The modern history of the Catholic Church has rarely followed the historical arc imagined for it.
In the early 19th century, the Church in France was awash in Jacobin-drawn blood, and the Church throughout Europe was reeling from two papal kidnappings by Napoleon. No one imagined that, in the decades just ahead, Catholicism would flourish in the new United States and that the Church’s mission to sub-Saharan Africa would begin in earnest, led by new religious orders founded in the aftermath of the French Revolution.
In 1870, when Piux IX retreated behind the Leonine Wall and became the “prisoner of the Vatican,” Europe’s great and good thought the papacy a spent force in world affairs. Eight years later, Leo XIII, Pius IX’s successor, elected as an elderly placeholder, redefined the papacy as an office of moral persuasion and gave it new salience during the third-longest reign in recorded history.
When Pius XII died on October 9, 1958, the character and practice of Catholicism seemed fixed, permanent, even immutable. Less than three months later, Pius’s successor, John XXIII, announced his intention to summon a new ecumenical council. That council would, among other things, unleash decades of instability in Catholic life unimaginable in the mid-1950s.
In 1962, as Pope John’s council began its work, the Swiss theologian Hans Küng was riding high; his international bestseller, The Council: Reform and Reunion, seemed poised to define much of Vatican II’s agenda, and the previously obscure Tübingen theology professor was an international media star. Fifty years later, no serious observer of the Catholic scene imagines Hans Küng to be a serious theologian; meanwhile, Küng rants on in the world press, denouncing the world’s bishops as “almost as extreme” as those German generals who swore “an oath of allegiance to Hitler,” comparing St. Peter’s Square and the millions of pilgrims who flock there to a “Potemkin village” replete with “fanatical people,” and telling that nuanced theological organ, Britain’s Guardian, that “the Vatican is no different from the Kremlin,” for “just as Putin as a secret service agent became the head of Russia, so Ratzinger, as head of the Catholic Church’s secret services, became head of the Vatican.” (One may safely assume that the quondam Wunderkind of theological dissent never imagined this outcome when he engineered Joseph Ratzinger’s appointment to the Tübingen faculty shortly after Vatican II concluded.)
At the council’s opening, hopes for a new era of ecumenical comity ran high, and the healing of the breach between the Church of Rome and the Church of England, created by Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth I, seemed close at hand. Fifty years later, the Episcopal bishop of California, Marc Andrus, wrote a letter to the people of his diocese denouncing the new Catholic archbishop of San Francisco, Salvatore Cordileone, for Cordileone’s support of California Proposition 8 and his defense of marriage rightly understood. The Episcopal Church, Andrus bleated, would “make no peace with oppression,” for the “recognition of the . . . rights . . . of lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgendered people . . . [is] as core to our proclamation of the Gospel as our solidarity with . . . the Earth.” (One may safely assume that the archbishop of Canterbury in 1962, Arthur Michael Ramsey, an Anglo-Catholic, could not have imagined a churchman remotely resembling Marc Andrus, a neo-gnostic.)
At the council’s conclusion, the Catholic Church looked forward to a new dialogue with modernity, exemplified by the open, if secular, humanism of an Albert Camus or a Roger Garaudy. Three years later, the upheavals of 1968 ushered in the era of what the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor dubbed “exclusive humanism,” and over the next four decades, much of Western high culture declared itself interested, not in dialogue with Catholicism, but in driving the Catholic Church (and its allegedly oppressive teachings on the nature and ethics of human love) out of public life entirely.
All of which will remind the biblically alert that the first (and revealed) history of the Church, the Acts of the Apostles, ends with an unexpected shipwreck — which becomes, in turn, a surprising opening to a new phase of the Church’s mission.
Things rarely turn out as one might expect in the Una Sancta.
Every ecumenical council in the history of the Catholic Church has been preceded by controversy, conducted in controversy, and followed by controversy. That perhaps helps to explain why there have been just 21 such exercises over two millennia. Thus, in a sense, that controversy would follow Vatican II ought to have been expected. But Vatican II was different in a unique way, and that difference explains something of the character of the discord that followed.
Every other ecumenical council had provided the Church with keys to its authentic interpretation: doctrinal definitions, creeds, legislation, or the anathematizing of heresies. If you want to know what the Nicene Creed taught about the Trinity, you read the Nicene Creed (or recite it, as Catholics do every Sunday). If you want to know what the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon taught about the Incarnation, you ponder Ephesus’s definition of the Virgin Mary as the Theotokos (God-bearer) and Chalcedon’s definition of the two natures in the one divine Person of Christ, who is homoousios (consubstantial) with the Father. If you want to know what Trent taught about the Reformation and about authentic Catholic reform, you study its condemnations and the Catechism it authorized. If you want to know what Vatican I taught about the way the Holy Spirit continues to teach the Church through the teaching office of the papacy, you reflect on its definition of the character (and limits) of papal infallibility.
