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Sixty Years of Vatican II

Vatican II didn’t create confusion in the Church. It made things worse by trying to develop a more coherent doctrine, and failing miserably.

Review - Second Vatican Council in Rome 1962
Bishops enter St Peter's at the opening of the Second Vatican Council, 11 October 1962. (Gerhard Rauchwetter/Picture Alliance via Getty Images)

Pope John XXIII officially convened the Second Vatican Council on October 11, 1962—sixty years ago this month. Time really does fly when you’re having fun.

Many Catholics consider Vatican II the biggest disruption in the history of the Church. That goes for the Council’s supporters as well as its critics. 


Progressives think the Church needed a little disrupting. (“I want to make a mess,” as Pope Francis said.)  The Church was mired in Baroque ceremonial, narrow Scholastic theology, and reactionary politics. Vatican II stripped the Church down to its skivvies. It allowed the Holy Spirit to clothe her in garments more suitable to our new liberal, democratic order. 

Traditionalists argue that the liberal, democratic order was defined largely against Catholicism. The Church’s new, “simplified” liturgy was inspired by Danish Lutherans and French Calvinists. Her new theology is drawn largely from heretics like Karl Rahner and Hans Küng. Her politics—with its emphasis on human rights and self-government—is really a surrender to the French Revolution. Any attempt to accommodate modernity is, by definition, an act of surrender.

Stuck in the middle is a large, unhappy crowd known as the conservatives. They point out that Vatican II was never intended to cause a rupture. It’s true, the Council tried to spruce things up a bit. The Western Church wasn’t adapting very well to the new post-Christian era, so they tried to re-ground her in the experience of the pre-Christian era—the teachings and practices of the Early Church. This is known as ressourcement, or “resourcement." (Cool kids always use the French.)  

The conservative position is the hardest to understand because it’s the least obvious. If the Council was led by the bishops, and the bishops didn’t want a revolution, then why was there a revolution?  A conservative will answer in one word: bureaucrats. It all comes down to the Roman Curia, the invisible army of functionaries that actually runs the Holy See. Call it the Deep Church.

The Roman Curia has long been dominated by men with progressive sympathies. So, they gave us “praise bands” when Vatican II explicitly called for the restoration of Gregorian chant. They encouraged Mass to be celebrated versus populum (facing the people) when the new rubrics make clear that priests should be ad orientem (facing the East). And so on.


Actually, most traditionalists don’t quibble with this reading. Their main hang-up is with a document called Dignitatis Humanae, which declares that “the human person has a right to religious freedom." Traditionalists say this directly contradicts several older Church documents, including Pius IX’s infamous Syllabus of Errors. One of the errors condemned by the syllabus is that, “In the present day, it is no longer expedient that the Catholic religion should be held as the only religion of the State, to the exclusion of all other forms of worship." That is to say, error has no rights.

Conservatives have come up with plenty of creative arguments to show that Dignitatis is consistent with previous Church teaching. The best (and best known) is Thomas Pink’s. He argues Vatican II changed “policy, not doctrine”. True, error has no rights. But the Church may choose to be more tolerant of error in some ages than in others.

Now, you may be thinking to yourself, “Why is this dumpster fire still burning after sixty years?  Why hasn’t anyone put it out yet?" The answer is, nobody knows how. 

The five popes who have reigned since Vatican II all had different interpretations of the Council documents. Each has brought his own theological, liturgical, and political agenda to the See of Peter. Of course, they could convene a Third Vatican Council. But there’s already a civil war brewing in the College of Bishops. If a pope tried to cram them all into one room and make them hash out their differences, he would have blood on his hands. 

So, at some level, the Council itself is irrelevant. If its meaning isn’t clear after six decades, it never will be. Progressives and conservatives and traditionalists can go on arguing the documents until they’re blue in the face (and they will). But they’re really arguing about first principles. At this point, Dignitatis Humanae is more like a resolution in an Oxford-style debate than anything else—not a dogma so much as a prompt.

This argument is perfectly calculated to irritate just about everyone. Because what all the factions really want is a clear victory. That goes for Pope Francis as much as anyone. Yes, the Holy Father wants a mess. But he wants a progressive mess. He wants a bold, vigorous debate that ends with everyone coming to the exact same conclusions that he does. 

