Vatican II and the Culture of Dissent

In this Crisis Magazine classic, Russell Shaw explains why Catholic dissenters got so far so fast in the years following the council.

The Second Vatican Council closed just over 40 years ago, on December 8, 1965. For most people, the postconciliar era had begun. But for me, that troubled time in recent Catholic history got its real start on July 28, 1968.
Pope Paul VI’s encyclical against contraception, Humanae Vitae, had appeared the previous Thursday, July 25. “Each and every marriage act must remain open to the trans-mission of life,” the pope declared. An angry, orchestrated howl of dissent went up from theologians in North America and Western Europe.
On Sunday, July 28, I went to Mass at Holy Trinity Church, a trendy Jesuit parish in the fashionable Georgetown section of Washington. When it was time for the homily, the priest launched into a rationale for dissenting from Humanae Vitae. Most of the congregation applauded when he was finished. I, however, did not. I stayed until Mass was over, then left. After that day, I started going to Mass somewhere else.
That open preaching of dissent — accompanied by the concluding applause — marked the start of the postconciliar era as I came to experience it.
Linking the council and dissent isn’t a personal eccentricity of mine. Vatican II called for the renewal of the Church, but by July 1968 a drastic change was already setting in. Although honest efforts at renewal would continue, for the next two decades not only renewal but the council itself was to be interpreted by American Catholics through the medium of an organized culture of dissent. The results are still being felt.
This version of events conflicts with much conventional wisdom, on both the left and the right, tying postconciliar dissent and defections directly to Vatican II. Clearly, some explanation is in order.
The Spirit of Xavier Rynne
The seeds of the culture of dissent were already sown in some of the earliest reactions to the council.
In four momentous sessions between 1962 and 1965, the fathers of Vatican II hammered out a consensus contained in the 103,000 Latin words of its 16 documents — four constitutions, nine decrees, and three declarations. While most people hailed the results (though often without quite knowing what they were hailing), extremists were not well-pleased. Ultra-traditionalists, led by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, prepared for diehard resistance; progressives hungered for far more change than the council had delivered.
Rev. Hans Küng, the Swiss-born theologian who was to become a veritable Prince of Dissenters, was bitterly disappointed. The religious revolution he’d hoped to lead had stalled. Despite some achievements, the council had done far less than he hoped, and now, he believed, progress was being blocked by Rome. “The renewal of the Catholic Church and ecumenical understanding with the other Christian churches… had got stuck,” he later wrote. Here was a logjam crying out to be broken.
The alleged corruption of the Church and its leaders often supplied the basis for dissent in the early postconciliar years. Charles Davis, a British theologian who quit the priesthood in 1966, declared that the Church was “a zone of untruth, pervaded by a disregard for truth.” Sociologist Rev. Andrew Greeley announced that the American bishops were “morally, intellectually, and religiously bankrupt.” Peace activist Philip Berrigan, another ex-priest, dismissed the Church as “a whore.”
Blunders by bishops didn’t help. Following the first post-Vatican II meeting of the American hierarchy, held in Washington from November 14 through 18 in 1966, Archbishop (later Cardinal) John F. Dearden of Detroit, newly elected president of the U.S. episcopal conference, said that implementing the council was “only beginning.” Unfortunately, it hadn’t begun well.  With little or no advance warning, during that meeting the bishops abolished the Church law requiring Friday abstinence from meat. Though a small thing in itself, for generations of Catholics fish-on-Friday had been an important feature of their religious identity. The message of its abrupt abandonment was that things the Church formerly had stressed could now be tossed aside at the drop of a hat. This mistake, which was repeated many times in the postconciliar years, made things easier for the culture of dissent.
But far and away the biggest building block of that culture was the “spirit of Vatican II.” It also had its start just after the council — in the United States, thanks especially to Xavier Rynne. Rynne, as everyone knows today, was the pseudonym of an American Redemptorist priest, Rev. Francis X. Murphy, used in a series of insider reports on Vatican II in the New Yorker. His articles spun the story as a titanic struggle pitting good-guy liberals against bad-guy conservatives. Immediately after the council ended, Rynne published an article pronouncing that from a “superficial point of view” — that is, from a reading of the council documents — nothing radical had been accomplished. But to think like that was to miss the point. “More important than the documents, the Council has consecrated a new spirit, destined in the course of time to remake the face of Catholicism,” Rynne/Murphy wrote.
