Assessing Vatican II: A Response to My Critics

It’s ironic to me that my recent article, “Fifty Years Later—Vatican II’s Unfinished Business,” has provoked anger among many traditionalists, because for most of my priesthood I have angered liberals who consider me an arch traditionalist. Nevertheless I want to respond to those traditionalists who include both the SSPX and my fellow Catholics still fully united to the Church. I assure you of my prayers and support for your passionate defense of Church practices through the ages.

Nevertheless, I stand fully by my article and support the Second Vatican Council, called by one pope, John XXIII, and brought to a close by his successor, Paul VI. The grave errors and outrages that blighted the Church in the following years—and which traditionalists rightly deplore—cannot be blamed on the council, but on the frailties and sometimes the hidden agendas of those who implemented it. But should we really be shocked that the Church is home to human imperfections? Of the first 12 disciples, one-twelfth went over to the enemy, a future pope loudly denied Him, and all but one deserted Him, just when He needed them most.

The point is, Christ did not shrink from leaving His Church in the hands of imperfect people. We must separate our anger over the damages of many unwise decisions throughout the years from the ongoing mission of the Church. And let’s not forget that the 20th century was hardly the only century of missteps. Yet in every age, the Church regains Her footing.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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That firm footing (which of course never completely deserts the Church) continues to be restored into the 21st century in exciting ways. The Year of Faith and the powerful evangelization of our new Pope Francis show the Holy Spirit continuing to heal His Church. I rejoice with my traditionalist friends on the ongoing restoration and if I had unlimited space, I would cite many examples of this. But here are just a few of the timeless notes of the Church, which I would continue to defend right along with my critics:

  • Reverence at receiving Communion—kneeling preferably—and maintaining the rules that protect the sacred.
  • Modesty in women’s dress
  • Solemn, majestic liturgy, including music
  • A disciplined, catechetical approach to teaching the faith.

I agree with traditionalists that there are many more  (to name them all would take a catechism), and yes, sadly, some parishes and pastors are less than vigilant about them. The answer is to keep teaching and instructing. Like a battleground after a war—and yes, the decades following Vatican II were like a desolate, postwar battlefield—new ground must be tilled, new seeds planted, and destructive weeds pulled. That takes patience and time, but we trust that God has both to give.

Reforms Allow Greater Access to Sacraments
Where I part company with my critics is when “rules” trump the love of Christ and His access to human beings. In this regard, Vatican II rightly freed the Church’s hands.

I became acutely aware of this while serving for 11 years as director of prison ministry for the Archdiocese of Denver. The old “rules” which required specific Mass linens, receptacles and rubrics, for example, would have seriously limited my ability to offer Mass for prisoners who deeply needed the Real Presence of Christ.

The old rules didn’t allow for lay extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, either. As one priest, I could not possibly distribute Holy Communion to every prisoner in my care and still complete the rest of my priestly duties. To eliminate the ability of Church approved and instructed laity to take the Blessed Sacrament to literally thousands of Catholic prisoners every month when these prisoners desperately need the Lord—that seems a terrible lapse of charity.

And speaking of tradition—can the traditionalists forget the holy young layman Tarcissus, who took Holy Communion to prisoners in the early Church? It was necessary then and is necessary now.

Traditionalists who oppose these changes seem to say, “No, the important thing is that a priest and no one else distributes Communion! If that means these prisoners only receive once a year instead of once a month, so be it!”

These critics of the council should remember what Jesus said about the Pharisees. “They bind up heavy loads, hard to carry, to lay on other men’s shoulders, while they themselves will not lift a finger to budge them….   Woe to you Scribes and Pharisees, you frauds!” (Mt. 23:4 & 13.)

The Pharisee Mindset meets Modernism
The Pharisees whom Christ rebuked don’t just exist in Bible history. There is a Pharisee mindset, which exists through time and is part of our broken humanity. In other words, Christ wasn’t just chiding the Pharisees who stood before him. He was emphasizing to the people of His times that He was praying for all those who would believe in him through the word of the apostles (John Ch. 17:20). In other words, he was speaking to us! We must guard against becoming Pharisees as well.

