Reconsidering Vatican II

In May 1964, in the middle of the Second Vatican Council, I published a book, The Open Church, an optimistic assessment of the changes in the Catholic Church that I believed the council would produce. I had written it in white-hot haste in my room at the Pensione Baldoni in Rome during a six-week period from the beginning of December 1963 until January 15, 1964 — at the rate, therefore, of about 90 pages per week. That was in a time before word processors, when my trusty portable typewriter (a pale green Royal) was my prize possession. Some days I wrote with gloves on because it was so cold inside the unheated room, and I kept three professional typists busy on various drafts as chapters piled up.

The day I delivered the manuscript to my New York publisher is etched blood-red in my memory. Grim news from home brought me down from the optimistic “spirit of Vatican II.” That shock helped me see in Vatican II the seeds of potential tragedy. “All things human, given enough time, go badly,” I wrote in the book’s frontispiece.

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My younger brother Rich, a Holy Cross missionary priest to whom I felt as close as a twin, had been declared missing after a week of rioting among Hindus and Muslims in what is now Bangladesh. The rivers were full of floating bodies. Although his religious superiors scheduled a funeral for him, it was many years before we could obtain firsthand accounts and learn for certain that he was dead. He had taken his bicycle on a mission of mercy, and after he crossed a river on a ferry, a small band of young river pirates fell upon him. Their motive was probably robbery. When he resisted (my brother would resist), they slew him with a knife. He was 28.

The mood at the Second Vatican Council, however, during its four hectic and exciting autumns from 1962 through 1965, was focused not on martyrdom and death but on buoyant hope. Although the victorioius majority of Church reformers styled their conservative foes as “the Party of Triumphalism,” the reformers themselves — and I included myself among their allies — were not without their own spirit of triumphalism. The reader will detect much hubris in The Open Church.

When I arrived in Rome in the autumn of 1963, I certainly did not intend to write a book. I was a 29-year-old graduate student in history and philosophy of religion at Harvard University. I had just married Karen Laub, a printmaker and assistant professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, and we decided to use our entire wedding purse to take a leave of absence to be at the council. I was doing freelance reporting for the National Catholic Reporter and Commonweal, two lay Catholic journals, and for any British, Dutch, and other publications that would run my work. The local trattoria offered us a cut rate, and the owner (out of a fondness for Karen) poured us a free glass of Sambuca after every evening meal.

The correspondent for Time magazine that year was the famous Robert Blair Kaiser, and he had won prizes both for overseas reporting and for his book on the first session of the council in 1962. A former seminarian like me, he welcomed Karen and me into his friendship. He later confided to me that he had to leave Rome because of some personal troubles. Unable to complete his contract for a book on the second session, he asked me if I would be willing to take his contract over and said he would recommend it to the publisher, Macmillan. I said, “Sure.” I had no idea how to do a book like that, but it had always been my dream to try.

One strength I had that most reporters lacked was years of theological training. From the autumn of 1947, when I was 14 years old, until the end of December 1959, I had studied happily like my brother in the seminaries of the Holy Cross fathers, including two years of theology at the Gregorian University in Rome from 1956 to 1958. Had I continued my studies, I would have been ordained a priest in May 1960. I had gone through a long struggle before I left the seminary. Just before the end, the darkness I had been experiencing lifted, and I thought I would be ordained as scheduled. But even then, in the peace that I felt, an inner certainty grew that the priesthood was not my vocation.


Present at the Creation

Much that I wrote in The Open Church I learned at the feet of older masters, who one by one died or retired during my years at the Greg. It was a privilege to be present during an axial shift at the center of the Church, having had to master the way of thinking that dominated in Rome for many generations and then to be present four years later at the council that “opened the windows” for the whole Church. My classmates and I experienced in the classroom, in the transition from Sebastian Tromp to Bernard Lonergan and Juan Alfaro, from Francis Hürth to Josef Fuchs (and, across town, Bernard Häring), what the whole Church was to experience four years later at the council.

Journalistically (I worked for Time magazine during the third session in 1964), it was much easier to portray the sheer novelty of the council than to portray its continuities with the past. The news business is in the business of news — novelty — and the public does not go to the press for solid scholarship. Important realities are often distorted, and history itself is significantly falsified. For instance, the era before the council was more like a golden age in Catholic history than the dark age described to an eager press by the post-conciliar “progressives.” There were many glaring deficiencies in it — pointed out in my book — and yet it was in many respects healthier and more faithful to the gospels than much that came later in the name of “progress” and “openness.”

