There are few topics in the Church today as provocative as the Second Vatican Council. Fifty years after its conclusion, many continue to discuss Vatican II’s intention and meaning. This is not entirely unprecedented. It is typical to have a period of inquiry and debate in the century following a Council. As one bishop told me, “It takes several decades to even scratch the surface of a Council, let alone adequately understand and apply its teachings.” That being said, there is little doubt from whatever your perspective that the implementation of Vatican II was less than ideal.
I immediately recognized this when I first read the Council documents as a seminarian. There seemed such a wide discrepancy between what was taught by the Council Fathers and what was promoted at the grassroots level. What I read in the documents was beautiful, theological, and orthodox. What I witnessed done in “the spirit of Vatican II,” however, was quite to the contrary. This was especially true in regards to the Sacred Liturgy. My queries led me on what would become a ten-year study of the Council during which I read every document promulgated by Vatican II as well as numerous schemas, commentaries, journals, and letters written by people present at the sessions. I wanted to understand what happened, and why there was and continues to be a contrast between the Council’s teachings and the general interpretation of these teachings. I found my answer in an unexpected source.
I was reading Henri de Lubac’s outstanding little book, A Brief Catechesis on Nature and Grace, when I stumbled across the appendices. There under Appendix C I spotted an essay entitled “The Council and the Para-Council.” From the moment I read the first paragraph, I knew I had discovered something vital for understanding what happened after Vatican II:
Just as the Second Vatican Council received from a number of theologians’ instructions about various points of the task it should assume, under the pain of “disappointing the world,” so too the “post-conciliar” Church was immediately and from all sides assailed with summons to get in step, not with what the Council had actually said, but with what it should have said . . . This is the phenomenon which we should like to designate as the “para-Council” . . . Among many people, whether partisans or opponents or simply docile followers (all of whom were equally fooled), this para-Council, which often deserved the name “anti-Council,” has been mistaken for the true Council; and whatever in the latter’s work did not correspond with the former’s program has more than once been neglected or misrepresented.
De Lubac goes on to explain the far-reaching effects of this para-Council: “What the para-Council and its main activists wanted and demanded was a mutation [of the Council]: a difference not of degree, but of nature.”
Lubac’s distinction between the Council and the para-Council is helpful in two crucial ways. Firstly, it provides a lucid paradigm by which to understand the tension among current factions within the Church. On the one hand, we have the so-called “liberal” Catholics who, under the auspices of the para-Council, encourage predominantly modernist and secular mentalities. There is a strong emphasis on the “pastoral” dimension of ministry while downplaying the intellectual and theological dimensions. Liturgy, from the para-Council view, is an anthropocentric enterprise where the gratification of the ego dictates the music, preaching, architecture, and celebration of the Eucharist. Social justice is reduced to a simple activism, which St. Teresa of Kolkata so often warned against. The Catholic identity of our schools and universities is repressed, leaving behind a shell of their former distinctiveness. As a result of these mindsets and practices, millions of Catholics have left the Church as she seemingly fades into the background of society, just another sentimental institution among others in the humdrum of civilization.
On the other hand, many “conservative” or “traditional” Catholics are in all-out rebellion against Vatican II, or more appropriately, what is falsely peddled as Vatican II. Witnessing the deterioration of solemnity, piety, catechesis, and beauty due to the para-Council, there is a temptation to “circle the wagons” and return to the tried and true infrastructures pre-Vatican II Catholicism. This regression is rooted in an admirable desire, even if its zeal is misplaced. Recognizing the steadfast doctrines, traditions, and practices of Trent, they hope to revive the past glory of the Church so she can reassert her unique presence in the world. This is verified by the growing number of young men and women who are opting for the Traditional Latin liturgy, seeing it in opposition to the liturgy of Vatican II.
Both of these competing poles are reactions to the para-Council, and each equally misunderstands the Second Vatican Council. The one side is told Vatican II opened the doors to a “new age” and “modern” theology that encourages a dismantling of the tired traditions and close-minded beliefs of the “pre-Vatican II” Church. The other is told Vatican II suppressed Latin and ad orientem, disavowed orthodox theology, and paved the way for the perversion of our religion. None of these claims are correct.
Appreciating this fact leads to the second benefit of de Lubac’s distinction: it makes us aware that we are in desperate need of reclaiming Vatican II. The Second Vatican Council is a gift to the Church just as Trent, Nicaea, Chalcedon, and Jerusalem were before it. When I observe the damage dealt by the para-Council, in both its liberal and conservative manifestations, I am heartbroken. We spend so much energy debating and promoting things that are non-issues for the Council. Furthermore, most Catholics—including many persons in leadership positions within parishes and Catholic institutions—have never read the documents of the Second Vatican Council, thus remaining uninformed of its true intentions. As a result, the most essential and exciting aspects of Vatican II are given little attention: a rehabilitation of patristic and biblical scholarship in Catholic theology, an increased co-operation and openness to the traditions of the Eastern Rites, a deeper knowledge of liturgical mysticism and sacredness, an evangelical zeal to convert the modern world, a renewal of sacred art and music, a revitalization of the ancient practice of adult faith formation, a profound consideration of the marriage vocation and its role in society, etc.
Soon enough, there will be no one alive who actually attended the Second Vatican Council. As such, it will fall on the shoulders of younger generations, especially millennials, to implement the vision inspired by the Holy Spirit at Vatican II. Throughout the Church’s two-thousand year history, the fruition of a Council has been a responsibility entrusted to only a few select generations. To think that we are members of such a time and place in Church history is daunting. Yet it is simultaneously invigorating. What is more, I am inspired daily in my personal ministry to find among the millennial and post-millennial generation of Catholics an increasing number of men and women longing to learn the true meaning of the Council. They understand that being Catholic transcends the political categories of “liberal” and “conservative.” In the words of Bishop Barron, they are a generation of Catholics who are “both progressive and conservative, both stubbornly alive and stubbornly traditional.” Let us pray that this generation will take up the mantle of evangelization so as to reclaim Vatican II. Only then can the full sum of its graces be shared with the world.