The Catholic Church's Second Vatican Council, which opened 50 years ago this fall, was one of the 20th century's most significant developments, profoundly altering the world's oldest continuous institution. Because a major shift in a religious body numbering 1.2 billion adherents worldwide will impact other institutions in the West and around the globe, the debate over the meaning of the Council has been intense ever since. Vatican II continues to have serious consequences, not only for questions of faith and morals, but for everything from Obamacare to religious liberty, from international affairs to democracy's true foundation.

Forward and Back

The controversies go back to the very beginning. Conducted over four sessions from 1962 to 1965, the Church's 21st ecumenical council—the second to be held in St. Peter's Basilica—was perhaps the largest deliberative body ever assembled: over 2,500 participants including bishops, advisers (called periti), and observers. The usual politicking went on behind the scenes, but debates overall navigated between two large terms, one Italian, the other French. Aggiornamento ("updating") was the side of the Council that sought to make the Catholic Church a more open, confident institution, unafraid of engaging and even trying to transform the modern world. It would leave behind the defensiveness that dominated the Church after the upheavals of the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution. Ressourcement ("return to the sources"), a term coined by poet and essayist Charles Péguy a half-century earlier, called for a re-engagement with Scripture and the fuller tradition that, in the view of some Catholic thinkers, had been neglected by a narrow focus on neo-Scholastic philosophy and theology. The Council Fathers, as the more than 2,000 bishops who participated were called, indicated early on that they also wanted to shift from an emphasis on the Church as a juridical institution on the model of the modern nation-state to a view of the Church as a living, universal community of Christians seeking salvation.

From the outside—especially to anyone who thinks of religious questions solely in terms of familiar political partisanship—it might seem that aggiornamento and ressourcement refer to liberal and conservative impulses, respectively. But this is to misunderstand them, and as things actually played out, the picture is more complicated. Some radicals sought to use the ancient sources against modern Catholicism, believing it was the Church that should be transformed by the world. Other Council participants, like Krakow's Bishop Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, accepted the modern emphasis on freedom, human dignity, and reason (as George Weigel's indispensable biography Witness to Hope [1999, updated 2005] makes clear), but believed the only way to modernize properly was through a deeper appropriation of tradition:ressourcement as a recovery of a richer sense of the human and the divine, and therefore, a very different kind ofaggiornamento.

Politicized interpretations proper started early, however. The New Yorker ran a series of articles during the Council's three years by "Xavier Rynne" (the pen name of American Redemptorist priest Francis X. Murphy), which created a dramatic narrative in which evil conservatives sought to block angelic progressives, especially "good Pope John" XXIII, who had convened the Council. (The articles were later collected as a book, Letters from Vatican City [1965]. Ralph M. Wiltgen'sThe Rhine Flows into the Tiber [1967], a less partisan account from the same period, had far less influence.) Rynne's tale persists despite the fact that Pope John, in his opening speech to the Council, clearly expressed his wish to find a more effective, modern mode of expression "to transmit the doctrine, pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion, which throughout twenty centuries…has become the common patrimony of men." But the liberalizing pope was a storyline the New Yorker's liberal readers, and many otherswere only too happy to swallow. Time magazine did its part by naming John XXIII 1962's "Man of the Year."


Contrary to those who've tried to portray Vatican II as a break from the Church's benighted past, the two most recent popes, both of whom participated in the sessions as brilliant and vigorous young men, have insisted upon what Benedict XVI calls a "hermeneutic of continuity." They would not return to the Church as it existed before then, even were such a thing possible, but—Council men through and through—they have worked to see its reforms produce fruit that will last. It seems absurd on its face given the nature of Catholicism that the Council intended a break with tradition in faith and morals. As the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus once observed, although progressives have divided Catholicism into pre-Conciliar and post-Conciliar, declaring the former superseded—a lot of what makes up Catholicism predates the 1960s.

Schools of interpretation have arisen on both sides. In Italy, for example, partisans of discontinuity drew together many liberal academics in both Europe and America to produce a five-volume History of Vatican II (1996-2005), issued by Orbis Books, the publishing arm of the Maryknoll Order, which became radicalized after the Council. A briefer treatment from the same general perspective can be found in John W. O'Malley's What Happened at Vatican II (2008). Meanwhile, a recent book emphasizing continuity, Il Concilio Vaticano II. Una storia mai scritta (Vatican Council II: A History Never Written[2010]), by Roberto de Mattei, a distinguished Catholic historian and former vice president of the Italian National Research Council, remains untranslated, though a group of American scholars made similar arguments in Vatican II: Renewal within Tradition (2008), edited by Matthew Lamb and Matthew Levering.

