Ideology mars a well-produced PBS documentary on the historic council

On Sept. 18, PBS will air Reflections on Vatican II, a slick, technically well-produced trip down Catholic memory lane, 1960s style, as seen through the not-always-accurate prism of the post-Vatican II era. Sometimes, it presents a sound history of the Council and Pope John XXIII's vision of it. At other times, the film comes across as “Oliver Stone meets Vatican II,” offering viewers a revisionist hodge-podge of conflicting viewpoints on the council, with little synthesis and large amounts of spin.

But first things first. There's a lot to commend this documentary. It has, by and large, what folks in the movie-making business call “production values.” Vintage contemporaneous newscasts from the early 1960s, sprinkled with comments from veteran journalists who covered the council, tell much of the story.

NBC's Irving R. Levine's personal recollections vividly portray the unprecedented marvel — even the seeming incongruity — of a general council being held in the age of television and satellites. He recounts, for example, a brief statement John XXIII made for the Today Show. A ten-minute window afford by the Telstar satellite passing over Rome required careful coordination. Sitting in studio, Levine heard the floor manager utter the unforgettable words, “Cue the Pope.” TV put Vatican II and the bishops of the Catholic Church in everyone's living room, notes Levine, and the documentary does a fine job of capturing the hopeful excitement of it.

Reflections on Vatican II also shows the profound impact of Pope John XXIII on the modern Church and of his holy inspiration for a faithful “updating” (aggiornamento) to make the Church more effective in her mission. He is seen as a world leader who mediated between East and West in the Cuban missile crisis, a believer who sought reconciliation among Christian Churches, even between Christians and Jews — yet without diluting his Catholic vision. Here was a pope whose passion for the Gospel, for the unity of the human family, and for making Christ a living reality to all men, compelled him to orient the Church he led in service to the world.

And the world of his day took note. The great affection many non-Catholics felt for this great pontiff, especially in his passing away midway through Vatican II, is a moving theme of the documentary.

Yet notwithstanding such strengths, Reflections on Vatican II has grave flaws.

Where to begin? At the outset, we're told — by a cleric whom we later discover is actually a Traditionalist Catholic of Lefverist inclinations — that there were two main camps at Vatican II, a “conservative” and a “progressive” one. Okay. But then Cardinal Ottaviani is named as leader of the “conservatives” (a black and white shot of the Cardinal appears) and he is identified as the one “who was at that time what Cardinal Ratzinger is now, head of the Holy Office, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith” (the black and white photo fades into Cardinal Ratzinger at prayer).

Of course, that is factually correct, if we qualify it by saying the Holy Office was replaced by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But the point is that the otherwise uninformed viewer is apt to conclude that somehow Cardinal Ratzinger's outlook toward Vatican II is or was that of Cardinal Ottaviani. In truth, if we have to situate the (then) young German theologian Ratzinger who served as a theological adviser at the council, it would be among the “progressives” — a staunch advocate of the Council and John XXIII's aggiornamento. Surely it is an injustice that the only reference to Cardinal Ratzinger is as Cardinal Ottaviani's successor.

Another major problem with the film: this two-hour documentary often grossly oversimplifies or misstates things. Consider the two things touted in the film as Vatican II's contribution to the Church's worship today — the vernacular liturgy and the Mass “facing the people.” The Western European and American churchmen interviewed give the mistaken impression, or at least are presented as giving the mistaken impression, that Vatican II itself mandated the vernacular and abolished Latin in all liturgies. Only the African Francis Cardinal Arinze gets it right. “The Vatican Council didn't send Latin on holiday or dismiss it altogether,” he states. “Unfortunately, some people in the Church have done just that. They behave as if Vatican II said ‘no more Latin; only look [at] modern languages.’ Vatican II did not say that. It wanted that flexibility so that sometimes there would be celebration in Latin.”

One need only look at the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy to see that Cardinal Arinze is correct. Article no. 36, ?1 and 2, for example, states, “The use of the Latin language, with due respect to particular law, is to be preserved in the Latin rights. But since the use of the vernacular, whether in the Mass, the administration of the sacraments, or in other parts of the liturgy, may frequently be of great advantage to the people, a wider use may be made of it, especially in readings, directives and in some prayers and chants.”

Vatican II assumed the Latin liturgy would be normative and made exceptions for the vernacular, not the other way around. Of course, post-conciliar Church legislation has quite legitimately allowed for the extension of the vernacular. The point is, Reflections on Vatican II obscures what really happened.

As for Mass “facing the people,” we're assured in the film by no less a theological authority than actor Martin Sheen that it “was like this very bright light had been shown into this dark place.” Does this mean that for the millennium before the Church was in the dark ages? That the great saints who worshipped God through the old liturgy were somehow “in the dark?”

