Explanatory narratives of the Council’s failure

Nearly everyone outside the party line (“The Church is not falling to pieces. It has never been better.”) agrees that Vatican II failed as a force of Catholic renewal, but not everyone agrees why. Let’s take a moment to examine some of the different explanations for its failure.

The liberal narrative: Advanced by the likes of Hans Küng, the liberal narrative goes something like this: “The Second Vatican Council prescribed a bold plan of reform for the entire Church that would open it up to the modern world and reject traditional patterns of autocratic governance and stern moralistic lecturing. Unfortunately, its implementation was hijacked by cynical reactionary bishops and Popes like John Paul II, who betrayed the Council’s vision. The Council failed in its aim, but only because we didn’t get enough of it; the solution is to get more of it, to continue reforming everything in sight.”

The (neo)-conservative narrative: Defended in many respects by Pope Benedict XVI (as Unam Sanctam Catholicam reports here), the conservative (or neo-conservative, if you prefer) narrative proceeds thus: “The Second Vatican Council’s reforms were [qualifications] necessary, good, and proper, but their implementation was hijacked by [villain], who betrayed the Council’s vision. The Council failed in its aim, but only because of treachery and the spirit of the age; the solution is to repent of the hyper-reformational ‘Spirit of Vatican II’ and return to the plain meaning of the texts.” The neo-conservative narrative splits into several different camps depending on the contents of the qualifications variable above: for the strict-conservative narrative, insert “surely”; for the strong-conservative narrative, leave blank; for the weak-conservative narrative, insert “arguably.” The villain variable can take any of several values, typically liberal clergy but sometimes the media or , more generally, the secular world, and sometimes a combination of two or more of the above.

The traditionalist narrative: This narrative, more protean than the others, argues something like the following: “Calling the Second Vatican Council was a blunder and the whole endeavor was surely doomed to failure; there was no possible way for it to succeed.” This narrative splits again into several camps depending on the exact reason given. The weak traditional narrative says that the Council failed because its reforms (tactical, prudential, non-Magisterial, and thus prone to error, as I explained here and here) were deeply imprudent given the realities of the age — because, in a sense, the reformers misdiagnosed the problem and so prescribed the wrong solutions; this is the position of, e.g., mainstream traditionalist Catholics such as the FSSP. The strong-traditionalist narrative of, e.g., the SSPX et al., holds that the Council was doomed to failure because the Council fathers were heretics and the Council itself positively taught error, the implementation of which naturally produced poisoned fruits. The strict-traditionalist narrative takes the strong-traditionalist narrative a step further and rejects the Council’s ecumenicity and Catholicity, deriding it as altogether invalid; this narrative usually veers into sedeprivationism, sedevacantism, or outright schism.

This blog largely takes the weak-traditionalist narrative in that it views the Council as a tactical mistake; it accepts the conservative narrative only insofar as it applies to questions of doctrine. This is, I believe, the most coherent position available to us, each of the rest suffering from some sort of crippling defect of its own. The liberal narrative is simply deranged and utterly without merit, hence why nearly no thinking Catholic today below the age of 70 or so actually believes it; to the extent it’s believed at all, it’s because it is the poison which has seeped into the groundwater and from which most Catholics unconsciously sip. It is a classic example of denial, of reframing one’s own failures as the result of the shortcomings and weaknesses of others, and of course we need hardly even speak of its manifestly delusional parousiastic character.

The conservative narrative walks the tightrope between the party line (“things have never been better!”) and acknowledging reality, trying to do the latter while sparing the former of harsh criticism. There is much to recommend in that a careful reading of the actual text of the conciliar documents is necessary in order to situate the Council properly in Tradition, an endeavor I maintain is perfectly possible. The extent to which those reforms were necessary at all certainly is a matter of dispute, however, and I do not take the conservative position for granted here, especially when it comes to the reform of the liturgy, where the Church’s tactical error was most manifest; moreover, I do not believe that an acceptance of the Council’s doctrinal character necessarily commands an acceptance of its prudential reform. The two are separable and it is perhaps necessary to start giving serious thought to jettisoning some or all of the latter altogether.

The strong-traditionalist narrative is, to me, simply incoherent, and maintaining it requires a lot of the linguistic equivocation of the sort I described earlier. It is, I think, the product of a mindset that can’t think in terms of anything but doctrine, a mindset I hope to describe in greater depth at some later point; suffice it to say that it is itself a modern and minimalistic mode of thinking. Being incoherent, it tends to collapse into either the weak or strict narrative, and the strict narrative is just about as unthinkable and deranged as the leftist one. To believe it, one would have to believe that Christ is a liar and hence very nearly apostasize from the faith altogether.

In the next post, I’ll give some further insight into the weak-traditionalist narrative, specifically, what I hold to be the crucial error of the Council: its fundamental misunderstanding of the pernicious character of modernity.


2 thoughts on “Explanatory narratives of the Council’s failure

  1. Pingback: Assumption #4: Modernity and Catholicism are diametrically opposed | The Strange Council

  2. Pingback: This blog’s four assumptions | The Strange Council

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