And what is this Pharisee mindset? Well, first of all, it is the error at the opposite end of the moral spectrum from the radical modernists who say that, when it comes to interpreting Scripture and Church dogmas, “Anything goes!” That free-for-all code, the modernist heresy, was called by Pope Pius X “the synthesis of all heresies,” because it encompasses them all. In recent centuries the Church’s greatest battle has been against that many-headed monster, modernism, which Pope Pius X masterfully outlined in his prophetic 1907 encyclical, Pascendi Dominici Gregis.

We all know—too well—the outrages and disruptions caused by modernist inroads in the Church. But in reaction to that heresy, the Church has been, in effect, abandoned by many people at the other end of the spectrum as well. These well meaning people have retreated to the mindset of the Pharisees, who hold up rigid rulemaking as the greatest good. I am convinced that many ultra traditionalists (including many of my critics) believe they are doing the right thing. After all, every war brings confusion and deceit, and in this ongoing war against modernism, Satan has set a reactionary trap for many who don’t fall for the obvious allurements of modernism, which is to run after anything that is new, innovative, and culturally acceptable. The rest of us may recognize these evils of modernism. But that doesn’t mean Satan gives up on us! For many of us, unless we remain vigilant, he offers the temptation of the Pharisee mindset, which relies on rules rather than the power and authority of God’s love. This trap is far more subtle, but it is equally designed to enslave people and separate them from the Church.

Examine Closely Council Documents
And so we come to the crux of our disagreement—Vatican II. The Council that Pope John said would “throw open the windows of the Church” also swept in these two great temptations—modernist thinking and, in reaction, the Pharisee mindset. But this is not the fault of the Council, but part of the mysterious battle between good and evil. If anything, the forces of evil which Satan hurled against the Church after the Council prove that the Council was good, because Satan had to stop its fruits from growing, at all costs.

I urge traditionalists to say a prayer to the Holy Spirit and then crack open the Vatican II documents, and really read them with an open heart. You will see that no essential doctrine of the Church has been discarded—only enhanced. The documents only reveal the open arms and the mercy of Christ.

Critics of the Council who reject these documents out of hand deprive themselves of an opportunity to find Jesus Christ.

For example, ultra traditionalists take great offense at this Vatican II statement:

Those who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ and His Church, but who nonetheless seek God with a sincere heart and, moved by divine grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation. Nor shall divine providence deny the assistance necessary for salvation to those, who through no fault of their own, have not yet arrived at the explicit knowledge of God, and who, not without grace, strive to lead a good life (Lumen Gentium, no. 16).

Traditionalists counter with Boniface VII’s statement in his bull, Unam Sanctam, that “outside the Church there is no salvation” (Nov. 18, 1302, Denz. No. 468, 30th edition).

Of course what Boniface said is true. But how God introduces His Church to each individual cannot be fully gleaned by any human being. Vatican II merely acknowledged that God is free to distribute his grace where He wills—and that He has access to each human heart in ways that we are not privy to.

The traditionalist error is to believe that human beings are allowed to be, in effect, the mystical gatekeepers of God’s mercy—that they can somehow penetrate every aspect of God’s providence and speak with the authority of God. This is pride. No individual can rightfully block God from gaining access to the soul of any human being.

Our proper role on this earth is far more humble, even as we must remain vigilant. We are to abide by Church discipline, doctrine and the Magisterium. These laws stand immutable and firm as ever. In other words, we all agree, with ringing truth, that certain sins are mortal, that hell is real, and that our free-will choices determine our eternal destiny. We all believe Christ gave the Church the power to loose and to bind sin.

We are also called by the Church to believe in the divine purpose and role of Vatican II while preventing the Church from becoming a watering hole for modern Pharisees.

The Damaging Effects of Rigidity
If this had ever happened—of course the Holy Spirit would not allow it—rigidity would end up governing everything. For example, I ask the traditionalists: If every person has to have an express knowledge of Jesus Christ to be saved, what would they say is the fate of adults in far flung countries, bereft of missionaries? And what of infants, including the pre-born? What about the dying Hindu beggars whom Mother Teresa lovingly rescued from the gutters of Calcutta? Are they all categorically damned?

