Open Windows: Why Vatican II Was Necessary

On the third day of the conclave — October 28, 1958 — the white smoke signaled to the crowd in St. Peter’s Square the election of a new pope, Angelo Cardinal Roncalli, patriarch of Venice, who took the name of John XXIII. The Roman crowd was momentarily silenced; it could not put a face to the name of a man who had spent much of his career obediently accepting obscure ecclesial posts. The cardinals who had elected him were quite certain what to expect from the 76-year-old Roncalli: a peaceful, transitional pontificate — maybe even a mediocre one. Roncalli himself, who had arrived at the conclave with a return train ticket, never expected to be pope.

He was a kindly, unassuming man, easy to underestimate. Even when, at an advanced age, he was made archbishop of Venice, there were still high prelates to whom he was simply il buon Roncalli. But this son of frugal peasant farmers, whose faith was utterly traditional, launched a reformation in the life of the Church that in some ways still lies ahead of us. The Second Vatican Council has hardly entered the consciousness of most Catholics.

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There is still some mystery about how the council was born in the mind of Pope John. There had been 20 previous ecumenical councils, and most were summoned in response to a serious crisis, either a heresy like Arianism or the threats of emperors. But in 1959, everything seemed fine. The first official notice of the council was hardly electrifying — a short statement in L’Osservatore Romano to the effect that the pope intended to take three steps to meet the errors of the time — hold a diocesan synod of the clergy in Rome, summon an ecumenical council of the universal Church, and bring the Code of Canon Law up to date. The officials in the Roman Curia were mostly appalled. The first reaction of Giovanni Battista Cardinal Montini, who as Pope Paul VI would ably steer the council to its conclusion, was that Roncalli had no idea what a “hornet’s nest” he was stirring up.

But Pope John always insisted that his call for a council was an inspiration of the Holy Spirit. He never gave lengthy explanations for his decision, but he said enough to make it clear that he thought the Church needed to examine herself, to find her footing in the modern world while remaining faithful to her principles. There is a law of conversion in the life of the Church as well as in individual Christians: If you are not moving forward, you are moving backward. The Church in some respects had become rigid. There was a self-satisfied triumphalism that was the reverse of apostolic. Most Catholics did not understand that the Church is not just an institution but an evangelical movement. The world was slipping away from religious belief, and Catholics themselves needed a new conversion if they were to bring it back.

Traditionalists who wish the council had never happened point out that the Catholic Church at mid-century was a great success story. But success, as Martin Buber reminds us, is not one of the names of God. And even then there were warning signs, especially in Europe, the cradle of Catholicism. Roncalli’s last diplomatic post had been in France after World War II, and he was aware of the alarming decline in church attendance and a nominal Catholicism that prompted two young priests in 1943 to publish a book asking if France had not become a mission territory. The Church had lost the allegiance of almost every segment of society, from the workers to the intellectuals, and the remnant of loyal Catholics included a few too many monarchists whose faith had more than a whiff of Jansenism.

Once he launched the council, it was never the intention of Pope John to control or manipulate it; he simply gave it direction. He did not know precisely what the council would do, treating it, in the words of one historian, as an “empty container” waiting to be filled. There were to be no new definitions of dogma. But John was convinced that the 2,500 assembled bishops would find their way to a better understanding of the Church and her mission. His serenity during the turbulent preparatory phase of the council was extraordinary. He was clearly taking a gamble. Conservative members of the Curia, like Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani, once they saw that they could not stop the council, apparently hoped that the bishops would meet with great pomp and splendor, rubber-stamp a few documents affirming Church dogma, and then go home, thus letting everything return to normal.

But this was not what Pope John intended. In his opening speech, he said that “the main point of this Council… will not be to discuss one or another article of basic Church doctrine that has repeatedly been taught…. A Council is not needed for this.” Rather, it was time for a new approach. Emphasizing that the Church should have an “ever greater fidelity to authentic doctrine,” the pope famously went on to say: “The substance of the ancient doctrine is one thing, and its formulation is another.” But he was not just looking for new formulas: He was calling the Church out of her Tridentine shell to an active engagement with the modern world. To do this effectively, the Church would have to imitate more closely her Master, drawing nearer to contemporary humanity rather than maintaining a harsh, critical distance.

