The New Oxford Review Exchange on Whether Vatican II Was Necessary

It Ain’t Broke, But Let’s Fix It Anyhow

June 2004, NOR

We picked up a Catholic magazine, and on the cover was one big headline, and it was a striking one: “Was Vatican II a Mistake?” In the background to the headline were a litany of post-Vatican II disasters: “practicing homosexuals in the priesthood,” “pro-abortion ‘Catholics,’” “dissenting bishops,” “liturgical dancing,” “moving the tabernacle,” “90% decrease in seminarians from 1965 to 2002,” “fewer converts,” “94% decline in teaching nuns,” “two out of three seminaries have closed since 1965,” “women’s ordination movement,” “Jews don’t need Christ,” “almost half of all Catholic schools have closed since 1965,” “the sex-abuse scandal,” and much more.

Preparing ourselves for a depressing and/or bracing read, we opened the magazine to the article, by George Sim Johnston in Crisis magazine (March), titled “Open Windows: Why Vatican II Was Necessary.”

Necessary. Huh?

Recalling the litany of post-Vatican II disasters on the cover, we figured Johnston would make the case that they cannot be attributed to Vatican II. How wrong we were! Johnston mentions none of the disasters (save one, which he blames on the pre-Vatican II Church). The article is simply a song of praise to Vatican II. (Maybe Crisis should rename itself What Crisis?)

Now, Jesus did say, “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,” but He wasn’t talking about magazine publishing, which is where you definitely want to let your right hand (the designer of the cover) know what your left hand (the author of the cover article) is doing. Did whoever designed the cover not bother to read the article?

Or was it deliberate? Was Crisis, on its cover, throwing some red meat to its dwindling band of conservative Catholic readers, only to trick them by getting them to read an article singing the praises of Vatican II? It’s called Bait & Switch, a tried and true tactic of used-car dealers.

If it was Bait & Switch, it sure worked with us. Even though we won’t be buying this particular used car, we did take it for a spin and can render a verdict on the lemon.

As for the one post-Vatican II disaster Johnston mentions, it is “the sex-abuse scandal.” Says he:

“[Before Vatican II] there was the situation in the religious orders — and in the seminaries — where…there was too much narrowness and rigidity. The old seminary system…seemed designed to prolong the immaturity of young men…. There was also an implicit notion that holiness is achieved by elimination of natural feeling and that sex drives should not exist in a person consecrated to God. (If you wish to seek the root causes of the recent crisis, start looking here.) There was often strictness where strictness was not particularly helpful.”

So the root causes of the sex-abuse crisis are to be found in the pre-Vatican II Church, because she was too strict.

Yeah, right. Does Johnston think his readers are gullible idiots?

So why was Vatican II necessary? Because “the Church in some respects had become rigid. There was a self-satisfied triumphalism….” Does Johnston prefer a self-satisfied defeatism? (Which is exactly what we’ve got.) Then there’s that nasty word “rigid.” When orthodox, manly candidates for seminary are rejected, they’re not faulted for being orthodox or manly, but for being “rigid.” If the pre-Vatican II Church was in some respects rigid, it looks like what we really need these days is more “rigidity.”

Johnston also says Vatican II was necessary because “Most Catholics did not understand that the Church is not just an institution but an evangelical movement.” Apparently, Johnston wasn’t consulted about the cover. One of the disasters listed on the cover is “fewer converts.” Since Vatican II, the Church has lost her evangelizing zeal. How could Johnston not know this?

Johnston says Vatican II was necessary because the Church needed to be called “out of her Tridentine shell to an active engagement with the modern world.” Engagement is a spongy word. It can mean anything from betrothal to interlocking to conflict. We know Johnston doesn’t mean conflict, for he accuses the pre-Vatican II Church of “hurling down anathemas on the modern world.”

Now, Mel Gibson is a Tridentine Catholic, and he has certainly “engaged” the modern world, not to marry it or to interlock with it but to challenge it profoundly, you might even say to battle it. So too was Bishop Fulton Sheen a Tridentine Catholic in his prime — and what an impact he had! And so was Dorothy Day in her prime, and on and on.

Engagement can also mean involvement. But who would dare say that all the martyrs, saints, and humanitarians of the Tridentine Church failed to be involved in the world?

Johnston says Vatican II was necessary because the pre-Vatican II Church was “a juridical machine operated by the bishop of Rome. Over the centuries, the Church’s government had become top-heavy and centralized.” So, says Johnston, Vatican II “revived…collegial responsibility.” And the result? We would refer Johnston to the cover: “dissenting bishops” (and all the travesties that they have brought about).

