Common Ground on the Catholic Crisis
By Peter W. Miller
Seattle Catholic [Seattle Washington]
Downloaded May 10, 2003
Most orthodox Catholics are by now able to readily acknowledge the severe crisis the Church is facing in a number of areas: liturgically, doctrinally, pastorally, morally, and so on. Although conservative and traditional Catholics may agree on many things (and most importantly the Doctrines of the Faith), their disagreement as to the specific causes and contributors (particularly the role played by recent Popes, the Second Vatican Council and the liturgical modifications) have been the source of an ever-increasing amount of friction and vitriol
As is often the case with philosophical or ideological debates, this one suffers from both extreme emotional reactions and tendencies to highlight the more radical examples on either side in an effort to paint a wide range of individuals. Thus there exists a certain degree of misunderstanding as to the other side's actual beliefs and substantial claims. Since Satan no doubt takes special delight in watching faithful Catholics with much in common lunge at each others' throats while the human element of the Church continues its downward spiral, an attempt to address these differences is appropriate.
As I believe all orthodox Catholics are, more so than not, on the same side, the purpose of this article is twofold: to outline some aspects of the traditionalist position which have suffered from certain misunderstandings or mischaracterizations; and to emphasize the inherent compatibility and fundamental consistency between traditionalist and conservative concerns and motivations.
Lest I be rightfully accused of proposing a direction akin to the same modern ecumenical efforts which I often criticize, I no not believe the differences which separate traditionalists and conservatives are illusory or of any lesser significance than other concerns. While in these times, as always, it is appropriate for Catholics who may disagree on various matters to work together to oppose any number of societal or religious problems, a dedication to and defense of the truth is a virtue seriously lacking in these troubled times and should not be abandoned. If, however, such differences are to some degree based on an apparent misunderstanding, it becomes incumbent on those aware of such problems to work towards a remedy - a step towards which will attempted here.
Liberalism and Dissent
The basis for asserting a concordance between conservative and traditional Catholicism is a belief that there is agreement among orthodox Catholics as to the main underlying cause of the present crisis. Although radical far-left reformers will always point to the Church's doctrine or "intolerance" as the problem, intelligent Catholics can clearly see the current damage as a direct result of liberalism and dissent.
Therefore, the point of contention is not whether we are in a crisis of liberalism, but where this destructive tendency starts and stops, how far back and how high up it goes. Is your parish filled with liberal Catholics even though your priest is perfectly orthodox? Is your priest a hopeless liberal but your bishop conservative (or more likely, quite the opposite)? Is your bishop a shameless promoter of liberalism while his superiors in Rome are not? Is the current Pope liberal-minded as opposed to his recent or distant predecessors? There are almost as many opinions on these matters as Catholics who hold them.
The specific disagreement which accentuates the traditional/conservative division can be illustrated in terms of who is vulnerable to and exempt from the deleterious effects of liberalism. While few will today argue that a bishop's mitre or cardinal's biretta entitles one to an exemption from liberal tendencies, conservatives appear to presume such an exemption for not only the Pope, but the majority of participants (bishops and otherwise) at the Second Vatican Council. While recognizing the guarantees that come with papal infallibility and ecclesial indefectibility, traditionalists generally grant no such exceptions to who can be adversely effected by liberalism. One of the guarantees that comes with the Keys of Peter is not freedom from moral or philosophical weaknesses, as the historical record abundantly attests. If this is true for the Pope, it is that much more so for bishops and theologians attending an Ecumenical Council. Certain dogmatic protections have always been put in place, but impeccability, wisdom and prudential success have never been among of them.
This difference in application leads to a difference in outlooks when evaluating the present Catholic landscape. Traditionalists see the attitudes which today prompt priests and laity to transform the liturgy into their own personal performance, as merely the most recent manifestation of a desire which led reformers to significantly alter the Mass; conservatives see the two as conflicting trends - one of legitimate progress and the other, unwarranted destruction. Traditionalists see the increasingly abhorrent efforts of American bishops and clergy to side with a decadent society rather than the Church on issues ranging from homosexuality to contraception to divorce, as merely the next chapter in a very old American problem which a half century earlier saw theologians dismissing the Social Doctrine of the Church in favor of the U.S. constitution. They view certain nuances found in the documents of Vatican II which were seized upon by revolutionaries in the push for radical reforms, as coming not from the Holy Ghost but from liberal attendants with their own agenda whose opinions before, efforts during and results after the Council are all very well documented.