Although Roncalli was not an intellectual in the manner of his predecessor Pius XII, he was well aware of the “new theology” that for decades had been percolating through the Catholic world. It involved radiant figures like Henri de Lubac, Maurice Blondel, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Yves Congar, along with younger academics like Joseph Ratzinger. These thinkers had become impatient with the “official” post-Tridentine scholasticism, which, although derived from St. Thomas Aquinas, was progressively ossifying into a rationalist caricature. They wanted not only to return to the “sources” — Scripture, the Church Fathers, and indeed Aquinas himself — but also to work with philosophical traditions that had emerged since the breakup of medieval Europe. All these would be the building blocks of a new Christian humanism that could speak to the modern world.

While never openly promoting the new theologians, Pope John gave every indication that he expected the council to embrace their understanding of the Church’s mission. And this is what happened. The council met in four sessions between 1962 and 1965. There was, of course, the usual unedifying behavior that has attended every council since Nicea: theological dogfights, bureaucratic rearguard actions, crafty procedural maneuvers, not to mention the agitation at the edges of the council — the journalists and self-appointed experts who hatched plots and circulated pamphlets in smoky little restaurants near the Vatican. Every council has been like this. All that the Holy Spirit guarantees is the orthodoxy of the outcome, no matter what messy human contingencies may be involved.

Pope John called for an aggiornamento, a “renewal” or updating of the Church. And this, too, was nothing new. It has been going on for 2,000 years. Since the Church must become incarnate in every historical epoch, she has always engaged in aggiornamento. She did this in the early centuries when she appropriated the vocabulary of Greek philosophy in order to define dogma, and she did it in the Dark Ages when she adjusted to the collapse of the Roman Empire. On these occasions, there was always a conservative party to tell her she shouldn’t change, that there were no problems. Fifty years ago, there were problems; they were noticed by the new theologians, as well as by insightful philosophers like Jacques Maritain and Dietrich von Hildebrand. They were also noticed by the Vicar of Christ.

The following were some of the issues that needed to be addressed if the Church were to evangelize the contemporary world.

The Church and Modernity

Since the Enlightenment, the attitude of the Church toward modernity had been one of unrelieved gloom and pessimism. This morose attitude was understandable given what the Church had experienced since the French Revolution. Consider just the highlights: In 1798, Pope Pius VI was arrested by French revolutionary troops and later died in captivity. His successor, Pius VII, was kidnapped by Napoleon. In 1848, when another revolution was sweeping through Europe, Pius IX’s prime minister was stabbed to death by a mob, and the pope had to flee Rome in disguise. In 1871, the archbishop of Paris was executed by agents of the Commune. In the following decades, modern “democracy” coughed up legions of anticlerical politicians — for example, Emile Combes, the French premier who closed all the Catholic schools, in many cases giving the nuns only a few minutes to pack up and depart.

If the Church’s experience of modern politics was unhappy, so too was her experience of the economic revolution. With the shift to an industrial economy, there was a huge migration into the cities, and it seemed that the moment a peasant set foot on the pavement of the train station in Paris or Milan, he lost his faith.

Then there was the modern intellectual onslaught against not only the Church, but Christianity itself. From Voltaire onward, the “best” public minds were generally hostile to the Faith, often basing their attacks on a superficial reading of the natural sciences. Their polemics were magnified by the emerging popular press, where anticlerical journalists asked how anyone in an age of steam engines and telegraphs could believe in God.

