Vatican II and the Crisis of Confusion in American Catholicism

Donald J. Thorman: “It seems to me that if labels are useful, the one I’d have to pin on today’s laity: The Uncertain Catholic. The characteristic note of today’s American Catholic is confusion, indecision; we are treading water, waiting, wondering what is going to happen next. This is the age of the question mark. We no longer feel certain we have all the answers to all of men’s problems. We are no longer certain if we know all the right questions.” (America, Jan. 14, 1967, p.39)

Celledoor Miscellany has reposted these historic articles from back issues of Life magazine, which I highly commend to your attention. They give a vivid insight into the collapse of the ecclesiastical ancien régime following the Second Vatican Council and the internal turmoil facing the Church in the United States. Overall they make for very depressing reading.

I recently happened upon a succinct but comprehensive little booklet, concerning the same theme, entitled Keeping Your Balance in the Modern Church by Fr. Hugh J. O’Connell, C.SS.R., PhD. It was published in 1968 by Liguorian Pamphlets and bears the imprimatur of the Archbishop of St Louis, John J. Carberry. (Interestingly my pamphlet is also signed in pen by the conservative Archbishop John Charles McQuaid of Dublin.) It is a must read for any Catholic who has ever asked himself: ‘How did everything that was so good get so bad?’ While Fr. O’Connell’s pamphlet is largely specific to the American situation, it seems to me that strong parallels existed between all the churches of the English-speaking countries. All these local churches were dominated by Irish immigrants or their descendants in countries which had remained unconquered by Nazi Germany during the Second World War, and where there existed no serious prospect of a communist takeover. None of these characteristics hold true for the countries of the Rhine basin, whose prelates led the push for change in the Church at the Second Vatican Council. Furthermore all the English-speaking local churches were known to have exhibited comparatively less enthusiasm for the pre-conciliar ressourcement and liturgical movements while (or perhaps because) they were still able to boast of high levels of Mass attendance, vocations, popular catechetical knowledge and devotional practice.

Fr. O’Connell contends that the American Catholic Church was caught off guard by the Second Vatican Council:

The Church in North America — laity, priests, nuns and even bishops — was almost completely unprepared for the way things turned out at Vatican Council II. This was the result of a number of factors.

1) Americans had remained relatively untouched by World War II. They experienced little of the ferment and unrest, the need to reassert the value of the individual person, which in Europe flowed from the struggle against Nazism and Fascism.

2) Americans, including theologians and bishops, had little or no acquaintance with the new personalist and existentialist philosophy. This had been developed in Europe, chiefly outside the church. Introduced by certain European theologians, this philosophy exerted a powerful influence on the deliberations of Vatican II and on Catholic life and teaching since the Council.

3) American Catholics were for the most part unaware of the writings of Protestant theologians, both orthodox and liberal. The ecumenical temper of the times brought these ideas to the attention of Catholic theologians, particularly in Germany, France and Holland.

Fr. O’Connell believes that the breakdown of theological censorship has facilitated doctrinal dissent and spread confusion among ordinary lay Catholics:

A good many of the religious problems of the average Catholic laymen, priests and nuns, who make no claim to be specialists or scholars, stem from the new air of freedom of theological thought and discussion resulting from Vatican II.

[…] The great danger, as every reasonable man must recognize, is that freedom brings with it the possibility that it will be abused. In the days before Vatican II, there was actually a very considerable amount of theological speculation and innovation; there were battles quite as heated as those going on today. The only difference was that such ideas were quietly presented in theological journals, and were subjected by experts to analysis and investigation, to weighing of reasons pro and con, to a more or less general acceptance or rejection by qualified theologians before they ever came to public attention.

Moreover, among Catholics the shock of new religious ideas on the minds of those who were not experts was cushioned by the censorship of books and articles and by the index of prohibited books. Before a book treating on religion could be published by a Catholic, it had to be submitted for censorship in order to obtain an imprimatur. If the book was considered to contain opinions contrary to Catholic doctrine, to the decrees of the Holy See, or even too wild and revolutionary, permission to print would be denied. To the liberal, who claimed the right to make up his own mind about religious truth, such censorship was intolerable. To the person who felt no competence to judge between truth and error in complex religious questions, it was a comfort.

Fr. O’Connell is convinced that the actual documents of the Second Vatican Council are capable of an orthodox interpretation, though a tinge of regret for their formulation is easily discernible. He likens the conciliar Fathers’ critical adoption of personalism to St. Augustine’s critical use of Plato or St. Thomas Aquinas’ blending of Aristotelian philosophy with Christian revelation.

Then came Vatican II. We have described how the North European group of bishops, headed by Germany and France, exerted a dominant influence in the Council. Moreover, their theologians wrote the revised versions of the more important schemas which served as basis of discussion in the Council. As a result, these schemas reflected a strong tone of personalism.

