Vatican II, 1962-1965 - The next 30 years: to bring about a Catholic revival

Vatican II, 1962-1965 - The next 30 years: to bring about a Catholic revival

Fr John Parsons

The thirtieth anniversary of the ending of the Second Vatican Council fell on 8 December 1995. In last month's 'AD2000' Fr John Parsons evaluated some of the results of this Council for the Catholic Church and their significance. In part two of his analysis of Vatican II, Fr Parsons looks at some steps the Church needs to take if the renewal promised by the Council is to bear fruit over the next 30 years.

Fr Parsons is in charge of the Canberra-Goulburn Archdiocese's Latin Mass congregation at St Brigid's, Dickson, ACT, and is a regular contributor to secular and religious publications.

The evolution of events in the Catholic Church in the period since Pope John XXIII's election in 1958 cannot be explained without reference to one key factor. This is the widespread confusion that had existed at all levels in the Church for a hundred years prior to Vatican II, ever since the Catholic Revival in the mid-nineteenth century, between papal infallibility and papal inerrancy.

Papal infallibility, as defined by Vatican I in 1870, means that the Pope is divinely preserved from teaching error in his most solemn pronouncements on doctrines of faith and morals. Papal inerrancy, on the other hand, is the wholly unauthorised theory that the Pope is also immune from error in his pastoral government of the Church, or at least in his major pastoral and prudential decisions.

This latter theory is in no way taught by Vatican I and does not form part of Catholic doctrine; indeed an acquaintance with Church history makes such a theory scarcely tenable. Many Catholics however drew, and still draw, no practical distinction between these two ideas.

Thus it was that when the papacy swung from the first (resisting secularisation) to the third attitude to social change (adapting, where possible, the expression of Church doctrines to the modern world's expectations), and adopted the policy of aggiornamento, many Catholics, in fact most, mistakenly assumed that the decision to adopt the new attitude was covered by papal infallibility and therefore unquestionably right. They naturally regarded those few who did question the shift, as bad Catholics and treated them as practical heretics for whom there was no room in the Church.

As Cardinal Ratzinger has put it, belief in the rightness of aggiornamento has become for many a super-dogma which takes precedence over the whole of Catholic belief. Assent to doctrines which are guaranteed by the Church's infallibility has in practice become optional as a condition for membership of the Church, but assent to the policy of aggiornamento, a pastoral and prudential strategy which cannot be a doctrine of the faith and cannot be infallibly guaranteed, is in practice compulsory, at least for all those who wish to be thought reliable and fit to hold any official position, whether administrative, academic or other.

Up to 1958, Roman authority, as noted in part one of this article, upheld substantially traditional positions on all questions. After the council, Roman authority, followed by the hierarchy and those influenced by a belief in papal inerrancy, or by their own personal desire to conform with modernity, imposed a policy of cultural transposition on the Church, in pursuance of the third of the three attitudes to secularisation outlined in part one of this analysis (March AD2000).


Because the new aim was to bring the Church culturally closer to the non-Church, condemnations of current errors were simultaneously abandoned, as running counter to the spirit of accommodation to the world. As Pope John announced in his solemn speech opening the Council on 11 October 1962, henceforth in her attitude to error the Church "prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy, rather than of the arm of severity." She will resist error "by showing the validity of her teaching, rather than by issuing condemnations." On moral errors the Pope said that today "at last it seems men of themselves", that is without refutations and condemnations, "are disposed to condemn such errors; in particular those ways of behaving which despise God and His law."

This policy of non-resistance to error was enshrined in the transformation, thirty years ago on 7 December 1965, of the Holy Office into the present Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The old body had had the task of condemning doctrinal and moral errors when they arose; its new task was defined as promoting truth, but as far as possible without condemning any errors; a strange logical feat to attempt, but one which led in practice to the complete cessation between 1965 and 1975 of all censure or condemnation of unorthodox books and publications. Error was in practice given immunity from any institutionalised or procedural resistance. This new Roman attitude was copied by bishops round the world in relation to their own universities, teachers' colleges, seminaries and schools.

