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Opinion | How Catholics Became Prisoners of Vatican II

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By Ross Douthat

Opinion Columnist

The Second Vatican Council, the great revolution in the life of the modern Catholic Church, opened 60 years ago this week in Rome. So much of that 1960s-era world has passed away, but the council is still with us; indeed for a divided church its still-unfolding consequences cannot be escaped.

For a long time this would have been a liberal claim. In the wars within Catholicism that followed the council, the conservatives interpreted Vatican II as a discrete and limited event — a particular set of documents that contained various shifts and evolutions (on religious liberty and Catholic-Jewish relations especially), and opened the door to a revised, vernacular version of the Mass. For the liberals, though, these specifics were just the starting place: There was also a “spirit” of the council, similar to the Holy Spirit in its operation, that was supposed to guide the church into further transformations, perpetual reform.

The liberal interpretation dominated Catholic life in the 1960s and 1970s, when Vatican II was invoked to justify an ever-wider array of changes — to the church’s liturgy and calendar and prayers, to lay customs and clerical dress, to church architecture and sacred music, to Catholic moral discipline. Then the conservative interpretation took hold in Rome with the election of John Paul II, who issued a flotilla of documents intended to establish an authoritative reading of Vatican II, to rein in the more radical experiments and alterations, to prove that Catholicism before the 1960s and Catholicism afterward were still the same tradition.

Now in the years of Pope Francis, the liberal interpretation has returned — not just in the reopening of moral and theological debates, the establishment of a permanent listening-session style of church governance, but also in the attempt to once again suppress the older Catholic rites, the traditional Latin liturgy as it existed before Vatican II.

The Francis era has not restored the youthful vigor that progressive Catholicism once enjoyed, but it has vindicated part of the liberal vision. Through his governance and indeed through his mere existence, this liberal pope has proved that the Second Vatican Council cannot be simply reduced to a single settled interpretation, or have its work somehow deemed finished, the period of experimentation ended and synthesis restored.

Instead, the council poses a continuing challenge, it creates intractable-seeming divisions, and it leaves contemporary Catholicism facing a set of problems and dilemmas that Providence has not yet seen fit to resolve.

Here are three statements to encapsulate the problems and dilemmas. First, the council was necessary. Maybe not in the exact form it took, an ecumenical council summoning all the bishops from around the world, but in the sense that the church of 1962 needed significant adaptations, significant rethinking and reform. These adaptations needed to be backward-looking: The death of throne-and-altar politics, the rise of modern liberalism and the horror of the Holocaust all required fuller responses from the church. And they also needed to be forward-looking, in the sense that Catholicism in the early 1960s had only just begun to reckon with globalization and decolonization, with the information age and the social revolutions touched off by the invention of the contraceptive pill.

Tradition has always depended on reinvention, changing to remain to same — but Vatican II was called at a moment when the need for such change was about to become particularly acute.

But just because a moment calls for reinvention doesn’t mean that a specific set of reinventions will succeed, and we now have decades of data to justify a second encapsulating statement: The council was a failure.

This isn’t a truculent or reactionary analysis. The Second Vatican Council failed on the terms its own supporters set. It was supposed to make the church more dynamic, more attractive to modern people, more evangelistic, less closed off and stale and self-referential. It did none of these things. The church declined everywhere in the developed world after Vatican II, under conservative and liberal popes alike — but the decline was swiftest where the council’s influence was strongest.

The new liturgy was supposed to make the faithful more engaged with the Mass; instead, the faithful began sleeping in on Sunday and giving up Catholicism for Lent. The church lost much of Europe to secularism and much of Latin America to Pentecostalism — very different contexts and challengers, yet strikingly similar results.

And if anything post-1960s Catholicism became more inward-looking than before, more consumed with its endless right-versus-left battles, and to the extent it engaged with the secular world it was in paltry imitation — via middling guitar music, or political theories that were just dressed up versions of left-wing or right-wing partisanship, or ugly modern churches that were outdated 10 years after they were built and empty soon thereafter.

There is no clever rationalization, no intellectual schematic, no sententious Vatican propaganda — a typical recent document references “the life-giving sustenance provided by the council,” as though it were the eucharist itself — that can evade this cold reality.

But neither can anyone evade the third reality: The council cannot be undone.

By this I don’t mean that the Mass can never return to Latin, nor that various manifestations of post-conciliar Catholicism are inevitable and eternal, nor that cardinals in the 23rd century will still be issuing Soviet-style praise for the council and its works.

I just mean that there is no simple path back. Not back to the style of papal authority that both John Paul II and Francis have tried to exercise — the former to restore tradition, the latter to suppress it — only to find themselves frustrated by the ungovernability of the modern church. Not to the kind of thick inherited Catholic cultures that still existed down to the middle of the 20th century, and whose subsequent unraveling, while inevitable to some extent, was clearly accelerated by the church’s own internal iconoclasm. Not to the moral and doctrinal synthesis, stamped with the promise of infallibility and consistency, that the church’s conservatives have spent the last two generations insisting still exists, but that in the Francis era has proved so unstable that those same conservatives have ended up feuding with the pope himself.

The work of the French historian Guillaume Cuchet, who has studied Vatican II’s impact on his once deeply Catholic nation, suggests that it was the scale and speed of the council’s reforms, as much as any particular substance, that shattered Catholic loyalty and hastened the church’s decline. Even if the council’s changes did not officially alter doctrine, to rewrite and renovate so many prayers and practices inevitably made ordinary Catholics wonder why an authority that suddenly declared itself to have been misguided across so many different fronts could still be trusted to speak on behalf of Jesus Christ himself.

After such a shock, what kind of synthesis or restoration is possible? Today all Catholics find themselves living with this question, because every one of the church’s factions is in tension with some version of church authority. Traditionalists are in tension with the Vatican’s official policies, progressives with its traditional teachings, conservatives with the liberalizing style of Pope Francis, the pope himself with the conservative emphasis of his immediate predecessors. In this sense all of us are the children of Vatican II, even if we critique or lament the council — or perhaps never more so than when we do.

Here, again, the liberals have a point. The most traditionalist Catholics are stamped by what began in 1962 as surely as this anti-traditionalist pope, and the merely conservative — such as, well, myself — are often in the position described by Peter Hitchens, writing about the European high culture shattered by the First World War: We may admire the lost world’s intensity and rigors, but “none of us, now, could bear to return to it even if we were offered the chance.”

But this point does not vindicate the council, let alone the ever-evolving liberal interpretation of its spirit. The church has to live with Vatican II, wrestle with it, somehow resolve the contradictions it bequeathed us, not because it was a triumph but precisely because it wasn’t: Failure casts a longer and more enduring shadow, sometimes, than success.

You begin from where you are. The lines of healing run along the lines of fracture, the wounds remain after the resurrection, and even the Catholicism that arrives, not today but someday, at a true After Vatican II will still be marked by the unnecessary breakages created by its attempt at a necessary reform.

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