In general response to comments from the past few days, I thought I’d summarize my position on Vatican II and the liturgy with more clarity. This first piece will strike some as negative, and it doesn’t yet really touch on liturgy. But I hope it helps frame my thinking and assessment of the Church in terms of history and its saints.
My reading of the conciliar documents, and church history at the time before, during and after Trent (1545-1563) is that Vatican II is now, and will be seen in the future as a council with far more impact than Trent. It’s not about a comparison of theology as much as it is the range and depth of influence in the whole of Christian life.
Trent was a reaction to cultural circumstances of the 1500’s. It seems to me mostly about the printing press and the Reformation. Rome dawdled on issues of authority, communication, and most of all, credibility in the decades leading up to those mid-century meetings.
I think there were some positive aspects coming out of that 16th century council, including a unified liturgy that nourished many Catholics for centuries. But it took three whole generations (1545-1614) for that to begin to take effect. Its fatal flaw was the modernism of stasis–the illusion that things had always been the same and had to remain the same.
Even before the internet, communications were vastly improved for Vatican II, and church reform more quickly took hold. The immediate impact of the councils have no comparison, and even traditionalists concede it was too much too fast. That alone suggests that Trent paled in comparison to the 20th century council.
My own sense is that Vatican II was decades overdue, and the Church’s lack of action had already cost it dearly on its home continent racked by a continuing war (1914-1989) which was piled atop a century of cultural upheaval and no small measure of violence. The institution sided mainly with Europe’s aristocracy, and largely left abandoned the vast majority of believers in their daily struggles with industrialization, new philosophies, colonialism, and other experiences that disrupted not only the life they knew, but in many ways, worsened their overall condition of life. (Can you imagine the 19th century popes telling Euro-royalty to offer it up? Neither can I.) That Catholicism didn’t lose its total grip beyond the 1% is probably due to the Holy Spirit working through saintly witness of women religious and lay people who ministered to the needs of the poor. And we know from so many biographies that so many of these saints suffered privations at the hands of those who should have been their closest allies and supporters.
Consider that just a few centuries after Christ, evangelization by the apostles and companions of Jesus had produced a culture that gave rise to people we revere as doctors of the Church in formerly pagan lands of present-day Algeria (Augustine), Germany (Ambrose of Milan), the Balkan Peninsula (Jerome), and even Rome (Gregory the Great). And those saints are just for starters. What has five centuries of Christian colonialism given in Latin America, Africa, and Asia? Have the great doctors, mystics, and teachers been produced, but just ignored by Europeans? Or has the great Tridentine evangelization impulse been more empty and unsupported–or even suppressed?–rather than openly fruitful? My own sense is to lean to the side of suppression, especially when I consider that one of the most religious countries in the world has only two canonized saints.
So when I think about Trent, I think “not hardly enough” in terms of what it added to the faith. And for the many plusses of the Tridentine Era (1570-1962) I wonder if many of its saints and thinkers enriched Catholicism in spite of, rather than because of its preceding council.
My own grades: Trent, C-minus; Vatican I, F; Vatican II B. More later, especially on liturgy.