I entered the Catholic Church in 1993, during the height of the Pope John Paul II papacy. Just a few months after I was received into the Church, I attended World Youth Day in Denver, along with a million other enthusiastic young Catholics. So it should be no surprise that I was unabashedly a “JPII Catholic,” which meant, among other things, that I was a happy defender of Vatican II, while being a critic of what I perceived as its bad implementation. Then in the 2000’s I supported Pope Benedict’s “Reform of the Reform”—his call to rethink, but not cast away, the reforms that came out of Vatican II (i.e., its implementation). No matter how critical I might have been of what happened in the Church following the Council, I was nevertheless an ardent defender of Vatican II.
My defense of the Council led me to study the Council documents thoroughly, even taking a graduate-level course devoted solely to reading and interpreting those documents. The course was taught by another “JPII Catholic” who also loved the Council but lamented its implementation. We spent a whole semester diving into the documents and determining their “true interpretation” and how they should have been implemented. Following that course I continued to study the council texts, and I continued to believe the implementation, not the Council itself, was the only problem. I continued to be an ardent defender of Vatican II.
But now I’m not.
How did I go from being a defender of Vatican II to a critic? First, let me note that “critic” is a broad term and can mean many things. It could mean one thinks the Council is invalid or heretical. It could mean the critic thinks Vatican II was ambiguous or imprudent. But ultimately, it means the person is willing to criticize the Council itself, not just its implementation. In my case, I do not think Vatican II was invalid; nor do I believe it heretical (although certain passages can be interpreted in ways that support heresy). I argue that the council texts are at times intentionally ambiguous, imprudent, and in tension with a historic understanding of Catholicism.
So what led me to become critical of Vatican II itself, and not just its implementation? A number of factors led to the change. The first was simply practical. For decades I have worked in Catholic evangelization, at the personal, parish, and diocesan levels. I’ve read all the modern Catholic books on how best to bring people to the Faith, and checked out the various movements and programs of the “New Evangelization” that promote Catholicism today. We’re spending a lot of energy trying to bring people to the Church, but, if we look honestly at the numbers, the New Evangelization, founded on Vatican II, has been an abysmal failure. It doesn’t work, at least not on any macro level. I even wrote a book about this phenomenon.
Conservative pro-Vatican II Catholics like to point out that liberal Vatican II Catholics don’t produce converts, but here’s a little secret: conservative pro-Vatican II Catholics, while bringing in a few converts, don’t hold back the tidal wave of Catholics leaving the Church. No matter how you present Vatican II Catholicism, the result is a rapidly shrinking Church.
Can You Hijack Yourself?
But my real epiphany when it came to Vatican II was the realization (which is quite obvious in hindsight) that the implementers of Vatican II were the Council Fathers themselves. This point cannot be overemphasized. The standard line for conservative defenders of Vatican II is that the implementation was “hijacked.” By this, they mean that certain forces within the Church used Vatican II to implement their own agenda, one that was supposedly contrary to the Council itself.
Yet this argument, while commonly advocated, stretches credulity to a breaking point. After all, who were these supposedly nefarious implementers? Vatican II was implemented by the Cardinals and bishops of the Church, the same men who were responsible for writing and approving the Council documents. How is it that 99% of these Council Fathers misinterpreted their own documents? Did they not understand what they were voting for? Was there some mass delusion that occurred among the episcopate as soon as the Council ended whereby they thought the documents now said things they never meant?
Clearly that’s absurd. The reality is that the men who wrote, debated, and approved the 16 documents of Vatican II were the same men who returned to their dioceses and implemented those documents. And with only a few exceptions, they all implemented them in the exact same way—the way that led to the post-Vatican II “Dark Ages” of the 1970’s, which is still the foundation of today’s average Catholic parish. They all embraced the New Mass; they all embraced the ecumenical movement; they all embraced interreligious dialogue; they all embraced transforming the Catholic Church into another mainline Protestant denomination.
It seems to me the height of arrogance for Catholics today to look back and say the Council’s implementation was “hijacked.” If it was hijacked, then it was hijacked by the rightful owners—the Council Fathers. How exactly is that a hijacking? The implementation of Vatican II is of a whole with the Council itself; it is a feature, not a bug, of the Council. To criticize the implementation is to criticize the foundation of the implementation: the Council documents.
Replacing the Creaky Foundation
For decades a fierce debate about the way forward for the crumbling Catholic Church has raged between those who want to continue the implementation of Vatican II as it has been going on for 50+ years, and those who want to have a new implementation of Vatican II. Yet very few within the Church hierarchy want to admit that perhaps the issue isn’t the implementation of Vatican II, but the Council itself. Catholics today must have the courage to admit that a primary reason the modern Church is crumbling is that it’s been built upon a creaky foundation: Vatican II. Until we recognize that fact, we’ll never be able to move forward and rebuild the Church, which is falling into ruin.