The Problem of Vatican II

**Warning – controversy alert. Read at your own risk.**

Currently during lunch in the monastic refectory we are listening to What Happened at Vatican II by John W. O’Malley. Privately I am reading The Second Vatican Council: An Unwritten Story by Roberto de Mattei. These books represent the two predominant trends in the assessment of the Council: the one sees it as the great liberation from a rigid and stifling neo-Scholasticism that dominated the Church as a result of an over-reaction to the Modernist crisis, giving power back to the bishops from the hands of a narrow curia clinging desperately to its power exercised from with an ivory tower; the other sees something disturbing in the the forces leading to the Council, the forces that prevailed during the Council, and the forces that prevailed in the subsequent implementation of the Council.

You will recall that Benedict XVI in his last days as pope expressed his understanding of the Year of Faith as an initiative to help the Church re-discover the “real Council”, and to move beyond the “virtual Council” erected by those who knew best how to manipulate the media according to their own agenda. The Australian theologian Tracy Rowland has written a fine piece on the subject, detailing particular areas in which such a rediscovery needs to be pursued – revelation, ecclesiology, liturgy, as well as a re-assessment of the weakest yet disproportionately popular conciliar document, Gaudium et Spes.

So far Pope Francis has not seemed overly concerned with the Council. His preoccupations seem to lie in structural reform of the Church and the daily Christian living of the faithful, often at is most basic level (eg the need to avoid gossip, to recognize and resist the works of the Devil). Speculation on the Council seems so far to be a luxury he has no time to indulge.

Of course, it is not a luxury. Since the modern Church is, one way or the other, the product of the Council, the trials and failings in many parts of the Church that have attended the post-conciliar reforms require that we revisit the Council in order to assess with some degree of objectivity the legacy of the Council. To a great extent this will require us to look beyond the documents of the Council, which were so readily disregarded in practice except as unexamined talismans for the reform agenda (eg the “spirit of Vatican II”). What needs greater attention is the Council as event.

The event of the Council involves not only the documents of the Council, its official legacy, but also the context in which it occurred. Consciously or otherwise this is what more recent histories of the Council are doing. Thus we find that the Modernist crisis and the neo-scholastic reaction against it initiated by St Pius X is being re-examined, as too the unease with this reaction that informs the rise of the nouvelle théologie and which gave new impetus and direction to the liturgical movement. After the announcement of the Council, the preparations made especially by northern European theologians and liturgists  - the so-called Rhine alliance – need more careful examination, as does the careful strategic planning they employed in order to push through their agenda at the Council. De Mattei especially shines a light on the sometimes almost cynical method by which the Rhine minority won over the moderate majority in the Council. This feat was only fostered by the relatively vague pretext for the calling of the Council, an un-focused, idealistic and even naive desire for breathing ‘fresh air’ into the Church rather than (as had always been the case) any pressing need to meet a doctrinal or political crisis in the life of the Church. Lastly the event of the Council continued beyond the conciliar sessions, in the process of its implementation by the very same minority that had prevailed during the conciliar sessions themselves. This process saw the conciliar documents overtaken by the “spirit” they were said to have embodied and set in motion. No less a part of the conciliar event is the global context of the 1960s, a period of fast-paced revolutionary change as man turned to himself in the wake of the horrors of the Second World War and God’s apparent failure in the face of it.

We have seen this expressed in so many ways. Liturgists focused on pleasing man rather than God. Theologians sought to write out of existence any difference between men, especially religious difference, so as to remove any pretext for future conflict – the brotherhood of man replaced the primacy of the Church as God’s chosen people. The Church was de-militarised, as it were: spiritual combat and vigorous evangelization of the world with the truth of Christ gave way to accommodation to the world, and affirming its alleged intrinsic goodness. Those who remember the 1960s American sitcom Bewitched will recognise in this process an example of baby Tabitha’s “wishcraft”: if we close our eyes and say that everyone is good and that we are all equal, then it will surely come to pass.

History, if we choose to examine it, gives the lie to this wishful thinking that lies at the heart of the event of the Council. Repression in communist countries and in nations newly freed from the “yoke” of colonialism waxed rather than waned; terrorism emerged as a new phenomenon, bringing the violence of war to the streets of nations otherwise at peace; an intolerant and repressive Islamic fundamentalism emerged as the great threat to the peace of the world, reflecting a mindset that clearly rejected the new dogma of universal equality within the brotherhood of man; and as the Church accommodated herself to the supposed desires and aspirations of the world, the world grew even less interested in her, and so too even her members who, ironically, drifted away in great numbers from a liturgy deliberately re-designed to please them.

To say all this is to open oneself up to attack from those who still see in the event of the Council their great liberation. There are still many who have pinned their colours to the standard of the Council, and for many of them there can be no going back. That would be too unsettling, too disappointing. Who, after all, likes to admit they were wrong?