In reaction to all this, there was a tendency in the Church simply to retreat to a fortified position and hurl down anathemas on the modern world. The locus classicus of this position was Pius IX’s famous “Syllabus of Errors” (1864), which condemned the view that the pope “can or should reconcile himself to… progress, liberalism, and modern civilization.” But by the middle of the 20th century, Catholic thinkers like Maritain and von Balthasar found this mentality exasperating and counterproductive. There was a rejection not only of what was bad in the modern world but also of what was good. They believed that the healthy Catholic attitude should be that any truth that is out there is ours. Instead, there was a deep suspicion of wide areas of human endeavor, especially in the arts and philosophy. This defensive attitude made it increasingly difficult for the Church to talk to her contemporaries. The vocabulary of neo-scholastic manuals (written in poor Latin) was inadequate, as were the baroque and stilted communiqués of the Roman Curia.

The Church had to learn again how to radiate outward. The way to dissipate error was not simply to condemn it but to make a more convincing presentation of the truth in language that the modern world could understand. And it was undoubtedly better to start a dialogue with Protestants or the Eastern Orthodox with what we share instead of pronouncing anathemas. Henceforth, the Church understands herself to be neither against the world, nor of the world, but for the world.

What Is the Church?

Accompanying the old mental rigidity was an institutional rigidity that needed correcting. The institutional model of the Church that had prevailed since the Council of Trent, and in many respects had done good service, was no longer adequate. This model saw the Church as a juridical machine operated by the bishop of Rome. Over the centuries, the Church’s government had become top-heavy and centralized. This trend had been fortified by Vatican I, which defined papal infallibility, but (partly due to the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War) did not address the role of the bishops, let alone the laity. There was a tendency to regard “Rome,” especially the bureaucratic machinery of the Curia, as the Church. The situation was such that a monsignor in the Vatican could be far more powerful than the bishop of a large diocese.

So the council supplemented and balanced the one-sided ecclesiology of Vatican I. It revived the fraternal element in the hierarchy. It confirmed that, in union with the pope, the bishops have a collegial responsibility for the universal Church and not just the care of their own diocese. As for the pope, no writing in Church history has stronger language about papal authority than Lumen Gentium (n. 25), a document about which dissenters do not like to be reminded. But the Council Fathers were interested in moving beyond the Church conceived primarily as a hierarchy or institution — with its Roman centralism and clericalism — to a Church that is a communion of the faithful. And so the council describes the Church in non-juridical, biblical ways: a sheepfold, a pasture, a pilgrim moving through history. 

But the documents go even further and emphasize that the Church is a mystery. She is a mystery because she is a Person. Only as such can she change the world. The French writer Paul Claudel said of the fallen world that Christ had entered: “The problem was so enormous that only the Word could respond to it, bringing not an explanation but a presence.” This was the idea of the council. By sanctifying herself and acting as a communion of the faithful, the Church’s presence in the world would be not so much that of an organization or a credal formula, but of Christ Himself.

Where Are the Laity?

A major problem of pre-Vatican II ecclesiology was its disregard of the laity. The laity was a misplaced object in the magnificent baroque edifice of the Counter-Reformation Church. They were defined negatively — “not the clergy” — and almost treated as passive bystanders. The message was: If you want to be holy, become a priest or nun; otherwise, take a seat in the bleachers, where you may watch the priests and nuns, who are the true athletes of holiness, and you shall be holy to the extent that you plug in, however distantly, to their holiness. At the council, Bishop John J. Wright of Pittsburgh said: “The faithful have been waiting for 400 years for a positive conciliar statement on the place, dignity and vocation of the layman.”

Until Vatican II, there was little sense of calling the laity to serious ascetical struggle and adult intellectual formation. All that was the preserve of the priests and nuns, who were somehow the “real” Church. The council was a clarion call to the laity to share actively in the mission of the Church. They are henceforth to act as leaven in the world and not to leave all the heavy lifting to the clergy. Today, many Catholics (including some bishops) seem to think that Vatican II was about the role of the laity in the Church — eucharistic ministers, lectors, and so forth. But it was really about the role of the laity in the world. The true Catholic life is one of personal conversion and evangelization; it does not involve hanging around the sacristy. Francis Cardinal George of Chicago has said that the biggest failure of the post-Vatican II Church was her failure to get out the council’s message about the laity — who, after all, comprise 99 percent of the Church.

