The Rebellious Heart: The Unraveling of the Church Since Vatican II


November 1, 1985

Even non-believers have been fascinated with the internal life of the Catholic Church over the past quarter century, although the reasons for that fascination are far from consoling to a believer. At the beginning of the pontificate of John XXIII most of that fascination stemmed from curiosity whether the Church would indeed make those adjustments to the modern world which its critics had long insisted were unavoidable. (Practically no other aspect of “renewal” has been of any interest to outsiders at all.) But since the mid-1960s the fascination has been that of watching a once serene and formidable institution apparently thrash about in its death agonies. One of the major historical and sociological lessons of recent times has been the fact that such an institution could move from seeming immobility to seeming chaos in a period of less than two decades.

Except for those who think they have a responsibility to put the best face on everything, few people now take the trouble to deny that the Church is trapped in a crisis which extends to the very depth of its being. Both “liberals” and “conservatives” agree on this. They disagree as to whether it is good or bad, and how the crisis is to be overcome.

Meanwhile, however, the causes of the crisis remain largely unexplored, and to a surprising degree do not even seem to be a matter of sustained curiosity on the part of most observers.

The modernists within the Church (to use a term which is more apt in most ways than “liberal”) have an easy explanation for the crisis, one which is shared by probably most non-believing observers. It is simply that for centuries the Church was out of step with modern culture and that there exists a philosophical, and indeed even moral, obligation to be in harmony with that culture. Hence the Church’s recent severe dislocations are the inevitable price which must be paid for having ignored the demands of history for so long.

The orthodox (a term much preferable in this context to “conservative”) are divided over the causes of the crisis. Some (a small minority) incline towards a conspiracy theory—strategically placed cadres deliberately betrayed the fort. The basic division, however, is between those who attribute the post-conciliar unraveling to the deficiencies of the intellect and those who ascribe it to the failings of the will.

Those who blame intellectual failure tend to be those most strongly influenced by Scholasticism, and their analysis usually identifies one or more fatal intellectual errors made by Catholic thinkers even before the Council, errors succumbed to generally in good faith but with devastating consequences not recognized until too late.

The voluntarists suspect, on the other hand, that all was not right with the pre-conciliar Church, despite appearances. To them the post-conciliar crisis, whose essence is nothing less than massive and systematic infidelity of every kind, cannot be understood unless it is realized that the spiritual, and perhaps even moral, lives of Catholics, notably clergy and religious, were already deficient long before the 1960s. The structure was in fact rotting from the inside without its custodians even knowing it.

The latter theory is somewhat implausible, except in the sense that pre-conciliar Catholics were no less sinners than any other generation. But no one can doubt that, at least in the United States, the level of religious fidelity immediately prior to the Council was remarkably high, in some ways (financial generosity, for example, or the general level of education) almost unprecedented in the history of the Church. Religious and clerical life were singularly free from the notorious scandals which often attended them in the past, and now do again.

The intellectualist thesis fails because ideas do not rigorously determine their corollaries except in books. In practice people freely draw logically unwarranted conclusions from their premises, and do so with no sense of embarrassment. Even if it is granted that serious intellectual mistakes may have been made prior to the Council, some of them perhaps traceable back for centuries, a healthy religious community would have rejected the conclusions of those mistakes once they had become apparent. The infidelities of recent decades have occurred because they were willed, and still are.

The pre-conciliar Church was not without its faults, some of them serious, and religious life—to take what has always been the Church’s most sensitive pulse—did indeed suffer certain distortions. But, finally, the cause of all the post-conciliar disarray has been simply the fact of change itself, and the inability of many Catholics to cope with it in a balanced and principled way. The root of the present infidelity is mainly psychological, although the introduction of psychological strategies into the modern church has itself been the source of further disasters.

The pre-conciliar Church was often accused of rigidity. Less pejoratively, it was called rock-like and secure. In retrospect, however, it is possible to see that it was not so much solid as possessed of solidity’s treacherous counterfeit—brittleness. The pre-conciliar Church, as a social and cultural reality, gained much of its exterior strength from certain tensions which, when they relaxed even slightly, caused the whole structure to begin to collapse.

