Vatican II and the Political Manichees

Vatican II quite rightly spoke of a “Universal Call to Holiness” and called upon the laity to exercise the apostolate in their particular spheres, which includes the political sphere.

June being the Month of the Sacred Heart, one cannot help but remember that this image was used in the 18th century by the Counter-Revolutionaries in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars in the Vendee, Tyrol, and elsewhere; in the 19th century by the Spanish Carlists, Papal Zouaves, and Latin American Conservatives; and in the 20th by the Mexican Cristeros and the forces of Franco in the Spanish Civil War. 

The Sacred Heart had many clients among Europe’s Royalty, among whom were kings and queens of France, Spain, Portugal, Poland, Saxony, and, most recently, Bl. Karl of Austria-Hungary, last of that monarchy’s reigning emperor-kings. It was also a rallying point for the European and Latin American Catholic political parties of the past two centuries, who saw in the national consecrations of their respective countries by the local Head of State in concert with the bishops a concrete step toward establishing in the particular country the “Social Reign of Jesus Christ.” 

In concert with the writings of Bl. Pius IX, Leo XIII, St. Pius X, Benedict XV, Pius XI (who codified this in his encyclical Quas Primas), and innumerable other writers, clerical and lay, this was seen as the erection of the Catholic Confessional State. Such a State envisaged a restoration of the Medieval Synthesis of Church and State adapted to modern political and economic conditions. Such hopes were effectively smashed by the two world wars and the creation of the American-Soviet dyarchy which effectively dominated the planet until the fall of the Soviet bloc.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

The American half (in contrast to the Soviet which simply offered persecution) featured a seemingly prosperous Catholic Church—wealthier even than the Church-Tax-fed local hierarchies in Germany and Austria. It was a kind of Catholicism which seemed to have flourished within precisely the kind of Liberal State so often condemned by the popes—and most particularly Bl. Pius IX. 

In the years following World War II, what had been seen as a mere expedient for the Church in America before was given added credence by the experience of many Catholics in the resistance against the Nazis, who had collaborated with Liberals, Socialists, and Communists for a common goal—and came to see what they perceived as proof of the natural goodness of their former comrades-in-arms. Thus, when an American theologian like John Courtney Murray, S.J., preached the American model as superior to what had been believed by the Church in most countries to be ideal, many younger European theologians drank deeply of this particular well. One who did such was a young German priest named Fr. Joseph Ratzinger.

At Vatican II, this was the point of view that came to dominate. Fr. Murray himself would be the primary author of that Council’s document on religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae. In the wake of the Council, those who pointed out that the Council’s documents altered prior teaching were roundly denounced as schismatics and worse.

It did not help that this was the view of the Society of St. Pius X; their status—especially after 1988—allowed many hierarchs to punish dissenters from this shift in teaching. Indeed, if one even noticed that there had been a change—at least if he did not praise it—he might be denounced. Utterly ignored was the reality so pithily described by Australian theologian John Lamont in 2012: 

The first question that occurs to a theologian concerning the SSPX position concerns the issue of the authority of the Second Vatican Council. [Msgr. Ocariz’s article]…seems to claim that a rejection of the authority of Vatican II is the basis for the rift referred to by the Holy See. But for anyone familiar with both the theological position of the SSPX and the climate of theological opinion in the Catholic Church, this claim is hard to understand. The points mentioned by Fr. Gleize are only four of the voluminous teachings of Vatican II. The SSPX does not reject Vatican II in its entirety: on the contrary, Bishop Fellay has stated that the society accepts 95% of its teachings. This means that the SSPX is more loyal to the teachings of Vatican II than much of the clergy and hierarchy of the Catholic Church.

The status then or now of the SSPX aside, among the four points mentioned is precisely this question of the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Modern State.

Now, at this point, this writer must speak of his deep gratitude to the future Benedict XVI, who freed the Tridentine Mass from the durance vile into which it had been trapped by an ultra vires note from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Moreover, his gratitude is scarcely less for Benedict’s creation of the Anglican Ordinariates, his care for the Eastern Catholics, and his attempts to reconcile the Orthodox—all of which are causes dear to this writer’s heart. But above all, in his attempts to regularize the SSPX, His Holiness courageously attacked the question of the Church and the Liberal State as altered at Vatican II.

In his address to the Curia on December 22, 2005, after putting forth his theory of the hermeneutics of continuity and rupture in interpreting the documents of Vatican II, Pope Benedict admitted that there had been change—but that it did not affect the deposit of Faith: 

It is precisely in this combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels that the very nature of true reform consists. In this process of innovation in continuity we must learn to understand more practically than before that the Church’s decisions on contingent matters—for example, certain practical forms of liberalism or a free interpretation of the Bible—should necessarily be contingent themselves, precisely because they refer to a specific reality that is changeable in itself. It was necessary to learn to recognize that in these decisions it is only the principles that express the permanent aspect, since they remain as an undercurrent, motivating decisions from within. On the other hand, not so permanent are the practical forms that depend on the historical situation and are therefore subject to change. 

