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Will the Real Vatican II Please Stand Up?

A friend of mine once remarked about a mutual priest-friend of ours that he had gone so far to the right that he was now on the left. Both extremes are often united in their assertion that the Second Vatican Council created a brand-new Church. The far left maintains happily that the Council or “the spirit” of the Council brought down any semblance of a hierarchical Church, leaving in its wake a new liturgy and the elimination of any serious transcendental dimension to Catholic worship. The far right agrees unhappily, pointing to the destruction of ecclesiastical discipline and citing liturgical horror stories.

I have said for years that the content of the conciliar documents may well rival the third secret of Fatima for speculation and inscrutability. The only way to uncover the genuine teachings of the Council is to highlight texts that show, beyond a shadow of a doubt, no traditional practice or doctrine is contradicted—on the contrary, tradition is reinforced in convincing ways. Allow me to serve as your tour guide through the real Second Vatican Council, taking the documents in order.

Sacrosanctum Concilium—The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy

The liturgy is no doubt the most neuralgic area of post-conciliar life. It is here that we are treated to some of the most egregious examples of ecclesial mythology. One of the first myths foisted on the laity is that Vatican II taught that Christ is as present in the liturgical assembly as he is in the eucharistic species. Here’s what the Council Fathers really said:

“To accomplish so great a work, Christ is always present in his Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations. He is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of his minister, ‘the same now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross,’ but especially under the eucharistic species” (SC 7, emphasis mine).

We are also led to believe that the Council did away with devotions. That flies in the face of the following: “Popular devotions of the Christian people are to be highly commended, provided they accord with the laws and norms of the Church, above all when they are ordered by the Apostolic See” (13).

Those who think that it’s cool to personalize the liturgy or that incessant change is the goal of liturgical life would be well advised to heed the Council’s words: “No other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority. . . . Finally, there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing” (22, 23).

And, of course, we all know that the reforms of Vatican II did away with the Latin Mass. Strangely enough, nobody informed the bishops: “The use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites” (36). And some priests will be amazed to learn that “in accordance with the centuries-old tradition of the Latin rite, the Latin language is to be retained by clerics in the divine office” (101). It would seem that a real Vatican II Catholic ought to foster the use of Latin, eh?

And what kind of music should form the backbone of Catholic worship? The answer is quite direct: “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (116).

Inter Mirifica—Decree on the Means of Social Communication

Conflicts have occurred between diocesan bishops and the editors of their newspapers over the nature of the Catholic press, with not a few journalists arguing for autonomy based on an alleged right to “freedom of the press.” These individuals seem to forget that the latter is concerned with freedom from governmental interference and not guidance from the publisher.

Snide remarks about Catholic media outlets being reduced to “house organs” notwithstanding, the Council certainly envisioned our commitment to establishing Catholic media as tools of evangelization:

“A good press should be fostered. To instill a fully Christian spirit into readers, a truly Catholic press should be set up and encouraged. Such a press—whether immediately fostered and directed by ecclesiastical authorities or by Catholic laymen—should be edited with the clear purpose of forming, supporting, and advancing public opinion in accord with natural law and Catholic teaching and precepts” (IM 14). No room here for a pluralism that leaves the faithful confused about the doctrines of the Church.

Lumen Gentium—Dogmatic Constitution on the Church

Catholics have been instructed by some theologians not to take too seriously the “institutional” Church, inasmuch as Vatican II did away with the Catholic hierarchical model. The conciliar bishops, in contrast, seem to provide a rather strenuous theological basis for a traditional ecclesiology:

“The society structured with hierarchical organs and the Mystical Body of Christ are not to be considered as two realities, nor are the visible assembly and the spiritual community, nor the earthly Church and the Church enriched with heavenly things; rather they form one complex reality which coalesces from a divine and a human element. For this reason, by no weak analogy, it is compared to the mystery of the incarnate Word” (LG 8). So much for “we are Church” if that means independence from the Church’s divinely established order.

In recent years, the ordained priesthood has suffered a major identity crisis at the hands of those who assert that there is no real difference between priests and lay people. The Council Fathers thought otherwise, declaring that while “the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are . . . interrelated . . . they differ from one another in essence and not only in degree” (10, emphasis mine).