Then Johnston chooses to mire himself in a self-defeating contradiction:

“The way to dissipate error [according to Vatican II] was not simply to condemn it but to make a more convincing presentation of the truth in language that the modern world could understand.”

But three paragraphs later, he says:

“The French writer Paul Claudel said of the fallen world that Christ had entered: ‘The problem was so enormous that only the Word could respond to it, bringing not an explanation but a presence.’ This was the idea of the council.”

On the one hand, we need to make a “convincing presentation of the truth,” but on the other hand we don’t need to give “explanations,” we only need to be a “presence.” Please, Mr. Johnston, make up your mind!

But Johnston allows himself an omnibus escape clause:

“The Second Vatican Council has hardly entered the consciousness of most Catholics…. It is to be hoped that a genuine implementation lies in our future.”

Which reminds us of the debates about our public schools. The proponents of vouchers say they aren’t doing the job, but the teachers’ unions say they can’t because we aren’t spending enough money on them. It’s an interesting debate, but you’ve gotta wonder if throwing even more money at the public schools will produce the desired results. Likewise, you’ve gotta wonder if throwing more Vatican II at the Church will produce the desired results.

Or maybe Johnston means that the Church has misunderstood Vatican II. He says a “genuine implementation” of Vatican II “lies in our future.” But he doesn’t tell us what such a genuine implementation would be. Right after the “lies in our future” line, he tells us that “John Paul has told us that the teachings of Vatican II are what his pontificate is all about.” Did John Paul II (as well as Paul VI) fail to give us a “genuine implementation” of the Council, lo, these almost 40 years? What an indictment! Does Johnston know better than John Paul II and Paul VI what a genuine implementation would be?

Johnston says that the texts of Vatican II “need to be thoughtfully unpacked.” So they haven’t yet been unpacked? Does Johnston possess some sort of gnostic key to unlock the often mysteriously ambiguous texts of Vatican II?

Johnston’s title, you remember, was “Open Windows.” Apparently, Johnston has never heard the refrain that Vatican II opened the windows only to let in toxic gases.

Johnston’s subtitle is “Why Vatican II Was Necessary.” We’d dearly like to know why it was. We can think of a few things that Vatican II did that were good and necessary — but only a few — and we doubt if an ecumenical council was necessary to accomplish them. If anyone wants to submit a manuscript to us on why Vatican II was necessary — and why the disasters that have followed in its wake are unrelated to the Council — we’d be delighted to consider it for publication

A Response


By John Lamont | July/August

In its June 2004 issue, the NOR asked the following question apropos of an article in Crisis magazine by George Sim Johnston:

“Johnston’s subtitle is ‘Why Vatican II Was Necessary.’ We’d dearly like to know why it was. We can think of a few things that Vatican II did that were good and necessary — but only a few — and we doubt if an ecumenical council was necessary to accomplish them.” This is an excellent question that needs an answer, and this article was written to take up the challenge posed by it. It will not attempt to show that the Second Vatican Council was necessary, because it wasn’t — the Church would have survived if it had never happened — but rather that it was a good thing.

It is best to start by pointing out why the NOR’s question is a natural one for faithful Catholics. The period following the Council has been a calamitous one for the Church in most of the world. The liturgy of the Church was vandalized in ways that undermined the faith and morals of Catholics — and this is true not only of liturgical translations and unauthorized abuses, but to some extent of the official liturgical changes produced by Rome. Institutes of Catholic higher education, theologians, and religious orders became on the whole active enemies of the Catholic faith. The faithful ceased to be catechized, and only a minority of them now believe the basics of the faith — not because the majority of them are heretics, but because they accept the faulty instruction they have been given. The majority of the faithful do not follow Catholic moral principles. This is not new, but what is new is that they do not think they ought to follow them — a view that cuts them off from repentance and conversion. These calamities were promoted and even largely produced by the hierarchical leadership of the Church after the Council. Most Catholic bishops, and some curial officials, came to an accommodation with sin and unbelief, instead of opposing them. As a result, they became habitually dishonest, a trait that emerged in glaring relief when sex scandals in the Church became public. Lying comes as naturally as breathing to clerics of this sort, and they often become genuinely indignant when expected to be truthful about their actions and the state of the Church. On one topic, however, the “Vatican II” clerics are truthful.

In promoting these calamities, they were not only doing what they wanted to do, they were doing what they believed they were supposed to do. Most of the damage in the Church today was inflicted by people who believed they were implementing the Second Vatican Council. Since many of these people were actually at that Council, why should we disbelieve them? How, therefore, can we escape the conclusion that the Second Vatican Council was a bad thing? A crude way of putting this conclusion is that the Council ended up with priests buggering altar boys, and it needs to be thoroughly repudiated.

