Why the New Century Won't Bring Vatican III

It is now 35 years since the Second Vatican Council ended. Young Catholics, those under the age of 35, were not even born then, let alone lived through the council and the turbulent times that followed. Yet they, along with those of us who well remember those times, have heard many calls for Vatican III, a council to continue what are considered the progressive reforms launched in the 1960s.

How often one has heard it said that Pope John Paul II, who may well become the first pope since Gregory to be spontaneously given the title “the Great”, has smothered what is called “the spirit of Vatican II”. This spirit, we are told, must be allowed to breathe again through another council, which will finish the unfinished business of Vatican II.

After Vatican I closed in 1870, John Henry Cardinal Newman often said that there would be another council, in spite of the fact that the definition of papal infallibility appeared to many to make another council redundant. (Throughout Church history, most councils had been convened to combat heresies; Vatican I saw to it that these could henceforth be settled directly by the pope.)

Cardinal Newman, of course, was an expert on the early councils of the Church. He was also far too astute and historically minded a commentator to fall for linear predictions. Rather, he saw that the definition of papal infallibility would require placing papal primacy within a larger teaching about the Church — as of course Vatican II did in the most important of its documents, the Constitution on the Church.

Ultramontanes keen on linear predictions would have said that the definition, which disappointed them by what it did not say, would have to be filled out and strengthened by the pope or another council. Ultra-montanism, an emphasis on Church centralization under strong papal authority, did in practice continue to dominate the Church for the next century, culminating in the pontificate of Pius XII. And no doubt many people supposed then that the next pope would give himself the title Pius XIII to continue the tradition.

In fact, of course, nothing of the sort happened, but an aged Italian, who was seen as a caretaker pope, suddenly changed the course of the Church. Liberal Catholics were delighted by the subsequent election of Paul VI, who had been one of the foremost cardinals at the council and on the side of reform. And then, to their horror, towards the end of his pontificate Paul began to show shockingly conservative, even reactionary, tendencies.

Paul, like the great French Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac — who if anyone was the theological architect of the council — was horrified by the way he felt the council had been hijacked by extreme liberals. Still, it was felt to be just a temporary setback. And the election of the smiling John Paul I suggested that business would now be back to usual.

Papal Preferences

I well remember the letter that was sent to The Times (of London) and other international newspapers by Hans Kung and other leading liberal theologians describing the kind of pope they wanted: he should be non-Italian, preferably not from the first world, aware of social issues, comparatively young and able to relate to the young, an intellectual and theologically-minded pope. The late Bishop Butler immediately wrote to say that such a pope would be a “superpope” and not at all the kind of collegial pope envisaged by the Constitution on the Church.

Of course, we now know that Kung and his colleagues got what they asked for, although not quite what they wanted, and that Butler was proved right. For Pope John Paul II has indeed turned out to be the super-pope who helped bring down the communist empire and who has now led the Church into the new millennium.

The Church's new movements and communities will be to Vatican II what the Jesuits were to Trent.

I also remember a newspaper article by Butler after the council in which he said that the council could only be really fully implemented when the old generation of pre-Vatican II Catholics had passed on. It was taken for granted that the future lay with the young, progressive bishops enthusiastic about the council. I think that Butler was obviously right that there was a whole generation that was more or less opposed to the council and more or less reluctant to implement it. But I think he was wrong in assuming a sort of linear progress, as in fact the Vatican II generation were not necessarily at all the generation that would absorb the real meaning of Vatican II.

The trouble was that they, like their elders, took a negative rather than a positive view of the council. For them, what was important about the council was that the Church decisively turned its back on the pre-Vatican II Church. It was as though the whole history of the Church since the time of the New Testament was just a sort of dark age till the new dawn of Vatican II. It was, you might say, a very “Protestant” view of Church history, except that for Protestants the new dawn was in the 16th century. In practice, it meant that almost anything in the pre-Vatican II Church had to be got rid of and everything emphasised at Vatican II had to be so highlighted as to eclipse everything else.

If people used to say their rosary at Mass, then rosaries were to be torn up; if people used to attend devotions like Benediction or Exposition in the past, then from now on the only kind of service that was permitted was to be the Mass; if the Church had been juridical in the past, from now on it was to be freewheeling. The list could be easily lengthened. And, of course, it was a quite understandable reaction. It was, in fact, a reaction against the Tridentine Church — just as the Council of Trent itself was a reaction to the Protestant Reformation. And the Counter Reformation, for all its glories and achievements, likewise suffered from being a reaction. If the Protestants called for a vernacular liturgy and emphasised the Bible, the priesthood of all the baptised and personal faith as against the objectivity of the sacraments, then the Catholic Church had to do the diametrically opposite.

Christocentric Commitment

Vatican II aimed to redress the balance, not only for ecumenical reasons but also to restore what was deficient or lacking in the life of the Church from its tradition. In the event, as might have been predicted, the reaction against the Tridentine Church produced a new imbalance. And instead of the greatest achievement of Vatican II, the Constitution on the Church being appreciated in all its fullness as a recovery of the scriptural and patristic understanding of the mystical and sacramental nature of the Church, only specific parts of the constitution — those on the laity and the college of bishops — were highlighted.

More seriously, the council's commitment to ecumenism, dialogue with other religions and the world, and to justice and peace (in contrast to the old isolationism and intransigence) led to these unquestionably important issues going right to the top of the agenda, even dislodging what the Church is all about: the person of Jesus Christ.

A turning point in the history of the Church was the startling confession some years ago by Cardinal Suenens, who had criticised Paul VI for his failure to implement collegiality sufficiently, that he and others had been far too concerned with Church structures and not enough with faith in Christ. Significantly, it was one of the new so-called movements in the Church — the charismatic renewal — which had led to this change of heart. I also think that the recent humiliating rejection of the call for another council by Cardinal Martini, a well-known critic of the new movements, will also prove to be a turning point.

I am convinced that Bishop Butler was wrong: it was not just the pre-Vatican II generation that had to die off, it was also that generation which was too close to get a proper perspective of it within the whole history of the Church. Not long ago I argued that the new movements and communities within the Church, a few of which pre-date the council, would prove to be to Vatican II what the Jesuits and the other Counter Reformation orders were to Trent.

In particular, the striking way in which priests, religious and the laity live and work together as the baptised members of the Body of Christ with their varying charisms and functions is the concrete embodiment of the first two deeply traditional, deeply radical chapters of the Constitution on the Church. Before Vatican I we had a clericalised Church; since Vatican II there has been a concerted drive to have a laicised Church. But the Church is neither clerical nor laity; it is the community of the Spirit-filled baptised.

That is the other omission in Butler's thesis, for the Person who will implement Vatican II will be the Holy Spirit. And to return to linear predictions, I am quite sure that the Church is neither going back in a straight line to where it was before the council, nor proceeding in a straight line in the opposite direction as the progressivists fondly imagine.

There is no future for the Lefevbrists. But, equally, our ageing '60s liberals are beginning to look increasingly like poor Castro and his fellow revolutionaries in Cuba, where the young aren't interested in a revolution they never knew, but want to go to Miami and buy jeans.

Nor are our young Catholics interested in “the spirit” of a council they never knew; if they're interested in anything, it's more likely to be in finding out about the Catholic faith.

Father Ker teaches theology at Oxford University.Condensed, with permission, from The Catholic Herald, London.