More so than any other, the point of contention revolves around the Second Vatican Council and the role it played in "causing" the current crisis. Those who take up certain criticisms of the Council are accused of committing the logical fallacy, post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after the fact, therefore because of the fact); that is, they falsely assert something that happened after the Council was caused by the Council merely because of the temporal sequence. Such would be a legitimate criticism if that were the crux of traditionalist arguments, but once the issue turns to citing specific examples which support one's case, the defense must turn to a more direct refutation rather than a reiteration of a supposed logical fallacy that could no longer apply, if indeed it ever did at all.
To prove someone guilty of using the aforementioned fallacy, another must either demonstrate (a) that the result would have happened anyway; or (b) that another cause brought about the result. Those who argue that Vatican II was not the cause of the current crisis, point to the various problems which existed before the Council. "If it were truly the cause," they ask, "how could these things have existed before Vatican II?" Some even give their childhood memories of the Church as it existed in the 1950's to "prove" that the Council, the new ecumenism, the new Mass, etc. were either necessary or inconsequential measures and that the Church was already in bad shape or falling apart beforehand.
First of all, pointing out that problems existed before the Council, does not absolve the Council from any and every result to follow. A patient suffering from certain minor ailments who, after taking an experimental medication, ends up in a critical condition would have an understandably hard time accepting a physician's defense that he was not 100% healthy before the treatment occurred.
Furthermore, what would those who question the logical faculties of the Council's critics be saying now if a widespread, evident renewal had actually happened over the past four decades? If the years following the Council had seen an extreme increase in vocations, conversions, Mass attendance, belief in basic Catholic Doctrine, etc., is there any doubt that conciliar apologists would proclaim the Council a success, and quite rightfully so? They would comfortably rest their case and see no sense in entertaining arguments that such positive occurrences would have happened anyway, or that any attempted connection between the Council and the subsequent renewal was a demonstration of the logical fallacy post hoc, ergo propter hoc.
The preceding example is not as hypothetical as one may presume. For the claim is regularly made that we are witnessing the "true" fruits of the Council and its promised renewal in certain places of the world, particularly Asia and Africa, which have each experienced an increase in vocations, conversions, etc. since Vatican II. While such claims may indeed be accurate, they seem a bit gratuitous inasmuch as they assume the results of the Council are guaranteed. It is a non-negatable claim to maintain that the "true" Council is only being implemented correctly wherever good fruits are seen. It is much more reasonable to examine the fruits everywhere and give an honest assessment of the Council than to automatically assume success - a result by no means guaranteed. It also comes dangerously close to the same post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy they accuse others of making in critiques of the Council. So how does one examine the crisis and separate the propter from the post?
When speaking of the relationship between the Second Vatican Council and the post-conciliar crisis, "cause" is perhaps too strong a word. Rather than an originating cause of these problems, Vatican II was more of a catalyst or mechanism by which certain problems already affecting the Church were amplified and given an apparently authoritative basis. As mentioned before, liberalism can generally be regarded as the true cause; the argument then becomes whether Vatican II aided the advancement of liberalism which was already making strides in previous decades or effectively confronted and curtailed it.
The Good ol' Days
The predominant criticism of those who point to Vatican II as a significant factor in the crisis to follow is that they create an indefensible dichotomy between the Church before and after the Council's convocation (or the election of John XXIII). Were this an accurate claim, pointing to a declining statistic, papal pronouncement or liturgical practice before this time may undermine the argument that a certain novelty is emblematic of the post-conciliar decline.
While such an absolute dichotomy is primarily an exaggeration employed by those arguing for a perfect continuity in the 20th century Church, it is not without some basis in traditionalist tendencies, which can give disproportionate or undue praise to the Church in years preceding the Council. Referring to the 1950's as the glory days of Catholicism and 180 degrees separated from the decades to follow, or portraying Pius XII as diametrically opposed to his successors, provides easy ammunition for conciliar apologists and puts one in an unenviable position of having to make a lot of excuses.
Unfortunately, this particular exaggeration of conservatives has framed the debate. According to the claim, traditionalists see all things new (or since the Council) as bad and all things old (or prior to the Council) as perfect. Although a traditionalist case has never been stated as such (at least to my knowledge), the silver bullet to all citations of post-conciliar decline is presumed to be a similar pre-conciliar citation - be it a quote from Pius XII or a disturbing statistic from the 1950's.
