Good Pope John and His Wonderful Idea

This month is the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII’s “wonderful idea” that caused the Roman Catholic Church almost to self-destruct.

I was reminded of this milestone in the history of twentieth-century folly when I found myself at a social gathering where another guest wanted us to listen to an ABC radio program on the contribution to the Second Vatican Council of Yves Congar, a Dominican friar and theologian who, having devoted much of his life to complaining that papal aggrandisement and the Vatican bureaucracy had hijacked the Church, finished up accepting a cardinal’s hat. He was old and sick by then and perhaps he thought he was owed some consolation.

The program was typical middlebrow ABC stuff, not as unashamedly tilted as some, though there was no doubt that we were expected to admire Congar as a courageous David against a Vatican Goliath. An actor read snatches from Congar’s somewhat waspish Vatican Council diaries, there was a long interview with an American priest who had—rather heroically I should say—edited this thousand-page opus and, to punctuate proceedings, choirs floated in and out singing the kind of polyphony the ABC automatically switches on for anything to do with the Vatican (the kind, incidentally, that the Second Vatican Council helped render redundant).

After sitting through this in an appropriately reverential hush (two of those present drifted into slumber) the company rather somnolently fell to discussing the Council and its legacy. Of the four people present apart from me, two of them Catholic churchgoers, one lapsed but still interested, the fourth undeclared, not one had even the mildest criticism to make of “Vatican II”, beyond sadly shaking their heads and lamenting that the “renewal” of the Church it had been supposed to bring had gone off the rails somewhere, and that what the Council had managed to achieve—this was unspecified—the present regime in the Vatican was trying to undo. There was also some regret that many “young people” had never heard of Vatican II, though the Council is surely not alone among even more recent historical events in not having been heard of by anyone who has been subjected to a secondary education in the last twenty years, certainly in Australia.

The astonishing thing was that none of the evidence in the contemporary Catholic Church of the failure of Pope John’s grandiose dream—the catastrophic statistics of decline in Mass-going and ecclesiastical personnel, the sparsely attended churches, the tedious liturgy—has been allowed to cloud the shining image that most modern Catholics have of Vatican II as an event of enormous benefit to the Church, an unquestioned good. You get the feeling that the average Catholic would as soon deplore the Incarnation as speak ill of the Council and its works. For people of a certain age the Council has been a defining event of their religious lives, of cosmic significance and beyond criticism, and this enthusiasm has been instilled in those who grew up after the 1960s. One sometimes gets the impression that the previous nineteen centuries of Church history pale into insignificance by comparison.

Yet there is an enormous amount to criticise, both in the Council and what it led to and indeed in the fact that it took place at all. For a start, the Council can be blamed for the wholesale destruction of a culture. If Catholics had been a race this would have been called cultural genocide.

But back to the radio program. In the years before the Council, Congar was a very influential theologian in “progressive” Catholic circles, though not viewed di buon occhio in Rome by the Curia, the Vatican bureaucracy (this was almost a statutory requirement for theologians in the middle twentieth century who wished to make their name). Congar’s particular line was that “the people”, the “real” Church as he saw them, had been marginalised by a self-perpetuating hierarchy; they had been deprived of a voice by the encroachment of centralising papal and curial authority. He and others who thought like him were in favour of a council that would overturn the existing order and return the Church to its evangelical simplicity as a series of local “Churches” freed of the yoke of Roman domination, the Church of the catacombs rather than that of Trent.

Yet the evidence indicates that it was not these “people” (Congar later promoted them to “the people of God”) who wanted a council. It was theologians like Congar himself, generally northern European and influenced by the ecclesiology, liturgical notions and biblical analysis of Protestantism. It was also Pope John XXIII, Angelo Roncalli, though for different motives.

“Good” Pope John, who for all the “wonderful love” the toothily grinning Cardinal Gilroy of Sydney, after returning from the Council, never tired of crediting him with, was an autocrat. He seems to have consulted no one before announcing in January 1959 at the start of his pontificate that he had been “inspired” to call a worldwide Council of the Catholic Church. When this wonderful idea met with the objection of various Vatican functionaries that there was no need for one—hitherto no council had been summoned unless there was a crisis in the Church that demanded a response by the whole hierarchy—the Pope refused to listen. In spite of hagiography (he has now been beatified) it is possible to see Pope John as a vain old tinkerer who wanted his name to go down in history and who masked his ambition, consciously or unconsciously, as an inspiration of the Holy Spirit. “He doesn’t realise,” the cardinal who later became his successor as Pope Paul VI is quoted as saying, “what a hornets’ nest he’s stirring up.”