Looking at Catholicism—or any religion—as only a kind of political party misses much of what makes religion potent, for good or ill: you won't understand how a Muslim or Jew or Catholic comes to certain stubborn choices. Whatever you think of homosexuality, for example, to treat the Catholic teaching like a "policy position," as if a bunch of Roman prelates with too much time on their hands concocted it, instead of inheriting it from the whole Christian and Jewish tradition—not to mention, nature—manifests a stunning historical ignorance. Some people actually do believe fidelity to sacred truth is infinitely more consequential than adjusting settled teachings to changing mores.

Modern Times

There was no crisis in the church that demanded the Second Vatican Council. Even Pope John remarked that, strictly speaking, "a Council was not necessary." His call for a new council had come as a shock (a French magazine called it a "gesture of serene boldness") because the Church in the 1940s and '50s was so strong. It knew what it believed and attracted many vocations to the priesthood and religious life—such as the gifted Thomas Merton, whose runaway 1948 bestseller, The Seven Storey Mountain, spoke to many seeking meaning and truth in the aftermath of World War II. What's more, the Church ran an impressive global network of schools, hospital, universities, and relief agencies. There seemed no reason to tamper with such a winning formula.

But John XXIII clearly wanted to change some things, and to settle others left hanging when the First Vatican Council was suspended in 1870 after conquering Italian forces, led by Garibaldi, captured Rome. One was the nature of the Church, which was never as happy with throne-and-altar collusion as critics often suggest. Some scholars even suspect that Vatican I's notorious proclamation of papal infallibility was intended to assert Church freedom from state control.("Gallicanism," a term originating in France, came to refer to the State's intervention in appointments of bishops and other leaders, with the attendant dangers that, say, the Chinese Patriotic Church run by the Communist government displays today.) In any event, the advent of secular, democratic states in Europe raised the question of how the Church should relate to them and what the Church's nature should be in modern circumstances. The Council Fathers—following the pope's lead—would decide in the constitution Lumen gentium that the nature of the Church was more like an interpersonal community and less like a state bureaucracy.

Sixteen documents in all were issued over the course of the Council, addressing the nature and role of the Church and its worship; the duties of its bishops, priests, religious, and laity; its educational and missionary work; its relation to other Christian and non-Christian faiths; and its views on religious freedom and on the media. The most immediate and striking change came in the aftermath of the first document to be promulgated, Sacrosanctum concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. The Council Fathers' cautious embrace of introducing modern languages into the Holy Mass resulted in the sudden shift from the numinous and dramatic Latin liturgy to a flat and insipid vernacular. The sophisticated liturgical reform movement that had developed in Germany and France over the previous century was pushed aside by a populist rush to throw out anything allegedly beyond the understanding of ordinary lay people. The Council's call to educate the laity to participate more fully in the traditional liturgy, perhaps even to learn Gregorian chant, was simply ignored. Instead, we got felt banners, guitars, and theologically suspect confections like "On Eagle's Wings" and "Let Us Build the City of God." Those who wanted to argue that the Council was a radical break from the past could point to just about any Catholic parish on Sunday morning as evidence.

British novelist Evelyn Waugh erupted: "The Mass is no longer the Holy Sacrifice but the Meal at which the priest is the waiter. The bishop, I suppose, is the head waiter." In his very last letter, he wrote:

Easter used to mean so much to me. Before Pope John and his council—they destroyed the beauty of the liturgy. I have not yet soaked myself in petrol and gone up in flames, but I now cling to the faith doggedly without joy. Churchgoing is a pure duty parade. I shall not live to see it restored.

He died eleven days later, on Easter Sunday 1966, a few hours after hearing the traditional Latin mass.

Along with Lumen gentium and Sacrosanctum concilium, two more constitutions—Dei verbum, On Divine Revelation, and the last to be promulgated, Gaudium et spes, On the Church In the Modern World—made a total of four major statements intended to give the interpretive key to the whole Council. As might be expected, if something as deep-rooted as the Latin Mass and the popular devotions surrounding it could be so easily disrupted, the same was likely when it came to other large questions. Perhaps it was inevitable during the cultural chaos of the 1960s and '70s.

