Is Now the Time to Turn the Page on Vatican II Squabbles?

COMMENTARY: In the Jubilee Year of Mercy, Catholics can both embrace the strengths of Vatican II and recognize its weaknesses, while moving forward to effectively evangelize the modern world.

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On Pope Francis’ initiative, Catholics have embarked on a Jubilee Year of Mercy. To those of us standing at the front lines of the culture wars, this feels like a strange and ill-fitting garment. We are girding up for what may be a bitterly fought presidential election, and the Church herself has likewise been embroiled in heated controversy over this past year.

Shall we write this Year of Mercy off, then, as further evidence we have an out-of-touch Vatican, signally lacking in real insight into the tenor of modern times?

Perhaps not. Of course, we shouldn’t pretend the controversies of the present day — to save marriage, protect the unborn and defend the freedom of the Church — are inconsequential. On the contrary, they are of great importance. It may be, however, that people preparing for battle are especially in need of reminders concerning the value of mercy.

In the first place, we should keep striving to discern, prudently, where a softer approach may allow us to find common ground with cultural or ideological enemies. In the second place, we should keep in mind that God alone is the true wellspring of mercy, which we all sorely need.

Interestingly, a similar message was recently delivered by Ross Douthat, who delivered the annual Erasmus Lecture for First Things. In his address, Douthat suggested it may be time to turn a page on the battles of the Second Vatican Council so we can look ahead to more verdant fields.

Douthat’s provocative speech was addressed especially to, in his words, “conservative Catholics.” This group (as he understands it) consists of faithful Catholics who are loyal to the Church and have applied themselves vigorously to the project of helping Vatican II succeed.

What would “success” mean? In broad terms, a “successful” Vatican II would “equip the Church to evangelize the modern world,” while still maintaining and building on Catholic Tradition. In other words, it would put the Church in a position to minister effectively to her people, while also offering a robust and relevant response to the errors of the modern world.

Douthat’s “conservative Catholics” work from the presumption that the teachings of the Second Vatican Council put us in a position to succeed in this mission — so long as these teachings are correctly interpreted. In the years immediately following the Council, however, certain individuals misinterpreted the Council’s meaning, and those missteps were magnified enormously by a pernicious media influence, along with an eagerness on the part of many institutions to adopt a less countercultural position with respect to the modern world.

Happily, under the pontificates of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, it looked as though erroneous and heretical interpretations of Vatican II might be losing vitality. And this bolstered hopeful predictions that, despite the chaos of the ’70s and the bruising scandals of the ’80s and ’90s, the post-conciliar Church might yet recover her bearings and realize the Council’s original hopes.

Defined in this way, “conservative Catholics” occupy a kind of golden mean between two other, more disgruntled, groups. On one side are traditionalists who have long maintained Vatican II was mostly a failure and a mistake. In their view, the Second Vatican Council too fully severed the modern Church from her tradition and history, leaving her maimed, ineffective and mute in the face of modern problems. On the other side, some liberal factions clearly feel the Council didn’t do enough to modernize the Church. Sometimes citing “the spirit of Vatican II” as a justification, they continue pushing for a more complete rapprochement with modernity, often calling for further action from above (up to and including Vatican III) or simply taking the steps they feel to be warranted in anticipation of ex-post-facto justification from the top.

In a formal sense, Douthat’s “conservatives” are surely in the right. They understand Vatican II was a legitimate Council that cannot simply be repudiated, and they wish to think and move with the Church. Thus, they accept the Council and try to use it as a springboard for engaging the modern world. At the same time, they endeavor to interpret Vatican II in light of the Church’s long tradition, hoping to bring the Gospel to new generations. In form, this approach seems impeccable.

Pragmatically speaking, though, it might be time to admit to some cracks. Vatican II did not, of course, reject the Church’s long tradition. On the ground, though, it did precipitate a significant rupture, which has never fully healed. Many modern Catholics have little to no appreciation of anything that happened in the Church between Christ’s own lifetime and the Second Vatican Council. Time-honored devotions (such as Rosary prayers) went forgotten by whole generations of Catholics, and catechesis is in serious disrepair in many parts of the world.

In the United States, Catholic institutions have declined significantly, both in their influence and in their overall fidelity to the Church. Parish schools are closing all across the country, while many Catholic hospitals and charities are virtually indistinguishable from their secular counterparts. Most alarming of all, young Catholics are leaving the faith in large numbers.

We needn’t choose, however, between banishing traditionalists to dark corners or rehabilitating Marcel Lefebvre. The Second Vatican Council is far enough behind us now that we should be able to say: It accomplished some positive things but also precipitated some damaging ruptures; and, in a broader sense, it clearly didn’t leave the Church adequately prepared to respond to the challenges of modernity.

Traditionalists — as people who have held to that longer tradition with particular love and ardor — have some insights and gifts worth seeking. We should try to forgive their characteristic prickliness (while also, of course, checking schismatic tendencies where they arise) in the interests of allowing those goods to enrich the Church.

For liberals, of course, the characteristic temptation is not schism, but, rather, heresy. In their eagerness to engage the world, they too often capitulate to the world and end up reinforcing her aberrant norms. Nevertheless, the Holy Father has pushed us into thinking more carefully about the benefits of entering into conversations that people in the world are actually having.

People in our own country and across the world are intensely interested in questions of social justice, of what we owe to one another and the planet itself and of how we can meaningfully preserve traditions and communities in the face of relentless movement towards top-down technocratic government. These questions are all daunting, but they are also topics on which Catholics should have a great deal to say. Too often, people of questionable fidelity to the Church’s teachings are the primary participants in such ongoing discussions. We need to work harder to change that.

And, of course, there is the mass shift in sexual morality. The hard reality — which Vatican II seems not to have anticipated — is that the sexual revolution has made a Catholic lifestyle intensely countercultural. So long as our culture is so firmly in the grips of sexual appetite, evangelization (even of our own children) will remain difficult, no matter what we say about climate change or social justice. This is no reason to give up. It’s reason to try harder. We know that God’s mercy is the only true balm for the sorrow of the world, including sexual sin. Knowing that our case is hard to hear in this age, we should endeavor to make it from as many different angles as possible.

In tumultuous times, it is easy to get in the habit of seeing enemies on every side. In the spirit of the Year of Mercy, let us endeavor once more to find common ground with those who might join with us in telling the world the wonderful news of God’s grace.

Rachel Lu, Ph.D., teaches philosophy at the

University of St. Thomas in

St. Paul, Minnesota.