Did the Second Vatican Council Accomplish What It Set Out to Do?

Noted Philosopher Germain Grisez Discusses the Council After 50 Years: First of Two Parts

Germain Grisez is one of America’s most respected Catholic philosophers. For 30 years, until 2009, he held the Most Rev. Harry J. Flynn Professor of Christian Ethics chair at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md. He began his career teaching ethics at Georgetown in 1959. It was during his time there that he began to explore the philosophical and theological aspects of the contraception issue. In the process, he changed from someone who doubted that contraception was always wrong to someone who developed a stronger argument for why the ban should be retained. His 1965 book Contraception and the Natural Law was an important part of the debate over contraception, and he assisted Father John Ford when Pope Paul VI called on him to serve on the Pontifical Commission for Population, Family and Birthrate prior to the drafting of the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth). Their work provided a counterpoint to those who suggested that birth control was not an intrinsic evil and the choice to use it should left to couples. Since then, Grisez has continued to write and teach, including a course on Vatican II. His magnum opus, The Way of the Lord Jesus Christ, can be found both online and in print. He discussed the Second Vatican Council 50 years later with the Register.


What was the state of the Church going into the Council?

The agenda of Vatican II was to try to get the Church better equipped and organized and operating to deal with the world. That was not only John XXIII’s view of the Council, but the view of those who did the preparation and those from the central European bloc who came in to take charge.

The background of this was the modernist controversy at the beginning of the 20th century, and Pius X had dealt with that. After that, there was a great deal of rather heavy-handed discipline imposed upon the rest of the Church, and theologians in particular. There was this kind of disciplinary straitjacket and a huge amount of resentment of that among theologians and philosophers and Scripture scholars all around the world.

There was a great amount of work being circulated that couldn’t be published because it wouldn’t have been allowed to be published. The majority of serious scholars were more or less unhappy with the discipline situation, and these scholars were not particularly far out or anything. So, for 50 years, everyone active in philosophy, theology and Scripture had come up in this straightjacket, and they resented it.

Pope John XXIII relaxed the heavy-handed discipline. He let it be known that he didn’t want to be imposing any discipline on the theologians, perhaps too much.


Why “too much”?

I think John XXIII made some mistakes. The biggest was one of judgment. I think he thought the health of the Church was much better than it actually was, but he wasn’t the only one who thought that.

He was very optimistic about the state of the Church. The Church, alas, was not in that great of shape. There was a great deal of corruption among pastors and in religious institutes. A lot of people were failing to live up to what they were pretending to be.

Through this period of strict discipline, the wraps were being kept on things. Problems didn’t get spotted, and, therefore, they weren’t dealt with. There was a lot of unrest. There was a movement from the oppression of the ’30s to the hard years of World War II to the prosperity of the post-war years. That succession had a tremendous effect on secular opinion and attitudes.

There was a great worldwide rejection of authority. The change in the 1960s was tremendous, and it was present in the Church. When the previous tightness was loosened all of a sudden, people just said “whoopee” and went to it [secular culture]. It was really incredible. This has been going on from time immemorial. You can analogize this to what [often] happens whenever children leave home and go off to school.


You point out in your lectures that the Council’s task was sorting what is essential from what is accidental in the faith and the hope of St. John XXIII that discerning between the two would help usher the Church into modernity with her dogmas inviolate. Did this happen?

On the whole, the Council delivered what John XXIII was asking for. Vatican II does put things in a fresh way. It’s more scripturally rich than previous Church teachings. It certainly takes into account the long tradition of theology. It’s not unduly influenced by what theologians were thinking from 1900 to 1965, but it was heavily influenced by what the Church Fathers were thinking.

If the documents are simply looked at for what they are and what they say, rather than being cherry-picked for things that will support an intransigent traditionalism on the one hand, or a spirit of the Council on the other, they are a great step forward and a great help to better understanding the faith.


The Council was, in some sense, a struggle between the more conservative voices in the Curia and the more radical central European bloc. Shortly after the Council, the Europeans themselves split between factions dedicated to continuing the “spirit” of the Council (theologians like Hans Kung, Yves Congar, Karl Rahner and others) and those who were resistant to continual innovation (such as Joseph Ratzinger, Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar). How did these tensions play out in post-Conciliar theology?

If we look at the volume of publications, and the opinions of the majority of the laity, the picture of the Council is of this emergence of the kind of triumphant central European bloc carrying everything with them. They did get dominance in publications, journals and higher studies in theology. In general, they were even dominant in the seminaries into the 1980s.

The main thing in theology was to make an altogether new departure. Theology is an attempt to understand the faith: to get hold of it and see how it all hangs together. That’s the classical conception of theology, and John Paul II, for example, did a large amount of work unpacking the Council.

By and large, however, academic theologians began to look at theology in a very different way. Their work was an attempt to connect secular scholarship with the thinking and teaching of the Church. Their idea was: “We’re the people who are going to do the mediating. We have one foot in the modern world and one in the Church, and we’re going to play these things off each other and mediate between the two.”

That’s a very different idea of theology. When you have this idea of bringing these two sides together, there’s going to be a certain amount of compromising on both sides. A great deal of it was ineffective compromise.

Thomas L. McDonald writes about Catholicism,

history and technology at Wonderful Things (ThomasLMcDonald.wordpress.com).