The Misunderstood Council: Six Myths about Vatican II

The second Vatican Council was the most important event of the twentieth century for Catholicism. It has also been the most misunderstood.

The Church has seen 21 ecumenical councils; Vatican II was the second to be held in Vatican City. An ecumenical council is a gathering of the bishops, cardinals, abbots, and prelates called by the pope to undertake a solemn exercise of the Church’s teaching authority. Papal cooperation is a sine qua non for the legitimacy of a council; without his assent its teachings have no binding force.

Pope Pius IX summoned the First Vatican Council, which met from December 1869 until shortly after the Italians invaded the Papal States and seized Rome in September 1870. Vatican I pronounced on the relation between faith and reason and also approved the constitution Pastor Aeternus, which defined the primacy and infallibility of the pope. Pius IX suspended the Council in October 1870, with several items on its agenda left unaddressed, perhaps the most important of which was the relation of the bishops to the pope. Thus Vatican I helped set in motion its sequel.

John XXIII convoked Vatican II within months of his elevation to the papacy in 1958. He noted the “crisis underway within society,” and in response to that crisis he desired that the new council should give “greater efficiency to [the Church’s] sound vitality and . . .  promote the sanctification of its members, the diffusion of revealed truth, the consolidation of its agencies” (Humanae Salutis). John did not live to see the end of his labors; he presided over the first session of the Council in 1962, then died eight months later. Paul VI presided over the other three sessions and closed the Council in December 1965.

Vatican II pronounced on virtually every area of the Church’s life, but, unfortunately, many of its teachings were misunderstood almost before they were promulgated. Hundreds of journalists and observers reported on the Council, and, perhaps inevitably, many imparted a certain sensationalism in their reports. Untrained commentators magnified disagreements into controversies and reduced complex theological positions to caricatures.

Not all the distortions sprang from innocent journalistic license, however. Partisans of traditional and modern viewpoints ground their favorite axes in the press and behind the scenes. The loudest of these voices called themselves progressives, and they reveled in the spirit of renewal that the Council infused in the Church. In progressive hands this renewal sometimes became change for the sake of change. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who served the Council as a theologian and is now Prefect for the Sacred Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, recalled in 1984 that “already during its sessions and then increasingly in the subsequent period” the Council “was opposed by a self-styled ‘spirit of the Council,’ which in reality is a true ‘anti-spirit’ of the Council.”

Arguments over the Council rage on today. Progressives in Europe and the Americas revere it as a liberation of the Catholic mind; they invoke “the spirit of Vatican II” as the legitimizing principle behind change that seeks to place the Church in the vanguard of historical “progress.” Many of those who oppose the progressives cling to memories of the time before Vatican II, and even go so far as to reject its authority. Archbishop Lefebvre in France, for instance, refuses to recognize the legitimacy of the Council and ordains his own bishops in defiance of Rome.

Cardinal Ratzinger summarized these positions in an article he wrote in 1974:

Vatican II stands today in a twilight. For a long time it has been regarded by the so-called progressive wing as completely surpassed and, consequently, as a thing of the past, no longer relevant to the present. By the opposite side, the “conservative” wing, it is, conversely, viewed as the cause of the present decadence of the Catholic Church and even judged as apostasy from Vatican I and from the Council of Trent.

In hopes of bringing a little clarity to the debates over Vatican II and its legacy, I present a half dozen commonly encountered misperceptions —or distortions — of the Council and its work.

Myth Number 1: Pope John XXIII, who called Vatican II, was much more “progressive” than his predecessors.

Before we can understand the Council we must understand its father, Pope John XXIII. Good Pope John is an almost saintly figure for progressive Catholics, and the aura that surrounds him has its origins in their need to explain how the reactionary Catholic Church suddenly “matured.” John called the Council, and thus he must have been different from the popes he succeeded, the progressives imply. The only problem with this interpretation of John’s papacy is that it dissolves on contact with history.

