Douthat on the Curse of Vatican II

The image above is of the cathedral of Köln after World War II bombing devastated most of that German city. It’s why the Second Vatican Council was necessary — and why it might have been doomed to failure. More below.

Terrific analysis today by Ross Douthat (a Catholic conservative) on the curse of the Second Vatican Council. I say “curse,” not because Douthat considers it to be accursed in a literal sense, but because his excellent column argues that whether you think the Council, which opened sixty years ago this week, was good, bad, or somewhere in the middle, it cannot be gotten around. His headline says all Catholics are “prisoners of Vatican II”.

Douthat says that like it or not, the Council was necessary. The structures and mindset of the Catholic Church needed updating, needed to become more responsive to the modern world, which was itself changing radically. When I was a Catholic, I was from time to time knocked out of my romanticization of the preconciliar past by things I would read about life back then, and not from liberals who had an interest in making it all seem like the Bad Old Days. After a few years as a Catholic, I came to hate the effects of the Council, but also came to fear that things might be bad in the Church in a different way if the council hadn’t happened.

More Douthat:

But just because a moment calls for reinvention doesn’t mean that a specific set of reinventions will succeed, and we now have decades of data to justify a second encapsulating statement: The council was a failure.

This isn’t a truculent or reactionary analysis. The Second Vatican Council failed on the terms its own supporters set. It was supposed to make the church more dynamic, more attractive to modern people, more evangelistic, less closed off and stale and self-referential. It did none of these things. The church declined everywhere in the developed world after Vatican II, under conservative and liberal popes alike — but the decline was swiftest where the council’s influence was strongest.

The new liturgy was supposed to make the faithful more engaged with the Mass; instead, the faithful began sleeping in on Sunday and giving up Catholicism for Lent. The church lost much of Europe to secularism and much of Latin America to Pentecostalism — very different contexts and challengers, yet strikingly similar results.

And if anything post-1960s Catholicism became more inward-looking than before, more consumed with its endless right-versus-left battles, and to the extent it engaged with the secular world it was in paltry imitation — via middling guitar music, or political theories that were just dressed up versions of left-wing or right-wing partisanship, or ugly modern churches that were outdated 10 years after they were built and empty soon thereafter.

There is no clever rationalization, no intellectual schematic, no sententious Vatican propaganda — a typical recent document references “the life-giving sustenance provided by the council,” as though it were the eucharist itself — that can evade this cold reality.

But neither can anyone evade the third reality: The council cannot be undone.


By this I don’t mean that the Mass can never return to Latin, nor that various manifestations of post-conciliar Catholicism are inevitable and eternal, nor that cardinals in the 23rd century will still be issuing Soviet-style praise for the council and its works.

I just mean that there is no simple path back. Not back to the style of papal authority that both John Paul II and Francis have tried to exercise — the former to restore tradition, the latter to suppress it — only to find themselves frustrated by the ungovernability of the modern church. Not to the kind of thick inherited Catholic cultures that still existed down to the middle of the 20th century, and whose subsequent unraveling, while inevitable to some extent, was clearly accelerated by the church’s own internal iconoclasm. Not to the moral and doctrinal synthesis, stamped with the promise of infallibility and consistency, that the church’s conservatives have spent the last two generations insisting still exists, but that in the Francis era has proved so unstable that those same conservatives have ended up feuding with the pope himself.

The work of the French historian Guillaume Cuchet, who has studied Vatican II’s impact on his once deeply Catholic nation, suggests that it was the scale and speed of the council’s reforms, as much as any particular substance, that shattered Catholic loyalty and hastened the church’s decline. Even if the council’s changes did not officially alter doctrine, to rewrite and renovate so many prayers and practices inevitably made ordinary Catholics wonder why an authority that suddenly declared itself to have been misguided across so many different fronts could still be trusted to speak on behalf of Jesus Christ himself.

After such a shock, what kind of synthesis or restoration is possible? Today all Catholics find themselves living with this question, because every one of the church’s factions is in tension with some version of church authority.

That is deeply true. I find it so puzzling to see some of the prominent Catholic integralists behaving as public champions of Pope Francis, given how this pontiff is tearing down so much of what remains of tradition. But then, it does make sense, in that the Catholic schemata is irrational if the Pope is someone you can dismiss or ignore (something that conservative Catholics understood very well when JP2 and BXVI were pope). Though I haven’t been Catholic for sixteen years, I profoundly sympathize with the orthodox, pro-Magisterium Catholics commonly called “conservative,” and who have emerged as such strong critics of Francis and his reforms. Nevertheless, how far can you go in resisting a validly elected pope without ceasing to be meaningfully Catholic?

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