Pope John formally summoned the Second Vatican Council on December 25, 1961. It was, he said, time to open the windows of the Church and let in some fresh air. He was eighty-one and would live another two and a half years, though not until the end of the Council, which ploughed on until December 1965 implementing his vision of aggiornamento—“updating”—to a point where Pope Paul VI decided enough was enough and slammed the windows shut. “Satan’s smoke has made its way into the temple of God,” Pope Paul lamented.

The cardinals who tried to dissuade Pope John were right that there was no particular reason to call a council. The previous one, Vatican I, nearly a century before, had had a specific dogmatic purpose. No dogma was up for definition at Pope John’s council. But for this successor of St Peter aggiornamento was reason enough, and aggiornamento was absolutely in harmony with the spirit of the age. The years after the Second World War were a time of out with the old, in with the new. Just to say you wanted to modernise the Church was sufficient justification for summoning 1200 bishops to Rome from all over the world while you basked in the approval of the secular media for the boldness of your vision. You might have looked like a cunning old contadino about to take his neighbour down over the sale of a cow but no, you were the future, just the chap to bring the Church into the modern world, to clean out the decaying detritus of the past and open those long-shut windows to let the Spirit come billowing in. 

Even had a council of the Church been urgent and necessary, a more astute observer of the signs of the times might have hesitated to call it. He might have sniffed the wind and realised there was a storm blowing up. The first gusts were coming from universities, in which the generation born during and at the end of the Second World War, now enrolled en masse, the first in history to enjoy this privilege, was declaring itself horrified by the old order and the destruction and suffering it had brought about, and turning in droves to Marxism as a remedy. (This was the more charitable explanation; another was that they were spoilt brats, indulged baby-boomers whom postwar prosperity had released from the need to do real work and given the opportunity to play pretend-politics.) But pretend or not, their shouts were being heard, mainly thanks to television, and the older generation, the generation in power, was losing its nerve. The initiative was with youth; a cult of youth was being created, aided and abetted by advertisers anxious to cash in on a new target market that, thanks to generous parents or part-time work or, for non-students, well-paid jobs, had money to spend. In this world of youth, to be middle-aged was not cool. Who cared about the wisdom of experience? Get with it, daddy-oh.

Getting with it meant being in favour of change. To prefer preservation of the status quo was to declare oneself irrelevant to this brave new world. Change was chic; stability and continuity were for fuddy-duddies, or enemies of the people as the hard Left campus revolutionaries would have defined them. The revolutionaries, of course, would not have seen change as chic; they saw it in terms of tearing down hierarchical structures of authority, as violently as necessary, and handing power to people’s collectives; which was more or less what Congar et al advocated in the Church, presumably minus the violence.

But you didn’t have to be as radical as that to favour change over tradition. Conventional bourgeois members of society accepted the zeitgeist view that there was no social institution that would not benefit from being smartened up, rebranded, made relevant. Changes appeared everywhere, political changes, changes in morals, changes in education, social changes. Mrs and Miss became Ms as women went from being wives and daughters to a new social role as exploited members of a victim group, with female students suddenly discovering in the university bookshop that they were feminists and consigning their intimate apparel to the flames. (After the Council, platoons of nuns would come to realise that they too were of the sisterhood, in a sense beyond their vocational membership.) Nothing that had stood the test of time was exempt as all sorts of changes were thought up: currency went decimal, distances and measures went metric, single-sex schools became co-educational. In this climate of neophilia to convoke a council with even a limited mandate for reform was not to invite an orderly spring-cleaning of an ancient and complex institution but to risk dismantling the entire edifice. 

Change was the storm that as the decade went on engulfed the Western world. True, Pope John and his advisers could not gaze into the future to see the storm as it would be in full blast, but a glance at the papers would have warned them there was bumpy weather ahead. Prudence might have counselled the helmsman to keep the barque of Peter on steady as she goes and leave a council till the tempest blew itself out. Or did the Pope indeed hear the clang and clamour for change building up and interpret that as the real world with which the Church had to engage, rather than as a passing aberration? We do not know; but the Council was called, and although it was over well before 1968, that high-water mark of a revolutionary decade, the implementation of its decisions was not, and it was in that latter phase that the heaviest assault was made on the symbols and beliefs of traditional Catholicism.