Of course, problems in the Church did not start with the Council. They have afflicted Her since Christ walked the earth. There have always been problems and crises which the Church has needed to face, and the times before the Council were by no means glorious times for the Church. Since the Protestant Revolt, and especially since the first Masonic Revolutions of the 18th century, the Church has faced the very serious problem of the liberal philosophies enshrined by the self-proclaimed "Enlightenment" undermining the Church's teaching on faith and morals. This problem had already reached alarming proportions in the mid-19th century, as the Popes for the next hundred years would dedicate a plethora of their chosen words to counter the errors of these liberal and modernist trends. This was not (just) a prophetic warning for our times but an assault upon a sickness already spreading and making impressive gains. Pius IX, Leo XIII, St. Pius X and Pius XI were all addressing and condemning errors which were already gaining surprising popularity in their day.
World War II to Vatican II
As revolutionaries are always looking for opportunities to take the next step in advancing their goals, significant events with far-reaching effects are of great importance and are often seized upon to suit their needs. One unfortunate result of the level of attention given to the Second Vatican Council, has been the lack of analysis as to what effects the Second World War had upon Catholicism. Although the sociological impacts of a female workforce, the "baby boom", etc. have garnered some degree of attention in certain Catholic journals, the effects upon the Church itself should not be overlooked.
Although space does not allow for a thorough investigation of all the elements at play, there is a striking difference that can be seen both in the Church and Western Culture as a whole, after the end of the Second World War. Novel papal actions certainly did not start with John Paul II or even John XXIII. Post bellum statements made by Pope Pius XII regarding the ends of marriage, religious liberty, modern science, scriptural exegesis, theological issues, etc. could certainly be considered novel when compared to his immediate predecessors.
As is often the case with armed conflicts, there was an incredibly strong ideological component to the Allied victory (or more accurately, the Axis defeat) in World War II. The victory over "Nazi fascism" was widely regarded as a triumph for the liberal ideals of "tolerance" and "brotherhood", ideals exemplified by the United States. The vanquished villains - primarily Hitler and Nazi Germany - were regarded as the antithesis of American values, repressed degenerates full of hate and racism, enemies of true "freedom". The ideological motivations which inspired the Germans were condemned as dangerous failures - failures which could only be effectively remedied with good old American-style liberty.
Pius XI lamented in Mortalium Animos that the guilt and desire for just about any superficial peace compromise in the aftermath of World War I led many well-intentioned souls down the path of dangerous ecumenical ventures. How much greater was this temptation after the far more gruesome, ideologically-charged World War II? Perhaps the ghastly affair caused many Catholic clergy and laymen to re-examine their role in certain affairs and consider how they (or the Church to which they belonged) had contributed to the nationalist policies which culminated in the Nazi persecutions of minorities and other "undesirables". It is in this environment that the previously condemned errors of "Americanism" and its most vocal champion, Fr. John Courtney-Murray, were given a more sympathetic audience.
Proud to Be an Americanist
In 1940, historian William Thomas Walsh wrote:
"Now, either the Catholic body will come into sharp conflict with those about them, or they will not. If they do not, it will be the first time in history, that the Mystical Body of Christ (and American Catholics, like all others, are 'cells' of that Body) has not aroused violent and unreasoning antagonism. This has been so uniformly a characteristic of the life of Christ and the life of the Catholic Church, that when persons calling themselves Christian or Catholic do not meet with opposition, and strong opposition, one may well begin to wonder whether they are profoundly Christian and truly Catholic. Perhaps then it is a reflection upon us American Catholics that we have inspired so little antagonism (comparatively) thus far." 1
The Catholic Church in the United States has always suffered from the conflicted ideological patriotism of its members. Children raised to honor and revere the anti-Catholic founders of this country, to continuously imbibe the American doctrine of Church/state separation and even to shed a tear at the outrageously Masonic Statue of Liberty, have a hard time seeing their country in a critical light, particularly when it comes to its "founding fathers" and defining elements. These problems have effected the hierarchy of the American Church long before the 20th century rolled around, as the famous 19th century rebuke from Leo XIII attests. Gerald Warner wrote in a recent article questioning the assumed allegiance between American political neoconservatives and Rome:
"Historically, the American identity was strongly antipathetic to Rome, deriving as it did from the British Whig tradition. The descendants of Puritan settlers devised the Declaration of Independence, a document in conflict with Catholic doctrine, which was also the inspiration for the French Revolution. The high-water mark of hostility came in 1899 when Pope Leo XIII, in the Apostolic letter Testem Benevolentiae, formally condemned Americanism - the socially progressive errors espoused by such prominent American Catholics as Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore, who had gone native in the pluralist atmosphere of the United States. This miniature controversy subsided immediately; but Americanism came back with a vengeance at the Second Vatican Council, as the New World chapter of resurgent Modernism." 2
Two American Catholics named "John" would exemplify this attitude and rise to positions of prominence in the early 1960's. Prior to his inauguration, John F. Kennedy pledged to do publicly what many American Catholic priests and laity had always done privately, and relegate his Catholic Faith to a matter of personal preference, well below the exalted U.S. government and way of life. Such an inverted morality paved the way for a generation of nominally catholic politicians to express their own "private opinions" that abortion may very well be wrong on some level, but be more than willing to leave the objective reality of the matter for the government to decide.
