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Douthat On The Curse Of Vatican II

Catholicism's tragedy: the Church needed renovation, but the Council was a wreckovation -- and Catholics are stuck with it
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The image above is of the cathedral of Köln after World War II bombing devastated most of that German city. It's why the Second Vatican Council was necessary -- and why it might have been doomed to failure. More below.

Terrific analysis today by Ross Douthat (a Catholic conservative) on the curse of the Second Vatican Council. I say "curse," not because Douthat considers it to be accursed in a literal sense, but because his excellent column argues that whether you think the Council, which opened sixty years ago this week, was good, bad, or somewhere in the middle, it cannot be gotten around. His headline says all Catholics are "prisoners of Vatican II".


Douthat says that like it or not, the Council was necessary. The structures and mindset of the Catholic Church needed updating, needed to become more responsive to the modern world, which was itself changing radically. When I was a Catholic, I was from time to time knocked out of my romanticization of the preconciliar past by things I would read about life back then, and not from liberals who had an interest in making it all seem like the Bad Old Days. After a few years as a Catholic, I came to hate the effects of the Council, but also came to fear that things might be bad in the Church in a different way if the council hadn't happened.

More Douthat:

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. 


That is deeply true. I find it so puzzling to see some of the prominent Catholic integralists behaving as public champions of Pope Francis, given how this pontiff is tearing down so much of what remains of tradition. But then, it does make sense, in that the Catholic schemata is irrational if the Pope is someone you can dismiss or ignore (something that conservative Catholics understood very well when JP2 and BXVI were pope). Though I haven't been Catholic for sixteen years, I profoundly sympathize with the orthodox, pro-Magisterium Catholics commonly called "conservative," and who have emerged as such strong critics of Francis and his reforms. Nevertheless, how far can you go in resisting a validly elected pope without ceasing to be meaningfully Catholic?

One more quote from Douthat, on that issue:

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.”

That Hitchens column, from UnHerd in 2019, is fantastic. Excerpt, in which Hitchens ponders the message of the stately beauty of Antwerp's Central Station, dating from before World War I:

From Antwerp’s great cathedral of railways, doubtless once perfumed with good cigars and strong coffee, one could have travelled, in carriages of polished wood, brass fittings and deep cushions, to any number of ancient, unspoiled cities, in which patient, cautious statesmen made their careful plans in high-ceilinged offices looking out on to broad boulevards traversed by trams, offices so quiet that you could hear the rustle of the ashes shifting in their open fires.

And they planned war. Had they not done so, I am sure that most of the great developments of modern science would have come about, perhaps in a different shape, perhaps a little more slowly. We would have had another sort of modern world, more civilised and more worthy of optimism, than the rackety arrangements we have now. We might have no television, but some other gentler invention. The self-evidently crazy idea of mass car ownership, the foundation of Fordism, might never have taken root. Why, social democracy might actually have been made to work and Russia could have become a liberal democracy.

But they chose war. And it was that war which ended all possibility of the future which we might have had. War took us from stately, mannered opulence to bare, arrogant expressions of strength and money. It ended the slow amelioration of old-fashioned social democracy and gave us Bolshevism. It obliterated conservatism and gave us fascism and National Socialism. And in the end it brought us to the deliberately materialist modernism of the European Union and the secular worship of material progress above all things, which we have now, and perhaps for a while longer.

The change in architecture, art, literature and music, which accompanied this transformation, tells us that there is no way back. We have, more or less, recovered materially from the disaster of 1914. But our ideas have not. We can no longer believe in the things we believed in before 1914, because they were discredited by war and what followed.

Can we compare the Second Vatican Council to World War I, in terms of it being an epochal event that cannot be gotten around? Obviously yes -- that's why Douthat brings up the Hitchens column. What does a Catholic do with that, though?

My friend and TAC podcast buddy Kale Zelden tweeted earlier today:

Kale remains a Catholic. His thread made me reflect on the fact that though I left the Catholic Church because I was so overwhelmed by anger, fear, and anxiety over the abuse scandal that I no longer believed in Rome's claim for authority -- that is, I no longer had it in me to believe that my salvation depended on being in communion with the Roman see -- the deeper truth is that if I had had any viscerally felt reason to stay, I might have been able to hang on through the tempest. For me, the disjunction between what the Catholic Church claimed to be in theory, and what it was in practice in American parishes, was finally irreconcilable. I could not see that the Sacrament Factory was making me a better Christian, or a better man. In fact, it was making me worse, because with each passing month, the primary passion I had towards the Catholic Church, and my Catholic faith, was anger. I had a whole mental strategy worked out that allowed me to white-knuckle it through, but in the end, when my wife and I, in our despair, started attending an Orthodox parish to take a break and catch our breath, what was left of our American Catholicism could not survive contact with Orthodox liturgy and spirituality.

That was us. As you regular readers know, I made a deliberate decision after conversion not to immerse myself in doctrinal arguments and things like that, because that is a trap for me. Getting caught in my head is a deep spiritual temptation of mine, one I have to resist even as an Orthodox Christian. I lack the gift to be able to value intellection, as it must be valued by all Christians, but to also put it in its proper place. I say all this because I have zero interest in arguing with you over authority (Catholic vs. Orthodox vs. Protestant). That is a massively important question, but my willful disinterest in it is only a statement about myself and my own weakness.