Pope Francis’ failure so far to engage with the Council is, perhaps, not such a bad way to proceed. The Council as event has overtaken the Council’s own understanding of itself in its documents. So perhaps the whole thing is best left to the side. The young have very little interest in the Council, if any at all. It does not figure in their vocabulary or their conversation. They are far more interested in popes and bishops who have a message that resonates with their deepest, often unarticulated, intuition. Somehow, in the midst of all the confusion, the Church’s perennial message has got through to them and they have embraced it. Christianity is for them a way of life that makes real demands personally and socially. It informs and bolsters their identity. It gives them a cause and mission in life. Christ is seen not so much as friend as powerful saviour intimately concerned with them, yes, but also with his Church into which he calls them. Liturgy is seen less as a vehicle for self-expression and more of a privileged place in which they might lose themselves in God, who can then give power to their lives. For the younger generation, the battles and preoccupations of the conciliar generation are no longer relevant, and indeed, no longer desirable. So the Church must move on with them, not by accommodating to them as such, but by addressing their legitimate needs, needs for truth, transcendence, the experience of God and its necessary expression and validation in daily life. The Church, insofar as it offers a real alternative to the world, will attract the young from the world with relative ease.

So perhaps the Council is best left on the backburner for now,  as we rediscover that there have been other, and more important, councils than the most recent one. Reclaiming the entire treasury of doctrinal, liturgical and spiritual wealth in the Church, we can get on with the inescapable duties of being Christian: loving God and neighbour in deed as well as in word; worshipping God in spirit and in truth; fighting evil with the weapons of the Gospel; making God the foundation of our lives 24/7, and not just for an hour on Sundays. The young will look to their elders above all to model this authentic way of Christian living, and not to peddle the world-conditioned obsessions of their own, long distant, youth. In doing so some of these elders have already re-discovered the splendour of the Faith.

For all that, the event of the Council will have to be dealt with, if only so that we can embrace what is good in it, discard what is defective and reorient ourselves back on to the way of salvation. Specialists will do so, and have begun that mission already. For now, Pope Francis bids us commit ourselves to Christ who ever abides with his people, the Church. If God be for us, who can be against?

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12 thoughts on “The Problem of Vatican II

  1. Fidelis Cygnus says:

    I think one of the main issues facing the Church is that some elders in some parishes are from a certain generation that will only embrace the ‘sitting cross legged singing kumbaya’ method of worship, and often these people are the influential people involved with many parts of the Parish ministry. As a (relatively) young and certainly very orthodox member of my Parish I feel this is putting off younger and more orthodox people not just from getting involved at parish level but also connecting with the Church. As an example we are lucky enough to have the option of a EF Mass several times a month celebrated by our excellent Curate and there are young people who attend who don’t usually attend the OF Masses (bearing in mind we only have maybe 2 EF Masses a month). There will always we an issue when the Parish Priest is an extreme opponent of the older Mass and tries to sweep it under the carpet where possible. If people are marginalised because of their preference to the EF Mass or more traditional catholic rubrics you will (and do) get a very heavily biased interpretation of The Second Vatican Council. Domine Jesu.

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    • Fr Hugh says:

      This is precisely the problem I see as needing to be confronted: the baby-boomers imposing their view of Catholicism, crafted in the 60s when the times were a changin’ and the answers were blowing in the wind (pace Bob Dylan), on a youth that can witness with open eyes and minds the dysfunction of the Church today, and the incongruity between Conciliar theory and post-conciliar practice. The new generation of younger clergy have already started making a dent in that legacy.

      Also, it is up to you young ‘uns to make it clear to your clergy what you want, ie the Church’s teaching and liturgy as it is meant to be, not as they might want it. Be subtle, be respectful. Perhaps letting them see where you choose to go to Mass might be enough of a start! Your curate seems to know already. Pray for more of him.

      Pax.

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  2. One of the most appealing aspects of monastic life to me has been the delightful idea of being read to over a meal….. I hadn’t actually considered that the reading matter might cause indigestion.

    I think that I do like the emphasis on the most basic aspects of “how to be a Christian” is a grand way to fertilize a Church (at least judged by the members I most usually see) which has grown so lukewarm.

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    • Fr Hugh says:

      The reading at meals is a very positive element in our life, though our choice of books is sometimes a little, er… patchy in quality. :-/

      The “back-to-basics” method often has the advantage of providing a common framework where there is division. Conservative and liberal can both agree that we must not neglect the poor. And for the lukewarm, whom you rightly note, they may rediscover some of the excitement that should go with being with Christ in his Church.

      Pax!

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  3. sixupman says:

    Vatican II Collegiality has spawned the tendfency for ‘National (Catholic) Churches’ to be promoted, the antithesis of Catholicism and Petrine governance.

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    • Fr Hugh says:

      The whole issue of collegiality certainly needs revisiting. Sadly, its genesis seems not to have been aimed so much at enhancing the role of diocesan bishops but at diminishing the role of the papacy and its curia.

      Modernism’s revenge?

      Pax.