At the beginning of the 1960s Catholicism was a distinctive and functioning culture. Catholics went to Mass in large numbers, joined lay organisations and attended their own schools staffed by thousands of members of teaching orders. They had holy pictures in their houses and said the rosary, avoided meat on Fridays and queued for confession on Saturdays. How much of this amounted to genuine piety no one will ever know but the visible observance was vast. The Mass was in Latin, most of it sotto voce, and its ritual was strictly prescribed by rubrics. Even those like my grandfather who disapproved of the Catholic Church—and there was much to disapprove of, not least its incorrigible tendency to meddle in politics—would acknowledge that unlike other Christian denominations it was truly universal. “You can go to a Mass anywhere in the world and it’s exactly the same,” I remember a Protestant friend of my parents observing. Well-to-do Australian Catholics could go off on their leisurely sea trips to Europe and feel at home in any Mass congregation, where outside in the street or in hotels and restaurants they were in foreign territory. Of course the Mass was itself in a foreign—a so-called dead—language but you never heard complaints that the faithful couldn’t understand it. Devout Mass-goers followed the silent liturgy at the far end of the church with parallel translations in their missals.

The Second Vatican Council put an end to all that. If it is too much to say that the Council destroyed a culture it certainly set in train the process of its destruction. The principal engine of this was the Council’s introduction of a new rite of the Mass and its authorisation of the vernacular in the liturgy.

If in the hopes of Congar and other theologians the Council was to restore the people of God to their rightful place in the Church, as so often happens when things are done in the name of the people the people were the last to be consulted. Indeed Pope John’s announcement of the Council was received with some surprise by Catholics in the world beyond the Vatican. A friend who was an active layman in his twenties in the 1960s remembers that when the ballyhoo about the Council started he wondered what it was all in aid of. “The Church seemed to be getting on pretty well. It was flourishing. It did its job. Why did they need a Council?” Another Catholic remembers that “the Church seemed healthier than ever”. 

It took ten months to get the Council under way. Its formal opening was on 11 October 1962. The earlier surprise at the announcement of the Council was mild compared with the surprise at the comprehensive effect on Church life the decrees that soon started issuing forth from the Council’s multifarious commissions were going to have. The most noticeable effects at first were on familiar things. Church buildings were systematically vandalised as objects hitherto used in the liturgy—communion rails, pulpits, high altars—were arbitrarily removed in supposed conformity with the Council’s utterances. Though churchgoers with no interest in ecclesiastical detail were presumably indifferent to the changes, there were plenty who were astonished or outraged. Some people were upset on aesthetic grounds—and indeed the cost to the artistic patrimony of the Church of the “reorderings” inspired by the Council’s new liturgical vision has been enormous. There were cases where parishioners were hurt and offended that some piece of liturgical furniture thrown onto a scrapheap or bonfire (this is not an exaggeration, as anyone who witnessed the most acute changes could testify) had been a gift of their family. But having grown up in the old Church where they were taught obedience and an acceptance that “Father knows best” most parishioners who disapproved of the changes shrugged their shoulders and got used to them. Not that the priests carrying out the destruction could have cared less what their parishioners thought, which is much the attitude today when, as occasionally still happens, a church is subject to sacerdotal vandalism—still, incredibly, in the name of Vatican II.

The change that no one could avoid noticing was to the Mass. A new and simplified rite was devised, though it could conceivably have passed unremarked by most people if it had been in Latin, which it was intended to be (the Council had prescribed that Latin was to remain normative as the language of the Church). But permission was also given for the new Mass to be translated into the vernacular, if required. In an era of “renewal” no one was going to pass up the opportunity for yet one more change, with the result that what was intended as an option in certain circumstances was treated as an obligation. The worldwide liturgical unity of a few years earlier was swept away in a Babel of tongues.

Use of the vernacular brought an opportunity for “innovative” clerics to alter and “improve” the admittedly uninspiring texts of the new vernacular Masses with variations of their own taste and device in a way they could never have managed in Latin. Before many years had elapsed a liturgy that had been the same all over the world was barely the same even from church to church in the one town or diocese.

It is perhaps not widely known that in 1980 in the encyclical Dominicae Cenae Pope John Paul II issued an apology to the entire Church for the liturgical abuses that had become prevalent in the course of post-Vatican II “renewal”.

