“Ask a Priest: Why Was Vatican II Held?”

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Q: I still cannot understand why they called the Second Vatican Council. What was wrong with the Church before? From what I’ve read the ’40s and ’50s were a golden age for the Church, with Mass attendance up, vocations up, Catholic schools packed, donations up. When I ask some priests, all I get was a lot of double talk about “new direction” and “opening windows” (I didn’t know they were closed), and the truth is, after the Council the Church declined. Sounds like the whole thing was a big mistake. When did the Church not take care of the poor or reach out to sinners? I am still confused after 50 years. -D.M.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: You raise a big question – one that has puzzled people for a half-century.

I couldn’t begin to do justice to this issue in such a short answer. But let me offer a few observations.

First, though, let me point you to what some experts have said. You can find the opening address to the Council, given by Pope St. John XXIII to summarize the purpose of the Council and give direction to the Council Fathers, here. You can find the first of a series of reflection on the Council made by Pope Benedict XVI, in which he recalls his own experience and ponders the providential meaning of the Council, here. Now onto some of my own thoughts.

It’s true, Catholicism seemed to be healthy in the 1940s and 1950s, in the U.S. at least. But even here there were weaknesses under the surface. The picture was bleaker in Europe and elsewhere.

The Church, though strong in some areas, sensed that it needed to be more effective in reaching out and evangelizing the wider world. Among the problems: Seminary training was outdated, and the Church was insular in some ways.

With the best of intentions, the bishops at Vatican II wanted to open the Church so as to better dialogue with and evangelize the world. They also wanted to get rid of old practices that weren’t really appropriate in the 20th century (for instance, the style of some nuns’ habits).

The problem is, the Church began to change things just at a moment when the wider world was going through turmoil – the radicalism of the 1960s.

To make a long story short, many Catholics were thrown off balance by the changes, and much of what was called the “spirit of Vatican II” was really a misinterpretation of what the Council Fathers intended. Part of the reason for this is that the Council was conducted in Latin, and the media relied on secondhand translations and “interpretations” of what was going on.

The result was a lot of confusion, and this extended to the identity of religious and priests. The fact that so many nuns and priests left the convent and the rectory in those years was a sign of the weak formation that some of them had – that is why the 1940s and 1950s were not really as solid as they appeared on the surface. Smart bishops and religious – those who were orthodox – had detected those problems. (It is interesting to listen to Fulton Sheen’s talks and how he detected a lot of problems during the “golden age.”)

In short, the implementation of Vatican II was problematic, especially in the West. (Pope John Paul II, in contrast, remembered that implementation of the Council went more smoothly in Poland, but that was a culture in a context that was very different from much of the West.)

Historically it takes awhile for the positive impact of Church councils to be felt. We are seeing some fruits of Vatican II. Seminary formation is generally better. We have the Catechism and many up-to-date catechetical materials to help us.

But admittedly we still have a long way to go. Some of the post-Vatican II damage hasn’t been reversed. We need time to rebuild. (For more reading, see Ralph McInerny’s piece here. He has also written a book on the subject.)

So where do we go from here? We pray. We try to help our parish, our neighbors. We try to live our vocations well. We stay close to the sacraments. We cultivate devotion to Our Lady. We do what we can, and then leave the rest in Our Lord’s hands. It is his Church, and he promised to be with us till the end of the age.

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