That being the case, the changes made to Church teaching at Vatican II in these areas are themselves contingent on the factual realities they claimed to address. If they were, well and good; if not, then it boils down to whether or not Bl. Pius IX or the Fathers of Vatican II more accurately read “the signs of the times.”

Certainly, in 1963, the state of affairs in the United States and Western Europe appeared to give the lie to Bl. Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors. The documents of the Council radiate an almost giddy optimism for rapprochement with the secular world that at times appears almost incoherent. So it is that Lumen Gentium (29) decrees that 

Because the human race today is joining more and more into a civic, economic and social unity, it is that much the more necessary that priests, by combined effort and aid, under the leadership of the bishops and the Supreme Pontiff, wipe out every kind of separateness, so that the whole human race may be brought into the unity of the family of God.

One could be forgiven for recalling Metternich’s snarky description of the Holy Alliance as “Sublime mysticism and nonsense.”

But such a reaction is bred from 20/20 hindsight. Such Conciliar effusions are rendered tragic by the bitter experience of the decades since. Alas, the historical proofs Pope Benedict adduces to justify the Church’s embrace are similarly derailed by historical fact. In the Christmas speech just referred to, the pope touches upon the Church’s earlier reaction to Liberalism: 

In the 19th century under Pius IX, the clash between the Church’s faith and a radical liberalism and the natural sciences, which also claimed to embrace with their knowledge the whole of reality to its limit, stubbornly proposing to make the “hypothesis of God” superfluous, had elicited from the Church a bitter and radical condemnation of this spirit of the modern age. Thus, it seemed that there was no longer any milieu open to a positive and fruitful understanding, and the rejection by those who felt they were the representatives of the modern era was also drastic.

But, the pope believed this—to him unfortunate—situation was to be ameliorated. 

In the meantime, however, the modern age had also experienced developments. People came to realize that the American Revolution was offering a model of a modern State that differed from the theoretical model with radical tendencies that had emerged during the second phase of the French Revolution. 

Leaving aside the debatable nature of this specific assertion (one might leave the argument to such as George Grant and Msgr. Lionel Groulx), it points up a historical error held by the Council Fathers: that there was a difference of kind rather than degree between Anglo-American and Continental Liberalism. The former, after all, was itself a creation of the rulership of the Protestant and Deist Anglosphere, as far back as 1688 (1776 was very much an extension of that earlier conflict); the latter had been founded in direct revolt against a Catholic establishment. 

It might be said that the Woke self-hatred engulfing the English-speaking world is the flip side of American Exceptionalism and British Imperialism, as Unitarianism is of Calvinism. From being the last, best hope of mankind, they are becoming the worst—founded in genocide, and built upon slavery. This writer would reserve the Catholic’s right to assert that neither myth is true but that both the United States and Commonwealth Realms are heathen countries in need of evangelization by their Catholic inhabitants. But this reflection is made many decades after Pope Benedict’s opinions were formed, in a very different world.

At any rate, the pope followed up this last assertion with another: 

So it was that both parties were gradually beginning to open up to each other. In the period between the two World Wars and especially after the Second World War, Catholic statesmen demonstrated that a modern secular State could exist that was not neutral regarding values but alive, drawing from the great ethical sources opened by Christianity. 

Of course, here he had in mind the great Christian Democrat leaders of his time—Adenauer, Schuman, de Gasperi, and de Gaulle, all of whom but the last have been considered for beatification. But Christian Democracy in Western Europe today is quite different from what it was in 1963. Its embrace of perversion, abortion, and euthanasia led directly to the expulsion of the Hungarian Fidesz Party from the European Peoples’ Party in the EU Parliament.

Indeed, the Covid debacle, in which such parties agreed that the Church’s worship was not an essential service to be kept open during lockdown—unlike abortion mills, for example—underlines the fact that for the modern State the Church is in no sense a partner. She is merely another organization to be regulated, like the Rotary or the YMCA. That local Church authorities happily went along with all of this—often imposing stricter regulations than the State required—sent a very strong message to the faithful about the state of faith of those authorities. But that, of course, is a different matter.

Beneath the Holy Father’s erroneous historical views lay something more—a deeper conviction shared by the great theologian Charles Cardinal Journet. In his magisterial The Theology of the Church, the good Cardinal, after denouncing the view of the Catholic State that had begun with Constantine but before condemning the existence of the Papal States, declared: 

The need for the Church to refine herself, to detach herself from the States, to make herself more independent of them, to proclaim more openly her true character, which transcends politics, ethnic group, or nation, will become absolutely imperative. One step forward is becoming aware of her own nature, which is at the same time visible and spiritual, apart from any one culture or spiritual system. (436-7) 

While the latter is certainly true—especially in missionary countries (one need only think of the disasters incumbent on the condemnation of the Chinese and Malabar Rites, and their eventual rehabilitation), the rest of his assumptions are not borne out by previous or subsequent experience. These assumptions are based upon the belief that, ultimately, the State is evil, regardless of whether the laity running it are Catholic or not.