The Formation of the Clergy

Then there was the situation in the religious orders — and in the seminaries — where again there was too much narrowness and rigidity. The old seminary system had many strengths, but it also seemed designed to prolong the immaturity of young men. A priest’s education was remote from that of his lay contemporary, so that he had difficulty understanding the secular world. There was also an implicit notion that holiness is achieved by the elimination of natural feeling and that sex drives should not exist in a person consecrated to God. (If you wish to seek the root causes of the recent crisis, start looking here.) There was often strictness where strictness was not particularly helpful. For example, many nuns’ orders changed between their winter and lighter summer habits twice a year according to the European calendar, no matter what the weather was actually like in, say, Alabama. 

More importantly, there was little connection between theology and the devotional life, the latter of which was often dangerously routinized. And in some seminaries or religious houses, if you wanted to discover the Church Fathers or any Catholic thinking outside of a closed neo-scholastic system that gave only the illusion of completeness, you did so with a flashlight at night. Many good men left Catholic seminaries in the 1940s and 1950s be-cause they found the intellectual and emotional formation stultifying.

Obviously, there were wonderful and holy priests in the old days. But the fact that the “eruption of mediocrity” in the Church (as von Hildebrand put it) after the council was mainly the work of clergy who had received their formation before the council is evidence enough that the council was right to want to update the human and spiritual formation in convents and seminaries.

The Liturgy

Ask most American Catholics what Vatican II was about, and they would say that it changed the Mass from Latin to English. Actually, it is surprising how little the council said about the use of vernacular in the liturgy. It comes down to two sentences whose modest scope would surprise most Catholics:

The use of the Latin language… is to be preserved in the Latin rites. But since the use of the vernacular, whether in the Mass, the administration of the sacraments, or in other parts of the liturgy, may frequently be of great advantage to the people, a wider use of it may be made, especially in the readings, directives and in some prayers and chants.

It is unlikely that the Council Fathers ever envisioned the Mass being said entirely in the vernacular. But they did want to revise the liturgy. The old Tridentine Mass had many strengths and beauties. A problem — not intrinsic to it, but an abuse nonetheless that needed correcting — was the nonparticipation of many of the faithful. People in the pews would say their rosaries or do private prayers and devotions during the Mass. The council wanted to change this. The Mass is the summit of Christian life here on earth, so there should be “full, conscious and active participation.” The word “active” in the original text could better be translated as “authentic,” and by “participation,” they meant mainly interior participation. In other words, silence.

But in the wake of the council, bishops around the world apparently decided that the way to achieve “active participation” was to have the entire Mass said in the vernacular. You could argue that this is a “traditionalist” solution. The first eucharistic liturgy, said by Christ, was undoubtedly in Aramaic. Until the end of the third century, the Mass was said in demotic Greek, because that was the vernacular. Then it was switched to Latin for the same reason.

Latin remains the normative language of the Church, and there are at least two good reasons for this: It is the language of the most beautiful prayers and hymns ever written, from the Salve Regina to Adoro Te Devote. And it is a dead language; in other words, its meaning and nuances do not change over the centuries. This is why the Catechism of the Catholic Church, originally written in French, was officially rendered into Latin. Catholics 500 years from now will know exactly what the Church was saying.

Religious Liberty

The most radical departure from history in the council’s teachings concerned religious freedom. A professor somewhere has said that one of the great revolutions of the 20th century was the Catholic Church’s strong turn toward human rights. She entered the modern age carrying a lot of baggage from her entanglements with the ancien régime. The council made it clear that she no longer wanted a confessional state tied to a monarchy; it was high time to make peace with liberal democracy. Henceforth the Church does not impose but proposes the truth; she will not rely on the coercive machinery of the state. This was the area where the Americans, especially the Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, made their contribution to the council. The Constitution of the United States, which keeps the government out of the chancery, had served the Church well.