For 25 years now Pope John Paul II has been decrying the clericalization of the laity and the laicization of the clergy, a theme picked up by synods of bishops as well. His concern about priests running for public office and lay people administering sacraments, let alone the confused state of religious life, is grounded in the clear teaching of the Council:

“What specifically characterizes the laity is their secular nature. . . . By their state in life, religious give splendid and striking testimony that the world cannot be transformed and offered to God without the spirit of the beatitudes. But the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven” (31).

Finally, we often hear about the legitimacy of so-called “loyal dissent,” especially when dealing with matters not defined absolutely. But the bishops of the Council did not envision such a possibility:

“This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, [and] the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking” (25, emphasis mine).

If it is true that the vast majority of our current problems in the Church are liturgical and ecclesiological, it should be clear to any objective reader that the root of those difficulties cannot be laid at the doorstep of the Council.

Unitatis Redintegratio—Decree on Ecumenism

We saw earlier that the bishops at Vatican II, in their Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, did not hesitate to give “the whole truth and nothing but the truth” about who the Church is and how she sees herself. An equally forceful declaration finds its way into their Decree on Ecumenism:

“For it is only through Christ’s Catholic Church, which is ‘the all-embracing means of salvation,’ that they can benefit fully from the means of salvation. We believe that our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant to the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head, in order to establish the one Body of Christ on earth to which all should be fully incorporated who belong in any way to the people of God” (UR 3).

Still, some would-be ecumenists encourage us to “just be nice.” In other words, don’t deal with any substantive issues, especially those that are theologically divisive. While the Council urged Catholics to present Catholic doctrine so that it is comprehensible to non-Catholics and in as palatable a manner as possible, it stressed that “it is, of course, essential that the doctrine should be clearly presented in its entirety” (emphasis mine). Then comes this outright condemnation of a less-than-forthright approach to ecumenical dialogue: “Nothing is so foreign to the spirit of ecumenism as a false irenicism in which the purity of Catholic doctrine suffers loss and its genuine and certain meaning is clouded” (11).

Perfectae Caritatis—Decree on the Renewal of Religious Life

It is obvious even to outsiders that religious life has been in meltdown since the Council. Abandoning traditional apostolates, moving out of religious houses, eschewing authority systems, discarding identifiable garb—all these have contributed to this downward spiral. Leaders of this new vision of religious life regularly appeal to Vatican II for justification for their campaign.

Not a single item of such an agenda can find even a hint of support in the Decree on the Renewal of Religious Life; in fact, the document contains contrary teachings on all scores. Let us allow just one issue—the habit—to stand as an example of how far off their program is from what the bishops had in mind: “The religious habit, an outward mark of consecration to God, should be simple and modest, poor and at the same time becoming” (PC 17).

Optatam Totius—Decree on the Training of Priests

As a post-conciliar seminarian (having entered just three years after the Council), I was stunned to find not a single course, class, homily, retreat, or day of recollection devoted to helping us live celibate chastity. Indeed, the only time celibacy was mentioned even indirectly was when one of our instructors informed us, “By the time you guys are ordained, you’ll be able to get married.”

Twenty-five years after my ordination, that prediction has not panned out, but we have certainly reaped the tragic harvest of non-education—even counter-education—in this sensitive area. What if the Council had been heeded? With feet planted firmly in reality, the bishops mandated:

“Students who follow the venerable tradition of celibacy according to the holy and fixed laws of their own rite are to be educated to this state with great care. For renouncing thereby the companionship of marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (cf. Matt. 19:12), they embrace the Lord with an undivided love altogether befitting the new covenant, bear witness to the resurrection of the world to come (cf. Luke 20:36), and obtain a most suitable aid for the continual exercise of that perfect charity whereby they can become all things to all men in their priestly ministry. Let them deeply realize how gratefully that state ought to be received, not, indeed, only as commanded by ecclesiastical law, but as a precious gift of God for which they should humbly pray” (OT 10).

In yet another passage the Council Fathers’ realism comes across loud and clear: “They [seminarians] are to be warned of the dangers that threaten their chastity especially in present-day society. Aided by suitable safeguards, both divine and human, let them learn to integrate their renunciation of marriage in such a way that they may suffer in their lives and work not only no harm from celibacy but rather acquire a deeper mastery of soul and body and a fuller maturity, and more perfectly receive the blessedness spoken of in the Gospel” (10).

