As the Church prepares for the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, I ask: what did Pope John hope for?; also, ‘what unites Hans Küng and Daphne McLeod’?

Pope John XXIII signs the bull convoking the Second Vatican Council (Photo: CNS)

When Pope John XXIII opened the second Vatican Council on October 11 1962 he read the declaration Gaudet Mater Ecclesia before the Council Fathers. This spelled out his intentions for the Council. “In calling this vast assembly of bishops,” he said, he intended “to assert once again the Magisterium [the teaching authority of the Church] which is unfailing and endures until the end of time, in order that this Magisterium, taking into account the errors, the requirements, and the opportunities of our time, might be presented in exceptional form to all men throughout the world.”

The ecumenical councils of the Church, he declared, were the means of establishing the content of this Magisterium; but this teaching now needed to be restated in terms the modern world would understand: it was expected by the “Christian, Catholic, and apostolic spirit of the whole world” that “the teaching of the Church in its entirety and preciseness, as it still shines forth in the Acts of the Council of Trent and [the] First Vatican Council”, should take “a step forward toward a doctrinal penetration and a formation of consciousness in faithful and perfect conformity to the authentic doctrine, which, however, should be studied and expounded through the methods of research and through the literary forms of modern thought. The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another.”

As the Church prepares to celebrate the Council’s 50th anniversary, we have to ask the question: were Pope John’s aspirations fulfilled by what happened in the name of the council itself? As Pope John ended his opening declaration, he did so, it is clear, with huge optimism about its mission and its anticipated achievements: “The Council now beginning,” he said, “rises in the Church like daybreak, a forerunner of most splendid light. It is now only dawn. And already at this first announcement of the rising day, how much sweetness fills our heart.”

Pope John’s aspirations for the council were enunciated clearly enough. How faithful were those who came after him to what should have its spirit? He stressed, it will be noted, the importance of the great councils of the Church, and mentioned as being particularly important the Council of Trent and the first Vatican Council. Unfortunately, as we now know only too well, a considerable number of theologians took it into their heads that Pope John’s call for faithfulness to the Magisterium of the Church (and especially to those two councils) should be sidestepped: theologians like Hans Küng and Edward Schillebeeckx declared that they and their own writings constituted a kind of alternative magisterium. The Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner compared Vatican II with the Council of Jerusalem: the implication was that the council established an entirely new Church, which superseded everything that had come before. The Pope’s call for the study of doctrine “through the methods of research and through the literary forms of modern thought” was taken to justify an actual replacement of the Church’s doctrine by modern thought, wherever these clashed: this was done, it was often declared, in the name of the spirit of Vatican II (rather than of the declarations the Council Fathers actually enunciated).

The results of this attitude, which the present Pope has called a “hermeneutic [ie a method of interpretation] of discontinuity and rupture”, can everywhere be seen. They were spelled out in The Flock recently by Daphne McLeod, who takes a gloomy view of what she believes were the results of the Council itself (rather than of prevailing distortions and misinterpretations of it):

Before Vatican II,” she writes, “we had many priests and religious and plenty of priestly and religious vocations, but now we are very short of both. It is difficult for younger Catholics to realise just how strong the Church was pre-Vatican II. For instance we were blessed to have many Religious Houses offering up constant prayer and doing much good in schools, hospitals and nursing homes. Likewise, no Catholic of the forties and fifties could have envisaged the plight of the Church today. It would have seemed to them an unimaginable catastrophe. Before this Council we had, according to Cardinal Spellman of New York, speaking in 1964, ‘the best informed laity the Church has ever had’, but now, as the Holy Father remarked in 2002 when announcing the committee who would compile the Compendium, ‘there is widespread religious ignorance’.

“Before the Council only 10-15% of Catholic school leavers lapsed – often to return later, so we kept their children when they married. Now over 90% of Catholic school leavers lapse never to return. Thus we also, inevitably, lose their children and their grandchildren.

“In pre-Vatican II days we were constantly building new churches and schools to accommodate our ever-growing Catholic population. Now we are closing many of our beautiful Catholic churches, and Catholic schools have to complete their numbers by taking in children of other faiths or none.”

But there are real questions here. They have often been asked, but are still worth asking again: how much of all this was the result of the Council itself? How much was the result of the way in which Pope John’s intentions were so cynically overridden? And how much, faced by the awesome power of modern secular culture, would have happened anyway? I have no easy answers. Some of it, however, was undoubtedly due to the cynical hijacking of the Council by theologians who were intent on reconstructing Christian belief to conform with modern thought. As a means of renewing the Church “if you can’t beat them, join them” was always doomed to failure; and it caused massive damage, damage which, I firmly believe — thanks to the last two popes — is now being undone. But there is a long way to go.

Ah, well. One amusing little fruit of these gloomy animadversions has been my discovery of something at least that firmly unites Daphne McLeod and Hans Küng: neither of them sees much to celebrate in the Council’s 50th anniversary. “Fifty ‘glorious’ years?” asks Mrs McLeod (clearly what Latin Grammars call “a question inviting a negative answer”). As for Fr Küng, who is not amused by the present Pope’s increasingly successful efforts to undo the distortions of theologians of his ilk, and who never thought that Vatican II went far enough anyway, he isn’t joining in the festivities either.

“I was honoured,” he wrote dyspeptically in May, “to receive the invitation [to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council at the German Katholikentag at Mannheim] but is one really in the mood to celebrate at a time when the Church is in such sore distress?”. “In my opinion,” says Fr Küng in his four-page reply, “here is no reason for a festive Council Gala but rather for an honest service of penance or a funeral service”. Penance, well certainly; we can all do with that. But what would Fr Küng confess, with Vatican II especially in mind? If he would like my guidance, I have one or two suggestions…