Reinventing Moral Theology

Although the council did not issue a decree on moral theology, its documents are shot through with a “personalism” that set a new course for teaching morality. In many quarters of the Church, moral theology had been reduced to a dry and overly scholastic parsing of sin. Call it legalism or externalism, but many Catholics had the idea that religion is mainly a matter of following rules. Returning to the biblical roots of her moral teachings, the Church henceforth was to get out the message that behind every “no” in the commandments, there is an even greater “yes”; that the commandments are meant to educate our nature and not put a lid on it.

This personalist approach is especially helpful with such issues as contraception and priestly celibacy. The old manualist arguments concerning both do not convince the modern mind; it is more effective to talk in the language of “person” and “gift.” It is an interesting historical point that the most mischievous heresy to emerge after the council — the “proportionalism” or “consequentialism” of theologians like Charles Curran and Richard McCormick — derives not from the teachings of the council but from a rationalist perversion of the old scholastic double-effect reasoning.

What Is Man?

Some of the major questions addressed by the council were anthropological: What is man? How does he flourish? Previous councils had focused on the truth as an objective fact and how the Church as structure was going to preserve this truth. Vatican II went further and pointed out that the truth is also a subjective experience. Following the trajectory of certain modern philosophical schools, the attention shifted from structure and object to subject. As one theologian puts it, the thinking of Aquinas was complemented by Pascal, who in his Pensées focused on the experience of man before God. In talking to modern agnostics, it might be easier to start with man’s need for God, rather than God Himself. Certainly, the old Thomistic proofs for the existence for God, while intellectually airtight, don’t seem to move people anymore. This “personalism” of Vatican II is why the Catechism of the Catholic Church begins with a quotation from St. Augustine: “We were made for thee, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” And it is why a saint has the last word, so to speak, in every section, as a testimony of the lived experience of faith. 

At the council, the Church moved to a relational, Trinitarian theology of the human person. Our faith is not simply the intellectual acceptance of a series of creedal statements but a relationship with a Person. It is also our relationship with others. As the council puts it, “Man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self.” There you have a good theology of marriage — and the priesthood — in a nutshell.

A Crisis of Saints

The council’s most important message was the “universal call to holiness.” If the Church is going to fulfill her evangelical mission, it will ultimately be the work of saints, lay and clerical. In some ways, the council was calling for a retrieval of the experience of the earliest Christians. The early Church was an enterprise of all the baptized who saw the Faith not as a checklist of obligations but an adventure in grace. The hermeneutical key to the council, then, is the lives of the saints. In fact, you will get a good idea of what the council was about by reading a biography of the (now beatified) pope who called it into being. As one biographer puts it, the “Johannine impact was of a person, not a program.” Angelo Roncalli was able to do two things together that many Catholics find difficult: Remain utterly faithful to the Church’s teachings while radiating outward to the world. That is also the lesson of Vatican II.

The council ought to have been followed by a thorough catechesis. This happened in the diocese of Kraków under the future Pope John Paul II, but not much elsewhere. It is to be hoped that a genuine implementation lies in our future. The late pope told us that the teachings of Vatican II were what his pontificate was all about. They are also the key to a new evangelization of the West. They present a program for Catholic apologetics that avoids both the frozen integralism of the past and the loopy therapeutics of the present. But these texts need to be thoughtfully unpacked. This is a job to be done in study groups, conferences, and Sunday homilies.

Many of the best explanations of Vatican II preceded it — works like de Lubac’s The Splendor of the Church or von Balthasar’s Razing the Bastions. But we’ll give the last word to the French novelist Georges Bernanos, whose “Sermon of an Agnostic” held a mirror up to preconciliar Catholicism — and is addressed to us, as well. Bernanos asks us to consider the call of St. Francis to the rest of Christendom to follow him:

That advice was addressed to all of you. But not many followed it…. Had you followed that saint instead of applauding, Europe would never have known the Reformation, nor the religious wars…. The purpose of God is impenetrable…. Are you capable of rejuvenating the world or not?


  • George Sim Johnston

    George Sim Johnston is the author of “Did Darwin Get It Right? Catholics and the Theory of Evolution” (Our Sunday Visitor).

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