Father Charles Curran — a leading progressive — unintentionally helps to prove this point. Although he admits that John XXIII’s encyclicals followed the “deductive approach” of previous popes, Father Cur-ran professes to find “developments” in John’s teaching.  John was conscious of history. In his encyclical Mater et Magistra, John XXIII ignored Pius XI’s “unrealistic” corporatist plan for reconstructing the social order, and later in Pacem in Terris John discussed certain “signs of the times.”

Father Curran is right, but he neglects to mention that John’s deductively -minded predecessors also recognized the ebb and flow of history. Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, for example, devoted 22 sections to the evolution of society over the previous 40 years and then spent several more sections explaining why the recent developments in socialist thought had still not made socialism acceptable for Christians.

Where there is little difference in substance, progressives argue that differences in style are all important. Peter Hebblethwaite’s biography of John XXIII resorts to innuendo to show that the papacy was “reclaimed by humanity” when John was elected. Vigorous Pope John improvised some of his speeches. His predecessor, rigid Pope Pius XII, read the pages in front of him. Congenial Pope John talked with the Vatican gardeners; aloof Pope Pius had them shooed out of sight when he went for a stroll. A fair-minded reader of Hebblethwaite might find it difficult to see anything more here than the trivial likes and dislikes of two aging Italian men of different backgrounds.

All of this does not mean that John XXIII had no qualities to distinguish him from his predecessors. What made John seem different was his optimism, particularly as expressed in his famous address to the Council’s opening congregation. There is no lack of “fallacious teaching, opinion and dangerous concepts to be guarded against and dissipated,” said John. “But these are so obviously in contrast with the right norm of honesty, and have produced such lethal fruits, that by now it would seem that men of themselves are inclined to condemn them.” With the vision of hindsight one could argue that John was too much the optimist; that men still hesitate to condemn modern errors. Granting this argument for now, John’s optimism does not make him “historically conscious” in Father Curran’s sense of that phrase; nor does it justify the suspicion with which John XXIII is viewed by many conservative Catholics.

Myth Number 2: Vatican II said the Church is not particularly important where salvation is concerned.

Father Richard McBrien’s Catholicism perhaps unwittingly fosters this misperception when he states that the Council’s Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity implies that “even the so-called nonbelievers can reach saving faith without having accepted the explicit preaching of the Gospel.”

Father McBrien’s statement seems to suggest that those who reject the Church can be saved, but this is a teaching which doctrine explicitly denies. In the nineteenth century, Pius IX declared:

This is the only ark of salvation. He who does not enter into it, will perish in the flood. Nevertheless … those who suffer from invincible ignorance of the true religion are not for this reason guilty in the eyes of the Lord.

A century later, Paul VI sorrowfully reflected on misguided souls who believed they could love Christ without loving His Church: “The absurdity of this dichotomy is clearly evident in this phrase of the Gospel: ‘Anyone who rejects you rejects me'” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 16). Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (which was cited as the authority on this subject by the very decree referred to by Father McBrien) puts forth the traditional teaching in unequivocal terms: “whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by God through Jesus Christ, would refuse to enter her or to remain in her could not be saved” (14).

Myth Number 3: Vatican II made radical changes in the liturgy.

This common misconception contains a measure of truth, though not enough to justify such an assertion. The Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy proposed “a general restoration of the liturgy” to make texts and rites “express more clearly the holy things which they signify” (2). These changes could only be made by competent authorities: “absolutely no other person, not even a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority” (22).

Most Catholics today seem to believe that Vatican II did away with the Latin Mass, but this belief is not supported by the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. The Council fathers noted the “great advantage” of using “the mother tongue” (i.e., the vernacular) in the Mass and allowed expansion of “the limits of its employment” (36). Vernacular masses eventually became de rigueur by decisions of the various national episcopal conferences; the Council fathers did not wish a complete replacement of the Latin.

