics.

This is why Catholicism seems more progressive than Protestantism. It believes doctrine can develop, and by an infallible authority: The Church. It was only a matter time before Newman “poped” after realizing this.

This isn’t the only example where “progressives” ended up being more “orthodox” than “conservatives. Early Christians were opposed to translating the Mass from Greek to Latin. St. Thomas Aquinas opposed the doctrine of Immaculate Conception. This doctrine was unambiguously defined by Pope Pius IX 1854. We could go on.

But the Arian Crisis is an especially powerful example because the Nicene formula is now accepted by all Christians–Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. It has not been challenged, with the exception of a few unitarians. In fact, the exact opposite is true. Hart explained that this formula has become more and more possible over time. It’s reached the point that we cannot imagine Arius or anyone else dissenting from it except out of pure malice.

However, this is not to suggest that the progressives are wrong in their fracas about Vatican II. They are, for whatever reason, dead wrong. It’s possible, even probable that God uses this confusion to bring more clarity.

Vatican II did not create confusion within the Church. This confusion existed already. This made matters worse when it tried to create a more coherent doctrine and failed miserably. However, clarity is possible. The Arian Crisis shows that confusion can get worse before it gets better. God uses our zeal, both the zeal of heretics and the orthodox.

My unwelcome (and unwelcome) advice to fellow Catholics is: Strive for clarity, but don’t feel entitled. Refuse to make mistakes in a spirit that is humble. Fighting for truth with a spirit charity Trust that God will see you through. He has always done so, and He will continue to do so.

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