When Vatican II Becomes Ancient History

COMMENTARY: Younger Catholics may be tempted to ignore debates over the proper interpretation of the Council, but they risk missing the treasures that have been brought forth.

Second Vatican Council: Cardinals leaving St. Peter's Basilica.
Second Vatican Council: Cardinals leaving St. Peter's Basilica. (photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain )

Editor's Note: This article is part of the Register’s symposium on Vatican II at 60.

In the world of academia one can still find scholars working on the Wirkungsgeschichte (history of how texts have been interpreted) of Vatican II. There is the Bologna school of interpretation and the John Paul II-Benedict XVI school of interpretation, also called the “Communio” interpretation, and there is the traditionalist interpretation, to name merely the big three positions.

The traditionalist interpretation and the Bologna interpretation have a lot in common — they both read Vatican II as a revolutionary moment in Church history — but while one group applauds the revolution, the other group is counter-revolutionary. Meanwhile, the Communio approach tends to “read down” the more revolutionary interpretations of Vatican II from either side, instead interpreting the Council with the assumption that those drafting the documents were not intending to dismiss nearly two millennia of theological teaching.

But the finer distinctions between these interpretations or “readings” of the Council, made in seminary classes and theological articles, rarely reach the non-academics in the pews. All these Catholic believers know is how their experience of church life has changed over the decades after Vatican II and how changes were justified by this or that cleric in their parish and social circles.

For many Catholics, after sixty years, there is no “before and after Vatican II,” there is only the Church of the post-conciliar era. For Millennials and younger there is not even a Church of John Paul II; Vatican II might as well be ancient history to them. 

As a sociological generalization my observations are that anyone over 60 will have mixed feelings about Vatican II, some positive, some negative. People in the 40-60 age group tend to fall into two groups — those who view the Church through the prism of sacramental theology (implicitly Communio types) and those who view it through the prism of management theory. Members of new ecclesial movements are most at home in the first group. They have a spirituality that is very Eucharistic and Christocentric and hence sacramental. 

The second group tends to be dominated by “professional Catholics,” such as principals of Catholic schools and CEOs of Catholic hospitals and welfare agencies. These types work at the intersection of the Church and the organs of secular government and are often motivated by a desire to please the organs of secular government, to obtain more government funding, and generally to increase the social standing of the Church. They want the Church to be governed by the standards of the corporate world. They are not opposed to sacraments, but they see them as something like social milestone markers, not the very flesh and blood that builds the body of Christ, without which there would be no Church. For these types, Vatican II is something like the meeting where it was decided that the structures of the Church needed to be brought into line with modern corporate and democratic institutions, where Latin was rejected because it was a “dead language” and where people finally realized that it does not matter what Christian denomination or faith tradition one follows. The important thing is to be kind and inclusive. 

Finally, those younger than 40 who still practice the faith veer in a traditionalist direction. For many millennials and Gen Zers, Vatican II is distinctively something in the past, a blip on the Church’s timeline with little significance today. They regard academic debates about this or that section of a Conciliar document as a practice about as useful as polishing cutlery on the Titanic. All they want to know is what is the Truth? What is the Tradition? How did sexual perverts get appointed to high ecclesial positions? Which cardinals are part of the lavender mafia? How do we get rid of them? Whose idea was it to put pagan wooden idols on altars inside the Vatican? And, for many, at the top of their list is, what’s wrong with the Latin Mass? How can something that sustained the faith of Catholics for centuries and for which men and women in Elizabethan England were martyred suddenly be something bad? The less complex the narrative to explain all of this, the more likely it is to gain traction.

In an era of cancel culture the temptation for younger Catholics is to simply “cancel” Vatican II since the consensus they hook into is that everything began to go pear-shaped in 1960. A Communio-style response is that the problems began much earlier, sometime in the late fourteenth century, but they did not come to a head until the “perfect storm” that was the decade of the 1960s.

To the young Catholics who are the future of the Church, my response is that every generation is born into a cosmic battle. At some moments in history one or the other side seems to be winning. In our time the side of Christ is not faring well. This means we need more saints. 

But if you want to be a part of the solution then you also need to familiarize yourself with the excellent (“non-revolutionary”) theological work undertaken in the past sixty years, above all the work of Joseph Ratzinger, who did more than anyone else to correct the revolutionary interpretations. 

Even if you think that debates over interpretations of Conciliar documents are a boring side-show, ignoring the authentic reception of the Council will close you off to the beautiful theological treasures it brought forward. Treasures like the theological anthropology and moral theology of St. John Paul II, especially his catechesis on human love; the fundamental theology of Ratzinger/Benedict XVI; and the spirituality of Luigi Giussani. Brilliant resources for engaging the modern world in full fidelity to our faith, which we will need in the effort ahead.

Tracey Rowland holds the St.John Paul II Chair of Theology at the University of Notre Dame (Australia). She is the author of the forthcoming book Handing on the Memoria Ecclesiae: Five Decades of Communio Scholarship, to be published by Word on Fire in 2023.