Do you want to start an instant fight in a group of Catholics, any group, no matter how large or small?  Here’s a method guaranteed to work 100% of the time: just mention Vatican II. That’s all it takes, just toss it in there like a hand grenade and watch the fireworks begin!

     You can find the latest evidence for the volatility of any discussion of the Second Vatican Council by looking at the comments section of an article called “How should we think about Vatican II?” published earlier this week by Douglas Bushman on the Catholic World Report website. It’s clear that, over half a century after the close of the Council, the dust from Vatican II still hasn’t settled. Maybe it’s about time that it did. Five and a half decades is long enough to bicker.  We need to come to some sort of consensus on “how we should think about Vatican II” so that we can unite in the face of an increasingly anti-Christian world.  

     I know, I know, if it was that easy we would have done it already.  I’m not claiming to have a comprehensive plan.  I’d just like to toss a few thoughts out there with the aim of starting a constructive discussion about how we can stop arguing about the past and direct our attention to where we’re going, or better yet, where we should be going.

Pope Paul VI at the closing ceremony of Vatican II

     Let’s start with Bushman’s article.  His argument is, I think, incomplete, but he does focus on two important points.  The first is why the Second Vatican Council was called in the first place.  Unlike previous councils which were called to deal with specific issues within the Church, Vatican II was called to deal with a much broader and less defined situation: “the deterioration of Christian conscience.” That’s why it is sometimes called a “pastoral” council, as opposed to a “doctrinal” council. As Pope Paul VI put it in his closing address:

To appreciate [the Council] properly it is necessary to remember the time in which it was realized: a time which everyone admits is orientated toward the conquest of the kingdom of earth rather than of that of heaven; a time in which forgetfulness of God has become habitual . . . a time, finally, which is characterized by upheavals and a hitherto unknown decline even in the great world religions.

Vatican II, then, was the Church’s attempt to persuade a quickly secularizing world to take a new look at the Gospel.

     Bushman’s second point is that, to put it bluntly, as Catholics we owe obedience to an ecumenical council of the Church:

So, let me give a direct answer: receive the teaching of Vatican II, in faith, as the gift and word of the Holy Spirit to the Church of our age, and live it . . . Before the Conciliar documents are the object of theological investigation, they have a claim on Catholic faith.

     Few of us, I hope, would disagree with the general proposition that the pronouncements of a duly convened ecumenical council have a claim on us (which is why many critics offer reasons why they believe Vatican II is not a legitimate council).  At the same time, it’s not clear that the claim is as clear cut as Dr. Bushman suggests.  Previously Councils felt the need to be explicit about the matter.  We find this, for instance, at the end of the Council of Trent’s decrees:

Council of Trent

We, with apostolic authority, and with the advice and assent of our venerable brethren the cardinals, having previously had a mature deliberation with them, do confirm all and singular the things which have been decreed and defined in the said Council, as well under Paul III., and Julius III., of happy memory, as during the time of our pontificate; and we command that the same be received and inviolably observed by all the faithful of Christ; In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

There is no such language in the documents of Vatican II.  But of course the Council wasn’t claiming to define doctrine. The Council fathers probably didn’t think it necessary to “command” the Catholic faithful simply to show respect and deference to an ecumenical council.

     I’d like to return in a moment to the question of what sort of deference we owe to Vatican II, but we first need to address two enormous issues that Bushman doesn’t deal with in his essay:  first, what the Council actually says in its official documents, and second, the sprawling, amorphous blob of sometimes bizarre and often unsupported consequences, initiatives, ideas, and, I don’t know, I guess an overall vibe that has come to be known as “The Spirit of Vatican II”.   As we shall see, the vagueness of this “spirit” is a feature, not a bug.

     Let’s start with what the Council actually said: The Second Vatican Council issued sixteen formal documents. Bushman quotes from one of them, Gaudium et Spes (“Joy and Hope”) – The Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, but does not make the content of those documents part of his argument. As it happens, the account of the Catholic faith contained in the documents of Vatican II is, for the most part, traditional and orthodox.  There are some grounds for criticism in some places.  Among others Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, one of the Council Fathers, had  substantial objections to the language of some of the documents, particularly Nostra Aetate, the Declaration On the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions and Dignitatis Humanae, the Declaration On Religious Freedom.  Nevertheless, he did not declare the Council illegitimate or claim that it taught heresy; even though he had opposed Dignitatis Humanae and had voted against it he signed the final document because it was, in fact, a decree of the Council.

