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

Noted Philosopher Germain Grisez Discusses the Council After 50 Years

(photo: Courtesy of Germain Grisez)

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 Depression 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.


What role did the media play in the work and reception of the Council?

The media had very little impact on Vatican I, but by Vatican II, you have a full-blown media blast. There was no planning or provision for dealing with this at the Vatican. The secular media took tremendous interest in the Council and did a tremendous amount to interpret what the Council was about. Bishops participating in the Council got more information from outside (from the media) than from inside the Council. This was a very unfortunate situation. There was no provision for the Council to communicate within itself.

The way the media covered the Council built up a lot of push behind the things the secular media wanted. The things they were for received a tremendous amount of publicity and consideration. They were cheered on.

The secular media, in general, have been, increasingly in my lifetime, not in the business of reporting, but in promoting. They’re trying to bring about change in the world, rather than being concerned primarily with accuracy. I think they were very skillful in “playing up” people. Promoting the “right” ideas became a very big thing, and if you disagreed with what they considered the “right” ideas, you didn’t get much coverage; the media didn’t mention it. If you had a good argument, you never heard anyone repeat it. Even the telling of the story was a falsification, because the arguments were over-simplified and important points left out.


It’s traditional now to speak of the two visions of the Council: the hermeneutic of rupture (those who imagine an ongoing “spirit” of the Council) and a hermeneutic of continuity (those who see the Council in harmony with the tradition of the Church). Which was it?

There was an attempt on the part of John XXIII and a great part of the Council to innovate. They wanted to do something new. At the same time, they didn’t mean to get away from the roots. I don’t think we can talk about it as a natural development, because it’s not natural. It’s creative. We’re dealing with the work of the Holy Spirit, which is always creative, but we’re also dealing with human work, and human beings are creative.


What were some of the innovations?

If you’re familiar with the documents of Vatican II, you’ll see how much of it is already in [the works of] Pius XII. There are things in Vatican II that are sort of begun but not carried through, such as the idea of personal vocation — that everybody is called to a complete life of good deeds — prepared [by God] in advance for them to walk. The idea is present in Vatican II in a couple of places, but it was really tremendously developed by John Paul II, who has this idea of: When we make choices and commitments, there’s a kind of creativity of choice-making.

The idea of the universal call to holiness is there explicitly in Vatican II, but the implications of that [were not] drawn out very well. They didn’t draw the conclusion that needed to be drawn: It’s not what God calls you to do which decides how holy you are, but how well you respond to God’s call. In other words, you don’t have a better or worse calling depending upon what you’re called to do, but you can respond well or not so well to what God’s calling you to do. Holiness is, in a sense, a generalized and universalized calling.

Consider a woman who got married and had two kids, but the guy she married was a drunk who beat her up. She has to leave him and goes to work to help bring up her kids. That woman is capable of living a much holier life than any priest or bishop or pope, so her vocation could be the opportunity for great holiness.

That gives you a totally different picture of Christian life. It isn’t what you’re called to do that matters, but your willingness to respond to God’s calling. And everyone is given sufficient grace to respond well. There isn’t any preferential option to be holy.

That wipes out what we’ve been told from the Fathers of the Church right down to Vatican II, which is that celibacy for the kingdom of heaven is a better vocation. It’s not a better vocation. The universal call to holiness, when it’s taken seriously, is a development [of our understanding of vocation].

That doesn’t mean that celibacy and virginity for the Kingdom’s sake don’t have certain goods that other vocations don’t have. It has certain very important goods. It allows people to have a closer friendship with Jesus. It allows them to concentrate on the things of the Lord. It provides a very important service, because concentrating on the things of the Lord can help people save their souls, which is a better thing to do for people. It gives a very perspicuous witness. So celibacy for the Kingdom has very special aspects that other vocations don’t have, but it isn’t a holier life. That’s a mistake that started out with Origen and Tertullian and is carried through in Augustine and Aquinas. So Vatican II does have some very important things that are not fully developed.

Vatican II also suggests an eschatology of the kingdom of God. The Kingdom is a real, human community. St. Thomas defines the Kingdom as the blessed participating in the Beatific Vision, but that’s not what Jesus says in the New Testament. Jesus says, “Repent, the kingdom of God is at hand,” and he starts giving out free samples: People are cured; people are freed. So we have a real, human community we’re looking for. We have a life to live together.


What kind of life, and how is that a departure from the way we understood it in the past?

We’re going to have a universe that is great and beautiful and enjoyable. Look at Revelation: this Kingdom coming down from God. It’s not up in heaven. It’s down here. And God lives among his people. He’s there. The people can see him. So we have the Beatific Vision. But that’s not all we get: We have this wonderful, real world to live in: the New Jerusalem.

In Gaudium et Spes, it says, “For after we have obeyed the Lord, and in his Spirit nurtured on earth the values of human dignity, brotherhood and freedom, and indeed all the good fruits of our nature and enterprise, we will find them again, but freed of stain, burnished and transfigured” (39).

We’re to look forward to everything human, which is going to be available to us in some kind of transformed and perfected way. Resurrection is not just the resurrection of the body, but of the world. Vatican II suggests this, but doesn’t develop it.


What was the result of not developing that more fully?

Since Vatican II, the kingdom of God is hardly mentioned, and no one is talking about what you need to do to get into the Kingdom.

What do we have instead? A kind of almost-universalism: Everyone gets into heaven. If everyone gets into the Kingdom, you don’t have to think about it anymore. The general assumption is no one’s going to hell. When do you remember any pope or bishop talking about hell as a real thing?

So there’s a problem: Vatican II left hell out. Since then, hell has been omitted from preaching and teaching, even by John Paul II. John XXIII wanted to present the faith in an attractive way, and that was understood to mean that we don’t want to talk about these bad or discouraging things.

After Vatican II, you get people like [Hans Urs] von Balthasar saying, “We have to hope that everyone is saved.” Well, we have to hope that each individual is saved, but you don’t have to hope that everybody — collectively — is going to be saved, because you don’t deal with people collectively. You don’t love them collectively. When Jesus says many people will want to enter the Kingdom but won’t be able to, we have to believe he was telling the truth.

Thomas L. McDonald writes about Catholicism,

history and technology at Wonderful Things.