Some thoughts about Vatican II

Since I was responded elsewhere to a question about Bp. Barron’s recent videos and his view of traditional Catholics, and since every answer he gives seems to circles around Vatican II, it occurred to me that some of you might benefit from a good book.

Here is an essential book which explains what happened during the Second Vatican Council.

The Rhine Flows into the Tiber: A History of Vatican II by Ralph Wiltgern – It was republished under a new title for the 50th anniversary of the Council.


In regard to the Second Vatican Council….

I maintain that in the Church’s long history there have been really important pontificates and not so important, really important councils and not so important.  I am of the mind that Vatican II, when lined up with other Councils, does not rank anywhere close to being among the most important.   It seems like a big deal to us because it was within living memory.  Also, because councils tend to create a period of disruption, and we are in that period, Vatican II seems to us to be more important than it will eventually be seen to be.

“But Father!  But Father!”, some of you libs and pseudointellects are mewling as you clutch your pearls, “This is pure traddy fantasy fueled by years of bitter disappointment at not getting your way.  Since 1963 a new springtime of vital renewal has been blowing through us – we are church, after all – and the fresh air is driving out the stale old incense and trappings of religion you cling to.  You ignore the unquestionable fruits of the Council like… like…. ummmm….  It was greater than the Council of Jerusalem, though it didn’t go nearly far enough and … and… crush all opposition.  You… youuuuuuu…. racist climate-change denying homophobic haters!  YOU HATE VATICAN II!”

I esteem Vatican II enough not to lie about it.

We still to have a sober consideration of the long-term fruits of the Second Vatican Council.  Half a century out, results have varied and they are not entirely in the positive column, to put it mildly.

One might say that Vatican II was hijacked and badly implemented.  Thus, it would be unfair to say that the Council caused the massive wounds that were inflicted after the Council.  Okay.  Let’s grant that that is the case.

If that is the case, the fact that the Council was “hijackable” is itself a problem.

That would point to problems internal to the documents and not just to the force of the world’s current zeitgeist.

While we have to admit that just about anything can be twisted if enough force is exerted on it, it seems to be that the point of conciliar – or papal – documents is to bring greater clarity, to dispel ambiguity.

One way out of this nasty cul de sac is to put Vatican II into perspective.

Vatican II was not the Be All & End All of Ecumenical Councils.

Vatican II must be respected for what it was, but not blown into what it wasn’t… and what it wasn’t intended to be.

Let’s not lose perspective.  Compared to Calcedon or to Trent, Vatican II just isn’t that important.  We can and should read its documents respectfully and thoughtfully, but without losing our minds in either a hermeneutic of idolatry or of total suspicion.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Kenneth Wolfe says:

    I disagree that the Second Vatican Council was not important. It was important insofar as many of its 16 pastoral documents forced major changes upon the Church; changes that were made when all measurable data points (Mass attendance, vocations, etc.) were at historic highs, followed by rapid declines across the board. Vatican II was important because Sacrosanctum Concilium called for massive changes to centuries-old liturgy, which resulted in a “banal, on-the-spot product” (to quote Ratzginer). Something can be important and evil at the same time. Like the French Revolution, Vatican II was both.

  2. Bev says:

    When thinking of the relevance of Vatican II, it should be of equal relevance as Lateran II. They should weigh equally on our mind and occupy an equal level of effort. If that is but an iota, that’s the way it ought to be.

  3. JustaSinner says:

    As a thought experiment, you must ask, what has happened since V II? Did all the flowery utopian fantasies become actualized? Ah, no… Therefore, how can it be deigned a success? It can’t. So this begs the question, what good did it do?

  4. tho says:

    Vatican II was of immense importance because it interrupted 1965 years of positive liturgical development. I say this not as a scholar, but as a pew sitter, and as a pew sitter I have watched the banal replace the majestic. My interaction with friends and family has seen a large group of both leave the church. Priests, may God nourish and love them, are not perfect, but VII unleashed the discipline that held them and us together. Parish shopping was unheard of before VII, but with the Mass, considered by some as a form of entertainment, we are prone to that vice. With my limited academic background, I make bold to say, yes, VII was important, Calvin, Henry VIII, and Luther would agree with me.

  5. Fr_Sotelo says:

    I don’t think it is idolatrous to state that every General Council of the Church should be studied as an exercise of the Extraordinary Magisterium of the Church. Thus, I do take Vatican II seriously, as I think a Catholic should take a General Council of the Church.