Once the passions of those participating in the council rose — the reader will feel them rise in The Open Church — the victorious majority (the progressives) acquired a vested interest both in stressing new beginnings and in discrediting the leadership and the ways of the past. That emphasis shifted the balance of power in the Church into their hands. To them accrued the glory of all things promising, new, and not yet tried; to their foes accrued the blame for everything wrong. The more power wrested from the old guard, the more massive the power acquired by the reformers. The more the past was discredited, the greater the slack cut for new initiatives and new directions. The politics of the post-conciliar Church in the United States and some parts of Northern Europe became an unfair fight.


Obliterating the Past

Within a decade of the end of the council, every major institution in the American Church and in many others was dominated by the progressives under the sway of “the spirit of Vatican II.” That spirit sometimes soared far beyond the actual hard-won documents and decisions of Vatican II. It was as though some took the Church to be “dis-incarnate,” detached from flesh and history — detached, that is, from Rome and the Vatican, and so far as possible from any concrete local authority. Detached, too, from past tradition and the painful lessons of the past.

It was as though the history of the Church was now to be divided into only two periods, pre-Vatican II and post-Vatican II. Everything “pre” was then pretty much dismissed. For the most extreme, to be a Catholic now meant to believe more or less anything one wished to believe. One could be a Catholic “in spirit.” One could take Catholic to mean the “culture” into which one was born rather than a creed making objective and rigorous demands. One could imagine Rome as a distant and irrelevant anachronism, embarrassment, even adversary. One way of putting this is that “nonhistorical orthodoxy” (the cult of an “eternal” Church) was driven out from the center of the Church, only to be replaced in not a few hearts by “neodoxy,” the love of the newest trend. Thus, those we used to call at Vatican II the “prophets of doom” turned out to have had in some respects prudent foresight. As world-weary Romans say, “The odds favor pessimism.”

It is not too much to say that Pope John Paul II rescued Vatican II from disaster. His total awareness of the presence of the Holy Spirit at the council, the new Pentecost, suffused Karol Wojtyla’s every action as archbishop, then cardinal, of Krakow and later as universal pastor of the Church. He brought back a sense of incarnation, concreteness, discipline, and practicality, and was an indefatigable theoretician. He gave a thorough and authoritative interpretation of Vatican II.

In a nutshell, Archbishop Wojtyla proposed the following principles for the development of the council (and continued to do so as pope): that the chief ideologies and intellectual currents of modernity are exhausted; that the world needs and seeks a new and authentic universal humanism; and that it is just this humanism that the Church was called into existence to offer. Our Creator and Father wills a civilization of friendship. The Church must open itself to the world, shouting the good news of this highest calling. The Church is the forerunner of human destiny. It must be, to borrow the apt title of George Weigel’s 1999 biography of John Paul II, a “witness to hope.”

Despite the manifest faults, sins, and weak minds of many of us during and after the Second Vatican Council, the Holy Spirit did preside over it and brought the world immense fruits through it. Without the council, we could never have had the enormously important pontificate of John Paul II, and perhaps not the long-hidden but energetic stirrings of Eastern Europe that erupted so magnificently in 1989, the year that showed international communism to be tinkling brass, whistlingly empty.

And yet the very pope who presided (brilliantly, by the way) over the final three sessions of the council, Paul VI, said publicly some few years afterwards that “the smoke of Satan” had filtered into the work of the council, and blown up a mirage of the spirit of Vatican II that had subverted the letter of what the Holy Spirit had wrought, blown the barque of Peter far off course, and tossed her about on stormy seas. A spirit of radical individualism and hatred for the way things had been swept through religious community after religious community, through colleges and universities, through the ranks of priests (and even some bishops, although the latter were more constrained by their close ties to Rome), and eventually through the educated laity. Thus “Vatican II Catholicism” was born. It has not yet been dispassionately evaluated, and its colossal failures have not been weighed against its much-praised successes.