When seminaries eliminated rules of almost every kind—from mandatory daily Mass and divine office to bans on dating—they did so in opposition to conciliar directives like the following: “The discipline of seminary life is to be reckoned not only as a strong safeguard of community life and of charity but also as a necessary part of the total whole training formation. For thereby self-mastery is acquired, solid personal maturity is promoted, and the other dispositions of mind are developed which very greatly aid the ordered and fruitful activity of the Church” (11).

When a priest of the Latin rite can honestly say—as can most young priests today—that he never studied a word of Latin in the seminary, one is forced to ask what happened to this directive: “Moreover, they [future priests] are to acquire a knowledge of Latin which will enable them to understand and make use of the sources of so many sciences and of the documents of the Church” (13). The document goes on to offer other equally challenging standards in the liberal arts and in the specifically philosophical and theological sciences.

Gravissimum Educationis—Declaration on Christian Education

Some Catholics argue that Catholic schools are a relic of “ghetto Catholicism,” while some parents maintain that they can legitimately homeschool their children when Catholic schools are available. Both camps bump up against an eminently clear and unnuanced norm: “The Council also reminds Catholic parents of the duty of entrusting their children to Catholic schools wherever and whenever it is possible and of supporting these schools to the best of their ability and of cooperating with them for the education of their children” (GE 8).

Thus official Church teaching is a two-edged sword for those who think Catholic schools are passé as well as for those who suppose that parents as primary educators means only educators. The document also makes clear that the maintenance of Catholic schools is the responsibility of every Catholic and not merely that of parents who send their children to them.

Supporters of the concept of school vouchers should take heart in this strong conciliar statement: “Parents who have the primary and inalienable right and duty to educate their children must enjoy true liberty in their choice of schools. Consequently, the public power, which has the obligation to protect and defend the rights of citizens, must see to it, in its concern for distributive justice, that public subsidies are paid out in such a way that parents are truly free to choose according to their conscience the schools they want for their children” (6).

Dei Verbum—Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation

It has been noted that the primary divide among Christians today is not between Protestant and Catholic but between those who believe in revealed religion and those who do not. That cleavage cuts across denominational lines so that there are those, Catholic in name, who act as if revelation is a work in progress (as distinct from John Cardinal Newman’s notion of development of doctrine). They hold for a kind of magisterium of academia.

Conversely, the Council holds out a tripartite model: “It is clear, therefore, that sacred Tradition, sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church [that is, the bishops in union with the pope], in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others. Working together, each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit, they all contribute effectively to the salvation of souls” (DV 10).

Along with the above problem comes a hermeneutic of suspicion that what Scripture seems to teach it really doesn’t, especially if it flies in the face of “modern” concerns or positions. The Council Fathers took aim at this mentality, particularly when it undermines the historicity of the Gospels:

“Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold, that the four Gospels just named, whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation until the day he was taken up into heaven (cf. Acts 1:1–2)” (19, emphasis mine). So much for silly and irresponsible theories that suggest, for example, that Jesus didn’t really multiply the loaves and fishes but simply encouraged the multitude to share what they had!

Apostolicam Actuositatem—Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People

Vatican II is often dubbed “the Council of the laity,” and with good reason. Its calls for lay involvement would have gladdened the heart of someone like Cardinal Newman who, when asked what he thought was the role of the laity in the Church, responded, “We’d look rather silly without them, wouldn’t we?” But just what did the Council have in mind?

First of all, it is important to get the terminology straight. Not once does a conciliar document refer to any work of the laity as a ministry. That word is reserved exclusively and pointedly for the tasks entrusted to the ordained. Lay activity is consistently spoken of as an apostolate.

“The Christian vocation by its very nature is also a vocation to the apostolate. No part of the structure of a living body is merely passive but has a share in the functions as well as life of the body: so too in the Body of Christ, which is the Church, ‘the whole body . . . in keeping with the proper activity of each part, derives its increase from its own internal development’ (Eph. 4:16)” (AA 2).