Archbishop Marcel Lafebvre

     What Lefebvre did do, at least initially, is work within the structures of the Church to limit what he saw as the bad consequences that followed Vatican II. He formed the Society of Pius X in 1969, four years after the closing of the Council, as a perfectly licit organization within the Church and with the permission of the local bishop, as a way of preserving more traditional practices in liturgy and in Church teaching.  It wasn’t because of the Council itself that Lefebvre and the SSPX moved away from the rest of the Church, but because of his reaction to some of the measures taken to implement the Council in the two decades after its closing, to things done in the name of the “Spirit” of Vatican II that did not emanate directly from the Council, and perhaps most importantly due to the hostility of the French bishops, all of which eventually brought Lefebvre into conflict with Popes Paul VI and John Paul II.

     Which brings us to another large issue, maybe the biggest: The so-called Spirit of Vatican II.  A dizzying array of changes happened in the Church after the Council.  The most immediately visible were in the liturgy, and these were huge: the traditional Latin language was gone, in favor of local languages, the priest no longer faced the liturgical East (ad orientem) with the congregation, but instead faced ad populum, toward the congregation. The pipe organ and traditional hymns and chant largely disappeared, and in their place came guitars and freshly composed “folk” tunes.  Very often the church buildings themselves looked different, with statues, ornamentation, and sometimes even the Stations of the Cross torn out in an iconoclastic frenzy.  Finally, even the way many clerics talked about the faith seemed different, with much less discussion of sin, heaven, hell, etc., and much more content that sounded a lot like pop psychology or a left-wing political program.

     The changes above are what come first to most peoples’ minds when you mention Vatican II.  Significantly, few of them are actually discussed in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, none are mandated, and some even directly contradict what is published in those documents.  When these inconvenient facts are pointed to the originators or supporters of these and other innovations, the inevitable response is “Well, it may not be called for explicitly, but this innovation is in the spirit of Vatican II.”  In other words, the mere fact that the Council seemed to endorse some changes in traditional practices is used as a general permission for any and all changes.  What the Council actually said is irrelevant to the Spirit of Vatican II.  I often illustrate this point with an example from a book called called A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America   by “progressive” Catholic journalist Peter Steinfels (I was required to read it once . . . it’s a long story). Steinfels devotes an entire chapter of his book to Vatican II, but doesn’t include a single quote – not one! – from the Council documents.

The Spirit of Vatican II?

     More traditional-minded defenders of the Council have often pointed to this disconnect between the actual work of the Council and the phenomenon known as the Spirit of Vatican II.  They’re right, but the changes that followed the Council have had, and still have, a much greater impact than the Council itself.  Consider this analogy:  you open your door one night to let in your cat, and along with him come half a dozen rabid raccoons.  And maybe the cat doesn’t get in after all. In any case, you didn’t intend to let in the raccoons, but there they are, snarling at you and eating the upholstery off your furniture.  When he called for the Second Vatican Council Pope John XXIII said that the time had come to “open the windows of the Church to let in fresh air”, but the problem is the rabid raccoons known as the Spirit of Vatican II came along with it, intended or not.  You can’t separate the two.

     So, what to do? How can we be at peace with the Council, but at the same time reject so many of the things done in its name?

     Let’s return to Archbishop Lefebvre for a moment.  In the spring of 1967, midway between the closing of Vatican II and the founding of the SSPX, Lefebrve, who at the time was the Superior General of the Holy Ghost Fathers, met St. Padre Pio.  There is a story in circulation that the future saint berated the Archbishop for disobedience, and said accusingly: “You will tear apart the community of faithful.”  The archbishop had a much different story about their meeting:  

Padre Pio kisses Lefebvre’s ring

The meeting which took place after Easter in 1967 lasted two minutes . . . I met Padre Pio in a corridor, on his way to the confessional, being helped by two Capuchins. I told him in a few words the purpose of my visit: for him to bless the Congregation of the Holy Ghost which was due to hold an extraordinary General my Chapter meeting . . .Then Padre Pio cried out. ‘Me, bless an archbishop, no, no, it is you who should be blessing me!’ And he bowed, to receive the blessing. I blessed him, he kissed my ring and continued on his way to the confessional . . . (“Padre Pio & Archbishop Lefebvre,”