For progressives, the beauty of the spirit of Vatican II was that it permitted them to dismiss the council’s teaching while at the same time claiming to champion the council. Thus Rev. Richard McBrien, then at Boston College and now at Notre Dame, claimed that Vatican II had validated the principle of “endless, unchecked change” in Catholic life (The Remaking of the Church, 1973). Yet Pope John XXIII, while commending openness to “new conditions and new forms of life” in his famous opening speech to the council, nevertheless insisted that the Church must “never depart from the sacred patrimony of truth received by the fathers.” No matter. Father McBrien had the spirit of Vatican II. 
The Rise of the Culture of Dissent
The main driving force for the culture of dissent came initially from the organized assault on Humanae Vitae by liberal theologians. This more than anything else opened many people’s eyes, including mine, to what was going on. According to Rev. Charles Curran, a leader of the dissenters who then taught at the Catholic University of America and is now at Southern Methodist, the anti-encyclical campaign “brought to the attention of all Catholics, perhaps for the first time, the right to dissent from authoritative, noninfallible papal teaching” (New Perspectives in Moral Theology, 1974). For not a few of us, however, it brought awareness that people like Father Curran were working overtime to promote dissent.
A week or two after hearing dissent preached from the pulpit of Holy Trinity Church, I found myself sitting in a suite of Washington’s Mayflower Hotel with Rev. John Ford, S.J., the preeminent American Catholic moralist of the day, and Germain Grisez, a brilliant young ethicist who, at the time, taught at Georgetown University. Father Ford had been called in by Patrick Cardinal O’Boyle of Washington to help combat the upsurge of dissent from Humanae Vitae by some of his priests. Father Ford called in Grisez, and Grisez called in me. The three of us were working on a pamphlet to explain and uphold the encyclical’s teaching.
From a limited perspective, the product of our labors was a success. The pamphlet was distributed widely in the Washington archdiocese. Some other dioceses reprinted it. People who read it called it a good job — but it failed to come close to stemming the tide. Probably nothing but direct divine intervention could have halted the momentum of dissent at that point.
Dissent spread quickly to questions other than contraception. Father Curran mentioned masturbation, sterilization, divorce, artificial insemination, homosexual acts, in vitro fertilization, abortion, and euthanasia. It would be easy to add other items to the list. The Church’s Magisterium, it was said, was not competent to teach infallibly about norms drawn from natural law. But if magisterial teaching was not infallible — so this line of thought continued — it could be wrong. And if it could be wrong, then it probably was. In that case, to dissent was as much a duty as a right.
Where such reasoning leads is clear today in the rhetoric of someone like Boston College bioethicist Rev. John J. Paris, S.J. In early 2005, as the pros and cons of giving nutrition and hydration to brain-damaged Terri Schiavo in Florida were being hotly debated, he likened a 2004 address by Pope John Paul II on caring for people in a vegetative state to the kind of boilerplate talk popes typically give to the Italian Bicycle Riders Association. “It wasn’t a doctrinal speech,” Father Paris announced magisterially.
Dissent has not been confined to morality. The dissenting spirit can be seen at work in liturgical aberrations, as well as in numerous areas of theology, pastoral practice, and Catholic life. That what is involved here can be called a culture is apparent in the fact that dissent has had — and even now continues to have — the support of a powerful infrastructure of organizations, schools, periodicals, and publishing houses. Its weapons include propaganda, mockery, the suppression of opposing views, and the tried-and-true practice of rewarding friends and punishing enemies. It has enjoyed the toleration, and sometimes the patronage, of a substantial number of bishops, though fewer now than in the past. It has been a contributing factor, or worse, to the sex-abuse scandal, the religious illiteracy of young (and not-so-young) American Catholics, and the sharp drop both in priestly and religious vocations and Mass attendance in the postconciliar years.
And although morality is not the only sphere where dissent has been operative, it is the one where dissent has been most obvious and has had the greatest immediate impact.