    Whether a passage deals with dogma, liturgy, or some form of Catholic outreach to the world, that passage in Vatican II is weightier than any papal encyclical, exhortation, national synod, or motu propio. That passage may not be dogma, but it was weighed and approved by the entire Church and promulgated as such by the Pope.

    What makes Vatican II unique and enduring in importance for the lay faithful, is the power and influence which was ceded to the laity, by the Pope, bishops, and clergy. At Vatican II, the laity were handed a sort of Magna Carta, or Bill of Rights. It was the end of pray, pay and obey. It was the end of “Shut up and do as Father says, if you know what is good for you.”

    Whether dissident or traditional, the laity can quote from their list of “rights” as printed in canon law. From those rights, they exercise important teaching (and publish and write blogs)–even without asking the bishops for an imprimatur. Now, they sit on boards, councils, and govern entire Catholic institutions–with or without the guidance of the local bishop.

    The laity now carry out at least 95% of publishing, evangelizing (look at this blog and the lay contributions), spiritual and corporal works of mercy, liturgical formation, and critiques of the bishops and priests that goes on in the Church. That all came out of Vatican II, and has Vatican II as the source and inspiration.

    So, counsel as we might that Vatican II is just not as important as Chalcedon or Trent, and counsel as we might that the laity not see Vatican II with too idolatrous a view, we are in my opinion counseling the unrealistic and the unattainable.

    I would like to see the Pope, bishops, or priests, who can convince the “empowered” laity both dissident and traditional to be corralled back into their “proper place.” Even the whiff of reasserting a clerical Church with the laity carefully doing as they are told to do, results in the favorite cry of “CLERICALIST!”

    The laity enjoy their power and rights. They know that if Vatican II is to be discredited, that means the discrediting of the theological Bill of Rights which Vatican II conceded to the laity.

  6. Antonin says:

    @ Fr. Sotelo

    Inter Mirifica is interesting in terms of social media. Very rarely referenced and Inter Merfica did not model itself after the first amendment. The Bishops still clearly were supposed to oversee any and all social media. Obviously, that has not been implemented and as you say would be vigorously opposed as the secular idea of free expression guaranteed by the Bill of Rights of USA or the Charter of Rights and Freedom in Canada is pretty entrenched. But those principles are not Catholic ones and in fact Inter Mirifica frames it differently.

    19. In fulfilling his supreme pastoral charge with respect to the media of social communication, the Sovereign Pontiff has at hand a special office of the Holy See. Moreover, the Fathers of the Council, freely acceding to the wish of the “Secretariat for the Supervision of Publications and Entertainment,” reverently request that the Sovereign Pontiff extend the duties and competence of this office to include all media of social communication, including the press, and that experts from various countries be named to it, including laymen.

    20. It will be the task of the Bishops, however, to watch over such works and undertakings in their own dioceses, to promote them and, as far as the public apostolate is concerned, to guide them, not excluding those that are under the direction of exempt religious.

  7. TonyO says:

    I don’t think it is idolatrous to state that every General Council of the Church should be studied as an exercise of the Extraordinary Magisterium of the Church.

    I don’t see why. I would agree that every passage in which said Council expresses itself with the definitude and binding finality of an affirmative decree on faith and morals should be received as an exercise of the Extraordinary Magisterium. If they didn’t intend to set forth a truth as definitive and with binding finality, they they didn’t intend to express it extraordinarily. The rest of the passages, then, were being taught in a lesser way, something comparable to when the pope teaches in encyclicals.

    Being a “pastoral council”, it just so happens that the Council expressed itself in definitive and binding terms almost nowhere. So, most of its teaching is to be respected in the way we respect most of the rest of the Church’s bishop’s teachings, with this proviso: we give them greater respect and assent when they have more universal agreement. The funny thing about the kind of assent we give under “religious submission of mind and will” is that it is capable of degree, according to the mind of the teacher and his intent to set the teaching as to be held. Certainly much in VII should be given very high religious submission. Indeed, very much of it repeated truths taught before by the Magisterium.

    What makes Vatican II unique and enduring in importance for the lay faithful, is the power and influence which was ceded to the laity, by the Pope, bishops, and clergy. At Vatican II, the laity were handed a sort of Magna Carta, or Bill of Rights. It was the end of pray, pay and obey. It was the end of “Shut up and do as Father says, if you know what is good for you.”