The aftermath of the Second World War also saw a Jesuit priest named John Courtney-Murray embark on a crusade to change Church teaching to be less offensive to his American sensibilities. To this humble Jesuit, the Church's condemnation of a wholly secular state and its insistence to consider "liberty" in a religious rather than revolutionary sense, was outdated and in need of serious revision. He viewed the victorious and glorious United States of America as having proven the Church wrong and, in doing so, having vindicated those liberals who in centuries past had shed the blood of countless clerics in efforts to chase them from the ranks of government.
These unfortunate trends which have always plagued the American Church can be seen today in both liberals who try to bring the Church further "up to date" with modern American culture, and conservatives who dismiss Catholic challenges to political philosophies or military campaigns as "anti-American." More disturbing perhaps has been the acceptance by virtually every American bishop of the "proper place of organized religion" in a secular democracy and their complacency in seeing their dioceses operated as little more than religious extensions of governmental social programs.
Who Came to and Departed from the Council?
In a column appearing in The Wanderer last December, an editorialist took issue with Patrick Buchanan's recent assertion that:
"Thirty-seven years after the end of the only church council of the 20th century, the jury has come in with its verdict: Vatican II appears to have been an unrelieved disaster for Roman Catholicism." 3
Attempting to absolve the Council of any and all culpability, the editorial cites the work The De-Romanization of the American Catholic Church as to the problems that existed in the 1940's and 1950's. These are important points to consider and should caution any traditionalist holding as their standard for a reformed Catholicism, the Church as it existed in the decades before Vatican II:
"With a wealth of statistics from innumerable surveys, Wakin and Scheuer report that by 1949, depending on the region of the country, one-fourth to three-fourths of all Catholic marriages involved a non-Catholic spouse; that the evidence was in that mixed marriages produced couples, and children, with very little allegiance to the Church or its moral teachings; that experts had already predicted that the large number of mixed marriages would produce a 25% decrease in the number of Mass-going Catholics; that by 1959, almost 50% of married Catholics gave either 'unqualified' or 'qualified' support for contraception and would encourage other spouses to resort to contraception to prevent the birth of children; that by 1953, 53% of Catholics believed birth control information should be available to anyone who wanted it; that more than 50% of Catholics 'did not accept their Church's teaching on the morality of contraceptive practices'; that by 1959, married Catholic women expected to bear no more than 3.4 children; that between 1919 and 1933, Catholic fertility was declining more rapidly than Protestant and Jewish fertility; that by 1964, Catholics were regularly reminded by popular priests that they did not belong to a 'fertility cult.' Furthermore, a study of Philadelphia Catholics 'in the early 1950's' showed Catholics were divorcing at the same rate as non-Catholics, and there was widespread support for divorce among Catholics." 4
Although such figures show the difficulty of those who maintain or suggest that the Second Vatican Council was the sole cause or absolute starting point of all current problems in the Church (which I'm not certain anyone actually does, unfortunate choices of phrasing notwithstanding), arguing that the Council was not a "disaster" does not necessarily keep it from being characterized as a "failure". Remember the goal of the Council was to revitalize the Church, not to have a minimal effect on an already progressing decline. Also, the worse those days preceding the Council are painted, the more another issue comes into the forefront as one examines the people and ideas that arrived at the Council and received a new audience before a Church eager to appeal to "modern man". It is helpful to consider who the attendants of the Second Vatican Council were.
Those attempting to defend the Council from charges of "causing" current troubles have impugned the pre-conciliar Church for showing evident signs of many of the same problems soon to explode into crises. But those same priests, bishops and theologians who were experimenting with new liturgies, challenging Church Doctrine and espousing new theologies, were among the more influential attendants of the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II was not some mysterious force that descended upon a group of conservative, orthodox Catholic bishops and theologians and turned them into liberal revolutionaries. Each came to the Council and had his part to play, for better or for worse, in affecting its outcome. These same bishops left the Council to implement its teachings and the result is plain for all to behold.