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  4. James Batt says:

    Hmmm . . . interesting that Fidelis Cygnus (really ?) alights on the liturgy as the core of Vatican 2 . . . as do I and I think most lay folk. The Catholic Church is not, and really cannot be a democracy, but the variation in the quality of the liturgy spawned by the changes in Vatican 2 are quite alarming sometimes. Now, I am an Old Dowegian (64-68) who loved our liturgy then, and still manage the Kyrie from Mass Vlll in the shower from time to time. Now I live in the United States, and am desperately trying to find a Mass which will engage my 14 year old son. Wherefore art thou, Douai ? We need a more universal and continuing dialogue which will invite the youth in, and make them the foundation of the future church. Being an atlar server, for example, engages him, but I can still remember sermons preached by some of our great monks from those days (“love in the Refectory” from Father Gervase, “someone caught a crab” by Father Wilfrid, among many others . . . ) but if I ask my son what the sermon was about after he comes down from the altar, he honestly cannot rememeber, and I often can’t blame him. Thanks for this wonderful blog. It will inspire me to ensure my son receives more from me on his faith . . .

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    • Fr Hugh says:

      Hello James!

      Thanks for a wonderful comment. It is a fine testimony to the liturgical formation we gave you that you can still happily sing chant from memory and remember homilies. Fr Wilfrid has gone hom eto the Lord but Fr Gervase is alive and kicking so I shall pass this on to him. He will be tickled.

      Perhaps the most stupid thing marking the 60s onwards was that for all the adoption of youth culture (as the experts thought it was) the experts failed miserably in understanding that youth culture does not explain the totality of youth experience and aspiration; and that the young, for all their defensive posture of disdain, and far more open to the supernatural and to the nobility of the Christian message. And we sold them short. Shame on us.

      Where in the States are you? I might try to see if there is a local parish known in your area, or maybe even some readers might know. I would hate for your son, and you, to miss out if the good stuff is close at hand.

      Blessings on you!

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  5. Jennifer Smith says:

    Dear D.Hugh, dear James, thank you for your wonderful blog, Hugh, and my prayer is that truly we all, from Pope down to altar server, can remember in our hearts that the Church is DIFFERENT from the world, although right slap bang in it; then maybe we can transmit something of this to those around us, with all the love of God and neighbour, the love Jesus commanded us to love with, His love. Then perhaps we can find the peace that passes all understanding.
    My “thing” is the Chant, need I say more?? We need to bring true beauty back to the liturgy, one that reflects the DIFFERENT beauty of God and His truth.
    Oh I can’t really express what I mean. I leave that to those who can write as beautifully as you can. I just wanted to thank Hugh, and let know James that, as a Grandmother living with varying types of Catholics, and one avowed atheist, I feel in the frontline of the “battle”, having at every moment to define my way of being a Catholic, without being defensive. Quite a challenge, and one that I welcome, as it keeps me on my spiritual, theological and liturgical toes! I have pondered the Vat.II docs. over and over, especially as I became a Catholic in 1969… so I found this morning’s blog particularly liberating.
    Prayers all round
    Jennifer

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    • Fr Hugh says:

      Hi Jennifer,

      Thank you for the kind remarks and for your observations. Needless to say, the chant is a shared passion. Most notable about it, perhaps, is that it has stood the test of centuries. From the early middle ages (let the scholars debate exactly when) till well into the 20th century it was a staple of liturgical music in the Church. Over a millennium of constant use is eloquent testimony to the fact that in the chant there is something that endures through and beyond particular eras and their fads and fancies. I do not see that with Vatican II this is suddenly no longer the case.

      This has a role in the whole question of our Catholic identity, how to be confident without being arrogant, convinced and convincing, in the world but never of it. As James has fully realised, the young are in even greater need of such a Catholic identity as a firm foothold in their journey through the rugged landscape of adolescence. They deserve it, and our best way to help them is to be clearly, integrally and happily Catholic. If “Vat 2″ helps, marvellous; if it does not, move on. Catholicism is bigger than Vatican 2.

      Blessings!

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    • Fidelis Cygnus says:

      I absolutely agree with your comments on Chant. Here in the Diocese of Portsmouth we have been extremely blessed with a Bishop who is not only extolling the Clergy to include much more latin in the Liturgy, but also the use of Chant which is an excellent step to bringing our Diocese back to othodoxy. Will other Bishops follow his lead? Chance would be a fine thing! Domine Jesu.

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      • Jennifer Smith says:

        In my humble opinion, beauty is the thing. There are many beautiful liturgical compositions since Vat.II, but I suppose the problem is that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, so a question of taste… oh dear. A huge problem it is. But those of us who are passionate about Chant being THE MUSIC OF THE CHURCH PAR EXCELLENCE just have to keep doing it, singing it, promoting it, quietly and doggedly and with a smile! You are lucky in Portsmouth; your Bishop is giving the St.Bede lecture at Farnham for the Instute of Liturgical studies, on 5 July. We are fairly lucky at Ealing too (Ealing Abbey – quite a lot of Chant, and I run the Parish Schola)
        Take heart: there is a strong move within the GOOD liturgical circles to be more persuasive to the bishops!
        I hope Cygnus is not evocative of Swansongs!
        Yours
        Jennifer

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