Responding to Ross Douthat’s ‘Easy Catholicism’

COMMENTARY: By applying a materialist instead of personal analysis of Vatican II, it may be the Catholic columnist who’s committing the error of making Catholic realities too simplistic.

Second Vatican Council in session.
Second Vatican Council in session. (photo: Catholic Press / Wiikimedia Commons)

In his Nov. 4 New York Times opinion piece, Catholic pundit Ross Douthat argues that the reforms of Vatican II have proven disastrous for the Church over the past 60 years, in large part because the council made “Catholicism easier.” A shift of emphasis away from “stringent rules,” he argues, ushered in a “flexibility” to living out the Catholic faith, which undermined the social cohesion that had held Catholic belief and practice together for so long. 

This may not have been the Council’s intention, but this has been its effect, which in turn has set the Church on a post-conciliar trajectory of decline, at least in the West. It is according to these results that the Council must be judged, and on this basis Douthat declares that Vatican II is a failure, insufficiently “equip[ping] the church for the challenges of late modernity.”

Certainly there’s no denying that these decades following the Council have been marked by struggle, confusion and decline in the Church. Yet in considering the merits of Douthat’s judgment of Vatican II, it’s worth considering how a similar results-based evaluation might have held up in its consideration of other ecumenical councils, such as the First Council of Nicaea. 

In fact, the Arian crisis that had prompted the calling of the council in 325 A.D. was even more pronounced in the decades that followed Nicaea. The Church was filled with Arian bishops after a council that had denounced Arianism, and the great defender of Christ’s divinity, St. Athanasius, was exiled five separate times for his beliefs. If Douthat were writing his Times column in, say, 357 A.D., it’s hard to see him not concluding that Nicaea had failed. 

Of course, Nicaea was not a failure, something we are reminded of at Mass when we say the Creed it produced. What instead seems faulty is an evaluation of a council’s merits based strictly on the results that follow. This approach relies upon a simplistic, insufficient vision of history. Ironically, by relying upon this kind of criteria in his evaluation of Vatican II, Douthat seems to be committing his own form of “easy Catholicism,” giving up a more robust Catholic way of struggling to understand the truth of history for a lax and worldly account.

Broadly sketched, there are two visions of history. The first is the materialist vision, whereby the effects of events are inevitable and immediate. Humanity doesn’t really have a freedom to respond to an event, because its effects are both immediate and inevitable. This is not merely a Marxist vision of history, but is also at the heart of the classical liberal tradition as well: The immediate effect is what matters in determining if an event is true or not. Douthat’s interpretation of Vatican II falls, generally, in this camp: This event happened, the effects have been detrimental, therefore the cause — Vatican II — must be rejected as disastrous.

The Catholic vision of history does not discount material causes, but factors them in to a vision of history that is ultimately focused on the response of human freedom. This is the vision of figures such as St John Paul II, Romano Guardini, and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Persons, not events, have a primacy because freedom has a primacy, which is exercised in history over the course of many generations of Catholics struggling to accept and live out the truth. The truth does not become a dead word after it is spoken. Rather, in the Catholic vision of history, the Word is living and active (Hebrews 4:12). It requires a response by each individual to accept the truth and to live by it. 

In this vision of history, decline or progress, reform or recalcitrance, is a choice that is lived out in each person. This vision would evaluate Vatican II by looking at the lives and witness of those Catholics who actually strive to live out what it teaches — not by simplistically looking at sociological data and statistical trends. 

This is the fundamental error of Douthat’s interpretation: It presumes too little of human freedom, and looks instead at the Council as something to scapegoat and blame. The truth is more challenging: What’s wrong with the Church? Me; you; we refuse to be saints. 

And, sadly, it is here that Douthat misses perhaps the greatest teaching of Vatican II that contradicts a vision of an easy Catholicism: the Council’s insistence on the universal call to holiness

The Council Fathers saw what Douthat sees: the myriad of mediating institutions and social groups in modern times that make a claim on human meaning. But unlike Douthat and others who romanticize the external forms of unity of the pre-conciliar Church, there was a growing awareness at the time that these practices and customs alone would not be sufficient to maintain the integrity of the Church in the face of modern secularism. In fact, as pre-conciliar assessments, such as Joseph Ratzinger’s 1958 The New Heathens and the Church, indicate, these external forms were merely covering up what was already an internal crisis of faith. 

There was only one solution: to be a saint. This is the great call of the Council. A saint’s life embodies the fact that Jesus is the Truth in the midst of a plurality of competing and limited claims to meaning. To be a saint is something every Catholic — lay, cleric, religious — is expected to seek. It is not about a Catholicism that is “easy’” or “hard,” but about a faith that allows Christ to be the truth. Rather than rely upon external forms, the Council urged all Christians to seek out poverty, chastity, and obedience and allow the centrality of Christ to be expressed with the spirit of martyrdom (Lumen Gentium 42). 

Here is the judgment not only Douthat, but you and I often refuse: The Council has failed not because of itself as an event; it has failed because you and I have refused the challenge it proposes: to be Christ to the world in the radicalness of holiness. We have refused the greatness of our humanity, and our intra-ecclesial battles are proof that we have lost the hope that we can be saints a long time ago.

Douthat, then, is right about the decline, the dashed hopes of Catholicism in the last 60 years in the West. We have failed. And the discussions as to why are important, most especially in a charitable and critical engagement with the implementation of the Council. The lack of willingness to do so, the almost violent rejection of the Council in both forms of traditionalism and progressivism, indicates that we do not really believe the truth can win out. 

To blame an event or another person is far easier than looking within. It is easier to fall into the materialist rather than the Christian vision of history. But if Douthat wants a true Catholicism, one that can be buttressed against the real problems both within and without the Church, then it begins not in the easy Catholicism he condemns, nor in the easy vision of history he espouses. It begins within: the Kingdom of God — Jesus Christ — is at hand, repent and believe in the Gospel. 

Father Harrison Ayre is a priest of the Diocese of Victoria, currently serving as pastor of St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Nanaimo, British Columbia. A doctoral candidate in theology, he is the author of Mysterion: The Revelatory Power of the Sacramental Worldview and the co-host of the Clerically Speaking podcast.