The New Dialogue

On the positive side, the Church took multiple steps in the right direction. In the mid-19th century, Pope Pius IX famously declared that "error has no rights," and at the close of that century Leo XIII lamented the separation of church and state—a heresy condemned as "Americanism." At the Second Vatican Council, the Church embraced religious liberty in the declaration Dignitatis humanae, influenced by the work of an American Jesuit, John Courtney Murray, who served as peritus to New York's Francis Cardinal Spellman, though the full theological justifications and concrete implementation remain muddled. (In The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century [1993], Samuel Huntington credits the Church's renewed stance towards liberty as contributing, with varying levels of plausibility, to the "third wave" of democratization, beginning with Portugal's 1974 Carnation Revolution, and moving to Spain, Latin America, the Philippines, and Eastern Europe.)

Age-old currents of anti-Semitism within Catholicism were definitively repudiated in another Vatican II declaration, Nostra aetate. (Shortly after his election, John XXIII had had the Latin word perfidas—"faithless"—struck from the Good Friday liturgy in reference to the Jews so as not to be confused with "perfidious," or treacherous.) And there was healing of longstanding rifts with other religious bodies. The pope and the patriarch of Constantinople lifted the mutual excommunications going back to the Great Schism in 1054. And the Church began a headlong rush to "dialogue"—with Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Eastern faiths, and even non-believers and those who denigrated the Church, yet who, it was argued, might have some portion of truth.

There was innocence and sometimes even foolishness in how the new dialogue was carried out—a sharp departure from the old Catholic realism about human nature and communities—particularly in the opening to non-believers and modern culture. For example, although John XXIII excommunicated Fidel Castro in early 1962-the year the Council opened and the Cuban Missile Crisis erupted—the Council, following the pope's wishes to take a positive stance in its wide-ranging analysis of the modern world, never mentioned the obvious errors, not to say threats, of Communism—a central theme in modern Catholic social thought. (In fact, in another departure from past councils, Vatican II issued no "anathemas" or formal denunciations of any kind.) John's successor, Paul VI, an old Roman diplomat, inaugurated an Ostpolitk that went soft on the Soviets and didn't do much for Catholics behind the Iron Curtain. All this would change quite dramatically with the election in 1978 of the Polish pope.

New Theology

In cultural matters, too, what began as a generous re-evaluation of the modern world moved quickly to what seemed an incautious embrace. The greatest Protestant theologian of the 20th century, Karl Barth, who had been invited to be an observer at the Council but was prevented from attending by ill health, remarked in its aftermath, "Is it so certain that dialogue with the world is to be placed ahead of proclamation to the world?" The sweeping blueprint for Catholic social engagement, Gaudium et spes, in particular, struck Barth as not only overly optimistic, but out of tune with the understanding of the world found in the New Testament. Historically, Christianity had often clashed with "the world."

Following the French Revolution's persecutions of the faithful, the Catholic Church's suspicion of modernity—not always unjustified—calcified to the point that it no longer clashed with the world so much as held itself aloof from it. Its absence for the next 150 years from historical studies, scriptural scholarship, modern philosophy, psychology, and social theory—to say nothing of its fears about the uses of modern freedom—had two pernicious effects. First, several disciplines developed without the input that Catholicism, which was still in living continuity with the ancients (especially Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics), might have contributed to the efforts of the moderns. Second, Catholic thought limited itself by failing to appreciate real, if mixed, modern achievements—an untenable stance for a Church whose very name lays claim, in its Greek origins, to universality.

Efforts to remedy this situation had begun as early as Leo XIII's 1879 encyclical Aeterni patris, which encouraged the study of Thomas Aquinas as a way to renew modern societies. Catholics and non-Catholics alike often think that Aquinas has long been the central figure in Catholic thought. But before Leo, Catholic philosophical training, even in seminaries, had become unsystematic and inclined towards Cartesianism. A gifted intellectual himself, Leo asked for a new Thomism, faithful to the master and creative in its modern application. And he got it, not least in the work of 20th-century French philosopher Jacques Maritain who brilliantly ranged from ethics and aesthetics to metaphysics and the philosophy of science. Maritain was also a prime theorist of Christian democracy and one of the main drafters of the United Nations's Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

There were other brilliant forms of Thomism. The Jesuit Karl Rahner, later a maverick dissenter, was a student of Martin Heidegger's and wrote a doctoral dissertation (published as Spirit in the World [1939]) so creative in integrating Thomas and German existentialism that his committee rejected it. Transcendental Thomists sought to remedy perceived shortcomings in Immanuel Kant. Later, even "analytic Thomism" emerged in the wake of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

But not every Thomist was as creative. Before the Council, many students felt that the Thomism found in Latin manuals at Catholic universities and seminaries—and enforced by the Roman Curia—was narrow and lifeless. Some of the leaders of what came to be known as la nouvelle théologie—Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, Dominique Chenu, the prolific Hans Urs von Balthasar—started to develop systems that sought to hold onto the metaphysical moorings and moral clarity of Aquinas and the ancients, while also seeking a more personal and pastoral Church. Their thought lay behind the most interesting developments from 1962 to 1965, though later these theologians more or less turned against many of the Council's more radical after-effects.