Vatican II did none of this: It defined no doctrine, condemned no heresies, legislated no new canons for the Church’s law. What Vatican II did do was write 16 documents of divergent doctrinal weight, the interpretation of which set off an ungodly row that lasted for the better part of four decades. That row frequently centered on “Who’s in charge?” issues, which, intersecting with a much-advertised (although rarely defined) “spirit of Vatican II,” produced forms of do-it-yourself Catholicism that would have stunned John XXIII. For while it is true that “Good Pope John” wanted his council to offer the world what he called, in his opening address, the “medicine of mercy, rather than that of severity,” it is also true that, in formally convening the council 50 years ago, on October 11, 1962, Blessed John XXIII also said that “the greatest concern of the Ecumenical Council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously.” And while the pope’s allocution 50 years ago noted that “the substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another,” it is also true that the pope lifted up “the Church’s solicitude to promote and defend the truth,” a notion that seems quaint to many (and dangerous to others) in a post-modern cultural environment in which there may be your truth and my truth, but nothing properly describable as the truth.
Thus the truths that Vatican II taught remained bitterly contested in the 15 years immediately following the Council. Then, in yet another unexpected twist in the story-line, two men of genius, both men of the Council, arose to provide the Church with authoritative keys for properly interpreting the documents of Vatican II. That, history will likely show, was the great task taken on by the unexpected Polish pope, John Paul II (who as a hitherto-obscure young bishop helped develop several council documents), and the even more unexpected Bavarian pope,
Benedict XVI (who as a theologian in his mid-30s played a major role in articulating several of the council’s most important teachings on the nature of the Church as centered on the Gospel).
Although neither Hans Küng nor Marc Andrus (nor the Nuns on the Bus) seems to have gotten the message, both these scholar-popes have taught, correctly, that what was innovative in the teaching of Vatican II must be understood in continuity with, and as a development of, the tradition of the Church. The Catholic Church did not begin on October 11, 1962. And what happened in the four sessions of the council that followed must be pondered and understood in terms of that secure “deposit of faith” of which John XXIII spoke a half-century ago. Thus, what was truly innovative at Vatican II — its repositioning of the Gospel at the center of the Church, understood as a “communion” of disciples; its reform of the Church’s worship; its insistence on the baptismal dignity and vocational responsibility of all Catholics, lay as well as ordained; its openness to new methods in theology; its teaching on religious freedom, on church-and-state, and on the Church’s ongoing debt to Judaism — has to be understood as securely grounded in the Church’s tradition. For without that grounding and that continuity, those welcome innovations would be so much flotsam and jetsam, adrift in the cultural whitewater of post-modernity.
In the retrospect of today’s golden jubilee, however, perhaps we can now see that the council was one dramatic event in a much longer “moment” in Catholic history: a moment that stretches over more than a century and a quarter; a moment in which the Church underwent a deep and difficult process of reform; a moment in which the curtain slowly fell on the form of Catholicism that was born in the 16th-century Counter-Reformation, and the curtain slowly rose on the Catholicism of the Third Millennium — the Catholicism of what John Paul II and Benedict XVI have called the “New Evangelization.”
This Evangelical Catholicism, which you can see and touch wherever the Catholic Church is vibrant and growing today, has nothing to do with the low-church Protestantism of Hans Küng’s revolution-that-never-was; nor does it have anything to do with Marc Andrus’s gnostic Church of Lifestyle Libertinism, or with the Nuns on the Bus and their Church of Obama. Rather, as Vatican II taught in its central theological document, the Constitution on Divine Revelation, the Church is formed by the Gospel and the Church exists for the proclamation of the Gospel. Every Catholic is baptized into a missionary vocation, and every Catholic enters mission territory every day. That sense of evangelical possibility and responsibility, which is the indispensable foundation of the Church’s work for justice and the Church’s works of charity, is the true “spirit of Vatican II” — and a faithful response to perhaps the most important challenge that Blessed John XXIII laid before the Church and the world 50 years ago today:
The great problem confronting the world today after almost 2,000 years remains unchanged. Christ is ever resplendent at the center of history and of life. Men are either with Him and His Church, and then they enjoy light, goodness, order, and peace. Or else they are without Him, or against Him, and deliberately opposed to His Church, and then they give rise to confusion, to bitterness in human relations, and to the constant danger of fratricidal wars. . . .
To mankind, oppressed by so many difficulties, the Church says, as Peter said to the poor who begged for alms from him: “I have neither silver nor gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, rise and walk” (Acts 3.6). . . . [The] Church does not offer to the men of today riches that pass, nor does she promise them merely earthly happiness. But she distributes to them the goods of divine grace which, raising men to the dignity of sons of God, are the most efficacious safeguards and aids toward a more human life. She opens the fountain of her life-giving doctrine, which allows men, enlightened by the light of Christ, to understand well what they really are, what their lofty dignity and their purpose are, and finally, through her children, she spreads everywhere the fullness of Christian charity, than which nothing is more effective in eradicating the seeds of discord, nothing more efficacious in promoting concord, just peace, and brotherly unity of all.
John XXIII concluded his opening address at Vatican II by evoking the image of a council that “rises in the Church like daybreak, a forerunner of most splendid light.” It was, the Pope concluded, “now only dawn.” What would come, after no little travail and darkness, was something unexpected and unimagined by most Catholics 50 years ago: the end of the Counter-Reformation and the emergence of Evangelical Catholicism — a culture-forming counterculture that offers the world friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of the deepest aspirations of the human heart; a Church that is the world’s premier institutional defender of the dignity of the human person and of fundamental human rights.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.
This article was originally published on National Review