Examining the impact of Vatican II after 30 years

Examining the impact of Vatican II after 30 years

Fr John Parsons

The thirtieth anniversary of the end of the Second Vatican Council fell on Friday, 8 December 1995. The Council was the largest and certainly one of the most momentous ever held. Having reached such a significant anniversary of an event so important in the life and history of the Church, it is appropriate that we evaluate the results of that great assembly and the events which have flowed from it and consider where the Church might be headed in the next millennium.

Fr John Parsons, who is in charge of the Canberra-Goulburn Archdiocese's traditional Latin Mass congregation at St Brigid's, Dickson, ACT, is a regular contributor to the religious and secular press. The present article is the first of two analysing Vatican II and its long-term impact.

Thirty years after the end of any Council of the Church, whether Lateran IV in 1215, Trent in 1563, or Vatican I in 1870, intelligent and dispassionate observers are in a position to sum up the broad consequences of the Council in question, to see how far its goals and expectations have been realised, and to judge the general trend of events that have emerged in the Council's wake.

Traditionally there have been three broad heads of business at general Councils of the Church: the head of doctrine, the head of reform and the head of union. For example, Lateran IV condemned the doctrines of the Cathari, who held there were two Gods or principles, a good and an evil one, who between them shaped the world. The Council also passed disciplinary measures for the reform of the internal life of the Church, for example, one urging Benedictine monasteries to group themselves into national congregations for their better government.

The cause of union with Eastern Christians led the Council to call for a new crusade to go to the relief of the Christian populations conquered and oppressed by the Muslims. Thirty years later, in 1245, as regards those particular points, all men could see the Council's results. The Cathari had been preached against and militarily defeated; the call to form Benedictine congregations had been ignored except in England; a crusade commanded by a cardinal as papal legate, and accompanied by St Francis of Assisi, had fought in Egypt with mixed but largely unsuccessful results.

Similar balance sheets could be drawn up for the results of Trent by 1593 and the results of Vatican I by 1900. In both these cases we could show, if space permitted, that the aims of the Council had been imperfectly achieved, but that events were moving in a positive direction regarding the matters that the Council had taken in hand, and that the Council members were not surprised or appalled by the turn of events since the day the Council closed.

Alas, we know that the same cannot be said for Vatican II. What was the state of the Church prior to the Council, and what did participants in it expect its results to be? In Lent 1962, while still Archbishop Montini of Milan, the future Pope Paul VI said: "Today there are no errors in the Church, or scandals, or deviations, or abuses to correct." In 1964, in his first encyclical he wrote: "At the present time it is no longer a matter of ridding the Church of this or that particular heresy or of certain specific disorders. Thanks be to God there are none in the Church."

Two days before the Council opened on 11 October 1962, Cardinal Traglia, the Vicar of Rome said: "Never has the Catholic Church been so closely united around its head, never has it had a clergy so morally and intellectually exemplary as at present; nor is there any risk of a rupture in its organisation. A crisis in the Church is not what the Council has to deal with."

Perhaps Montini and Traglia were exaggerating, but it is certainly true that there was no immediate crisis in 1959 to prompt Pope John XXIII to summon a Council. He called the Council suddenly and unexpectedly, without consulting the cardinals as Pius IX did before calling Vatican I. Pope John said on the Council's opening day, 11 October 1962, that the whole Council might be over before Christmas. In fact it lasted three years longer.


It is clear, then, that Pope John had completely misjudged the scale and scope of the Council he had launched. He seemed to be hoping for an ill-defined but universal improvement of every aspect of the Church's life, and that this could be brought about by a process of updating, or in Italian, aggiornamento.

What is the situation today, thirty years after the end of the great assembly? It remains as Paul VI described it on 7 December 1968, 27 years ago: "The Church is in a disturbed period of self-criticism, or what would better be called self-demolition. It is an acute and complicated upheaval which nobody would have expected after the Council."

The Pope was factually mistaken there. At the Council, Cardinals Ottaviani, Brown, Ruffini and many other traditionalists had warned that mistakes were being made and that trouble lay ahead. They were, however, laughed at for their pains.

Pope Paul continues: "It was believed that after the Council a sunny day in the Church's history would dawn, but instead there came a day of clouds, storm and darkness."

In February 1981 the present Pope summed up our situation very accurately in words which are still applicable in 1995: "[W]e must admit realistically and with feelings of deep pain, that Christians today in large measure feel lost, confused, perplexed and even disappointed; ideas opposed to the truth which has been revealed and always taught are being scattered abroad in abundance; heresies in the full and proper sense of the word, have been spread in the area of dogma and morals, creating doubts, confusions and rebellions; the liturgy has been tampered with; immersed in an intellectual and moral relativism and therefore in permissiveness, Christians are tempted by atheism, agnosticism, vaguely moral enlightenment and a sociological Christianity devoid of defined dogmas or an objective morality."

In 1984 Cardinal Ratzinger said publicly that, on balance, the period since the Council had been a decidedly negative one for the Catholic Church. In so doing, he was only echoing what Pope Paul had said on 23 November 1973: "The opening to the world [he means the whole policy of aggiornamento or updating] became a veritable invasion of the Church by worldly thinking" and concludes, "We have perhaps been too weak and imprudent."