Unholy Spirit

After the council closed, there arose what came to be known as "the spirit of Vatican II," a spirit that did not hesitate to contradict the letter of the actual texts. In broad terms, there were two views of the Conciliar documents similar to conservative and liberal interpretations of the U.S. Constitution. The conservative approach looked at the texts themselves, while allowing for new developments under changed circumstances. The liberal view regarded the approved texts as a kind of "living document," capable of meanings that, to an impartial eye, appear forced and even contrary to the Council's stated intentions.

For example, the Council defined the Church as "the people of God," which was intended to bring forward the important notion that the Church is not merely pope, bishops, and priests, but all the faithful. As the great convert John Henry Newman remarked about the laity: "the Church would look foolish without them." But a great deal depends on what the new formula is thought to mean. For some, it meant that anyone's opinion was as valid as anyone else's—even if the faithful started proposing things that contradicted nearly two millennia of tradition in matters of faith and morals. For others, it meant that pastoral care of the people took precedence over Catholic teaching—like a doctor with a good bedside manner who didn't much bother about the technicalities of medical science.

The direction that this spirit blew was uniformly to the left. Unorthodox Catholics started to speak of human beings in rather Rousseauian terms. Except for evil capitalists and their political enablers, human beings seemed to be mostly victims. How this squared with the fundamental point of Christianity—that the whole human race was fallen and that it took God to come down and die on a cross to save people from themselves—seemed to all but disappear in some quarters. Perhaps part of the problem was that in none of the Conciliar documents did Hell ever appear by name—though Jesus himself talks about it more than any Biblical figure.

Joseph Ratzinger, an advisor at the Council to Cologne's Josef Cardinal Frings, noted at the time that although Vatican II had succeeded in proposing a Catholicism more scriptural, pastoral, communal, and engaged—exciting developments, to be sure—to the extent it lost the sense of sin that pervades the Scriptures, it represented a certain unfaithfulness to Christian revelation and human life itself. What's more, he added, the important distinction between the things that are Caesar's and the things that are God's—so critical to the flourishing of Western civilization—was in danger of being conflated into a presumptuous "social justice" (tinged with more than a little Marxism) that claimed to know precisely, as few popes or bishops had ever claimed, which policies were the correct "Christian" ones and which were to be condemned.

The Church did need to engage modernity in a more constructive way. It simply could not ignore the need for a renewed pastoral and Biblical spirit in a secular world thick with cramped legalisms. But the Council's aftermath was a spiritual earthquake. More cautious observers had warned—and were mocked for doing so—that reform would lead to disaster. Though they were wrong about the substance, they were right about the actual effects. No one—certainly not Pope John nor the Council Fathers—would have dreamed that their enthusiasm for a more open, self-assured, and evangelical Catholicism, within the framework of long-established truths, would have led within a few years to a mass exodus from the priesthood and various male and female religious orders; an ongoing crisis of vocations; steep declines in Mass attendance in the wealthier countries; debates within the Church over married and female priests; "Catholic theologians" who offered themselves as a parallel magisterium equal to and even superior to popes and bishops in certain matters, who challenged longstanding Church teaching—sometimes in carefully organized public campaigns—on contraception, abortion, divorce, radical feminism, gay "marriage," and even such mainstays as the Real Presence in the Eucharist, the divinity of Christ, His Resurrection, even Christ as the unique Savior—and all while enjoying official positions at nominally Catholic institutions. (James Hitchcock's The Decline and Fall of Radical Catholicism [1971] is a penetrating survey from the period. Many of the public Catholics who clash with the Church—like Representative Nancy Pelosi and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius—are products of Catholic universities during this period.)