A prevalent Catholic mentality of the past four centuries was a sense of inferiority. The modern history of the Church has been in great measure the history of a series of traumatic shocks—most notably the Reformation, the new science, the anti-Christian Enlightenment, materialism, outright atheism, and philosophical skepticism. The Church dealt with these threats mainly by holding them at bay, and it did so with amazing success. No historian or sociologist, given foreknowledge of what was to come, could have predicted in 1500 that the Catholic Church would survive with vigor well past the midpoint of the twentieth century.

There have of course been numerous Catholic attempts to come to terms with modern culture in a positive way. This has been easier said than done, however, because so much of modern culture has been so overtly anti-religious that no modus vivendi has been finally possible between it and the Church. Some Catholics (always a minority until the past two decades) have tried to come to terms with modern culture on the latter’s terms. This was the program of the Modernist heresy, as it is of the neo-modernism of the post-conciliar period. It is a self-evidently bankrupt and destructive program, if its purpose is to make religion more vital and credible to the skeptic, or even to the believer.

Prior to the Council, Catholics were given to understand by their ecclesiastical and intellectual leaders that the Church was a fortress which had successfully withstood the assaults of modernity and had in effect vanquished them, at least in the war of ideas. Catholics were discouraged from delving too deeply into modern culture, but were also assured that there was little of any value to be found there. It was even possible to hope that the Western world was gradually being won back to the Church (using the conversion stories and statistics of the 1950s, for example).

All over the Western world, however, the immense shadow of unbelief, of downright murderous hostility to faith, loomed. The Church had suffered so many defeats since the beginning of modern times that many even of its leaders harbored a defeatist mentality. Their public claims of certitude were often, albeit perhaps unconsciously, compensation for this inner insecurity. The United States shared in this general Western Catholic experience and gave it a particular national twist by virtue of the nation’s history of anti-Catholicism and the generally inferior social and educational status of American Catholics until almost the time of the Council itself.

If non-Western Catholicism, especially in Africa, is indeed healthier and more solid than its Western counterparts, this may be attributable precisely to the kind of confidence Third World Catholics can possess as a result of living in cultures where the Church has never been placed in the permanently defensive position which has been its lot in the modern West.

The pivotal group of Western Catholics, in terms of understanding what happened to the Church around the midpoint of the twentieth century, are those intellectuals who in one way or another were identified as trying to move it in new directions in the decades prior to the Council. It includes, for example, a remarkable cluster of Western European theologians—Balthasar, Rahner, Schillebeeckx, Bouyer, Danielou, DeLubac, Congar—along with the philosophers Gilson and Maritain, through certain novelists and artists, to spiritual teachers like Merton.

Most of those on this list (which could be a good deal longer) were held in at least mild suspicion by some of their fellow Catholics prior to 1960, a fact which is significantly revealing of the insecurity of the age. More significant, however, is the division within this group after the Council, as some came to be dismissed as “conservative” and were no longer listened to, and others grew increasingly radical. The significant point is that, with some exceptions, members of this group did not unduly suffer, in the 1950s, from a permanent sense of inferiority. Thus they could contemplate taking the Church in new directions which were nonetheless profoundly faithful to tradition. Yet some of them could also see, a few years later, that the movement of “renewal” was becoming simply a capitulation to the modern world, even as others seemed to abandon firmly held principles. Some of the names on this list constitute a kind of lost generation, held in suspicion both before and after the Council, but for opposite reasons.

Any moderately well informed Catholic could, before the Council, explain nimbly the difference between unchanging doctrine and mere discipline or custom. Yet the almost universal supposition was that the Church was, in practically all its manifestations, unchanging and unchangeable. Many Catholics, especially priests and religious, made a deep psychological investment in the rock-solid character of that Church. In general it was probably the case that, the more pious and self-consciously Catholic an individual was, the more strongly was he committed to the idea of the Church’s unshakable stability. This was particularly true of priests and religious.

The signs of change began somewhat faintly, as early as the pontificate of Pius XII. In the brief years of John XXIII’s reign they became public and dramatic, as the pope deliberately made use of the secular media to project a new image of the Church and of his own authority. The Council itself seemed to show that everything in the Church was open for discussion, that indeed nothing was irreformable.