Benedict XVI’s adherence to these views is exemplified by many of his addresses, such as his Freiburg speech of September 2011:

Secularizing trends—whether by expropriation of Church goods, or elimination of privileges or the like—have always meant a profound liberation of the Church from forms of worldliness, for in the process she as it were sets aside her worldly wealth and once again completely embraces her worldly poverty. In this she shares the destiny of the tribe of Levi, which according to the Old Testament account was the only tribe in Israel with no ancestral land of its own, taking as its portion only God himself, his word and his signs. At those moments in history, the Church shared with that tribe the demands of a poverty that was open to the world, in order to be released from her material ties: and in this way her missionary activity regained credibility. 

In this identification of the Church not with the Kingdom of Israel and its Davidic line—of whom the last and current inheritor is Christ Himself—but with the priestly caste, we see two unconscious errors. One is the identification of the Church Militant not with the totality of its members, clerical and lay—“Priest and Prince and Thrall”—but, practically speaking, with the priesthood alone. This is surely clericalism of the deepest dye. Deeper still is a sort of Manichaean dualism: the Church is of the Spirit, and so, good; whereas the State is of the flesh, and so, necessarily, evil.

With these unconscious beliefs, historical error is inevitable. Indeed, in the next paragraph, the Holy Father asserts: 

History has shown that, when the Church becomes less worldly, her missionary witness shines more brightly. Once liberated from material and political burdens and privileges, the Church can reach out more effectively and in a truly Christian way to the whole world, she can be truly open to the world. She can live more freely her vocation to the ministry of divine worship and service of neighbour. The missionary task, which is linked to Christian worship and should determine its structure, becomes more clearly visible. 

The reality is quite different. Without the royal patronages of Spain and Portugal, Sts. Francis Xavier and Junipero Serra would never have saved the countless souls they saved. Even the Church in the United States would be far feebler had the Austrian Habsburgs not financed such as St. John Neumann through the Leopoldine Society. Without a doubt, it was absolutely necessary for such as St. Gregory VII, Innocent III, St. Thomas a Becket, and Boniface VIII to denounce erring sovereigns; but by the same token, it was essential for Otto the Great to end the century-long pornocracy, Emperor Sigismund to end the Great Schism, and Charles V to convoke the Council of Trent. 

To our ancestors, the Church was the form, and the Catholic State the body of the one Res Publica Christiana, begun in germ on that first Maundy Thursday, when Christ created the priesthood and the Mass and fused His Davidic Kingship with the Communio of the Church. From that time on, Catholic kings were seen as participating in the Kingship of Christ—and legitimate to the degree that they attempted to conform themselves to it. This is why the foot-washing on Maundy Thursday was the hallmark of Catholic sovereigns; why the primate of each country crowned the kings, and the pope himself the emperor. As with all human relationships—to include marriage—the ideal was often higher than the reality; but this was as true (and remains so) in Church as in State.

To be sure, the fulness of this reality could and would not be seen until whole countries began to convert en masse—starting with Armenia in 303 and culminating with the Roman Empire in 380. Of course, such arrangements could only continue when the vast majority of the Catholic countries and their rulers were Catholic; and as Vatican II, Cardinal Journet, Pope Benedict and a host of others were quite aware, this is no longer true. Indeed, the separation of Church and State has never been greater than today, and there are only a few small countries that remotely conform in any way to the former status. But the error is in thinking that this is a positive development. 

Nor should it be thought that their holding these views diminishes in the slightest the high regard in which this writer holds Pope Benedict, Cardinal Journet, or their fellows, any more than St. Thomas Aquinas’ denial of the Immaculate Conception destroys one’s esteem for the Angelic Doctor. But the attempt initiated by Paul VI to completely separate the governance of the Church from its former champions—shown in the latter pontiff’s case by his purging most of the hereditary lay offices of the Holy See—has not resulted in a holier Church administration; quite the opposite. 

The deposition of the Grand Master of the Order of Malta by Pope Francis whilst presiding over a curia whose moral reputation has never been lower is another example of the same phenomenon. The doctrinal and liturgical wreckage of the past several decades was entirely the work of a clerical establishment totally freed from State interference—one would be hard put to call it an improvement. Even the Church Tax so dear to German and Austrian prelates is a gift unaccompanied by any direction as to expenditure—unlike the monarchial patronage earlier referred to. The result in Germany has been their Synodal Way; despite the yapping of the radical laity in that country, it is firmly in the hands of the bishops. The doctrinal and liturgical wreckage of the past several decades was entirely the work of a clerical establishment totally freed from State interference—one would be hard put to call it an improvement.Tweet This

Vatican II quite rightly spoke of a “Universal Call to Holiness” and called upon the laity to exercise the apostolate in their particular spheres. If they are at all successful, at some time to come, the cultural, social, and political institutions of countries that achieve a believing and practicing Catholic majority shall organically change accordingly. What that might look like, we cannot know—nor is the writer or the reader of these pages likely to see it, any more than St. Justin Martyr saw Constantine. But happen it shall, unless doomsday intervenes.


  • Charles Coulombe

    Charles A. Coulombe is a contributing editor at Crisis and the magazine’s European correspondent. He previously served as a columnist for the Catholic Herald of London and a film critic for the National Catholic Register. A celebrated historian, his books include Puritan’s Empire and Star-Spangled Crown. He resides in Vienna, Austria and Los Angeles, California.

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...