Vatican II made significant changes, but one must remember that many of the changes that we take for granted came not from the Council but from progressive pressure. The widespread practice of receiving the Eucharistic host in the hands instead of on the tongue, for instance, was once forbidden. In the 1960s progressive parishes began defying the ban and offering hosts to parishioners who received them in their hands. This practice was meant to spark controversy, and many bishops, wearying of policing their parishes and smarting under progressive criticism for doing so, petitioned the pope to change the rule. In the 1970s Rome gave in.

The progressives’ new pressure point is liturgical “inclusiveness” — in short, altar girls. Since the 1970s priests and liturgy committees, especially at college parishes, have been creating altar girls in defiance of the express prohibitions of local ordinaries. The parish I attended near the University of Chicago had altar girls despite the fact (which I verified by calling the Cardinal’s office) that Cardinal Bernardin had forbidden this practice. Local bishops either have to give in and ignore the practice, or brave allegations of sexism and embarrassing press coverage if they try to stop it. In these instances liturgical reform results not from Vatican II but from our bishops’ understandable — but perhaps exaggerated — aversion to public controversy.

Myth Number 4: Vatican II did away with the classical natural law teaching.

Father Richard McBrien explains that Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World “suggested … a movement or shift from the Greek to the Roman” versions of natural law. The Greeks had said man must conform to a static concept of cosmic order, whereas the Romans “tended to emphasize the empirical and the changeable.” The Pastoral Constitution, according to Father McBrien, endorsed the Roman concept in stating that “the human race has passed from a rather static concept of reality to a more dynamic, evolutionary one” (5). This “historically conscious” conception of reality, suggests Father McBrien, can co-exist in a dialectical tension with the traditional “classicist” conception.

Philosophers may wish to consider Father Mc-Brien’s discussion of the difference between Greek and Roman natural law, but our concern is his citation of the Pastoral Constitution. The Council’s acknowledgement of historical change — upon which Father McBrien rests his argument — appears in the midst of a description of the changes that have swept the modern world. It is meant as a neutral statement of fact, and thus it cannot fairly be construed as a rejection of natural law.

But does the quoted passage presage the end of Catholic belief in natural law? I do not believe so; the Council fathers frequently explain themselves with arguments that paraphrase the “classicist” analyses of earlier papal encyclicals. For instance, in discussing the horrors of modern warfare the fathers recall “the permanent binding force of universal natural law and its all-embracing principles” (79). The Pastoral Constitution also presages Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae by stating that the moral aspect of any regulation of procreation “must be determined by objective standards” based “on the nature of the human person and his acts” (51). In sum, the Council fathers believed that classical natural law teachings were complemented — but never supplanted — by man’s modern understanding of history.

Myth Number 5: Vatican II required the Church to work for peace and social justice along the lines laid down in the Gospel.

This is not a myth; it is simply true. The myth is that the Gospel’s notion of peace and justice is different from the Church’s preconciliar social agenda. This misconception grows from the fact that since the 1960s some Catholic clergymen in Europe and the Americas seem to have discovered that political activism is the most important aspect of the priestly ministry.

Catholic political activism did not begin with the 1960s. A century ago, American clergy and laymen made their voices heard on issues such as immigration and public school curricula. Since World War I, the American bishops have supported a Washington-based staff that exists to lobby the federal government.

What is new is a rejection — in America, at least — of natural law as the foundation of Catholic social analysis. Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee implied as much in a discussion of the then forthcoming pastoral letter Economic Justice for All. The drafting committee, he said in a speech in 1983, had not yet met Paul VI’s admonition to renew “their confidence in the forcefulness and special character of the demands made by the Gospel.” They had problems doing so because

so much of the teaching of the Church of the last century has been derived from the natural law theory and the committee must yet wrestle with its relationship to the gospel vision [Origins, December 8, 1983]

Paul VI didn’t have so much trouble reconciling natural law and the Gospel. His 1971 apostolic letter Octogesima Adveniens — in the very paragraph cited by Archbishop Weakland — called Christian communities to analyze their social situations in “the light of the Gospel’s unalterable words” and to draw principles and directives from “the social teaching of the Church” (4).