Pope Paul's surprise at the sudden storm that broke upon the Church in the mid-1960s stemmed from the fact that he had failed to foresee the revolutionary effect of a combination of factors. These were, first: the sudden and wholesale switch from the first or traditional attitude to change, to the third or liberal attitude, which seeks to abstract the essence of Catholicism from its historical traditions and reincarnate it in a form as little different as possible from the modern secular outlook; second: an end to institutional resistance to unorthodoxy, and third: the debilitating belief that all policies proceeding from the Roman Curia must necessarily be correct, and therefore can never need critical evaluation by any orthodox Catholic.

This combination of factors (in which a crucial element was the de facto suppression of the traditional Roman Rite of Mass, and liturgical innovation on a scale unknown in Catholic history) had, the effect of so destabilising, disarming and disorientating the Church, that many Catholics drifted psychologically towards the second attitude to change. That was, as outlined earlier, the belief that "we should 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."

This is in fact the scepticism and radical historical relativism condemned by Pope St Pius X in 1907 under the name of Modernism; and it is into the arms of this heretical Modernism that the attempted shift from a traditional to a liberal Catholicism has delivered much, if not most, of what nominally constitutes the Catholic Church today, thirty years after the Council's close.

Wherein lies the Church's salvation in 1995?

If the outline I have traced is substantially accurate, then the obvious first step is one of metanoia, that is a repentance and complete about-change of one's mental assumptions concerning aggiornamento. The notion of papal inerrancy must be clearly distinguished from the Catholic dogma of papal infallibility and room must be frankly and fully made within the Church for those who, with the benefit of thirty years hindsight, come to the conscientious conviction that the policy of aggiornamento has on balance, proved counter-productive.

If, in Pope Paul's words, "the opening to the world became a veritable invasion of the Church by worldly thinking," then we may reasonably conclude that it was imprudent and wrong to make that particular kind of opening, and that the right pastoral strategy would have been to redouble the Church's efforts to convert all and sundry not only to traditional Catholic doctrine, which the papacy of course has theoretically maintained throughout, but also to the traditional Catholic practice, which is that doctrine's living embodiment.

Liturgical heritage

Second, the lex orandi, that is, the norm of Catholic worship, must be restored. This will not mean the abolition of the Missal of 1969, though it may require its revision and retranslation. It will also involve a vindication and reclaiming of our liturgical heritage, and of the historic ethos of Catholic worship.

Part of this process must be the restoration of full freedom for all Catholics of the Latin Rite to celebrate the traditional Mass of the Roman Rite in its most recent standard form, namely the 1962 typical edition of the Roman Missal. In 1988 Pope John Paul established the Ecclesia Dei Commission, publicly giving it competence to allow any priest to celebrate the Roman Rite in accordance with the norms given in the report of the Committee of Cardinals assembled to consider the question in 1986.

Despite this explicit reference to the cardinatial report, that report has still to be published, thanks to a switch in policy. The reason for its continued official suppression is the embarrassing fact that the Cardinals found that the traditional Roman Rite had never been abolished and that therefore all priests have, and have always had, the right to celebrate it whenever it seems pastorally appropriate. That report should now be published so that the true legal position may be correctly interpreted by the whole Church. A celebration by the Holy Father, as Bishop of Rome, of the historic Roman Rite used by his predecessors from time immemorial would also help to build confidence in the Church's liturgical tradition, as would the production of noble and accurate translations of the 1962 Missal for use in all the major vernacular languages.

Third, but most fundamental of all, the lex credendi, or norm of Catholic belief, must be vindicated, in actual practice, by the widespread and mandatory use, by bishops and those in authority under them in schools and seminaries, of the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church which has so splendidly integrated the doctrinal instruction of the Second Vatican Council into the great stream of historic Catholic orthodoxy.

This providential instrument of truth, in which an accessible, comprehensive, systematic and winning statement of the faith has been set forth more wonderfully than ever before, should be for all a great source of joy and comfort. Perhaps too, the reimposition of the oath against Modernism as a prerequisite for ordination as deacon, priest or bishop, would emphasise the need for a renewed faith in the Church's infallible doctrinal tradition.

If energetic measures along these lines are taken now, there is every reason to believe that a robust and flourishing Catholic revival will be evident throughout the world before another thirty years have flowed their course.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.