Instead, the Church rightly interprets Boniface’s statement to mean that the only door to salvation is the Church—in other words, Christ’s authentic call to faith does not come through Buddhism, or Islam, or any other religious tradition. But this does not mean that God, through the power of Christ and in His own mysterious ways, cannot save Buddhists and Muslims. Such enlightenment can come in mysterious ways known only to God, including in the womb. This is possible, as we know from the account of John the Baptist leaping in the womb of Elizabeth upon recognizing Jesus in the womb of Mary. So Vatican II teaches that “those too may achieve eternal salvation.” “May” means that, of course, they too will have to make a decision based on their own free will, like each one of us.

Likewise, extreme traditionalists need to be very careful when they start pinning people with narrow and exacting literal interpretations of the Scriptures and Church teaching. That’s because Pope Boniface, in the same document as above, also notes that all humanity,  “by necessity for salvation are entirely subject to the Roman Pontiff” (Denz. no. 469, 30th ed.).

On one hand, Traditionalists cite Boniface as correct, yet on the other hand, they deny Boniface when they reject the authority of the six Roman pontiffs who, since 1963, have, in their writings and pronouncements, both explicitly and implicitly, declared the authenticity of Vatican II.

Why Religious Coercion was Abandoned
There is another objection. Some traditionalists claim that the Church reversed Her teaching in no. 4 of the Document on Religious Liberty by calling for “freedom or immunity from coercion in religious matters.”  Instead of making the state subject to the Church, they say she now makes the Church subject to the state. But they have misunderstood the meaning of this document. In brief, the document has to do with “freedom from coercion in civil society” in relation to the state and “it leaves intact the traditional Catholic teaching on the moral duties of individuals and societies toward the true religion and the one Church of Christ.” This is pointed out in the very first paragraph. So the Document on Religious Liberty has nothing to do with people’s relation to the authority of the Church which is aptly set forth in Lumen Gentium, no. 14.

Nevertheless, these modern traditionalists condemn the document because it makes the point that the state should not force anyone to accept a set of beliefs. Do traditionalists really want a society where they could coerce Muslims, atheists, or even their Lutheran neighbors to be Catholic?

In fact, the spirit of the Church, as well as Her teaching, is the very opposite, and best proven by the fact that the sacraments are never valid when a person resists, or is forced to receive them. This holds true for every sacrament, including marriage, baptism, and confession.

Let me conclude this way.

God asks for our love and our hearts, but He also put us on earth to use our brains. It should not make us angry to periodically re-evaluate the man-made “rules” we developed over time, and ask whether they continue to serve the Church and Her mission to win souls.

Yes, some rules are immutable and should continue. Others are more a product of one’s culture and the times we live in. God gave us the intelligence, judgment and prudence to periodically examine and re-evaluate all the holy trappings—trappings, not doctrines—which we have put in place to support Christ’s Church on earth.

Vatican II was such a time of re-evaluation. Did some people misuse it? Yes. But the world that once looked in awe at a pope carried aloft on a fancy throne has vanished. We may lament the passing of a more dignified age, but that doesn’t mean we should bring back papal thrones! Remember that Jesus walked in sandals and let a woman wash his feet. He was not afraid to “re-evaluate” traditions when needed. Praise be to God that, through the Holy Spirit, the Church which Christ founded is not afraid to, either.


  • Fr. Regis Scanlon, O.F.M. Cap

    Fr. Regis Scanlon, O.F.M.Cap., is spiritual director and chaplain for Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s Missionaries of Charity in Denver, as well as being one of the spiritual directors for the Missionaries of Charity in the western United States. He was director of prison ministry for the Archdiocese of Denver, from 1999 to 2010; a chaplain for Missionaries of Charity at their now-closed AIDS hospice, Seton House, and at Gift of Mary homeless shelter for women in Denver from 1989 to 2008. His articles have been published in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, The Catholic Faith, Soul Magazine, Pastoral Life, and The Priest. He has also made three series for Mother Angelica’s EWTN: “Crucial Questions,” “Catholic Answers,” and “What Did Vatican II Really Teach?”

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