The laity exercise apostolates, not ministries. This point has been driven home by the synod on the laity and John Paul’s subsequent apostolic exhortation, Christifideles Laici. This is not being picayune, for words matter in life (for example, the difference between tenant and owner even though both indicate someone who inhabits a dwelling) and especially in theology. One need think only of the ruckus caused over homoousios and homoioousios at the Council of Nicea—literally one iota of a difference!

What fields of endeavor are apt for the lay apostolate? An exhausting but not exhaustive list is provided: “All those things which make up the temporal order, namely, the good things of life and the prosperity of the family, culture, economic matters, the arts and professions, the laws of the political community, international relations, and other matters of this kind, as well as their development and progress, not only aid in the attainment of man’s ultimate goal but also possess their own intrinsic value” (7). One is struck by the conspicuous absence here of liturgical and other “churchy” roles.

Dignitatis Humanae—Declaration on Religious Liberty

One of the most contentious documents for some “traditionalists” is the Decree on Religious Liberty. Yet in this decree one finds another clear statement about the uniqueness of the Catholic Church, as well as the necessity for all men to conform themselves to the truth about God. Thus, while “liberals” crow about the document’s (rightful) emphasis on the inviolability of conscience and “conservatives” decry what they see as the fostering of religious indifferentism, we find the following assertions, which sound an awful lot like the immemorial position of the Church on these matters:

“The Council professes its belief that God himself has made known to mankind the way in which men are to serve him, and thus be saved in Christ and come to blessedness. We believe that this one true religion subsists in the Catholic and apostolic Church, to which the Lord Jesus committed the duty of spreading it abroad among all men. Thus he spoke to the apostles: ‘Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have enjoined upon you’ (Matt. 28:19–20). For their part, all men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and his Church, and to embrace the truth they come to know, and to hold fast to it” (DH 1).

Nearly 35 years later, the Holy See deemed it necessary to repeat these truth claims in Dominus Iesus, which rankled many would-be ecumenists and those who had become de facto religious indifferentists.

Ad Gentes Divinitus—Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity

In grammar school, when we were taught to be “mission-minded,” it was taken as a given of Catholic life. That truth was powerfully reinforced at Vatican II: “The pilgrim Church is missionary by her very nature” (GD 2). That truth became so lost in post-conciliar revisionism that, 25 years later, Pope John Paul II had to devote an entire encyclical (Redemptoris Missio) to what had been previously considered a truism.

In the same way, the Council Fathers presented the constant teaching of the Church in regard to access to salvation: “Those men cannot be saved who, though aware that God through Jesus Christ founded the Church as something necessary, still do not wish to enter into it or to persevere in it” (7).

Its restatement 25 years later was considered an outrage by many inside and outside the Church. At the same time, the Council reminded all of the fact that conversion to Christ and his Church must always be a free and personal decision: “By means of this missionary activity God is fully glorified, provided that men fully and consciously accept his work of salvation, which he has accomplished in Christ” (7).

Stake Your Claim

I was in fourth grade when Pope John XXIII announced the calling of the Council. In fifth grade, Sister Regina Rose suggested we all keep a daily scrapbook of news items related to what she predicted would be a momentous event in the life of the Church. She was right—as the sisters usually were.

I kept to that project with great diligence. Regrettably, that scrapbook got lost in a family move, but the Council was indeed a moment of great grace for the Church and has always formed my vision of the Church and the priesthood.

It is nothing but diabolical that the teachings of this Council should be hijacked by “left” or by “right”—and it is high time for the record to be set straight. So, if you:

  • prefer a more extensive use of Latin in the sacred liturgy,
  • are upset by liturgical experiments or practices such as lay distribution of Holy Communion or Communion in the hand,
  • hold that God wants every human being to be a Catholic,
  • can’t understand why religious wear lay attire,
  • treasure the charism of priestly celibacy,
  • think our seminaries have been derailed,
  • find it difficult to comprehend the lack of support for Catholic schools,
  • accept the teaching authority of the pope and bishops in union with him,
  • accept the Gospel portraits of Jesus as real and historical,
  • prefer to see laity representing Christ in the world rather than in the sanctuary,
  • believe it is your responsibility to evangelize the world for Christ,

then rejoice, and stake your claim as a true disciple of the Second Vatican Council. And make sure to tell others who hold opposing positions to find another Church council to appeal to for their private projects and agendas.

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