Or is it? Because most people in this world are not intellectuals. Christ didn't come to save only the intellectuals. In autopsying my dead Catholic faith, I recognized that the chief reason that it failed is that it was mostly in my head. That fact saved my faith for a time (that is, reminding myself of the syllogisms, and emphasizing the point that the sins of the priests do not negate theological truths). But it wasn't enough -- and this is something that is almost impossible to get intellectual Christians to understand. It's why I just shake my head at the dilemma that Catholics of the theological Right -- both the integralists and the conservatives -- are trying to live through. I don't see how it works. The liberals now in charge of the Catholic institution have more power, because they don't care about theology, about rational rigor, and so forth. They live as if the Church is run by power grounded in nothing but emotion. It's the small-o orthodox factions within Catholicism who are in the slough today.

Douthat writes provocatively and well about the dilemma of his own church. But it's not just the Catholics, you know. I just came from spending a couple of days with LCMS Lutherans, a wonderful bunch of faithful orthodox Christians who are nevertheless living through the long decline of their church. I would love to believe that conservative theology was enough to hold the line, but it's not. It is necessary, but not sufficient. The Catholics had Vatican II, but I think the broader "World War I" event that has shattered Christianity in the West is the Therapeutic Revolution of which Philip Rieff writes so well (and of which the Sexual Revolution is the most potent manifestation). As much as people like me have found a home in the Orthodox Church, it is impossible to imagine a world in which American Orthodox are as deferential to Church authorities as Orthodox believers in pre-20th century times were. Indeed, my bitter experience in Catholicism has made me -- well, not anticlerical, exactly, but far more suspicious of the clergy than I once was. That's just how it is. There's no going back. I can't unsee what I have seen about how unthinking deference to the clergy in the Catholic Church allowed so much evil to take root. It happened in the Catholic Church not because it is Catholic, but because the Catholic Church -- like the Orthodox and Protestant churches -- are full of human beings.

For me, Orthodoxy as a way of life has been so fruitful and joyful, even though my own personal struggles have been significant and heartbreaking for most of my time in Orthodoxy. The heartbreak did not come from the Church, to be clear, but the Orthodox approach to the spiritual life has been a great gift from God. I don't like to go into detail about personal spirituality on this blog; that's why I started a Substack. Anyway, to Douthat's point, all Christians are dealing in some way with the catastrophe of the twentieth century -- and if they're not dealing with it, it's because they have surrendered to it, whether they realize it or not. The Catholic Church, in the Second Vatican Council, started out reforming itself, but ended by disarming itself. This is something that we non-Catholic Christians of the West had better pay close attention to, because like it or not, the fate of the West is inextricably tied to the fate of the Roman church.

I'll end with this. Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the austere German who was head of the Church's chief doctrinal office under Benedict XVI, minced no words in an interview this week on EWTN, about the so-called "Synodal Process" that Francis has started. Excerpt:

You were head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. What must you think as you watch  a system being created, where all of that doctrine seems to be up for grabs?

The basis of the Church is the word of God as a revelation … not our strange reflections. … This [agenda] is a system of self-revelation. This occupation of the Catholic Church is a hostile takeover of the Church of Jesus Christ…. And if you look at only one page, or read one page of the Gospel, you’ll see that it has nothing to do with Jesus Christ … and [in this agenda] they think that doctrine is only like a program of a political party, who can change it according to their votes….

I have to say, I am, I am shaken when I hear you say, and you were just at a consistory, which we’ll talk about in a moment, that you believe the synodal process is … shaping up into a hostile takeover of the Church, of an attempt to destroy the Church. Is that what you see here?

If they succeed, it will be the end of the Catholic Church. And we must resist it like the old heretics of the Arianism. When Arias thought, according to his ideas, what can God do and what can God not do? And it is irrationalism: human, the intellect to decide what is true and what is wrong.

UPDATE: I hate to have to keep making this clear when I post about this stuff, but I do, because these posts attract lots of people who don't know me and my history. I affirm what the Orthodox Church teaches is true! I just don't have it in me to argue about it, in the way I used to relish arguing about Catholicism, as a Catholic. There are plenty of accomplished apologists who do.

A point I would love to see Douthat take up in a future column, though it might be too inside baseball for a Times columnist: how the roots of Catholicism's current crisis are not really in the Second Vatican Council, but in the First Vatican Council, which centralized so much power in the papacy.


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Quibble time: It's hard to see how WWI produced the automotive revolution. Ford's Model T, priced to be affordable to a majority of families, had already come out back in 1908. And television? What's that got to do with WWI?
schedule 2 years ago
Maclin Horton
Maclin Horton
A convert, now of 41 years standing, I jumped in just past the worst post-Council days, and hated the intramural Catholic war which is an internal manifestation of the culture war. Why couldn't we just be Catholics, without adjective or qualification? Through the pontificates of JPII and BXVI, I hoped that the war was gradually waning, and it seemed to be. Then Francis chose to fire it up again, and I realized that it will outlive me. Today, reading about the various 60th anniversary observations, my first thought was "only the dead have seen the end of war." This war, anyway.
schedule 2 years ago