The Good of Vatican II

But new readers of The Open Church would not be well-served if I did not place into perspective the events I recorded in 1963. For instance, at the end of Chapter 15, I wrote:

On the evening of October 30, a nearly full moon bathed St. Peter’s square in such brilliance, such serenity, as was worthy of the greatest day in Roman Catholic history since 1870.” On that day the central vote of Vatican II was taken, indicating a powerful consensus of the assembled 2,100 bishops in favor of a renewed emphasis on the supreme authority of the entire college of bishops united around the world with the pope, thus stressing the collegiality of all bishops, including their center, their servant, and their leader, the bishop of Rome.

How has that final sentence in that crucial chapter held up over these last four decades? Very well, I think.

Without that emphasis on the collegiality of the bishops around the world, there would scarcely have been the effort to select a non-Italian bishop — a Pole from the Eastern bloc — in those dangerous years of the late 1970s when the Soviet empire still seemed to be expanding in Angola, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Yemen, and elsewhere, and the world feared “nuclear winter.” The internationalization of the Roman curia and the regular participation of bishops from around the world in synods, commissions, and committees would not as likely — or at least as quickly — have occurred. Again, even as John Paul II dramatized the international pastoral role of the bishop of Rome by a steady, relentless round of visits to his brother bishops in country after country, each of the public Eucharists in every country he visited celebrated a highly visible collegiality with all the bishops of that country and of many other countries besides. The theology of collegiality first signaled by the consensus of the fathers of the council in five dramatic votes on October 30, 1963, has been witnessed in highly dramatic visual symbols by billions around the world.

Thus, in public perception, the Catholic Church at the beginning of the 21st century is in many ways more vital, more dynamic, and more important than it was at the beginning of 1700, 1800, or 1900. The U.S. ambassador to Italy wrote to Washington circa 1864, and with morose delectation, that he was most assuredly witnessing the last days of the Roman papacy. By the end of the 20th century, U.S. presidents, the most consequential of world leaders, were eager to be televised with the pope, and as frequently as possible, in order to bask in his moral authority and the aura of dynamism that surrounds him. None of this is likely to have happened apart from Vatican II.


What Went Wrong

The other side of the ledger must also be added up — or, rather, subtracted. Consider the United States. From 1950 to 1965, religious orders of priests, brothers, and sisters had been growing more rapidly than they ever had in history. Partly because of the baby boom that followed World War II, the demand for new Catholic parishes and new Catholic schools had been furious. Catholic colleges and universities had been expanding rapidly, and vital organizations such as Young Christian Students, the Catholic Family Movement, Young Christian Workers, and cells of lay Catholics committed to Catholic Action, the Legion of Mary, the Family Rosary Crusade, and a multitude of other societies and organizations had been pouring out pamphlets and books of the latest scholarship and activist initiatives from around the world. Catholic morale was sky-high.

University students with intellectual ambitions were enthralled by visions of the “Catholic Renaissance” of the 20th century and were avidly discussing Louis Pascal Guéranger, Romano Guardini, Paul Claudel, Graham Greene, Heinrich Böll, Jose Gironella, Ignazio Silone, and Christopher Dawson. Catholic parishes were alive with novenas, benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament, Forty Hours, and “parish missions” preached by visiting Passionists or Redemptorists capable of conjuring up such visions of hell and heaven, sin and grace as the New York Times doesn’t dream of. Bishop Fulton J. Sheen had the most-watched show on Sunday night television, and Walter Kerr was the best drama critic around. Harvard — the Harvard Divinity School, no less — was soon to install a chair of Catholic studies. J.F. Powers, Edwin O’Connor, and Flannery O’Connor were enjoying national success. Seminaries and convents were not big enough to hold all the new recruits. Those were great years to be Catholic in America.

In 1940, there were just over two million students in Catholic elementary schools. By 1965, that number had grown to 4.5 million — in other words, the numbers had more than doubled in 25 years. The numbers of high-school students had grown even more rapidly. The years 1945, 1960, and 1965 showed, respectively, enrollments of 300,000, then 500,000, then 700,000. Bishops kept begging religious orders of nuns for more teachers. When the Second Vatican Council closed in 1965, there were more than 104,000 sisters teaching in Catholic schools in the United States

Then disaster hit. By 1995, the number of teaching sisters had fallen to 13,000. Most of the orders of sisters began losing numbers after the council like water through a sieve. In just five years, by 1970, almost 20,000 sisters had left their vocations. By 1995, another 70,000 had fled, and the total number of sisters in the United States had shrunk from 180,000 in 1965 to less than half that number, 89,000.