Disentangling the “real meaning” of the Council from everything which has been said in its name is difficult precisely because the Council itself, as it was taking place, came to be a point of polarization. Catholics (and others) projected onto it extravagant fears and equally extravagant hopes. Both modernist and orthodox Catholics treated it as a radical event which changed the Church beyond all imagining. Before the Council was even over, it had already become impossible to view it with anything approaching detached and scholarly objectivity. It was the first great whirlwind experience of change.

No doubt some periti, and perhaps a few bishops, went to the Council hoping to promote a radical agenda which went beyond the bounds of orthodoxy. They were a small minority, however, and overwhelmingly it was the intention of the Council fathers to fulfill the hope for a new Jerusalem while remaining faithful to the Church’s original divine foundation. Read strictly, its decrees show that they succeeded.

Most of the Council fathers also, however, seem to have been woefully insensitive to the symbolic and psychological ramifications of their deliberations. Working in a consort which still exists, radicals within the Church and journalists who, often enough, were simply anti-Catholic, attempted to hijack the Council even while it was still in session. The overwhelming message which they conveyed to the world was that the immobile Catholic Church was changing, that at long last it was admitting its outdated irrelevance and was trying to bring itself into full harmony with modern culture.

Not all of this message was a media distortion, however, because this was precisely the experience many Catholics had of the Council. Despite their ability to make perfectly valid theoretical distinctions between doctrine and discipline, the abolition of Friday abstinence, the practical abolition of the “old liturgy,” the sudden shift from a “triumphalist” to an ecumenical mode in addressing non-Catholics, and numerous other things seemed to convey the same message: everything is changing, nothing is any longer certain.

Although perfectly sound theological explanations were made, the psychological effects of change were devastating for many Catholics. By now almost everyone recognizes that there was a massive failure in education at the time of the Council—most people did not receive an adequate explanation of the meaning of liturgical change, of ecumenism, and of many other things. But such a diagnosis does not go to the heart of the problem. The education was faulty in large measure because those who should have done the educating—clergy and religious—were themselves often confused and even traumatized, and did not know what to tell their people.

However illogical, many Catholics after the Council began to suspect that, if the Church could change its practice with regard to Friday abstinence, the language of the liturgy, or attendance at Protestant religious services, it could and would change most of its other teachings as well. Faced with this prospect, a relatively few people went into open schism on the side of ultra-orthodoxy. Many of the orthodox who remained within the fold girded themselves for a long and continuing battle, in which they have often felt beleaguered and alienated. The modernists, meanwhile, busily set about effecting precisely the revolution which many conservative-minded people in 1965 feared might occur.

Superficially it might seem as though those unable to cope with change are mainly those on the “right,” who stubbornly resist it and constantly warn of its perils. But it is essential to realize that many on the “left” have “coped” with change only in the way that a dead man can be said to have coped with cancer. There are, perhaps, modernists who are, and have been all along, serene and dispassionate, calmly assessing where they think the Church should go and how it can be moved there. However, the forces of change had already taken on a frenetic, even hysterical, quality within a few years of the Council’s end, and it is a quality which is now dominant in the movements to change Catholic teaching about sexual morality, celibacy, the ordination of women, and many other things.

Consciously, this hysterical anger is directed at religious authorities, defined as oppressors, and wells up ostensibly because of the refusal of those authorities to give the dissenters what they want. In reality, however, it is not unreasonable to suspect that such anger, directed outward blindly and single-mindedly, is often an expression of feelings directed inward, displaced from its true objects.

Despite passing efforts to show that there exists a “tradition” of radical feminism in the church or to claim that the religious revolutionaries of the present were far “ahead of their time” even before the Council, in fact most of today’s militants were, as far as can be determined, conventionally docile, believing, orthodox Catholics until after the Council’s end. (Most of the genuine early revolutionaries left the religious life, and even the Church itself, long ago.) Some of today’s most radical communities of nuns were among the most conservative a quarter century ago. Some of today’s fire-eaters are described, wonderingly by those who knew them, as having once been exceptionally obedient and strict in their observances.

Much of the destructive anger which so disfigures the life of the Church today can ultimately be traced to a half-conscious sense of loss or betrayal experienced by those who insist, consciously, that their only frustration is that change has not proceeded far enough or fast enough. Had the Church, and the religious life, remained stable and even immobile, most of today’s revolutionaries would have continued living in relative serenity and contentment.