The very evidence for this conclusion raises doubts. The Second Vatican Council was a valid ecumenical council, which makes it impossible that its teachings could have really given a justification for the extreme abuses that followed it. Attempts by so-called Traditionalists to demonstrate that the Council was not valid, or that its teachings should be rejected as contradicting other authoritative pronouncements of the Church, are all contrived; they involve insisting that texts which can be understood in perfectly orthodox senses must be read as making heterodox claims. They also ignore a central feature of the Council’s history, described in Fr. Ralph Wiltgen’s The Rhine Flows Into the Tiber. Several hundred of the Council Fathers became alarmed about possible heterodox tendencies in the conciliar texts. These Fathers were able to insist that the texts be framed in ways that harmonized with Catholic tradition, and that the texts explicitly state that they are meant to be interpreted in line with that tradition. This is not to say that the texts are not in some places vague, ambiguous, or simply banal; but this is not the same as heterodoxy.

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This gets us some way toward showing that the disasters that followed the Council were not caused by its teachings. It does not answer the question of why the Council was a good thing. This question is made more pointed by the Council’s being professedly pastoral, one that did not define any new doctrines. Councils notoriously tend to cause pastoral chaos, so the settling of theological disputes through the definition of doctrine would seem from history to be the only thing they are good for.

To answer this question, we have to start from the fact that the only way for the Council to be a good thing is for its teaching to have been urgently needed by the Church, and for an ecumenical council to have been an appropriate venue for its teaching. The point of the Church’s teaching through an ecumenical council is to end debate. It is possible to appeal from magisterial documents such as papal encyclicals to conciliar teachings, but from the teachings of a council there is no appeal, because it is the highest form of magisterial teaching. This is the case even with conciliar teachings that are not infallibly defined.

“Infallible” is an extremely strong term; our knowledge that 2 + 2 = 4 is infallibly based, and so our grounds for accepting infallible Church teachings are as strong as our grounds for believing that 2 + 2 = 4. Weaker grounds than this suffice for excluding all reasonable doubt, and thus demanding belief. Conciliar statements that are not dogmatic definitions exclude all reasonable doubt, which is why they end debate for faithful Catholics.

The rationale for the Second Vatican Council would therefore have to be the existence of internal and external problems for the Church that could only be satisfactorily addressed by the exercise of the teaching authority of an ecumenical council, and that would be best addressed by conciliar pronouncements that were not dogmatic definitions. The usefulness of pronouncements of this sort is that they have the advantage of permitting broader teachings than dogmatic definitions, which must confine themselves to the precise statement that is defined (usually in negative terms). They can also serve the function of repeating teaching that has already been infallibly taught but that has been lost sight of by the greater part of the Church. I will argue that there were (and are) external and internal problems of this kind, and the Council was on the whole a good thing because it addressed them in an appropriate way.

The external problems are more easily described and identified. One such problem was the fact that for the most part the Church had ceased to benefit from the protection of governments that recognized her claims and promoted her activities, and instead had to exist under governments that were indifferent or (more usually) hostile. This meant that recognition of Catholic claims to the right to religious freedom had become essential to the well-being of the Church. But it is hopeless to expect such recognition if Catholics take the line that we are entitled to suppress you, but you are not entitled to suppress us. The only way to get unbelievers to recognize a right to religious freedom is to argue for a natural right, one that belongs to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. This essential step was taken by the Council in Dignitatis Humanae.

In view of the extensive support for the “we can suppress you but you can’t suppress us” view among Catholic theologians, this step could only have been taken by an ecumenical council. This step has indeed been attacked as incompatible with Catholic tradition; the long answer to this attack requires an examination of Catholic teaching and the document’s meaning that cannot be undertaken here, but the short and sufficient answer is that it was not incompatible with tradition because it was produced by an ecumenical council. (Those who object to letting political considerations affect Church teaching are recommended to consult Cardinal Newman’s Introduction to the Via Media.)

Another external problem was relations with Protestants and other non-Catholic Christians. The deterioration within Protestantism that began in the 18th century greatly accelerated in the 20th, with important Protestant bodies abandoning their allegiance to the basics of the Christian faith. Along with this deterioration, however, went a loosening of anti-Catholic prejudice and paranoia. These developments presented (and present) great opportunities for persuading Protestants to return to the Church. The goal of ecumenism was undoubtedly stated by the Council to be persuading non-Catholic Christians to become Catholic, although in tactfully circumlocutory terms: “all Christians will at last, in a common celebration of the Eucharist, be gathered into the one and only Church in that unity which Christ bestowed on His Church from the beginning. We believe that this unity subsists in the Catholic Church” (Unitatis Redintegratio, #4).