The new Mass, according to Vatican II apologists, “gave Catholics back their Bible”. There had always been biblical readings in the Mass but their scope was limited and whole books of the Bible were not included in the Sunday lectionary. The Mass authorised by the Council “opened up the treasures of Scripture” as enthusiasts put it, by enormously extending the range of readings, introducing so many that they had to be divided into three annual sets or “cycles”. At the risk of disrespect for the efforts of the biblical experts responsible, one questions whether some of the more bloody and vindictive Old Testament passages that found their way into the enlarged lectionary contribute much to anyone’s spiritual nourishment.

Church music was a notable casualty after the Council. The new Mass texts were unadaptable to much of the liturgical music that had been a glory of the Catholic Church for centuries, so that had to go. Henceforth to hear a Mass by Beethoven or Mozart you had to attend a concert. But where Beethoven and Mozart subordinated their music to the words of the Latin Mass, the composers of the embarrassing warbles conceived for the vernacular liturgy were not competent enough to do that and changed supposedly fixed texts of the Mass to fit their unremarkable tunes, all drearily unsingable one way or another, whether brightly cheerful in mood or maudlin and dirge-like. In deference to the cult of youth these works were usually intended to be accompanied not by a fusty old organ but by a guitar, and there were not a few younger clerics who learnt to play this instrument themselves, no doubt to encourage their flock to greater heights of hymnodic expression. Congregations mostly declined to be inspired and stayed mute, as they always had been in Catholic churches and still are (at least the Council did not change this).

Another option turned obligation was the place of the priest when “presiding” at the altar (priests now presided at Mass rather than celebrated it, a change in terminology that reflected a Vatican II theory that the Mass was a joint effort of the whole people of God). For at least a millennium the priest had faced the liturgical east end of the church, standing at the altar with his back to the people. The Council permitted him to move to the far side of the altar and gaze down across it at the congregation like a television cook running up a recipe on his stove or a science lecturer demonstrating an experiment. Though allowed rather than prescribed, this practice too became instantly universal, and the fact that most traditional altars were attached to the east wall and could not be stood behind was not allowed to impede its implementation. Churches throughout the world, from minuscule chapels to ancient cathedrals, had their sanctuaries changed around to accommodate new versus populum altars and many fine altars of the old type were broken up, sometimes to be thrown out, sometimes to be cannibalised for new fittings such as lecterns. The expense must have been prodigious. One does not have to subscribe to the sell-up-all-the-churches-and-give the-proceeds-to-the-poor school of thought to feel that the money might have been better spent. 

Catholic identity depended to a large extent on a belief in Catholic uniqueness. This was further undermined when as a result of deliberations at the Council the Catholic Church found it had a vocation to ecumenism. In practical terms (and it must be remembered that many Council decisions were considerably less radical than their effects when put into practice) this led to a virtual abandonment of the Catholic Church’s insistence that it was the one true Church and only means of salvation. Other Christians, though not “in” the Church as such, were not necessarily out of it either. Regrettably “separated” as they were, all Christians were to be regarded as brothers and sisters in one family. A highly laudable notion, perhaps, but not one calculated to shore up Catholic identity.

Once distinctive “tribal” practices such as Friday abstinence and overnight fasting before Communion were officially dispensed with or mitigated it was becoming clearer that Catholics were no longer “different” from other people at all. They therefore began to act like other people. They intermarried (or cohabited) with non-Catholics, they sent their children to non-Catholic schools, and, like other people they found they had better things to do on Sunday than go to church. In 1960 somewhere between 50 and 60 per cent of Catholics in Australia were weekly Mass-goers (compared with weekly attendance rates of 20 per cent for Presbyterians and Methodists and 12 per cent for Anglicans). In the latest figures to which I have access, compiled in 2006, the percentage of Catholics attending Mass weekly had dropped to 13.8 per cent.