That the authentic implementation of the Council has not yet happened or was somehow bungled by the bishops leaving Rome is a very strange assertion indeed. The Council was not attended by one group of bishops then passed off to another for implementation in hopes that they'd get it right. By and large, the bishops who went back to their dioceses to implement the Council were the same ones who showed up and the same ones who voted on the documents and influenced their direction.
It is worth pointing out that Council or not, the 1960's would have no doubt been a tumultuous time for the Church. But rather than following the example of their predecessors and fighting those liberal trends already showing their errors, the Council Fathers saw greater value in accommodating them and attempting to demonstrate the modern relevance of the Church through the embracing of a new orientation. As such, it served as a catalyst for further decline at an increased rate.
It doesn't take much imagination to surmise that had Vatican II never have come about, the Church would not be experiencing any glorious age in 2003. We would most likely be facing many of the same problems, but would they be as bad? Would Catholics accept all the claims of renegades if there were no Council to which they could appeal for authority? If the Mass itself were not drastically altered, would other changes have been possible? Without a Council to mark a shift the Church's orientation, would subsequent Popes have tolerated any of this?
If the post-conciliar Church were strong with faithful Catholics and effective governance, the Second Vatican Council would most likely not have had any significant negative impact and we would be living in better times. Vatican II was not inherently bad or evil, but due to the influence of liberals and the freedom they were given, certain deficiencies and ambiguities ended up in the resulting documents and were seized upon by most of those same individuals in order to drive through their agenda.
Ambiguity and the "True Council"
The Second Vatican Council has been used to justify every sort of dissent and liberal practice. Whether or not the documents themselves or proper Magisterial interpretation actually support such claims has borne little upon the result. Conservative Catholics often wonder why Vatican II is held out for blame when many of the problems we see today stem not from adherence to, but rejection of the "true Council". But what exactly is this "true Council"?
First of all, the fact that there has been so much debate over what the Council really meant vindicates the primary traditionalist criticism - that the ambiguity of the documents exists and is problematic. Differing from other Councils, there has been widespread disagreement as to what Vatican II really meant - a disagreement stemming from the fact that portions of the documents lend themselves to more than one interpretation (which is in fact the definition of "ambiguous").
Some are quick to dismiss the charge of "ambiguity" as traditionalist propaganda and insist that there is only one correct (i.e. "Catholic") interpretation which is for the Magisterium to decide. That much is certainly true but it does not change the ambiguity of the text or the harm that has resulted. Some have argued that the ambiguity of Vatican II documents is illusory and a function of those who purposely put forth misinterpretations to advance their own goals; or even that Vatican II documents are not unique in this regard as other Church documents in years past have been inadvertently or maliciously misinterpreted. The comparison is a bit gratuitous; while the occurrence of misinterpretations following an Ecumenical Council is not unheard of in Church history, the sheer multitude and scope of those following Vatican II easily put it in a league of its own.
The blame for the confusion to follow Vatican II does not lie entirely with the documents or entirely with the theologians and bishops who interpreted and implemented them - each contributed its fair share. Regardless of how the documents ended up being written, they would have done little harm if the bishops and priests had faithfully deferred to the Magisterium rather than advance their own interpretation and agenda. Obviously that did not occur, but if the solution lies in a return to the "true Council", there are certain difficulties faced when trying to examine what the Council "truly" taught.
Traditionalists commonly take both John XXIII's claim that all prior teaching was to remain intact, and the repeatedly stated "pastoral" intention of the Council to indicate that the correct interpretation is that which is in conformity with previous teachings. But is that really the "true" interpretation? Do the current Church leaders think so? Some documents (e.g. Dignitatis Humanae) are extremely difficult to view in such a manner, as evidenced by the numerous interpretations from various levels of the Church.
Since Vatican II, seldom has the Church come out and ruled definitively on a given subject, even ones that are hotly debated among Cardinals and bishops (exceptions include the "ordination of women" and "liberation theology"), so the answer as to the "correct" interpretation has to be ascertained via other means - primarily through papal encyclicals and implemented policies. Theologians in prominent positions have made the claim that an action by the Vatican State (e.g., a concordant with another nation) qualifies as a Magisterial interpretation, or that the failure to reiterate a Church teaching in a topical encyclical is an implied Magisterial rejection of such teaching. Even if such claims are legitimate, the problem is that each of these further lends itself to interpretations as well, and usually non-authoritative ones at that.