The recommendations for pursuing ecumenism are often simple common sense: “It is, of course, essential that the doctrine should be clearly presented in its entirety. Nothing is so foreign to the spirit of ecumenism as a false irenicism, in which the purity of Catholic doctrine suffers loss and its genuine and certain meaning is clouded. At the same time, the Catholic faith must be explained more profoundly and precisely, in such a way and in such terms as our separated brethren can also really understand” (#11).

However, this common sense was needed by Catholics who were affected by centuries of conflict, and inclined to cling to feelings of disdain for Protestants and Orthodox. The Council’s positive statements about non-Catholic Christians, and its eschewing any condemnation of their persons (their errors were implicitly rejected by the Council’s positive statements of Catholic doctrine), were also necessary diplomatic steps in promoting their reconciliation with the Church. The contrast with previous Catholic approaches to non-Catholics — approaches that were not all wrong in their time — was so great that in practice it could only have been brought about by an ecumenical council.

A final external problem was relations with the Jews. There is a disgraceful Catholic history of murdering, raping and pillaging Jews, on the pretext that they were all collectively responsible for the death of Christ. These crimes were not simply the fault of the unwashed masses; they were often encouraged by clerics (an example being Bernardino of Siena, who said of the Jews that “in respect of abstract and general love, we are permitted [!] to love them. However, there can be no concrete love towards them”). The moral health of the Church thus required that this pretext be rejected, as it was in Nostra Aetate (#3), and that anti-Semitism be condemned.

The internal problems for which the Council was an appropriate remedy were subtler, deeper, and more difficult to discern. Following such scholars as Louis Bouyer, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Servais Pinckaers, I see these problems as ultimately stemming from the influence of nominalism on Catholic thought in the late Middle Ages, an influence that gave rise to Protestantism, and that in the emergency of contriving a Catholic response to Protestantism was not properly eradicated. This noxious influence, which affected the whole spectrum of Catholic life and spirituality, consisted in a particular understanding of happiness and the will, which can be seen by contrasting the thought of St. Thomas and William of Ockham on these subjects.

For St. Thomas, the will is directed by its nature toward goodness itself, the enjoyment of which constitutes happiness. Freedom consists in the ability to achieve this end; so the virtues confer freedom, and vices are enslaving. For Ockham, on the other hand, there is nothing the will seeks of necessity, and freedom consists purely in the ability to choose between contrary alternatives. Nature and virtue drop out of the picture, and the sole basis for morality is the obligation imposed by divine commands. Because God’s freedom must be absolute, it is the simple fact of His commanding something that makes it good; if He had commanded murder, sodomy, or idolatry, these things would have been good and their opposites evil.

Although these extreme views did not become generally accepted, the basic idea of seeing religion and morality in terms of obedience to commands, rather than in terms of fulfillment of the end of man, persisted.

The tendency to identify religion with obedience to orders, and to separate it from happiness and truth, is the fundamental internal weakness that the Council needed to address, and also the cause of the disaster that followed it. One manifestation of this tendency was anti-intellectualism and hostility to reason. If faith is a matter of obeying orders, then asking questions about Catholic belief is insubordinate; questioning the reasons for orders is what barrack-room lawyers do. This meant that faithful Catholics who were not scholars tended to become ignorant and intellectually lazy, while Catholic scholars often adopted the psychology of rebellious adolescents. Both groups became indifferent to reasoned argument, not just because of lack of intelligence and proper education, but because at the deepest level they felt that such argument was a tool for affecting behavior rather than a guide to truth. Only such indifference could make possible the wide influence of an obvious mediocrity and charlatan such as Teilhard de Chardin (compare his effect on Catholics to that of a real intellect and scholar such as Etienne Gilson).

Another manifestation was spiritual weakness. A morality of obligation was built into the very structure of theology and devotion. Thus, moral theology was defined as dealing with the Commandments. One would learn in it what sort of violations of chastity, for example, counted as mortal sins, and one might even be told in it that an adequate prayer life was essential for preserving chastity. However, developing a prayer life was dealt with in spiritual theology, which was seen as optional knowledge for the laity — the preserve of religious, women, and weirdos. The pursuit of holiness was seen as the job of religious, while being open to a few laymen who were so called and inclined (the command “Be ye perfect as my Father is perfect” [Mt. 5:48] was glossed unconvincingly). This is seen even in so excellent a book as Tanquerey’s The Spiritual Life, which treats the pursuit of perfection as an option — however desirable — rather than as essential for avoiding Hell.

