Is Vatican II irrelevant now in the seventh year of Francis’s pontificate? In one respect, yes; in another, no. Neither explanation is what one might expect at first glance.
Popes Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI devoted the heart of their respective pontificates to trying to implement—or salvage, depending on one’s perspective—the teachings of the Council. All three were present for its duration and major players in its workings as pope, cardinal-archbishop, and theological adviser, respectively. All three deeply believed in the Council’s purpose, message, and general teachings, and sought to make them vibrant within their own Magisteria.
Even Joseph Ratzinger, who, when writing within the guild as an academic theologian, openly criticized certain aspects of various conciliar documents, most notably the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, sought to preserve the integrity of the Council when he became pope. In his first Christmas address to the Roman Curia in 2005, forty years after the Council’s conclusion, Benedict XVI made his most famous attempt at rescuing the Council from what he called the “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture,” a method of interpretation that disregarded what the Council actually said in favor of an agenda inimical to the Council and to the Church’s teachings, hidden under the nebulous banner of the “Spirit of Vatican II.”
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Benedict, though well aware of the dramatic upheavals the Council generated, expressed his steadfast commitment to its correct implementation: “Today we can look with gratitude at the Second Vatican Council: if we interpret and implement it guided by a right hermeneutic, it can be and can become increasingly powerful for the ever necessary renewal of the Church.”
It is well known that in the ensuing decades after the Council, the “Spirit of Vatican II” ruptured the Church’s theological, liturgical, and pastoral life. Everything that belonged to the Church’s centuries-long Tradition was suddenly forbidden by those who controlled the parishes, chanceries, seminaries, and universities. Instead, new fads, prompted not by the faith but by the left-leaning wanderings of the rapidly secularizing West, were introduced into every facet of Church life.
A tiny number of bishops, priests, and lay people labored to stop these alarming practices by appealing to the actual texts of the Council: nowhere did a single document even mention turning the altar to face the people, or that all religions were equal, or that theologians formed their own authoritative Magisterium, or that Catholic universities need not be controlled by the Church, or that clerical celibacy and women’s ordination ought to be reconsidered. As long as there was at least nominal support from the pope for realigning post-conciliar practices with what the Council actually said—and there was from all three popes, even if weakly in the case of the floundering Paul VI—then it seemed that the Council could be rescued from its inauthentic interpreters.
Flash-forward to the present—fifty-four years after the Council’s close and fourteen years after Benedict’s speech—and the nature of the conversation has shifted. Pope Francis is the first pope ordained a priest after the Council’s close. From the start of his pontificate through to the present, Francis has been championed by liberal Catholics for his “prophetic interpretation of the Council,” which is to say, for using his office to advance the Spirit of Vatican II.
And this he has done: from opening a commission to study the possibility of females in the diaconate to his rigged synods and his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, which have softened the Church’s teachings on marriage and family life, Francis has turned the Spirit of Vatican II into the substance of his papacy. His recent affirmations and speeches that make Catholicism appear as just another religion raised legitimate concerns until Bishop Schneider, during an ad limina visit to the Vatican by the Kazakhstani episcopacy, was able to secure from Francis a clarification that God permits religious pluralism rather than wills it. Thus if it were not for vigilant and faithful bishops like Schneider, Francis would be content to give the spirit of the Council free rein.
Since Francis is receptive to its distorted spirit, he has invoked the Council without engaging its texts in the manner his predecessors did. Take, for example, his vigorous declaration that the liturgical reforms that followed the Council are “irreversible” and any “reform of the reform”—a reconfiguring of aspects of the Mass that were wrongfully or harmfully changed—is wrongheaded. Off the table for Francis is any discussion of the vast distortions between what the Council said about the Mass versus the new Mass that a subsequent committee engineered. We saw this illustrated when Cardinal Sarah’s advocacy of ad orientem worship was sharply rebuked by the Vatican in the summer of 2016. Three months later, Sarah’s wings were clipped as Prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship when the dicastery’s episcopal members were replaced by Francis supporters.
Rather than return to the Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy for analysis, Francis urged the faithful to reform their mentality and accept the new Mass as it is. And if these papal assertions were not enough, Francis publicly invoked his “magisterial authority” to strengthen his speech, a move that not only had prior popes never attempted, but one that, as canonist Ed Peters pointed out, showcases a bumbling of the papal playbook.
We could cite other examples such as when Francis encouraged a group of Italian theologians to adhere to the Council without encouraging a corresponding exploration of its texts, and when, speaking at a canon law conference, he stated that “the Second Vatican Council marked the passage from an ecclesiology modeled on canon law to a canon law conforming to ecclesiology,” a statement that, again according to Ed Peters, gives the wrong impression on both subjects.
For Francis, Vatican II is still relevant in regards to its nebulous spirit, for it provides cover for more distortions of Catholic faith and practice, as well as a model for how to make these distortions happen in the present. A case in point is how Francis dispatched his closest collaborators to advance a reading of Amoris Laetitia that is a serious—and dangerous—rupture of Catholic teaching on marriage and the Eucharist.
However, Vatican II has become irrelevant in another sense: there is not much motivation to appeal to its documents anymore. Conservative prelates and laity trying to counter Francis’s disruptive innovations have been appealing for support not to Vatican II but to Scripture and the broader Tradition because Francis and his supporters have steered the universal Church beyond the texts of the Council. Defending and redeeming these texts is no longer as important as it seemed only a decade ago because the issues at stake today were not contemplated by the Council fathers. For example, no bishop at the Council imagined that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics could receive the Eucharist while living in an adulterous relationship.
Does this mean that the actual teachings of Vatican II will fade into oblivion? This is unlikely to happen in the short term since the Council’s documents and approach have been incorporated into the extensive and widely consulted Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was created to rein in the wayward Spirit of Vatican II.
As a collective body, the texts of Vatican II will continue to have less and less import. Ironically, it is the Spirit of the Council untethered from reality that is both winning the moment and inspiring a genuine reform by driving its opponents to the real source of renewal—Scripture and Tradition.