More to the point, the documentary gets it wrong yet again about what Vatican II actually did. The council didn't mandate Mass “facing the people.” In fact, the novus ordo liturgy of Paul VI, which came five years after Vatican II and which is still in effect, permits celebration of the liturgy “facing the Lord,” that is, where the people and the priest face the same direction in offering the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Son to the Father in the Spirit, as well as “facing the people” in dialogue fashion.

In addition to the liturgy, the documentary examines the laity in the Church, the social aspect of the Church's mission, ecumenism, and the Church today. The views of prelates and theologians are juxtaposed with those of lay leaders and others, often revealing significant ideological biases. For example, Olivia Hill, the African American director of the diocesan Office of Black Ministry in Birmingham, Alabama, said of African Americans and Vatican II: “What happened was with Vatican II, we had the possibility of our spirits being freed. Vatican II indeed prompted the urgings of our spirits that has been oppressed because of a Eurocentric way of worshipping.”

Shift the scene to Washington state where Charlene Collora, “pastoral administrator for Our Lady of Mt. Virgin,” talks about her role in the parish as if she were pastor. “Now I sign the checks, I pay the bills, I make the decisions when we have to buy a new furnace or sell the plot of land next door to make needs meet. I'm the one who runs the parish council. And none of this would have happened before Vatican II.”

But none of this is supposed to happen after Vatican II either, assuming the documentary accurately depicts Collora's situation. The Code of Canon Law restricts the role of parish administrator to priests (Canon 539). After a few moments of the documentary's treatment of the laity, one sees why the Vatican had to issue a document last year directed against abuses of lay collaboration with the clergy.

Shift again to Vatican II's emphasis on the social mission of the Church. The film offers a stirring tribute to the anti-Vietnam and civil rights movements of the 1960s, with Jesuit Father Daniel Berrigan and the other Catonsville Nine shown burning draft files. Martin Sheen pops in again, though, now among protesters chaining themselves to a federal building in Los Angeles and denouncing U.S. policy in El Salvador. Sheen opines, “There's great demand that is made of us that are Catholic and take the faith seriously, not always the Church, but the faith seriously …”

And of the courageous Catholic leadership in the pro-life movement? Silence. No sympathetic depictions of non-violent civil disobedience in defense of unborn children, nothing.. Peace activist Jim Douglas claims that the only “condemnation” Vatican II pronounced was of the indiscriminate destruction of cities and civilian populations. But, in fact, the council also denounced abortion (called an abominable crime, Gaudium et Spes, no. 51) and euthanasia (GS, no. 27).

Needless to say, the institutional Church comes in for heavy criticism. Pius XII is called “rigid.” He gets zero credit for encouraging the liturgical movement which led to Vatican II's Constitution on the Liturgy. And, once again, he is attacked for not speaking out against the Nazis, a criticism that overlooks the careful analysis of recent Jewish scholars such as William D. Rubinstein (The Myth of Rescue), who argue that doing so wouldn't have saved any more Jews than the Vatican already saved and might well have made things worse.

Then there's how John Paul II is treated. Though a significant player at Vatican II, he doesn't really appear until three quarters of the way into the documentary. And then most of the discussion centers on his postconciliar role in Poland and his efforts to wrestle his native land free from Communism. George Weigel, one of the few articulate and orthodox Catholic laymen interviewed (Janet Smith is another), does give a superb assessment of John Paul II's contribution. Indeed, Wiegel's summary of Vatican II is perhaps one of film's best parts; too bad it comes at the very end.

We hear nothing of John Paul II's ongoing efforts to implement the council — nothing about, for instance, his issuance of the revised Code of Canon Law, one of the original things that put John XXIII on to the idea of an ecumenical council in the first place. There's nothing about the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nor about how the Holy Father has tried to steer the Church between a Traditionalist rejection of the council on the one hand and a radical distortion of it by dissenters on the other. What we do get is largely critics of John Paul II bad-mouthing him as a traitor to the council. Yes, Janet Smith champions him as a “Pope of the council,” as does Weigel. But their sound-bites get lost beneath the denunciations of Hans Kung, Andrew Greeley and Richard McBrien. According to McBrien, John Paul II may have followed the “letter of Vatican II,” but he missed its “spirit.” Or, if “he's caught it, he's decided it was harmful to the Church.”

We could go on cataloging the film's specific sins. But perhaps the main problem with Reflections on Vatican II is that it treats Catholic orthodoxy as just one more opinion to be placed side-by- side with many dissenting viewpoints. What's more, the dissenters actually get more airtime — not necessarily to file their grievances — but at least to put their agenda-driven spin on the council and frame the discussion.

Despite its virtues, the flaws of the documentary are so massive and pervasive that this critic gives it two “thumbs down” for all but the most informed and critical Catholic viewers.

Mark Brumley writes from San Francisco.