Modernist mythology, abetted by the liberal media, portrays the present Catholic crisis as essentially a democratic revolt “from below” against outmoded ecclesiastical authority. In reality, however, the sources of that revolt—intellectual, emotional, organizational—lie with the clergy and religious. Most lay people stood by bewildered and disedified as the first spasms of clerical rebellion swept the Church in the late 1960s. Only gradually did any significant number of lay people begin to associate themselves with those same movements, almost always as a result of clerical influence.

This does not argue, as some orthodox people assume, that clerical and religious life was already corrupted before the Council. In fact, in a curious way, later rebelliousness is a testimony to earlier fidelity, since it shows that large numbers of professional religious could not cope dispassionately with changes which had to be, for those who took the life of the Church seriously, wrenching and deeply confusing. The very vehemence of today’s rebellion is a measure of yesterday’s obedience.

Religious women claim that they are the most alienated group in the Church because they are the most oppressed. But revolution is rarely the work of the most oppressed classes. The obsessive anger, the monomaniacal ideology, the corrosive bitterness towards the past, are the cries of pain of people who have been badly hurt by history, by the process of change itself.

In the beginning changes occurred in religious communities almost willy nilly, often, apparently, in response to the advice of various people who were certified as “experts” in psychology, in spirituality, or in religious life. The very closed character of pre-conciliar religious life made experimentation both attractive and exhilarating, even on a small scale. Many religious complacently assumed that changes in small things—the habit, the daily routine, the rituals of community life—did not betoken changes in large things. But of course they did, just as liturgical changes which could be presented as stylistic only also effected deep psychic disturbances.

Women religious are now the most rebellious group within the Church precisely because they were once the most docile. It was in convents that the fortress mentality of the pre-conciliar Church reached its epitome. (Contrary to feminist mythology, this was often the desire of women religious themselves, not of male oppressors, even as the opening of convent windows after the Council was a process usually begun by males.)

Certain categories of people who had experienced the monolithic character of pre-conciliar Catholicism most thoroughly, namely, clergy and near-clergy (especially former seminarians), became the most restless and, finally, resentful in the “liberated” new era. They soon found that no amount of liberation could satisfy them. Each victory simply increased the frustration over victories still not won (often in battles hitherto not even imagined). The more permissive the Church became, the more the partisans of freedom felt frustrated. In truth, they were made so by the very terms of their liberation. They came to hate the authorities who once ruled them, because they seemed to have betrayed the very beliefs which had drawn the rebels into religious life in the first place.

The state of mind of today’s Catholic rebels can perhaps best be understood as that of a disappointed lover, someone who feels that the beloved has betrayed the beautiful commitment once made, or that the commitment stands revealed as having been a sham to begin with. The fact of the commitment will dominate them as long as they live, as they return to it endlessly and obsessively, picking over the emotional scars. Put another way, this state of mind is that of children who come to feel that they have been lied to by the adults in their lives, hoodwinked into accepting fairy tales as literal truth.

Radical religious mythology now accuses Church authorities, at least half-consciously, of imposing certain ideologies on the Church mainly as a rationale for power. Although central doctrinal issues are often merely evaded by that mythology, the implication is really that the central teachings of the Church are indeed false, at least as they are expounded by the Church’s hierarchy. The root of that belief is in an unspoken, and probably for the most part not consciously thought question: “If what we were taught years ago was indeed true, how could you have changed it? What are we to believe now that you have taken from us everything which we used to believe?”

It is the “conservatives” who have been able to cope with change, precisely in their suspicion of it, because they are the people who insist on maintaining, in the face of great difficulties, the crucial distinction between what is and what is not essential to faith.

The partisans of change, on the other hand, have embraced it merely because they now see it as the only reliable certitude. Movement is for them the only stasis, change the only stability. Although the orthodox are often accused of clinging to the past out of a need for security, the orthodox Catholic life, as lived today, is often lonely and difficult. It is precisely the promiscuous embrace of change which brings apparent psychic peace in modern America. For religious revolutionaries change is a powerful god who has vanquished the deity they once worshipped, and they now see no choice but to transfer their allegiance to this newly triumphant faith.


  • James Hitchcock

    James Hitchcock is Professor of History at St. Louis University. He is the author of many books including The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton) and, most recently, The History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium (Ignatius, 2012).

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