Certainly, the results [of Vatican II] seem cruelly opposed to the expectations of everyone, beginning with those of Pope John XXIII and then of Paul VI: expected was a new Catholic unity and instead we have been exposed to dissension which—to use the words of Paul VI—seems to have gone from self-criticism to self-destruction. Expected was a new enthusiasm, and many wound up discouraged and bored. Expected was a great step forward, and instead we find ourselves faced with a progressive process of decadence which has developed for the most part precisely under the sign of a calling back to the Council, and has therefore contributed to discrediting for many. The net result therefore seems negative. I am repeating here what I said ten years after the conclusion of the work: it is incontrovertible that this period has definitely been unfavorable for the Catholic Church.
—Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (c. 1984)
If the Church were not divine, this Council would have buried it.
–Giuseppe Cardinal Siri
This assumption will take some time to unpack — it is sufficiently detailed that I’ll need at least three posts to do so.
The ostensible purpose of the Second Vatican Council, I said before, was tactical: it aimed, not to proclaim a new dogma, but to provide the Church with a more effective schema for evangelizing the modern world.
I take it for granted on this blog that the Council failed in this endeavor. The Catholic faith is not only less intelligible to moderns, it is now less intelligible even to Catholics. There are plenty of examples that can be cited here, plenty of polls, plenty of anecdotes, but I think the most damning piece of evidence in this regard is the recent admission of Abp. Müller, prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, that the common understanding of marriage as an exclusive, indissoluble, sacramental union has so dissolved that many, perhaps even most, marriages today are invalid. (For more on this line of reasoning, see Zippy Catholic’s characteristically excellent post on the topic here).
What went wrong here? Blogger “Ches” over at The Sensible Bond has an excellent ongoing series on the nature of aggiornamento, wherein, at one point, he makes this crucial observation: that the operating assumption of the Council and the conciliar reformers was that “one could deconstruct and reconstruct the kinds of cultural syntheses that had resulted from centuries of Christian life.” By the time of the Council, the Catholic faith had become fused to a particular way of life over the course of centuries of practice, and the Council’s concern was that this sort of lived reality of faith had become an obstacle to effectively interfacing with a modern world. In their prudential calculus, it was therefore necessary to dismantle that synthesis in order that a new one could replace it, one that might make her a more vibrant force in the modern world.
The problem is that people do not live in a purely mental, abstract sphere of doctrinal correctness: the faith is always lived out in some sort of practical and concrete way, and the Church, by repudiating the culture that made that possible (most prominently by the liturgical reforms, the liturgy being the most public point of interface between the Church and the world), effectively stripped Catholics of the only effective alternative to modern narcissistic degeneracy. Nature abhors a vacuum, so naturally, the void left in the life of the Church by the destruction of her practical consensus on living the faith was filled almost immediately by the world and its values, to her great shame and enduring difficulty.
Thus rushed into the Church the “smoke of Satan,” lamented by Pope Paul, through the fissure of conciliar hubris: the hubris of thinking that one can remake better, in a decade, what generations of saints built over the course of two millennia.
Note: the faith-culture synthesis isn’t itself doctrinal, it’s a lived expression of doctrine. Whether or not to retain that synthesis, then, is not itself a question of doctrine, but of tactics; and in deciding prudential matters like how best to govern the faithful or to evangelize, the Church’s authority, while binding, is not necessarily free of error. She can make, and has made, bad decisions. In making this claim, I go against neo-conservative Catholics of the EWTN / Catholic Answers mold, but it is what it is, and those who wish to dispute this position have an awful lot of historical legerdemain to accomplish.
In this, I stand firmly against what Dr. Roberto de Mattei called “a fideism of a pietist mould,” which insists that the Holy Spirit utterly absorbs and negates human freedom, reducing us to mere Ouija boards channeling the will of God, so that every one of the Church’s undertakings is imbued with the mandate of divine inevitability. On the contrary, I profess that the Church’s divine nature supplements, transfigures, and orders her human nature without overwhelming it completely, and that the narrowness of Christ’s promises to the infant Church were intended precisely to protect human freedom and so ensure that our decision to turn to him is truly free. Our shepherds act in persona Christi when celebrating Mass, absolving penitents, and exercising the teaching office entrusted to them through the Great Commission; in other respects, perhaps more often than not, they rule as men — men to whom authority has been given and who are thereby entitled to our obedience and respect, but who are not immune to the frailties and weaknesses of the human condition; they are therefore men with whom any Catholic may, in good faith, charitably voice disagreement in matters pertaining to the welfare of the Church (per the Code of Canon Law, can. 212 § 3).
In short, this blog takes it as a given that the Second Vatican Council failed, not for reasons of implementation but because of its own aims and intentions, and it is in light of this understanding that the Council will be examined. In the next two posts, we’ll examine competing narratives regarding the Council (most of which acknowledge its failure), as well as another aspect of the Council’s failure, namely, the mistaken estimation on the part of the Council’s father of the essentially antagonistic attitude of modernity to the Catholicism they wished to modernize.