This social teaching has been worked out in the course of history and notably, in this industrial era, since the historic date of the message of Pope Leo XII on “the condition of the workers.”

Paul refers here to Leo’s 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, and he clearly implies that the natural law social teaching — embodied in Rerum Novarum and taught with enthusiasm by American bishops before 1965 — is an integral part of the Gospel.

Myth Number 6: Vatican II was not a revolution in the Church, but it planted the seeds of progressive change.

This is the fallback position, the fortified redoubt for progressives who find that the letter of Vatican II denies progressive reform. Where the letter bars the way to progress, historically-conscious Catholics legitimate change by invoking Vatican II’s “spirit” of renewal.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger called this the “anti-spirit” of the Council in his famous 1984 interview:

According to this pernicious anti-spirit, everything that is “new” (or presumed such: how many old heresies have surfaced again in recent years that have been presented as something new!) is always and in every case better than what has been or what is. It is this anti-spirit according to which the history of the Church would first begin with Vatican II, viewed as a kind of point zero.

Progressive Catholics have a thing or two to say about Cardinal Ratzinger’s criticism. Peter Steinfels, former editor of Commonweal, called the Cardinal’s statement “an impulse to freeze the Council in a mo-ment of time.” Mr. Steinfels believed that Cardinal Ratzinger’s remarks “had pitted the ‘letter’ of the Council against its ‘spirit,'” and by creating a false dichotomy had muddied our understanding of Vatican II:

The real opposition was between the advocates of the “letter” and those of history [Steinfels’ emphasis], which was the truly disturbing factor that the Council had reintroduced into Catholic consciousness, the dangerous flux which the “letter,” the code, the catechism, the manuals might possibly trap in their web [Commonweal, December 20, 1985].

Mr. Steinfels’ remarks reveal the core of the progressives view of the Council. Vatican II “reintroduced” a sense of history in the Catholic mind. One infers that Catholics from some point in the past (he does not offer a date) until the 1960s thought in rigid categories borrowed from some earlier age and imposed upon a constantly changing world. Mr. Steinfels implies that somewhere along the line the Church was hijacked, and that the Holy Spirit stood by in silence while popes and bishops taught what amounted to falsehoods to our ancestors.

This understanding of the Church’s past must surely prove unpalatable to many Catholics, even if they cannot articulate their objections to it. Perhaps it is Mr. Steinfels and fellow progressives, and not Cardinal Ratzinger, who conceived the false dichotomy. We have seen that Vatican II did not oppose a scientific understanding of history, and because of this accommodation we must reject Mr. Steinfels’ opposition of the “letter” and “history.”

There is yet another reason why we must be wary of the “historical consciousness.” If the “spirit” of Vatican II — and not its letter — is to be our guide, then that spirit can change with the winds. It can support ultramontanism as easily as progressivism. One can adopt the “historically conscious” approach to argue with a good deal of persuasive force that Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger are the crest of the wave, and that men like Peter Steinfels, Charles Curran, and Richard McBrien seek to freeze the Catholic mind in the patterns of the past — in their case, 1960s — vintage progressive Catholicism.

Progressives have decided that the Second Vatican Council establishes their historical moment as the norm for Catholicism. Some Catholics who call themselves orthodox believe the progressives and dismiss Vatican II as radicalism. This is a most unhappy turn of events, but it does not imply that a rejection of Vatican II is needed or wise. Rather it is clear evidence of the need to return to the documents of the Council and restore them to their proper place in the Gospel message.


  • Michael Warner

    Michael Warner is the author of Changing Witness: Catholic Bishops and Public Policy, 1917-1994.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...