In Church’s Dreams, Vatican II Never Happened

The Second Vatican Council was a revolutionary event that had a profound impact on Catholics who lived through it and indirectly on their children who have hardly heard about it. It's still the green dragon lurking in the Sistine Chapel even if the church's leaders can't quite see it.

The model of unchanging Catholicism in response to the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the French Revolution assumed that the church would not, should not, could not change. Suddenly the laity and lower clergy (i.e., the parish priests) experienced changes in liturgy, in Scripture interpretation, in theories of religious liberty, in attitudes towards other Christians and Jews, in trust of the modern world. The structures : patterns of behavior and supporting motivations : that had supported the church for several centuries collapsed. The Council fathers may not have foreseen this collapse; but they did vote in overwhelming numbers for the changes. Hence the documents themselves and the actions of the participants (presumably in Catholic theology guided by the Holy Spirit) were responsible for this destabilization.

It was, as it seemed then, a new spring for the church : now flexible, joyful and confidently open to the world. However, this ferment frightened some of the church's leaders who lost their nerve and responded the only way they knew how: repression. They issued new orders without any serious attempt to explain the reasons for them. They silenced some important theologians. They appointed reactionary bishops, men who were not always the brightest or most humane. They investigated seminaries. Their mood changed from optimism to grim warnings and solemn denunciations. The church, for a few years the bright light on the mountaintop, had once again become an embattled fortress afraid of the modern world.

The leaders confidently expected the laity would do what they were told. They could not have been more wrong, nor their strategy more counterproductive. The laity and their parish priests for the most part simply ignored these leaders and went about creating new structures in which Catholics would affiliate with the church on their own terms. Resignations from priestly celibacy and the collapse of priestly vocations began only after the desperate attempts by church leaders to slow down change turned the mood of the council years sour.

The present crisis of the credibility of church leadership arose precisely from mistaken attempts by these church leaders to reassert the old leadership style. The problem then is not the Second Vatican Council; it is the restorationist attempts to undo it. To be fair, no one realized how potentially frail was the Catholic church of the '50s, both in America and around the world. A push from a handful of Council documents and the whole house of cards collapsed.

For many leaders who had known the seeming serenity of the pre-council church, it was unthinkable that the structures had disappeared overnight and with them their own credibility. So they fell back on these structures to prevent what had already occurred. The restorationist style continues in Rome today, though it should be clear that it doesn't work. Despite John Paul II's efforts to reassert the church's traditional sexual ethic, acceptance of it has declined everywhere. Within the circle of church leaders it is necessary to pretend that this is not so. Or if there is any truth to it, Benedict XVI's proper response should be yet tougher repression, and even more vigorous restoration.

Almost no one is willing to admit even to themselves that the leadership strategy since 1970 has caused most of the problems in today's church, including the decline of vocations, the decline of church attendance and the alienation of the young. Vatican II remains the dragon in the midst of these church leaders, a dragon they cannot see and they wish would go away. Unfortunately these church leaders have not learned, will not learn, that you cannot repeal an ecumenical council and cancel its effects!

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