My good friend Anthony Esolen wrote an article for Inside the Vatican recently, in which he offered a characteristic criticism of the II Vatican Council. Many of the more conservative, conservative Catholics have discovered the claim that the Council is the real cause of the Church’s problems. They’re not alienated or romantic traditionalists, and not people who’d been looking to complain about the Council. But complain they now do.
Almost all make the post hoc ergo propter hoc claim that very bad things happened after the Council, which must have been the Council’s fault, not just the fault of those who implemented it. They mix this with a genealogy of a “modernist” coup, based on the politics behind the conciliar deliberations.
Predictably, my friend’s attempt failed. That line of critique doesn’t work, because the question of the Council’s effect is much more complicated than the critical narrative allows. (I should note that he wrote a follow-up essay on the need for restoration, with which I fully agree.)
The Church did suffer serious traumas and acts of destruction from both over-optimistic and malign churchmen. The abrupt, forced switch to the new Mass was an act of gross pastoral incompetence, at least, and one contradictory to the Council. It disconnected huge numbers of Catholics from their faith.
Many or most of the other changes would have come anyway. Determining what fruits a Council had is a great deal harder than noting some of the good things that existed before it and some of the bad things that happened afterward.
Esolen blames the Council for “the abandonment of the Christian sexual ethic that had shed its sweet light upon the lives of ordinary Christians, and had trained them up in virtue and sanctity.” Leave aside the question of how much this ethic actually characterized the Church before the Council. How Catholics’ embrace of the revolution is the Council’s fault is not the least bit clear.
The thing had other, more obvious causes. Especially the appearance of the contraceptive pill in 1960. The easy, private, socially approved way of enjoying sex without adding children provided by the pill by itself deeply challenged the Church and her teaching.
The pill seemed to provide an obvious good, when the good the Church’s teaching offered wasn’t so obvious. It seems like a little thing, a practical and prudent accommodation to circumstance, the only way to provide and protect the life your family needed. And if another pregnancy would endanger the wife’s health or life, or financially wreck the family, couples could easily have rationalized using the pill.
Young couples had been taught the rules against it, but not given a compelling vision of the reason for the rule. The world made worldliness rewarding. The Church before the Council didn’t offer much reason to resist it.
Once a couple decides to break with the Church there, in so intimate an area of their lives, they would have found it easier to break on others. Especially as Catholics were growing in affluence and status and adopting new identities in new social worlds — in the US, they were essentially becoming WASPs — that expected and almost required limiting the number of children you had.
This is the kind of social and historical reality for which you must account before you make sweeping declarations about the effects of the Council.
When we discussed his article, my friend compared the periods after Trent and Vatican I to the period after Vatican II. The fruits of the first two “were pretty immediately visible in terms of new orders being established, old orders being reformed, bursts of artistic inspiration, and schools and other institutions being founded. From Trent you get Palestrina, Tallis, Victoria, Allegri and the rest, and Tintoretto, Caravaggio, El Greco, and Tasso among the poets.” Vatican I produced similar fruits.
In subsequent public discussion, he described the Church before Vatican II as “on the move.” He mentioned the new orders created by saints like John Bosco, Jose Maria Escriva, and Mother Theresa. And the “powerful Catholic social movements,” like Catholic Action and the Knights of Columbus. A “little renaissance of Catholic arts and letters” included Chesterton, Bloy, Maritain, Gilson, Marcel, Guardini, Undset, Sienkiewicz, Mauriac, Tolkien, O’Connor.
Impressive and a great blessing. Still, the comparison isn’t convincing. If you mean all the bad things going on in the Church at the moment, it’s unfair to call that “Vatican II,” unless you call all the bad things that went on before it “Vatican I.” What, about the hugely popular Fr. Coughlin and the popular Fr. Feeney?
They were on the move too.
In other words, the line of critique doesn’t account for the pre-conciliar historical reality. If Trent produced Palestrina et al., what about the Lutherans producing Bach a hundred years later? Is his genius evidence for the glories of the Reformation? Are the literary glories of the Book of Common Prayer and the Kings James Bible evidence of Protestantism’s magnificent success?
How did the world of the time move the Church? In the case of Trent, for example, how much had the rise of Protestantism concentrated the Catholic mind wonderfully? What effect did suddenly having competition have, and how were Catholics invigorated by having a visible enemy to fight? How much was the Church advanced by a general spirit of religion? And how many bad things went wrong?
Esolen holds up the effects of Vatican I. Even assuming he’s right about the cause, almost all the great things he lists came before World War II. That’s a crucial point. The trauma and social dislocation of that war, followed by astonishing economic growth, inevitably had a great effect on Catholic practice. In the United States, it pushed Catholics out of their protective ghetto and into the mainstream. As Scripture makes clear, prosperity is usually bad for the soul, and sudden prosperity must be even worse.
The seventeen years from the end of the war to the opening of the Council is something its critics don’t seem to have considered. They transformed the West. The Church in 1962, in the West, was already not the old Church Esolen and critics like him lionize.
There’s one final question such critics don’t ask: How inculturated and weak the traditionalist-valorized pre-Vatican II Church in the West had to be, that it could fall apart so fast?
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