Was Vatican II "Pre-Conciliar"? | Dr. James Hitchcock | IgnatiusInsight.comWas Vatican II "Pre-Conciliar"? | Dr. James Hitchcock | IgnatiusInsight.com


In many ways the promise of the Second Vatican Council has not been fulfilled, and most of this failure is traceable to fundamental misunderstandings of its intentions, to the very meaning of the process called "renewal." Some of this misunderstanding is sincere, but some has also been deliberate, on the part of people who know that the Council did not authorize the changes they wanted but who pretend that it did.

Often unnoticed is the fact that there were two different ways of understanding the Council's reforming efforts, approaches which are not contradictory but which do move in different directions. A common term for post-conciliar reform was "aggiornamento," an Italian word meaning "updating," which conveyed the need for the Church to adjust itself to historical change, to make evangelization more effective by relating to the needs of the modern world. Less commonly used, and probably unfamiliar to most Catholics, was the French word "ressourcement"—"return to the sources"—which saw reform as recovering the earliest roots of the Faith, judging later developments by the criterion of authoritative early teachings. The dominant thrust of the conciliar decrees was the latter, and there is scarcely a passage anywhere in them which is not supported by references to Scripture, and sometimes to the Fathers of the Church.

But advocates of unlimited change have espoused an extreme form of aggiornamento. Realizing that the Council did not support their agenda, they quickly got into the habit of speaking of the "spirit" of the Council, which is said to transcend its actual statements and even in some cases to contradict them. Since there is no authoritative way by which this "spirit" can be determined, it has been invoked to justify virtually whatever any particular individual happens to want.

The post-conciliar crisis cannot be understood unless it is recalled that, almost immediately at the Council's end, but for the most part undetectable while the Council was still in session, there occurred the world-wide cultural crisis called "the Sixties," which was nothing less than a frontal assault on all forms of authority, at all levels of society.

Confused by the conciliar changes, and unable to grasp the subtle theology of the conciliar decrees, many Catholics simply translated the conciliar reforms into the terms of "the counter-culture," which was essentially the demand for "liberation" from all restraint on personal freedom. Had the Council been held a decade earlier, during the much more stable l950s, it is likely that the post-conciliar upheaval would have been far less severe. (The most perplexing question about the post-conciliar period is why the hierarchy made so little effort to insure that the faithful were educated as to the Council's authentic meaning, and why the hierarchy failed to insure the authenticity of those programs which claimed to do so.)

Thus, at a time when authority was being assaulted on all levels, many people interpreted concepts like "the people of God" simply in terms of democracy. Their agenda for "reform" became one of intense opposition to the teaching authority of the Church, often to the point of advocating in effect that doctrine be determined by majority opinion.

Initially liturgical change was urged on a reluctant laity by insisting that those changes marked a return to the practices of the early Church and thus represented a more authentic understanding. But quickly the agenda changed to one of making liturgy "relevant," which meant conforming it as closely as possible to contemporary culture — in language, ritual practices (balloons, dancing), and music. For many people liturgy lost its entire supernatural dimension and was reduced to a communal celebration whose meaning is exhausted by the subjective effect it has on the participants.

Even though Perfectae Caritatis ("Perfect Love") in particular expressed the idea of ressourcement—religious communities were to be reformed by returning to the original vision of their founders—the crisis of priestly and religious life emanated from a distorted idea of aggiornamento. The world and the cloister were now pitted against each other, the supernatural vocations of priests and religious deemed to be obstacles to their service to the world. Furthermore, this service itself was now understood in exclusively worldly terms—the priest or religious as counselor, social reformer, or community leader but not as witness to the Kingdom of Heaven.

In practical terms nothing had a more devastating effect on post-conciliar Catholic life than the Sexual Revolution, as believers of all kinds began to engage in behavior not measurably different from that of non-believers. Priests and religious repudiated their vows to marry, and others remained in religious life but ceased to regard celibacy as either possible or desirable. Catholics divorced almost as frequently as non-Catholics. Church teaching about contraception and even abortion was widely disregarded. All this represented not only the influence of a secular culture but also the effects of post-conciliar theological dissent, which Church officials, apparently themselves confused as to the meaning of renewal, were rarely willing to confront directly.

The early development of ecumenism consisted mainly of formal dialogue with particular groups. However, liberal Protestants, who were the most visible and influential kind throughout the Western world, simply became more and more liberal, so that the assumptions made by both sides when ecumenical dialogue began in the early 1960s were no longer valid a decade later. (All the liberal groups began ordaining women and most accepted, to one degree or another, the Sexual Revolution, including abortion.)

Perhaps surprisingly, the Council had relatively little to say about missions, except to reaffirm their importance and to suggest that some adaptation of the Gospel to non-Western cultures was necessary. If a Third Vatican Council were held today, that subject would probably dominate. But the Second Vatican Council scarcely addressed the crucial question of how, and to what extent, Christianity can be adapted to non-Western cultures, an issue which is now coming to the center of attention.

Since the Council, the task of reading the signs of the times has become far more difficult, and consequently far more crucial, than it was in 1965. Wave after wave of movements have burst upon the scene — Marxism, the Sexual Revolution, Feminism, Environmentalism, and many others — each claiming to have discovered the single most important truth, each demanding that the Church support it uncritically. With God's grace still with it, the Church has, as it must, avoided capitulation to these movements, but they nonetheless exercise substantial influence.

Caught in the maelstrom of "the Sixties," and fundamentally confused about the nature of renewal, many Catholics after the Council (priests and religious especially) pursued a path of personal "liberation," which ended by creating a spiritual vacuum at the center of their lives. Rather than providing the sense of peace and fulfillment they sought, this in turn made them pathetically vulnerable to secular movements claiming the authority which the Church itself no longer wielded. Thus authentic efforts to renew the Church according to the teachings of the Council are now automatically dismissed as "pre-conciliar" by people who have lost the ability even to understand genuine Catholicism, much less to live it.

This column originally appeared in the November/December 2000 issue of The Catholic Dossier.

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Dr. James Hitchcock, (e-mail) professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press, in the Adoremus Bulletin, and on the Women for Faith and Family website. He is the author of several books, including The Recovery of the Sacred, What is Secular Humanism?, and Years of Crisis: Collected Essays, 1970-1983.

Princeton University Press just published his two-volume history of the Supreme Court, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life: The Odyssey of the Religion Clauses (Vol. 1) and From "Higher Law" to "Sectarian Scruples" (Vol. 2). He is also a regular contributor to many Catholic periodicals, including Catholic World Report.

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