The few orders that maintained traditional structures and practices are doing much better, and some are even vigorous. The “progressive” orders have virtually committed suicide. So rapidly and unwisely did they abandon their primary corporate purposes, lose their institutional sense of community and discipline, leave behind hallowed traditions and practices, walk away from clear lines of authority and responsibility in favor of such will-o’-the-wisps as “flexibility,” and pursue new gospels such as self-realization, that their cohesion, their very essence and purpose simply dissolved. Much the same thing has happened among religious orders of men and among the diocesan clergy.

I particularly regret the advice I gave to nuns in articles in Commonweal and the Saturday Evening Post (“The New Nuns”) during the 1960s. I deserve to be shamed for some of the things I wrote about experimental liturgies, about dissent in the Church, and about the spirit (much too little about the carefully formulated letter) of Vatican II. I fancied myself a leader among the younger reformers, a witness to the events at Vatican II, part of a new breed that would accomplish great things. If I did not do worse damage, it is largely because after 1965 I turned my attention to problems of unbelief in the secular world and to issues of public policy, believing that there were plenty of theologians around to worry about the inner life of the Church. My purgatory is bound to be very long and very painful, even if all it were to consist of would be the humiliating contemplation of my past words and deeds.


What’s Still Right

On still other fronts, what has happened to the grand project of the “open church”? John Paul II’s work in frank dialogue with Jews was one good evidence of solid accomplishment. His visits to the synagogue in Rome and to Israel, his words at Auschwitz and at Yad Vashem, his conversations with Jewish survivors from his boyhood home, Wadowice — all these touched Jewish friends of mine and writers in the public press deeply. So did his appeals for human rights to Augusto Pinochet in Chile and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. John Paul II did not hesitate to upbraid the powerful, including the United States and its presidents. In Cairo, Beijing, and elsewhere, he opposed the cultural elite of a communications age — journalists, commentators, feminists, secularists, and anti-Christians of all stripes and formidable powers — in calling abortion and euthanasia moral evils of a horrifying sort. Most of all, the pope urged truth within the Church and repentance for many heretofore unadmitted sins of its members, including bishops and popes.

Moreover, there is lively, not to say furious, argument within the Church (and between the Church and the surrounding culture) on almost everything. The Church in America is not dying of terminal indifference; passions run high, and arguments cut even deeper. Most Catholics, left and right, really do love the Church. They have also, alas, learned to be fearful of one another during the past 40 years. The reformers were far from generous toward the conservatives whom they roundly defeated when they took over virtually all the institutions within the American Church. From Vatican II on, most liberal Catholics abandoned the practice of tolerance toward conservatives, having learned to refer to them in tones of mockery. By contrast, the besetting sin of conservatives, now that after generations of dominance they find themselves a defeated minority, is a peculiar sort of resentment born of a feeling of powerlessness.

In no other period in my life have so many theological disputes been conducted so broadly and openly in the secular press, in the religious press, and in public debates as in the years from 1961 until now. In such an era, theologians need to develop their own mechanisms for guarding the data entrusted to them. If theologians watch over their own ranks, bishops and Rome will not have to intrude. An open church cannot be built if those with the crown jewels — the data of revelation — do not hold these life-giving data precious. The truths of the faith are essential for a true humanism.

The excruciating experience of our past bloody century and the exhaustion of so many competing ideologies have perhaps fashioned for us a more precise language for articulating this faith tradition than was available to earlier ages. We have acquired a sharper historical consciousness and perhaps an even fuller sense of collision with all the different cultures of earth. Perhaps, too, these searing times have taught us a richer language of interiority and consciousness than the tradition had felt need of before. Thus, Karol Wojtyla found in phenomenology richer terms for expressing interior dimensions of the person and community than are to be found in St. Thomas Aquinas. He had needed to draw on such terms to understand his own inner life during the Nazi, then the communist, occupation of Poland.

My final point is to underline how redolent with memory this work of my youth still is to me. I can remember the smells of burning chestnuts in the streets of Rome, the taste of Sambuca after dinner with Karen, the excitement of the press conferences every early afternoon, the perfect October air in St. Peter’s Square with the great dome glinting in the sunlight. It was a wonderful time to be alive. Since an ecumenical council happens only once in a century, I am glad to have been present at this one, a great and history-changing outpouring of the Spirit, and just plain fun.


  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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