A corollary of the theologians’ emphasis on the people was a diminishment of the importance of the priesthood and the consecrated life. Why would a healthy man or woman take on celibacy and chastity (a sacrifice which must have become particularly acute as society became obsessed with sex) to work as what amounted to a Church-employed social worker or a schoolteacher in religious vows when you could do that sort of job in the lay state and enjoy the pleasures of family life? Priests before the Council had renounced fatherhood and family to be fathers to their people. But since now the people were the Church, did they need fathers any more? Even the sacerdotal function of offering Mass, the privilege and joy of devout priests through the ages, something martyrs had died for, was now presented as “presiding” at a sort of family meal. Well, at a stretch, the laity could do that too, and there were theologians in the Church who argued that they should. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of priests and nuns and brothers left their ministry, many to get married—to each other as often as not—and few new vocations came forward to replace them. Lay people took up the teaching jobs in the schools and the “new catechetics”, drawn substantially from modish secular theories of “child-centred” education, took the place of rigorous and systematic instruction in Catholic doctrine. This ensured that Catholic children left their schools—many of which, shorn of their traditional doctrinal teaching, were henceforth Catholic in name only—with little if any understanding of the faith of their fathers. They were no doubt well instructed in interpersonal relationships but knew nothing of the Four Last Things. 

Today the distinctive Catholic culture of the years before the Council is dead. Some might think that a good thing; those who regarded the old Catholic Church as an obscurantist force for reaction and ignorance will thoroughly approve, and perhaps this month’s anniversary will see Vatican II enthusiasts joining hands with the Dawkinses of the world in rejoicing at the Council’s achievements. But for those who saw merit in that vanished culture, its passing is no cause for celebration. A strong and cohesive religious culture need not be an assertion of superiority to those outside it. It is a support for faith, a means of mutual help, a community of interest in which the stronger encourage the weaker. It is a bulwark against nihilistic materialism and societal and moral disintegration. It is, above all, for the people it embraces a context in which to make sense of life. But since the Second Vatican Council the people, so ostensibly important to Congar and his like, have become unchurched and secularised. The hierarchy he inveighed against but later joined is still in charge but demoralised and divided and under constant secular attack for the sexual transgressions of a minority of clerics, something which may or may not itself have had some connection with Vatican II and the relaxation of clerical discipline and the watering down of spirituality.

Now I know that if there hadn’t been a Second Vatican Council things would not necessarily be any rosier for the Catholic Church today. Perhaps the homogeneous culture of the pre-conciliar Church would have been eroded anyway by a combination of materialism and secularism. Possibly some of the internal changes that the Council mandated would have come about through natural evolution. We shall never know. The point surely is that between the current state of the Catholic Church in the developed world—the Third World is another story—and the reinvigoration and renewal which those who promoted the Council expected it to bring there is a great gulf fixed. It therefore seems not unreasonable to consider the Council a failure.

I know too that many people blame this failure on the alleged interference of Vatican “reactionaries” during and after the Council who wanted to return the Church to the status quo ante; and indeed on Pope Paul VI himself, who, though no reactionary, panicked when he thought the reforms were getting out of hand and sought to turn back the tide. If the Council had been allowed to go as far in its reforms as its progressive members would have wished, it is argued, the promised renewal would have come about. Again, we shall never know, though we can be certain that the Church that would have emerged after such reforms would have been so unlike the Church in which the Council was called as to be almost discontinuous with it.

Then there are those who attribute the destruction of Catholic culture not so much to Vatican II as to the bishops and clergy who, in implementing its dispositions too zealously, did away with the symbols and practices of pre-Vatican II piety. The present Pope takes this line, although one might wonder whether he really believes it. The credibility of the papal office imposes tact in referring to actions of one’s predecessors; but no one can deny that if there had been no Council there would have been nothing to implement.

The curious thing is that even now, when the evidence of its failure is so abundant, the now elderly clerics who saw the Council as a new Pentecost have never revised their opinion and their opinion remains the received opinion in the Church. It has been taught in schools and preached from a thousand pulpits (or lecterns, since pulpits, from which the priest spoke down to the people from on high, sent out the wrong signal about the priest–people relationship and were pulled down or abandoned after the Council). The old Church, it is said, was all wrong, too hierarchical and too authoritarian. It was “triumphalistic”, that is, dismissive of those outside it. But Vatican II changed all that for the better. This view that Vatican II led to nothing but good has been until recently mainstream Catholic orthodoxy. I am sure it was a fundamental truth for the four Catholics at the social gathering I attended.

Fifty years after the Council a new generation of Catholics is questioning this party line on which they were brought up. There are indications that a more realistic assessment of the Council and its effects is being cautiously explored. The old Latin Mass has reappeared in many Churches, all around the world. But Pope John will remain a hero for a few years yet, even if it will be many more years before the Catholic Church recovers from the repercussions of his wonderful idea.

Christopher Akehurst blogs at Argus,

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