    Almost everything that you then point to as “lay people can now do…” was stuff they could do before VII, so I don’t get it. Lay people could start Catholic colleges. They had already carried out a lot of publishing. In fact, I am unable to point to a single important “power” that VII “ceded” to laity. I don’t know where you get your data from, but it doesn’t match with mine.

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  9. Imrahil says:

    With all due respect,

    it seems to me that “pay, pray and obey” was the unfriendly accusation (by non-Catholics) of a state-of-affairs which for some reasons were endemic in some places but not others: Ireland, and to a much more little degree so the United States (where the prejudice was perhaps so strong because so many Catholic were Irish-descended); and even there it was hyperbolic.

    In Ireland, the Catholic laity existed in a “decapitated” sort of way, comprising the great majority of the population (Ulster perhaps set aside) but virtually none of the upper class; and the poor were mostly poor indeed even if the English weren’t starving them at the moment. There was little time to think, which (to put it bluntly) is, or at least in history often appeared to be, the pursuit of the gentleman. (Yes, and perhaps the at least comfortably-off worker with some spare time). So, of course the clergy had to “play nobility” as it were.

  10. WVC says:

    Imagine one is living a thousand years in the future and studying Church history. When one approaches Vatican II, I think what Fr. Z said will be true in one sense – the documents themselves are not very important and no massive heresy or rift in the Church needed healing at that moment. One could say that, from one perspective, Vatican II was not very important. However, the 100+ years of absolute turmoil that began immediately after the end of the council, leading to massive problems with the liturgy that took centuries to recover, a severe loss of membership in the Church, an almost entire loss of understanding the basic tenants of the Faith in laypeople and clergy, the rise of grotesque architectural trends, the destruction of so many sacred altars and sanctuaries, the banality of liturgical music that, the absolute corruption in the Vatican, especially with regards to homosexuality and finances, and even the honoring and perhaps even worshiping of pagan idols by the Princes of the Church on sacred ground . . . yeah, there’s 0% chance future scholars will not lay all those fruits at the feet of Vatican II. So, from that perspective, regardless of intent or the actual documents, Vatican II will definitely be seen as a very important council.

  11. Suburbanbanshee says:

    First off, it is clear that the Council Fathers of Vatican II did not intend it to be a major council, or anything except a pastoral council, because they did not promulgate any major creeds, dogmas, etc. Stuff that was added on after the Council, by other people than the Council Fathers, doesn’t count. It was not an important council in the way the Church looks at things.

    Now, in terms of the historical events that took place in the aftermath, sure, Vatican II was unexpectedly important. But that was in terms of “Look at this nice cloak for my totally unrelated dagger.”

    The “new constitution for the power of the laity” is just as real for most of us as “every parish must teach every Catholic to sing, especially the people’s parts in Latin.” Which was also in Vatican II, in a document with more pastoral authority. How did that work out?

    I think you will find that there’s less ability for most laity to affect the Church, because the sodalities and other lay-created, lay-led groups collapsed or were destroyed. All that was left was the parish council, sports, and the choir, in a lot of cases, and some places decided the choir was elitist and separated from the people. So instead of laity doing lots of things in lots of clubs, there was nothing. Only in the last couple or three decades have lay groups poked their heads above the ground.

    So “the laity won’t give that up” is “that small percentage of the laity who actually knows about it, and actually thinks it has relevance, and is probably on the parish council because they have bucks or political sway.”

    (And yes, if there were more clubs doing good works and other things, there would be less feeling that parishes “don’t have anything for single people to do, except maybe trying to get them married off.”)

  12. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Actually, I think it could be argued that on every topic _except_ some of the ecumenical documents, the aftermath of Vatican II destroyed, frustrated, or hindered every movement and work of the Church that the Council Fathers were trying to promote. The only things that managed to prosper were the things that went unnoticed and unmentioned.

  13. murrius says:

    I was discussing Vatican II just yesterday with a friend. I have begun attending the traditional Latin Mass and she was puzzled why I would do such a thing given that Vatican II wisely changed the language of the liturgy into the vernacular. I explained that the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy did no such thing but directed that the Latin language be preserved in the liturgy with permission granted to use the vernacular in a very limited way. This of course came with the usual Vatican II potential for exceptions that you could drive a truck through, but, it is very clear that in 1963 the council fathers did not approve the celebration of the entire Mass in the vernacular. However, along come the postconciliar documents regarding the Sacred Liturgy in the early 1970’s wherein we read that “restrictions on the use of the vernacular were progressively lifted in the face of representations by hierarchies from all over the world, until by 1971 the use of the vernacular in public Masses was left entirely to the judgement of episcopal conferences”.