Archbishop Lefebvre meets Padre Pio

On the face of it Archbishop Lefebvre’s version of events seems more likely, and the photographic evidence of their meeting all but settles it.  Surely his version of the event is closer to the truth. But even if the first story is completely false and it happened exactly as Lefebvre describes it, there is still a subtle rebuke, whether Padre Pio intended it or not.  Padre Pio was a Capuchin Franciscan, and his spiritual father St. Francis of Assissi was famous for his obedience to the hierarchical Church:

On one occasion, a parishioner brought to the attention of St. Francis a priest involved in a scandalous affair. He asked St. Francis to go and correct the priest. The first thing St. Francis did was to kneel and kiss the hands of the priest. (From the Thirteenth-Century Testimonies #6.) St. Francis was not condoning any possible wrong behavior of the priest, but instead was teaching us that God works through his church, even when it’s ministers fall short. (“St. Francis on Bad Priests,”

     I don’t know whether the Franciscan Padre Pio knew who the archbishop was or not; all that mattered was that he was an archbishop who, by virtue of his office, had a “claim in faith” on him. Padre Pio himself, a stigmatic like St. Francis, suffered in patient obedience for fifteen years early in his priesthood when he was forbidden to administer the sacraments publicly by superiors unnerved by his manifestations of the wounds of Christ .  Had Archbishop Lefebvre shown the same patience as Padre Pio in the face of suspicious superiors his obedience in the short term might have borne more fruit in the long term.

     Notice that honoring proper authority in the Church doesn’t mean affirming error.  St. Francis certainly wasn’t condoning the bad behavior of the priest whose hands he kissed.  Respecting Vatican II as what the Church tells us it is, a duly constituted ecumenical council, does not mean that its pronouncements are beyond discussion. It does mean that we have a duty to discuss them with the proper respect as we work to defend the most orthodox interpretation of what seem to be problematical statements.

The Council of Florence

    Nor does it mean that we must declare it a success. The seventeenth council of the Church was the Council of Florence from 1431-1449.  Its purpose was to reunite the Orthodox churches of the East with the Roman Church, an aim in which it manifestly failed.  At the same time, we acknowledge Florence as a true Council of the Church, and still hope to achieve its goal of Christian unity at some point.  It’s perfectly appropriate to say that the Second Vatican Council has failed in its goal of re-evangelizing the world, at least to this point . . .

     . . . but the game’s not over yet.  The Council of Florence was five and a half centuries ago; Vatican II was only five and a half decades ago, a short time in the history of the Church. The implementation of the Council is still ongoing. Consider what we might accomplish if we shared with the vast collection of Catholics who have only heard the simulacra of the Spirit of Vatican II statements from the Real Vatican II such as these:

On the Language of the Liturgy:

Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites. (Sacrosanctum concilium – Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 36)

On Liturgical Music:

Gregorian chant, as proper to the Roman liturgy, should be given pride of place, other things being equal. (Musicam Sacram – Instruction on Music in the Holy Liturgy, 50)

The pipe organ is to be held in high esteem in the Latin Church, since it is its traditional instrument, the sound of which can add a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lift up men’s minds to God and higher things. (Musicam Sacram – Instruction on Music in the Holy Liturgy, 62)

On Contraception:

Relying on these principles, sons of the Church may not undertake methods of birth control which are found blameworthy by the teaching authority of the Church in its unfolding of the divine law. (Gaudium et SpesThe Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, 51)

Vatican II-era Fr. Joseph Ratzinger

Pope Benedict XVI, who was a peritus (theological advisor) at the Council, has long insisted that we should interpret Vatican II in continuity with tradition, not as a break from it.  That is certainly what Pope John XXIII had in mind when he called the Council.  The few brief excerpts above are not exceptions; what Vatican II actually said lends itself more to Catholic tradition than to radical change.  That’s why the self-styled progressives rarely use the actual words of the Council documents, and instead rely upon an insubstantial, and ultimately subjective, “spirit”.     The fact is, the Second Vatican Council happened.  We can’t change that.  I don’t see how continuing to complain about it can accomplish anything but further divide the Church and alienate all those inside and outside the Church who aren’t attracted to bickering and backbiting. Our choices are either to claim the Council as our own and use it to restore a more traditional practice of Catholicism, or surrender the field to the bogus Spirit of Vatican II.  I’m going with choice “A”.

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