And what is one to make of the wide array of governing actions if they are now Magisterial windows? There are no shortage of opinions as to why the Pope acts as he does on various matters. The issue of why the Pope has not deposed certain American bishops has been in the forefront lately with answers ranging from he's part of the conspiracy, to he's secretly punishing them, to not punishing them is really punishing them, to he doesn't want to cause a schism, to he's against such punishment, to any of dozens of other possible explanations. Without a statement from John Paul II himself, it's impossible to determine what the case may be, but widespread disagreement as to motives further adds to the confusion over what a given action means and how it is to be interpreted. While it's appropriate to assign the noblest of motives (or at least avoid the most sinister ones) when it comes to the Holy Father, one must also be on guard to not let sound reasoning devolve into outlandish excuse making.
Everyone in America knows that Roger Mahony is a shameful example of a bishop for a litany of reasons, but what if he were appointed by the Pope as the Prefect for the Congregation of Divine Worship, or another such high-ranking post? One could make excuses as to why such and such bishop has not been punished and even stretch the imagination as to why Church politics may necessitate some unsavory character's consecration as a bishop or promotion to the rank of Cardinal, but what about a promotion to the Vatican? Such a scenario is not as outlandish as it seems given the example of Cardinal Kasper. Although this case has been repeated ad nauseam, it really is a troubling thing to come to terms with. Had he been an American bishop, Walter Kasper may not have been held in as little regard as Roger Mahony, but he certainly would have been among the most criticized and liberal American bishops. Yet, he has been assigned to lead the office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, a position undeniably very near and dear to the Holy Father's heart. Kasper's confusing and careless (if not outwardly erroneous) statements had previously forced many conservatives to conclude that Kasper represented "false ecumenism" espoused by some renegade liberals as opposed to the "true ecumenism" championed by the Pope and the Vatican. As he has since been promoted to a high level within the Vatican and charged with work considered to be of extreme importance, what is one left to conclude? Does he still represent "false ecumenism"? Are puzzling comments made by Cardinal Kasper relating to interreligous/ecumenical dialogue and conversion the now "correct" interpretation of the conciliar texts? If not, why is he charged with heading up such initiatives?
Adding to the confusion are conflicting claims that go uncorrected or unresolved. Cardinals Ratzinger and Kasper have publicly disagreed on a particular interpretation of the Council on the matter of collegiality, and each occupy among the highest offices in the Church. As another example, was the Ordo Missae of Pope Paul VI not what Sacrosanctum Concilium called for? The Popes since have given every indication that it most certainly was, but a number of Cardinals (Stickler, Ratzinger, etc.) have said in no uncertain terms that the reforms went too far or deviated too much from the established course of liturgical development.
Can an Ecumenical Council "Fail"?
While the claim does not stand up to much historical scrutiny, the defense has been offered that attributing negative effects to an Ecumenical Council is equivalent to indicting the Holy Ghost for "failing" in his mission of guidance or "being absent" from that Council. Such an assertion reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of Divine Guidance promised to the Church. The Holy Ghost indeed guides the Church and, in certain situations, protects it from error but does not make, and has never made, any Council or Pope impeccable and guaranteed from making prudential errors.
Whether a given Council has been a pastoral success or failure is not a matter of Catholic Doctrine. To say the Council led to a decrease in Mass attendance is not an indication of dissent. Even to say a Council was useless or ill-advised does not challenge the authority or indefectibility of the Church. In reference to several past Ecumenical Councils (specifically the Council of Ephesus in 449, the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 and the Council of Constance in 1414), Cardinal Ratzinger remarked that:
"Not all valid councils, after being tested by the facts of history, have shown themselves to be useful councils; in the final analysis, all that was left of some was a great nothing." 5
Some Councils were rightfully considered "failures" and some took a fair amount of time to bring about the intended results. Although it's difficult to content that the overall results of Vatican II have thus far been positive, there is the possibility that it's "good fruits" and the "true renewal" it promises wait for us in the future. In which case, the impetus would be on the defenders of the Council to demonstrate that a potential future renewal truly resulted from Vatican II and, in justice, they will need to be held to the same propter hoc standards to which they currently subject the Council's critics
Ultimately however, neither side arguing whether the post-conciliar crisis resulted from the Council or from other sources, gives a ringing endorsement of Vatican II. Remember that it was supposed to bring about a renewal, usher in a glorious time for the Church. Whether the Council caused greater damage or was simply unable to stem the tide of liberalism already running it's course, it can hardly be considered a "success" given such optimistic goals.