    Now, I have been hearing lately that one cannot question Vatican II or advocate for a revision, as to do so apparently punts you out of the Catholic Church. However, if the decisions of the council fathers are part of the Extraordinary Magisterium and thus unchangeable, how on earth were the architects of the post Vatican II “reforms” able to proceed in a way that clearly ignored the obvious intentions of Council and the clear wording of the Council documents? Trucks driven through loopholes notwithstanding. Can they have it both ways here? Change the some of the clear intentions of the Council beyond all recognition but then insist that one cannot change or even question Vatican II. Already happened my friends.

  14. pjthom81 says:

    I have enjoyed reading the post and comments which are quite thought provoking. I suppose my own thoughts are nuanced. I grew up in the 80s at a parish with a heavy Irish influence that could be observed from by talking to some of the nuns who taught at the school. At the time I think it is safe to say my first communion class felt privileged to be living in an era where Catholicism appeared more accessible than in the past. The vernacular and communion in the hand were basically taught to us as a special invitation for intimacy with Christ peculiar to the era rather than an opportunity to lose reverence. Then too the more easy going attitude seemed to mix well with the optimism of the Reagan era. However during the 90s huge cracks seemed to develop. The Ireland that launched the vocations of these teachers turned towards secularism. The older sisters were replaced with boomers who refused to wear the habit and who had a chip on their shoulder on a good number of issues…and some attempted rather militantly to introduce “inclusive” language via the liturgical music. More and more peers of mine seemed not to even care as to Church teaching. In retrospect I believe a part of the problem was that the council was launched on the basis of a series of overly optimistic assumptions about human nature that made sense in the context of…1957. It was wholly unprepared for the youth rebellion of the late 1960s. What seemed merely an attempt to cheerfully persuade in 1957 would have the effect of abject surrender in the face of the darker forces that would convulse the Western world in the years following 1965. I do not think the Council caused the social revolution (The reaction against Vietnam appears to have been the proximate cause) but I fear the implementation may have encouraged us to lay down defenses just before a new assault.

  15. Vickyg says:

    Fr. Sotelo,
    Rather than illustrating what’s right with Vatican II, your posting shows the starting point of what went so horribly wrong. You praise the power of the individual to “speak and influence” the church regardless of his position. ThIs statement is, in fact, the genesis of both the first revolution of created beings staged by Lucifer, as well as the second staged by Adam and Eve. In this impulse is the desire to take the power of God and, by use of His gifts, plot to define and even obstruct Him. It has its basis in pride and holds an element of “I will not serve.”

    Furthermore, when you speak of this power being wielded by both advocates of a dividing issue without prejudice, you are trading in the values of the Enlightenment, relativism, politics, even utilitarianism, and mercantilism – all those petty societal give-and-take conventions produced by finite minds to enhance their importance.

    To say something is as great as the Bill of Rights or the Magna Carta is saying precious little in response to the all-powerful, all-knowing, infinite and holy Creator of the universe. It denies as well the function of the Church as a divine institution instituted by Christ who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. This is not something we as creatures are meant to cut-and-paste out of our own sensibilities. We must reflect the eternal truth of God residing in the Church.

    I feel compelled to say that in the more than 50 years of this “Hundred Year’s War,” (for it starts to feel that long) I have heard versions of such trivial castigations of the pre-Vatican II days as “It was the end of pray, pay, and obey. It was the end of “Shut up and do what Father says if you know what’s good for you.’ “ so often that it ought to be tattooed on the palms of all the misguided born-again priests who by virtue of Vatican II have told me to “shut up and….” Well you know how it goes.

    They are no less authoritarian than their bugaboo adversaries of memory. Another favorite of mine has been, “Oh, no, you’re wrong, Vatican II changed all of that.” Rather than being reassured by that statement of discontinuity into complacent obedience, I have been forced to ask, “Now which church are we talking about here? The 50+-year-old church or the 2000-yr.-old church because I thought I belonged to the ancient faith instituted by Christ. The other one doesn’t interest me.”

    Truth has its own power – it can’t be imitated with word play and arrogance.

    And, yes, in many of its fruits, Vatican II has been a disaster. Imagine what it could do in 2000 years.

  16. Fr. Reader says:

    The USA are not the center of the world.

  17. Semper Gumby says:

    pjthom81: Thank you for your perspective and experiences.

    Fr. Reader: Your reply to pjthom81 appears gratuitous, perhaps you should elaborate.

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