On Vatican II

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.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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17 Responses to On Vatican II

  1. Fariba says:

    I agree with your assessment.

  2. Liam says:

    I would only caution that your breezy read of history is very selective and smells of a reactive cognitive bias to that of Trent Was Wunnderful And Fixed Everything crowd. Just on pure historical grounds, that is. Understandable given the scope addressed in this form, but still, if there’s a coming argument to be based on this, it would be very weak for that.

    • Todd says:


      I’m not a historian by trade. A full exploration of Trent would require a book–and that tome isn’t coming from me.

      I do have a sense of dissatisfaction about the Church, mostly from a sense of our missed opportunities and self-imposed poverty. Does that sound familiar, in tone with some people we know?

      • Liam says:

        Regarding Trent: there’s a basic decision whether to focus on Trent as such vs talking about the many facets, faces and fronts of reform in the Church in the transition between the Middle Ages and Modernity. (I will forego the unnecessary chestnut shibboleth debate about Counter-Reformation vs Catholic Reformation and leave that for College 101 courses.) With the benefit of hindsight, things that strike me are the vast globalization of Catholicism, and the vast expansion of apostolates by and to non-clerics and religious orders working very much OUT in the world (think….URSULINES, for one notable example, and the creation of non-cloistered spirituality and education by Jesuits, Carmelites, St Frances de Sales, the Oratory, et cet.) Wow wow wow.

        Other classic blindspot for Amurkans is to consider Europe mostly from its western fringes: the British Isles, France, Spain and Italy. And to ignore other vast areas of Catholicism – within Europe alone, American Catholics have virtually no understanding of the very different era of reform in Catholicism in its largest European country – the vast Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which stretched from the Black to Baltic Seas. The unfolding of reform in that land was very different than, say, in Castile, France or England.

        And it’s easy to forget the dynamism of the Ottomans, not only on land but sea, and how that dramatically complicated things for Christian Europe from Iberia and Italy to the Balkans to the Black Sea littoral. Because we see how that ended up centuries later, we too readily neglect how it looked at the time, and how much it affected other things (like the reform of the Church). ISIS and the Levant today are a piece of cake compared to that.

        I prefer to think of Vatican II as taking up where Trent, as finally “completed” by the sacramental and liturgical revolution of Pope St Pius X just over a century ago, left off. (Technically, it took up where Vatican I – which was suspended rather than fully concluded – left off, but I think of Vatican I as the interruption here). If the Thirty Years War, Age of Revolution and the Seventy-Five Years Wars (1914-89) hadn’t happened as they did, what freedom might have Rome and the bishops felt to continue the work begun at Trent?

        Then again, as someone with historical training, I find that people tend to under-emphasize continuities and focus on discontinuities (part of this is easily explained by Prospect Theory (Kahneman & Tversky, that is; you will tend to focus on addiction on this point, but while there are certainly addiction-pattern dysfunctions in the church, I would not multiply entities unnecessarily here and instead point to a more basic and universal human tendency to fear loss more than hope for gains from change). Hence my perennial concern that people be ever mindful of how, when they work for change, they can end up reinforcing what they wanted to change (not a formula for fatalism, but for humility).

      • Todd says:

        On your first paragraph, I would very much agree. But to take the Jesuits as an example, Ignatius was deeply open to the Holy Spirit, and I suppose I’d ask if he, Francis de Sales and other out-in-the-world orders would have flourished even more if it weren’t for suspicions of Rome. Jesuit efforts in Asia come to mind. The Tridentine Vector was unable to crack the great civilization of China, for example. And Latin America is still considered mission country at a time in its faith history when formerly pagan Europe was producing saints by the dozens.

        As for a Church operating in a freer West, I consider the (relative) era of peace in the 1990’s, and wonder if more openness isn’t a quality of crisis rather than serenity. Otherwise, deep agreement with you, Liam, and thanks for the contributions so far.

      • Liam says:

        I agree that Rome did itself no favors with its disposition of the Chinese Rites controversy in the early 18th century, but then again one should consider the Chinese context: the 18th century saw another in the long series of peaks of Chinese power and cultural ascendence, after the decline of the Ming and ensuing strife in the former part of the cycle (when the Jesuits were making headway). I wonder if the Jesuits would have been been able to maintain their momentum into that part of the cycle, regardless of the favor of Rome for their efforts. It’s not always about us.

  3. FrMichael says:

    Talk about selective history! My goodness, what did the Tridentine era and its aftermath produce? How about some of the recognized Doctors of the Church!

    St. Alphonsus Liguori, St. Frances de Sales, St. Peter Canisius, St. John of the Cross, St. Robert Bellarmine, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Therese of Lisieux, and St. John of Avila.

    Throw in Suarez and Vittoria, the French School like Fr. Olier and St. Vincent de Paul, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Cajetan, John Henry Newman, and the slew of neo-Scholastics of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The invention of catechisms. Less intellectual, how about St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, St. Bernadette, the three shepherd children of Fatima, St. Louis de Montfort, Guadalupe and San Juan Diego, and the standardization and universalization of the Rosary?

    I would say that the early Vatican II era, which is what we are living in, has not produced a universally recognized spiritual writer on par with any of the giants of the Tridentine era– yet. The jury is still out on which, if any, theologians of our era will still be read a century hence.

    As for the evangelization of Asia (outside of the Middle East where indigenous Christianity is holding on by a thread) and Africa, we’re not talking five centuries of sustained evangelization anywhere with the exception of the Philippines. Rather, we are speaking of fewer than two centuries at best. And those evangelization efforts were conducted under governments that were not strongly Catholic, if Catholic at all. I can’t think of a single evangelization effort by the Europeans in Asia (outside of the Philippines) and Africa akin to what Spain did in Latin America where Church and state were closely linked.