Bolstering the dissenters’ line has been the popularity of utilitarian ethical theories like proportionalism and consequentialism. Both are explicitly condemned in John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor (74-79), but both continue to flourish in the theology faculties of some Catholic seminaries and colleges in the United States today. Rejecting the idea of absolute moral norms, consequentialism says that ends justify means after all; while proportionalism holds that no particular action, no matter how seemingly heinous in itself, can be ruled out in principle, without weighing and measuring the proportion of good to bad in its presumed results.
Revolution or Development?
When judging postconciliar developments like these, it is necessary to consider a fundamental question: Was the Second Vatican Council really the sharp break with the Church’s past that the “spirit of Vatican II” rhetoric claimed?
Rev. Yves Congar, O.P., for one, thought not. Father Congar, a French Dominican, was one of the most prominent theologians in the years before the council, with the added cachet of having been silenced by the Holy Office (the predecessor of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). His ideas helped to shape Vatican II’s positions on ecumenism, the laity, and much else. John Paul II named him a cardinal shortly before his death in 1995.
In 1979 Father Congar deplored the “rather simplistic practice” of interpreting the council as if it had been “an absolute new beginning, the point of departure for a completely new Church.” Against claims of a revolutionary break with the past, the eminent theologian declared he was “anxious to stress the continuity of tradition.” Vatican II, he said, was “one moment and neither the first nor the last moment in that tradition.”
To grasp the significance of that point, remember that the Second Vatican Council has often been called “Newman’s council.” The reference is to John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890), the convert from Anglicanism whom many consider the most distinguished Catholic theologian of modern times. Newman’s contribution to Vatican II is his theory of “development,” set out and meticulously documented in his book An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.
This seminal work explains how the Church’s understanding of the deposit of Faith expands and matures over time, without substantial change in the deposit itself. “From the necessity… of the case, from the history of all sects and parties in religion, and from the analogy and example of Scripture,” Newman writes, “we may fairly conclude that Christian doctrine admits of formal, legitimate, and true developments, that is, of developments contemplated by its Divine Author.” Upon finishing the Essay late in 1845, the author of those words went over to Rome.
The theory of development provides theological underpinning to support doctrinal insights introduced by Vatican II on ecclesiology, ecumenism, religious liberty, and much else. The council was not jettisoning the tradition but developing it. Seen in this light, the notion of Vatican II as a revolutionary break, whether urged by Catholic progressives or Lefebvrists, is a coarse caricature of Newman’s finely wrought account.
According to Newman biographer Rev. Ian Ker, a British bishop once remarked that Vatican II’s program would not be realized until “the older generation… too set in its ways” went to its reward. (There is a kind of bishop who regularly blames the agony of the Church in the last four decades on people “too set in their ways” instead of facing up to the culture of dissent.) “I am sure that is true,” Father Ker politely commented, “but it is also true of the generations that came to maturity in the ’60s and ’70s and who experienced the council as though it were a revolution rather than simply another development in the Church’s history and tradition.”
In contrast to Newman’s sober view, people who bought into the “spirit” of the council — as mediated by apologists for the culture of dissent — naturally accepted the idea that Vatican II had opened the windows of the Church to unbounded pluralism and ceaseless change. One of the central themes of this ideology is the idea that the “signs of the times,” which the council quite reasonably said the Church always needed to read, aren’t just current realities to be taken into account but are more like ongoing revelations from God.
This is the line taken, for example, by Boston College catechetical guru Thomas Groome, ex-priest, principal author of the Coming to Faith catechetical series published by W. H. Sadlier, and a familiar figure on the religious education lecture circuit. Groome, developer of a teaching methodology called “shared Christian praxis,” holds “a process concept of revelation” that is said to lead naturally to “a praxis epistemology for our Christian education task.” Whatever this tortured language means, it signals bad news for orthodox doctrine. Is a “process concept of revelation” tenable from a Catholic point of view? “We now await no further new public revelation,” says Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum (4).
