Vatican II: the View From the Pew

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In honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Second Vatican Council, I’ve begun reading John O’Malley’s magisterial history, What Happened at Vatican II.  It’s a fascinating chronicle of the great theological earthquake that shook the Church to its foundations, throwing open doors to let fresh air into dusty mausoleums but also, at the same time, knocking down priceless works of art that had taken centuries to create.

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Like most ordinary Catholics over the age of fifty, I lived through it all on the street level, up close and personal:  the myriad changes to the Mass… the nuns casting off their dignified old habits and dressing like school marms… the questioning of virtually everything… the rediscovery of the Church’s mission to the poor and re-commitment to peace… the counter-reformation… the culture wars… all the battles over contraception and divorce and abortion.

I can honestly say that it was a wonderful time to live through.  My generation had a taste of the old and lived through the rebuilding of the new.  We started out in Catholic parochial school saying the Mass prayers in Latin and ended it saying them in Swahili (Kumbaya, My Lord, Kumbaya!).

With the exception of the unexpected catastrophe of the sexual abuse crisis, all of these upheavals have created, I believe, a Catholic Church that is now stronger, more intellectually coherent, more faithful to the Gospel and more capable of enduring the 21st century than what existed before.

Of course, we were all just getting back on our feet again in the 1980s and ‘90s, with a new confidence and energy, when the sexual abuse crisis hit like a cancer diagnosis.  Like cancer, it is life-threatening, terrifying and will leave us weaker than we would have been otherwise… but ultimately, with luck and a lot of chemo, we will survive even this.  (Or maybe not.  You never know with cancer!)

At first, I was on the side of the crazy liberals in the Church.  When I was thirteen or fourteen, I thought like liberals did and liked everything new and radical and distrusted anything that smacked of the “old” Church.  The Jesuits in my Catholic high school were stuffing us all full of liberal theology (watered down, of course) from the likes of Karl Rahner, Bernard Haring and Hans Küng.  We played guitar at the high school midnight Mass on Saturdays, hearing tales of the Berrigan brothers and Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker (still heroes of mine).  Everything was experimental, a work in progress.  My high school religion teacher practiced Transcendental Meditation and was into the Charismatic Renewal, even speaking in tongues.  I remember being greatly affected by the writing of a (now ex-) priest, Anthony Padavano, and by the strange Jesuit mystic and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

But by the time many of us got to college, in the mid-1970s, we were already becoming a little skeptical of the whole “scorched earth” liberal agenda.  Many of us began to notice some of the destruction the post-conciliar wrecking ball had left in its wake.  We would walk by (metaphorically speaking) the ruins of old cathedrals and see discarded statutes by the likes of Michelangelo and Donatello lying face down in the dirt – and would ask, Gee, did we have to throw these away, too?

The truth is, Vatican II was a little like the French Revolution – freeing prisoners in the Bastille but also setting up a guillotine in every square.   When things settled down in the 1980s, my generation began to question the questioners, to assess what was gained and what was lost in the revolution.   We read books by the Catholic counter-revolutionaries, such as James Hitchcock’s The Rise and Fall of Radical Catholicism, Garry Wills’ Bare Ruined Choirs and Anne Roche Muggeridge’s The Desolate City.  Some of my friends became more critical of the post-conciliar Church and more open to at least listening to what traditional Catholicism had to say.  Around that time, in the late 1970s, I penned a series of articles about what was lost in what we called then the New Mass, even daring to suggest that the Jesuit liturgies in the “liturgical center” were so informal and irreverent they seemed more like a cocktail party than an act of worship.

Yet, most people I knew could never bring themselves to join the conservative wing of the Church – represented by, say, The Wanderer newspaper or Catholics United for the Faith (CUF).  Intellectually, we remained unregenerate “liberals” on basic principles:  We instinctively knew that fundamentalism of any sort (either Biblical or theological) was untenable and that science and historical scholarship would strengthen, not weaken, Christian faith.  But we were becoming, I suppose, aesthetic conservatives, people who found the modern efforts at liturgy and church architecture to be decidedly inferior to what was found in the past.  I guess this made us Anglicans, people with radical theology but a preference for tradition and good taste.

When John Paul II arrived on the scene, however, all that changed.  He was and remains the greatest hero of my generation of Catholics.  We were lucky to live during an age of living saints, John Paul the Great and Mother Teresa.  JP II represented everything my friends and I thought the Church should be – intellectually daring, open to new ideas, fluent in many languages, willing to talk to and even pray with representatives of all the major religions, yet mindful of Church tradition and a guardian of the deposit of Faith passed on for millennia.

Nutty liberals attacked John Paul as an “arch-conservative,” because he wouldn’t change ancient Church teaching on women priests, homosexuality and abortion, but in fact John Paul was the closest thing to a centrist the Church has ever seen.  As I was writing for Catholic magazines and raising a family, I was definitely a “John Paul II Catholic” – which meant I was fully supportive of Vatican II and opposed efforts to return to a “1950s Catholicism” or a Latin Mass traditionalism (although I sometimes went to Tridentine liturgies to see what they were like).

Like many people in those years, my friends and I were all enthralled by the “new movements” in European Catholicism, groups like Comunione e Liberazione, precisely because they seemed to chart a middle course between the dour fundamentalism of conservatives (represented by The Wanderer) and the “anything goes” liberalism of left-wing “cafeteria” Catholics (represented by the National Catholic Reporter).  We were also greatly influenced by Catholic neo-conservatives (neo-conservative not in a political but religious sense) such as Michael Novak, George Weigel and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, and their journals, Crisis and First Things.

That still represents more or less where I situate myself today:  pretty much smack dab in the middle theologically and politically.  I am a thorough “liberal” when it comes to Biblical studies and scientific issues like evolution and cosmology; yet I remain “conservative” in that I don’t think the Church can or should change its moral teachings on divorce, homosexuality or abortion.  The older I get, the more I prefer Gregorian Chant to rock guitar music; yet I remain as opposed to a fundamentalist perspective on the Bible and Church teaching as ever.

I suppose the main way my friends and I are different today than when we were younger is that we are a little more battered by life and therefore less righteous, a little more aware of the price paid for tradition — and not by us!  In this, we are like a lot of older priests I know.  They are world weary, a bit exhausted, but do their best to be kind.  For example, while I don’t think the Church should change its teaching on the indissolubility of authentic sacramental marriages – Jesus’s “exception” was not for “adultery” as most English translations have it but for porneia, meaning informal common law marriages or people “shacking up” – I have friends and family members, not to mention my own parents, who are divorced.  As a result, we have to find ways to help divorced people live within the arms of the Church with dignity and grace.  The same thing is true for gay people.  I’m not sure how we do that – and I remain opposed to gay marriage – but do it we must.

In the end, I am grateful for the creative whirlwind that was the Second Vatican Council, despite some of the wreckage that came in its wake… and grateful for the millions of faithful Catholics who cheerfully live with its contradictions and internal tensions to this day.  We’re all just muddling through, doing our best to separate the wheat from the chaff, trying to discern what is an authentic development of doctrine and what is a dead-end.  Bishops and theologians argue about these matters, but we laity vote with our feet.  It’s been a wild ride these past fifty years and I can’t wait to see what the next fifty years brings.

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Robert J. Hutchinson is an author and essayist. His most recent book is Searching for Jesus: New Discoveries in the Quest for Jesus of Nazareth (Thomas Nelson, 2015).