Catholic Restoration

The years between the end of the Second Vatican Council and the election of Pope John Paul II were not an easy time for the West in general. Perhaps, given the times, the turmoil in the Catholic Church would have been almost as great if the Council had never taken place. But just as Ronald Reagan would soon change the orientation of America, John Paul II started what historian Paul Johnson has called a "Catholic restoration." The pope's restoration, however, was not a return to the status quo ante. Instead, he and his successor initiated a truer reading of what the Council had intended: renewal, not rupture; a deeper, more sophisticated appreciation of the Catholic tradition, not its haphazard abandonment for strange gods. For his pains—and his refusal to compromise with a brutal materialism in both its Marxist and Western forms—John Paul was of course vilified as a reactionary, an authoritarian, and an opponent of all that was good in the modern world.

The charges were nonsense. He had faced down multiple times as archbishop of Krakow the true tyrants of the Soviet Bloc, and before that had put himself though a course of studies in phenomenology, personalism, and other contemporary philosophical systems that sought to address the modern situation. When he wrote his encyclical Centesimus annus (on the hundredth anniversary of Leo XIII's Rerum novarum, which had condemned Communism and inaugurated Catholic social teaching) in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he reflected back over the horrors of the previous century—especially Marxism, Nazism, and Fascism. He summed up the fundamental problem as a misunderstanding of the human person and a belief that religious and ethical norms should be banned from the public square, following the radical model of French secularism.

Though he didn't do much to change the Holy See's bureaucracy, he held a synod of bishops in 1985 on the 20th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council's conclusion, which put some firm interpretive principles in place. And he had already begun operating on the world stage as no pope in history had ever done. What started to emerge during his papacy was something like the true vision the Council had sought, a real renewal of Catholicism in the modern context.

In the 1990s, John Paul published a string of encyclicals laying out the moral case for Catholic thought in medical ethics (Evangelium vitae [1995]), the knowability of truth (Veritatis splendor [1993]), and the compatibility of faith and reason (Fides et ratio [1998])—a longstanding view in Catholicism that needed restatement. And these on top of more typical documents on religious life and families—along with a remarkable statement on the theological dimension of human work, a letter to artists, and the list goes on. When celebrations of the Great Jubilee Year took place in 2000, both the Church and the city of Rome (thanks to help from the American Knights of Columbus) seemed spruced up and ready for new challenges.

Native Resilience

Unfortunately, not even two years later, during what Fr. Neuhaus called the "long Lent" of 2002, the priestly abuse scandal broke wide open in the United States. The scandal not only revealed a callous—sometimes criminal—lack of oversight on the part of no small number of bishops here and elsewhere, the revelations renewed the energies of dissidents and those who see Catholicism as a pernicious influence. The coherence of Catholic teaching and the Church's authority make it one of the few institutions still capable of resisting the general cultural revolution of the past half-century. Not a few Catholics have been evangelized by that culture and have left the Church or lost their way. But as Ezra Pound once said, "any institution that could survive the picturesqueness of the Borgias has a certain native resilience."

The Church John Paul II left to Benedict XVI in 2005 was still vastly better off than in the two decades immediately following the Council. And we can hope that the Church will continue to reap the crop of "John Paul II priests"—dedicated, orthodox young men who came of age during the late pontiff's nearly 27-year reign and answered a call to the priesthood because of his towering example. We in the English-speaking world can be grateful, too, that some sense of the sacred has finally been restored to the diminished post-Conciliar Mass with the introduction last year of a more faithful translation of the Latin text.

Well into the 21st century, though, much of the post-Conciliar disorder remains in place. Just two years ago, the pope remarked in an interview that it was puzzling how Catholics who had attended Church schools for a dozen years or more often emerged with sympathy for Islam or a basic acquaintance with Buddhism, but little knowledge of—or loyalty towards—their own faith. Witness the almost daily attacks in the mainstream media by people—sometimes Catholics themselves-with bizarre, mistaken notions of the Church. A gifted teacher, Benedict has labored to remedy this situation by reaching out to general audiences through numerous public talks and homilies and in his soon-to-be-completed trilogy Jesus of Nazareth (2007-12). He has even been involved in productive dialogues with the prominent European intellectuals Jürgen Habermas and Marcello Pera, both non-believers, who have argued for Christianity's importance for good public order—though arguments from utility alone can't spark a religious revival.

Probably because of his European perspective, Benedict has spoken of a smaller, purer Church in the future. (In the developing world, by contrast, Catholicism is growing rapidly.) He's pointed to the need for "creative minorities" to re-evangelize the culture, and looks to American Catholicism to help lead the way. Whether that renewal will occur or whether the Church will remain in turmoil—leaving the West that much more in crisis—is still an open question 50 years after Vatican II.