Although there continue to be those who choose to demonstrate their loyalty by dismissing suggestions of even improper punctuation in conciliar documents as equivalent to denying the indefectibility of the Church; or by considering the perfectly reasonable and evident claim that the Second Vatican Council has not succeeded in its stated intention of renewing the Church as tantamount to challenging the divinity of the Holy Ghost, more and more conservative writers and journals are starting to recognize that Catholic orthodoxy does not entail going to extreme measures to make excuses for every pastoral program. Slowly, the previously taboo prospect of "bad fruits" resulting from the letter of Vatican II, or the Council itself being rightfully regarded by future generations as a "failure" are being openly entertained.
This started with criticisms of the Novus Ordo Mass when groups such as the Adoremus Society followed the lead of Cardinal Ratzinger and others by taking up the position that the Mass approved by Pope Paul VI and praised by Pope John Paul II may not have been completely consistent with the letter and intent of Sacrosanctum Consilium. Although one can certainly argue that common modern liturgical trends run through each, this was nonetheless an important acknowledgement.
Other recent admissions in print include Fr. Richard John Neuhaus in the publication First Things:
"We might well ask whether today Maritain would think, or whether we should think, that the Second Vatican Council failed. It is no secret that some have long since reached that conclusion. A Council may, of course, fail-not in its validity but in its efficacy. Of the twenty-one ecumenical councils recognized by the Church, historians generally view the thirteenth-century councils of Lateran IV and Lyons I and II, along with the fifteenth-century councils of Constance and Basel, and the sixteenth-century Lateran V, as more or less failures in their reforming intentions. At least in the second Christian millennium, a successful council seems to be more the exception than the rule. Our thinking on these matters has been skewed by the remarkable success of the Council of Trent and its implementation by heroic figures such as Charles Borromeo and the Society of Jesus in its earlier fidelity to the charism of Ignatius. There was not so much a Counter-Reformation, as it is commonly called, as an authentic Catholic Reformation, beginning already in the fifteenth century, and finding its council in Trent and its champions in those who boldly advanced the reforming vision of Trent. . And yet we cannot avoid asking whether, fifty or a hundred years from now, it will be judged that the Second Vatican Council was a failure, and, as a consequence, the Second Catholic Reformation a vain hope." 6
In his recent book The Courage To Be Catholic, George Weigel echoed such sentiments, indicating that the result of the Council was still up in the air rather than assuming the Council has been or will be a success because "the Holy Spirit doesn't make mistakes", or considering Vatican II as somehow exempt from the problems faced by previous Councils:
"....In 1512-1517, the Fifth Lateran Council met in Rome. It was intended to be a great reforming Council. It failed. Why? Because its analysis of the Catholic crisis at that moment was shallow; because the reforms it proposed were either inadequate in themselves or inadequately implemented; and because the church's bishops, including the reigning pope, lacked the will and the courage necessary to do the needed job. The failure of Lateran V was the prelude to the Reformation, which shattered the unity of the Christian West and set in motion the dynamics that eventually lead to the European wars of religion. Failures of reform carry a high cost. . No one knows whether, in the twenty-fifth century, Vatican II will be remembered as another Lateran V--a reforming Council that failed--or another Trent--a reforming Council that was so successful that it set the course of Catholic life for more than four hundred years..." 7
And more forcibly, Culture Wars recently published an analysis by Fr. Brian Harrison which drew an important and necessary correlation between the Council itself and the abuses done according to its "spirit":
"It is true that the 'hi-jacking' or manipulation of Vatican II by its strategically-placed dissident 'interpreters' and implementers must bear a lion's share of the blame for these post-conciliar troubles. But the extraordinary and unprecedented ease with which the hijackers have managed to achieve such spectacular and long-lasting success is itself a phenomenon which surely requires some further explanation. After all, the extent to which the enemies of orthodoxy in past centuries have managed to cloak their own deviations with the supposed authority of other ecumenical councils is minimal by comparison (to put it mildly). The historical record reveals no Arians who claimed to be loyal to 'the real teaching' of Nicaea, no Protestants claiming adherence to 'the true spirit' of Trent, and no Greek or Russian Orthodox trumpeting their faithfulness to the 'authentic meaning' of Florence or Vatican I on the subject of papal prerogatives. I think we must squarely face the fact that our post-conciliar manipulators of Vatican II simply could not have achieved such success if, during the Council itself, the Rhine had not flowed so very copiously into the Tiber. . That is to say, if the 'progressivist,' liberalizing tendencies of the well-organized northern European bishops and their theological periti, clashing with (but sometimes undermining and winning over) the more traditional doctrinal outlook of most other Fathers, had not succeeded in introducing into the conciliar texts themselves a good many nuances, changes of emphasis, strategic omissions and seeming ambiguities that would eventually serve to provide neo-modernist dissidents with a plausible pretext for unorthodox 'readings' of the Council's teaching. Perhaps only after a few more decades will it be possible for historians to judge definitively whether the tremendous short-term damage this has inflicted on the Church will be outweighed by other, more positive, long-term fruits of the quite unique ecumenical council." 8
Vatican II released a wave of confusion unprecedented in Church history. Even though some of the ideas and philosophies that contributed so greatly to the crisis existed in the Church long beforehand, the Council provided a legitimate basis to which liberals and dissidents could appeal for support. This has been further exasperated by statements made by members of the Church hierarchy that either go beyond or further "develop" the teachings represented by Vatican II, as well as the scarcity of corrections issued to those who adopt even the most extreme interpretations or distortions of conciliar documents.