Great religious orders such as those of the Jesuits and Dominicans, which were growing, and growing at an increasing rate, in the hundred years prior to Vatican II, stopped growing in 1965 and went immediately into rapid decline, often falling by between one-third and one-quarter in numbers. In rough figures, the Dominicans fell from ten thousand to six thousand, the Capuchins from sixteen to twelve thousand, the Salesians from twenty-two to seventeen thousand and the Jesuits, the largest order in the Church, from thirty-six to twenty-six thousand.

At exactly the same point, 1965, when the piecemeal demolition of the Mass of the Roman Rite began, Mass attendance in the Western world began to go into sharp and sudden decline. About 60 per cent of nominal Catholics in Australia, for example, attended Mass weekly in 1962; less than 20 per cent do so today. The drop is therefore of the order of seventy per cent on the 1965 figure.

It is unnecessary to multiply quotations from Popes or citations of figures in order to prove the obvious. The hoped for renewal of the Church simply has not occurred. Surely simple honesty demands that everyone abandon the game of the Emperor's new clothes, and join the honest but "ecclesiastically incorrect" little boy who proclaims that the Emperor is naked and that the marvellous new clothes are simply a fraud.

How is it then that the "ecclesiastically correct" can go on talking about a renewal of the Church? The answer must lie in the fact that they are evaluating the situation by reference to factors other than the maintenance of traditional doctrine and worship, and the maintenance of previous levels of popular support for religious life and religious practice. There has been a qualitative shift which they regard as a good outweighing the current doctrinal and liturgical confusion and collapse in practical support.

In the context of questions about the need for the Council, and the decline in Catholic practice that has followed it, the Pope said last year in the book Crossing the Threshold of Hope that "Since the Council, we have been witnessing a primarily qualitative renewal ... Above all there has been a very radical transformation of our underlying model ... The traditional quantitative model has been transformed into a new more qualitative model. This also is a result of the Council." He then adds: "If the post-conciliar Church has difficulties in the area of doctrine and discipline, these difficulties are not serious enough to present a real threat of new divisions" because "the Church of the Second Vatican Council is marked by an intense collegiality among the world's bishops ... [it] truly serves this world in a variety of ways ... it remains a great force ... [and is] still present today in world politics and international organisation ."

How are we to understand this view of the matter?

It seems there are today three poles of thought which, in varying degrees influence those calling themselves Catholic. The differences between them stem from different attitudes to change in contemporary society. Since the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, philosophical and technological change has, it seems, been proceeding at an ever-increasing rate in nominally Christian parts of the world.

A secularisation, or decline of religious practice and religious influence, often connected with urbanisation, has occurred simultaneously. It may not be too much to suggest that it was the rapid urbanisation of Italy after the Second World War that persuaded Italian Popes and a largely Italian Curia that the Church was in need of an overhaul. It is perhaps significant that from the time of Constantine to the time of Pius XII there was open country immediately behind the Vatican, where now lies a great expanse of blocks of flats.

Of the three possible attitudes a nominal Catholic can take to this change, the first is to carry on regardless, resisting secularisation by all legitimate spiritual and social means (including merely technical modernisation) convinced that the traditional religion and culture of Christendom are the highest expressions of the human spirit we know, and are in fact the indirect fruit of the operations of God's grace.

On this view, slow piecemeal adaptations of the sort that have always occurred in the Church are all that we need. The second possibility is to be prepared to change all our past religious and moral beliefs and practices, to bring them into conformity with the most recent evolutions of the human spirit, convinced that the mystery of life is continually unfolding before us and is incapable of being fixed by the mind in any immutable theoretical statements, or in any particular historically conditioned set of practices.

The third possibility is to attempt to separate the immutable divine and apostolic core of Catholicism as set forth in the doctrines of faith and morals which the Church has defined over the centuries, from everything else to do with religion, convinced that the survival of the Church and the welfare of mankind require us to re-express this inner core in an entirely new social form that will bring it as close as possible to non-Catholic, meaning chiefly modern secularist, styles and habits of mind. As Cardinal Montini put it in October 1962: "The Council should trace the line of Christian relativism, laying down how far the Catholic religion must act as the iron guardian of absolute values, and how far it can and should bend in its approach, in its connaturality with human life as it exists in time."

Radical transformation

These three attitudes are polarities of thought, not mutually exclusive boxes into which individuals can be placed, but a man will be found to approximate more to one than another. Of the three, it was the first that prevailed in the Vatican until the death of Pius XII, and the third that was taken up by the Council. The "renewal" that has indisputably happened, is the official shift from one to the other.

This change remains a fact, no matter how many "difficulties in the area of doctrine and discipline" there may be, provided the institutional Church itself does not break up through a schism in the hierarchy. The "very radical transformation of our underlying model" from "the traditional quantitative" to a "new more qualitative" one thus seems to mean a shift in interest from the question "How much of the world have you converted to Catholicism?" to the question "What kind of relationship does Catholicism have with the world?"

And if the Church has been brought culturally and philosophically closer to the non-Catholic, non-Christian and non-Theist world around about, then the whole operation has been a success, from the third point of view, provided the Church survives as an institution and its defined doctrines are not theoretically abandoned. This seems to be how the Roman Curia, particularly the Secretariat of State, and Catholic officialdom in general, view the present situation.

To be concluded next month.

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