    As for Latin America, what we’re looking at is a post-Catholic society. Classic Catholic Latin America basically blew up in the late 19th to mid-20th centuries, depending on locality. A combination of Masonic and Enlightenment-minded leaders, and now the Americanization of Latin America and a massive population increase, have changed the landscape incredibly. And yet the Latin American Church still has a vitality much stronger than the US Church in many ways.

    I’m not saying Trent is the end-all and be-all of all things Catholic. I’m saying there is an incredible amount of good and lasting spiritual fruit from the era.

    • Todd says:

      Again, no argument from me on the spiritual development of the Tridentine Era. But my question is: did they flower in spite of Trent or because of it. You have read of the numerous persecutions of religious, especially women, and their later vindication. I’m definitely not saying Trent is the be-all and end-all. That’s my point. Ditto Europe. If Trent were truly part of a great evangelical impulse, we would have seen far more theologians and saints from Latin America and the Philippines.

      20th century theologians and spiritual writers: Congar, Rahner, R Brown, Donwey, Chittister, Nouwen, Merton, a good handful of Jesuits. And feminists, too, certainly.

      • Liam says:

        Perhaps because most causes for sainthood are sponsored by religious orders, which tend to be headquartered in Europe. And there’s a strong bias towards the literate in non-martyr causes.

        We’ve not fully digested the martyrs of the last century, perhaps the greatest era of martyrs since the Church of The East was hacked away at centuries ago (something the historical churches of Europe are largely ignorant of because it took place in Asia).

  4. Liam says:

    PS: An alien landing on Earth circa 1750 would have found China to be the center of power, culture and wealth (the Indian subcontinent rivalled it for wealth, but was blowing apart politically in the wake of the collapse of the Mughal empire – the 18th century saw near simultaneous collapse of the three great Islamic empires: Turkish, Persian and Indian – and we are still living with the unfolding of that today).

    The Industrial Revolution had not yet started in Britain. It would change much, shall we way.

  5. FrMichael says:

    “If Trent were truly part of a great evangelical impulse, we would have seen far more theologians and saints from Latin America and the Philippines.”

    Well, if conversion of entire societies of millions doesn’t count as evangelization, I’m not sure what the word means. I can’t remember a reading a single saint of the era who complained about the council.

    Even though the canonization process favors religious orders and dioceses with significant financial resources, Mexico dwarfs the United States when it comes to canonized saints and the beatified. And that’s just one Latin American nation.

    As for theologians, there are a lot of them from the era. Because of the chronic clergy shortage, most are pastoral theologians and little of their work has been translated into English, the liberation theologians and St. Anthony Mary Claret aside. But to get their works I had to go to bookstores in Mexico. For example, ever heard of the French priest Felix de Jesus who founded the influential Family of the Cross group of religious congregations between the two world wars?

    And, of course, the creation of the commend-and-control missionary arm of the Roman Church, the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, stems from this era.

    As for China, I would ask which has had more success there? Tridentine era Maryknoll or the Vatican II missionary efforts?

    None of the posters here will likely be around in 2115 to see how your list fares. I would put my money on Raymond Brown being cited by scripture scholars in the 22nd century. Congar by academic specialists on V2. The others? Who knows? Chittister is a creature of her time, priests like myself are doing our best to remove all vestiges of her brand of “spirituality” from parishes. The self-immolation of women religious in the US is helping that process.

    • Todd says:

      The lack of saints and theologians is part of what I would think as a European bias, some notion that the core cultures of Tridentine Catholicism possess that One Truth, and that millions of believers, somehow, don’t measure up. It’s more about missed opportunities, rather than back pats for half-hearted efforts. Evangelization in spite of Trent rather than because of it.

  6. Brendan Kelleher svd says:

    Liam and FrMichael both seem intent on scoring points against each other, or some presumed other. I’d prefer to take my lead in this debate from John O’Malley’s book on Trent, or Bulman & Parrella (eds), “From Trent to Vatican II” (Oxford UP, 2006). The points raised by both, and many other topics that could be raised, are taken up in one or other of these books.

  7. FrMichael says:

    “Liam and FrMichael both seem intent on scoring points against each other, or some presumed other.” Fr. Kelleher, I think you meant Todd, not Liam. My stack of my books-to-read is up to 17 books right now (and it is a literal stack I keep on my coffee table!) but perhaps Fr. O’Malley’s book should become the 18th. Nonetheless, Todd’s take on the five post-Tent centuries is so off the wall, so ahistorical (note that he can’t provide a single Catholic source from the era that shares his point of view) that I felt compelled to offer a public rebuttal.

    • Todd says:

      Hardly off the wall, and the blog format doesn’t require me to cite scholarly sources. My concern is more spiritual life and liturgy, not the theology of it. Trent’s theology is fine. The problem is its tone and lack of fruitfulness. I’ve just stated that Tridentine Catholicism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. And it’s largely out of date for the third millennium. FrM, remember to argue the points, the person, and you’ll do fine.

  8. charlesincenca says:

    Referee Charles interjects: “Brother Todd, back to your corner for five seconds for a low blow. Condescension is not your strongest offense or defense.”

  9. Jim McCrea says:

    “Chittister is a creature of her time, priests like myself are doing our best to remove all vestiges of her brand of “spirituality” from parishes.”

    What you forget, of course, is that many parishioners are graduates of Catholic schools and were taught critical thinking. The days of “Father (Thinks He) Knows Best” are long gone.

    As they should be.

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