To maintain that the Second Vatican Council was a destructive force which descended upon a glorious Church to usher in the present crisis is to overlook plain and basic facts; but to absolve it from any and all culpability due to the previous existence of problems or a tentative understanding on the nature and outcome of Ecumenical Councils demonstrates an even greater obstinacy.
Essence and Degree
This article began by claiming an essential consistency rather than contradiction between the conservative and traditionalist Catholic mindsets. I believe those differences (for which I have attempted to reasonably present one side) are more in degree and application than essence. In America, these differences are more often than not accentuated by geography - some maintaining a standard of orthodoxy for their parish or diocese, others their nation, and still others the entire Church.
While it is tempting to consider current struggles between traditionalists and conservatives as a continuation of the struggles that were going on around the time of Vatican II between what were then referred to as "conservatives" and "liberals," such a parallel doesn't necessarily hold. Although the positions of many modern conservatives tend to align with those considered to be "liberal" at the time of the Council, the subsequent acceptance of those ideas and philosophies at practically all levels of the Church over the past half century have placed all faithful Catholics in a difficult position. One is now faced with the prospect of evaluating whether what was once considered "liberal" is now accepted as "Catholic," or if he is witnessing a massive disorientation in the Church, as has afflicted the Bride of Christ in centuries past. One of the more tragic consequences of the acknowledged crisis is faithful Catholics, due to authority, loyalty or confusion, accepting practices and teachings which they would have strongly rejected not too many years prior. Nevertheless, it is my belief that many who instinctively defend the Council and the Pope against any and all criticism, would have been among the greatest opponents of modernism a century ago, and would be among the strongest supporters of a future Pope who would undertake drastic measures to reform the Church or implement restorationist liturgical measures.
When I am asked how I came to associate with Catholic traditionalism, I have no particularly dramatic "conversion" story to recount, as my essential attitude and philosophy have remained the same. The transition came in learning more about Church history (particularly the last couple centuries) and, more importantly, developing the courage of my convictions - a willingness to face rather than ignore or make exaggerated excuses for the inconsistencies that lay before me. Indeed, the same beliefs in the central importance of the Mass and the Blessed Sacrament which led me to disdain the sing-along, hand-holding liturgies and widespread "liturgical abuses", also led to a critical outlook on the entire liturgical revolution from which these abuses came. The same objection to watered-down doctrine coming from religious educators and liberal priests foisting their own ideas from the pulpit holds true for those theologians given invitations to assist in Vatican II's mission to appeal to "modern man". And the same dedication to the Catholic Faith displayed by countless missionaries and martyrs who refused to compromise with error or downplay their beliefs, caused uneasiness around those actually apologizing for such past actions or attempting to move into a "new phase of dialogue" with a "new set of rules."
Thus, it is truly tragic that at a time in which most Catholics have developed and supported a moderately to extremely conciliatory attitude towards non-Catholics (even to the point of discouraging individual conversions), traditionalists alone are singled out for the worst derision and ridicule, even by faithful Catholics who recognize the problems before us as having been wrought by liberalism. Although a strong and uncompromising defense of the truth is admirable and necessary in all such debates (and is certainly more honest and effective than embracing insincere compromise for the sake of artificial harmony), Christians also have an obligation to charity and avoiding unnecessary provocation. It should never be forgotten that the Church and the world are in troubled times and that any and all efforts to promote personal sanctity, liturgical reverence, supernatural virtues and the doctrines of the Faith on any level, aid in the restoration of the Bride of Christ.
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