The idea that simply keeping the Commandments was the essential feature of the life of the average Christian, and the neglect of the pursuit of holiness that is actually needed to keep those Commandments, meant that natural means such as (non-filial) fear, repression (that is, pushing sinful desires out of one’s conscious mind rather than consciously controlling them), and the cultivation of psychological immaturity had to be used to combat sin.

A defective attitude toward the world also resulted from this fundamental weakness. In the 20th century most Catholics came to believe that the Church needed to come to terms with the modern world, and to make sense to it. On the face of it, this is madness. A divinely established Church conveying a divinely revealed religion cannot be under an obligation to justify itself to those to whom it bears its revelation; and if Catholicism is not divinely revealed, it cannot justify itself, because it is a fraud. However, if religion is seen as a matter of obeying orders, this attitude becomes understandable.

If people — non-Catholics — refuse to accept orders for centuries, and this refusal is no longer seen as contumacious wickedness, then there must be something wrong with the orders themselves; they have to be changed, or at least rephrased, so that they become acceptable.

Some understanding of these weaknesses was developed before the Council through a better understanding of the thought of St. Thomas that resulted from the revival of Thomism promoted by Leo XIII’s Aeterni Patris. This permitted the Council to address this weakness in four important ways. It presented Christ and the Church along Thomist lines, with Christ as the ultimate fulfillment of human nature, and the Church offering the grace and truth that permits us to reach this fulfillment. It asserted that everyone, not just religious, is called by God to be perfect — the difference between me and a Carthusian should not be that he is seeking an ultimate goal that I am not, but rather that I am allowing myself a lot more leeway in my pursuit of perfection than he is. It insisted on the necessity of Catholics being familiar with the Scriptures; and it promoted, in Sancrosanctum Concilium, the revival of the liturgy that had been developing since the 19th century, and had been endorsed by Pius XII’s encyclical Mediator Dei.

These attempts to address this fundamental weakness, however, were received by a Church that was still enthralled by them. That is what explains the disasters that followed the Council. Its attempts at overcoming the nominalist mindset were interpreted as rejecting the previous requirement of obedience. This freed all the bitterness and resentment that had been produced by such obedience, a bitterness untrammeled by any intellectual discipline or loyalty to truth.

The idea of coming to terms with the world, which was given support by some utterances of John XXIII and Paul VI, was embraced as the main theme of the Council, despite the lack of any basis for it in the conciliar documents. It also greatly influenced the liturgical changes promoted by Paul VI, in disobedience to the Council. This is an important point to stress. The liturgical movement that produced Sancrosanctum Concilium was a valuable attempt to restore Catholic tradition. The Novus Ordo Mass and other liturgical changes, on the other hand, directly rejected the tenets of that movement and of the conciliar document; this is testified to by Alfons Cardinal Stickler and Louis Bouyer, who were involved in the production of Sancrosanctum Concilium, and is evident from an examination of the text and the conciliar discussion of it. (One might wonder how a pope’s official act could be disobedient. The answer is that a conciliar document is an exercise of the papal magisterium; the pope signs it, as Paul signed Sancrosanctum Concilium. And the pope, in the exercise of his office, is not free to simply do what he wills, as if he were acting as a private person. He is bound by his own acts and those of his predecessors, and cannot just set aside their authority. In particular, he cannot legitimately disregard the decree of an ecumenical council, which is the highest exercise of his authority.) All indications are that Paul VI committed this abuse with the intention of conforming the liturgy to what he thought people, especially non-Catholic people, wanted (or what the malign Archbishop Bugnini told him that they wanted).

The triumph of the weaknesses the Council tried to remedy was not surprising, since an understanding of these weaknesses was largely confined to some scholars and scholarly prelates, and was not clearly grasped even by them — they were only thoroughly understood when they became disastrously evident after the Council. This triumph means that the Council’s teaching is even more important now than at the time it was convoked. There is now, however, a further reason why the Council is important, which is that the basic Catholic teachings it sets forth, taken for granted at the time, are now widely rejected. There does not seem to be a better way of promoting these teachings than by getting the clergy and laity to realize that they are taught by the Council that progressives claim as their own.


John Lamont, a Canadian, is a convert to Catholicism. He received his doctorate in Theology from Oxford. He is the author of Divine Faith (Ashgate), a defense of a Thomist understanding of the theological virtue of faith. He is currently a Gifford Fellow at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland doing research in natural theology.

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