And why not?  Chesterton was right: “The modern habit of saying ‘This is my opinion, but I may be wrong’ is entirely irrational. If I say that it may be wrong, I say that is not my opinion." 

Francis got his mess. What’s astonishing is that it’s not at all clear—at least in mortal terms—that his lot is going to win the scrum. And if Vatican II clarified anything, it’s this: we still don’t quite understand how authority works in the Catholic Church. And that’s okay.

It may not seem okay. As our Orthodox brethren will point out, we Latins are obsessed with neat formulas and clear hierarchies. We tend toward legalism, the way they tend toward an unhealthy mysticism. The point is, we’re uncomfortable with ambiguity. And that’s a good thing!  But the whole point of being Catholic is that, even if we don’t have clarity right now, that doesn’t mean we never will.

This was the realization that finally convinced John Henry Newman to swim the Tiber. 

Old-school Anglicans believe that the “deposit of faith” is drawn from the first five centuries anno Domini. The Church’s duty is to hand down those teachings exactly as she received them from Our Lord, the Apostles, and the Church Fathers. 

Newman set out to defend that thesis in the context of the Arian crisis of the fourth century. The trinitarian creed promulgated by the First Council of Nicaea, he believed, merely affirmed what Christians had always taught. It was only defined dogmatically to put down the rebellion of the arch-heretic Arius, who arrogantly rejected the traditional formula in favor of his own “subordinationism.”

But, to his horror, Newman couldn’t make his theory stick. He found plenty of evidence to suggest that pre-Nicene Christians espoused an Arian subordinationism. This view had already been espoused in Europe by Catholic theologians like Denis Pétau, for obvious reasons: it proved the need for a central authority to reliably “develop” doctrine. But in the Protestant world, it was unheard of.

Today, Newman’s is the dominant interpretation of the Arian Crisis. Many scholars, like Rowan Williams and David Bentley Hart, have carried his argument even further. They claim that Arius was probably the “traditionalist” faction at the Council of Nicaea. 

As Hart put it, “the Arians and Semi-Arians were theological conservatives, not wild innovators; the Nicene party, by contrast, was advancing a conceptual and doctrinal vocabulary with only a contestable antecedent." Nevertheless, “the Nicene party did have the better arguments." They “made sense of a larger range of shared Christian beliefs and spiritual expectations." They “provided a richer theology of the intimacy between God and his creatures." And “theirs, as it turned out over time, was the more coherent metaphysics.”

In this sense, Catholicism is more progressive than Protestantism. It believes that doctrine can be developed, and by an infallible authority: the Church. Once Newman realized this, it was only a matter of time before he “poped.”

This isn’t the only instance where “progressives” wound up being more “orthodox” than “conservatives." Some early Christians opposed translating the Mass from Greek into Latin. St. Thomas Aquinas rejected the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which was infallibly defined by Pope Pius IX in 1854. And we could go on.

But the Arian Crisis is an especially powerful example because the Nicene formula is now accepted by all Christians—Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. With the exception of a few unitarians, it has never been seriously challenged. Just the opposite, in fact. As Hart explains, that formula has only become more plausible over time. It has gotten to the point where, today, we can’t imagine anyone (like Arius) dissenting except out of sheer malice.

That is not to say the progressives are right in the fracas over Vatican II. For whatever it’s worth, I think they’re dead wrong. But it’s possible, even probable, that God is using this confusion to bring about a greater clarity. 

Vatican II didn’t create confusion in the Church. That confusion was already there. It made things worse by trying to develop a more coherent doctrine, and failing miserably. But that doesn’t mean clarity isn’t possible. The Arian Crisis proves that the confusion may very well get worse before it gets better. God makes good use of our zeal—the zeal of the heretics as well as the orthodox. 

So, my unsolicited (and unwanted) advice to my fellow Catholics is this: strive for clarity, but don’t feel entitled to it. Resist error in a spirit of humility. Fight for truth in a spirit of charity. Above all, trust that God will see us through. He always has, and He always will.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this essay used "adoptionist" where "subordinationist" is appropriate.