Extending beyond academia, the idea of an ongoing revelation communicated in and through current events has often turned up in popular religious literature intended for mass audiences — e.g., a little book called Concise Catholic Dictionary for Parents and Religion Teachers produced in 1982 by Twenty-Third Publications. I picked up a copy years ago from a church pamphlet rack. Under the heading “Revelation,” one reads: “Vatican II… taught that believers must be aware of the signs of the times to understand how the Holy Spirit continues to work…. In this sense revelation can be viewed as an ongoing process as opposed to something finished and complete.” Not surprisingly, this dictionary for ordinary Catholics counsels that there are times when Catholics must “dissent from official teachers.” On contraception, perhaps? “The church reminds Catholics that they have a serious duty to reflect and pray before deciding to practice birth control,” the dictionary astonishingly states.
Toward Reforming the Reform
Consistent with the vision of a Church without defined boundaries of belief and practice, theological progressives sought to block the project of writing an up-to-date compendium of doctrine that John Paul II launched following a special assembly of the synod of bishops in 1985. The objection was not to particular formulations but to any normative statement of faith. For, as Groome says, “to make absolute any expression or interpretation of a faith tradition is to ossify and deaden it.”
Unfortunately for people who think that, we now have John Paul’s gift to Catholics called the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It incorporates the teaching of Vatican II and was written, the pope said, as a “contribution to… renewing the whole life of the Church, as desired and begun by the Second Vatican Council.”
The Catechism is an initiative that deserves to be imitated and replicated in many other ways. Today, four decades after the close of the Second Vatican Council, there is an urgent need for Catholics to repudiate the culture of dissent, recapture the real meaning of Vatican II, and get busy putting it to work. Here are three suggestions of things orthodox Catholics can do to help:
1.       Stop complaining about the council. Not long ago I heard a conservative Catholic speaker tell a receptive audience that one of the crosses borne by Paul VI was a “runaway council.” That’s a good story, but it isn’t true. Now and then Paul VI had to rein in enthusiasts, but at no time was Vatican II in a “runaway” state, and the pope and bishops were in harmony at the end. Misstatements like this one play into the hands of those who want Vatican II interpreted in a way that serves the culture of dissent.
2.      Read and study the documents of the council, probe its history, and make it the subject of research, writing, and teaching. With certain commendable exceptions, orthodox Catholics seem to have left this work to progressives — an omission that could cost future generations dearly. It is troubling that the massive, and unquestionably scholarly, five-volume History of Vatican II produced by Giuseppe Alberigo and his collaborators (published in the United States by Orbis Books, with Rev. Joseph Komonchak of Catholic University as editor) appears to be on its way to becoming the authoritative interpretation of the council. Its fundamental stance is that the real significance of Vatican II lies not in what it said but in the conciliar experience itself — presumably, as reconstructed by historians like Alberigo and his colleagues. (That is like saying the significance of Shakespeare is not in his plays but in his life, even though the life is incommunicable except through the plays.)
3.      Welcome and cooperate with the emerging new leadership in the Church, including the growing number of solid bishops in the United States, and work for authentic reform and renewal according to the prescriptions of Vatican II. The “reform of the reform” is an apt description for this program to undo the damage of the last 40 years and realize the purposes of the council. Leaders have begun to appear in growing numbers to make this a realistic possibility.
Consider just one area where action is needed: The principle of shared responsibility is not, as clericalized Catholics suppose, a concealed heresy, but part of the ancient Christian heritage of the Church (bear in mind the Pauline doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ), which was taken up again by Vatican II as part of its project of ressourcement. It needs to be put creatively to work in building healthy relationships within the Catholic community.
The election of Pope Benedict XVI was a serious blow to the culture of dissent. As far back as the early 1970s, Joseph Ratzinger knew that some of his theological colleagues from the Vatican II days no longer took the documents of the council as “the point of reference for Catholic theology.” Instead, they had decided that the council’s teaching had to be “surpassed” in order to bring about the changes they sought.
Neither then nor now has Benedict XVI shared that view. Speaking to the cardinals the morning after his election as pope, he declared it to be his “decided will” that the implementation of the Second Vatican Council continue. “The conciliar documents have not lost their timeliness,” he added significantly.
Take them off the shelf and see for yourself.

Russell Shaw’s 19th book is Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press, 2008). This article originally appeared in the February/March 2006 issue of Crisis Magazine.

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  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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