Of course, as was mentioned before, these documents were debated by bishops of every caste of mind. Some of the schemas were sent back for correction four or five times. The final version blended both the new personalism and the traditional acceptance of objective truth.

Posted on May 17, 2011, in Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, Media Archives, Missionaries, Modernism, Second Vatican Council, Traditionalism. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I think without Vatican II the losses to the church would have been huge during the 60’s and 70’s and the gains from Protestant churches in recent years would have been nonexistant. I embrace the movement towards a higher mass by Pope Benedict, but would never have converted to a church whose service as in a foriegn language, where the priest faced the wall and muttered quickly and even the Bible was not read in English. I have visited some Latin Masses both Tridentine (approved only) or Novus Ordo and found that the priests mumbled and rushed through the liturgy so that I could not figure out where in the Mass we were. One exception was at the Cathedral in Austin Texas, which was simply beautiful. I do not believe my local parish in my small town would do a good job of this though. Only the Catholic church still holds that we should not use birth control, that we should be chaste until marriage and that divorce is sin and that marriage is indissoluable. We lost a few who could not change at Vatican II. I think we could have lost whole nations without it.

  2. Alex, there is an interesting article in the March-April edition of the Brandsma Review. The author, David Manly, takes the same view you do and argues that Vatican II was both ‘necessary’ and ‘providential’. He is taken to task by the editor, Nick Lowry, in the editorial section:

    […] Vatican II issued no anathemata aimed at dissenters. I remain open to correction, but I believe its pronouncements command respect, religiosum obsequium, but no more, just as those enacted by the Council of Vienne in 1311 did in 1361 — and presumably still do. I can appeal to the opinion of one at least of the Council Fathers — the late Archbishop Thomas Morris of Cashel, in a statement to Kieron Wood, former Religious Affairs Correspondent of Radio-Telefís Éireann:

    I was relieved when we were told that this Council was not aimed at defining or giving final statements on doctrine, because a statement of doctrine has to be very carefully formulated and I would have regarded the Council documents as tentative and liable to be reformed.

    One of the theologians mentioned by David is Pére Louis Bouyer, whom I once met briefly in Oxford when he came to address the Catholic undergraduates. Pére Bouyer, a Lutheran convert, was initially enthusiastic about the Council and had some influence on its proceedings. By 1969 he was somewhat disillusioned, even writing a book in which he stated:

    Unless we are blind, we must even state bluntly that what we see looks less like the hoped-for regeneration of Catholicism than its accelerated decomposition…I do not know whether, as we are told, the Council has freed us from the tyranny of the Roman Curia, but what is sure is that, willy-nilly, it has handed us over (after having first surrendered itself) to the dictatorship of the journalists, and particularly the most incompetent and irresponsible among them (The Decomposition of Catholicism, Franciscan Herald Press, pp. 1-3)

    David believes that because of the cultural upheaval of the 1960s, much of the damage to the Catholic Church that followed the Council — which he frankly admits — might well have occurred anyway. More than 10 years ago, in our Issue 44, my colleague Jim Lothian [Distinguished Professor of Finance at Fordham University] used his formidable statistical skills to demonstrate that this is a most unlikely thesis. In the first place, he showed that immediately after Vatican II there was a sharp fall in Mass attendance, both in the United States and in Britain. Not conclusive, you might say, but note this: at that time there was no corresponding steep decline of religious practice among American Protestants, who were equally exposed to the cultural upheaval. And the sudden rapid dip in Mass attendance figures in the US was replicated in England and Wales.

    What was uniquely damaging about Vatican II was the way its ambiguities tended to destroy what might be called the Church’s auto-immune system, allowing all sorts of modernistic viruses to enter the body ecclesiastic. In the worst of previous crises, such as the Albigensian heresy, the Great Schism and the Reformation, the Church was able to recover because it retained the power to defend itself against attacks from within. It will of course eventually regain the ability to expel these viruses, but that looks like taking a very long time — maybe even centuries.

  3. It would have been a blessing, NOT to receive Protestants in the fold in such numbers and with such reputations – Newt Gingrich, Tony Blair … to name a few. Even those who were born into the Catholic Faith Nancy Pelosi, Ted Kennedy, should have been appropriately excommunicated from the Catholic Faith years ago, the moment they first entered politics. Men such as these have done more eternal harm to millions of innocent, by suggesting that good is evil and evil is therefore good.

    The above “Amen” to the issue of the confusion that Vatican II has produced, is the baseline for the large number of those who no longer believe in a faith called Catholic. Vatican II is not Catholic it is for all practical purposes all other religions combined except Catholic. They call it ecumenical in nature; however, it is neither natural, nor supernatural for the Catholic Faith to be ecumenical. That which is Catholic is a faith whose purpose is to save each and every soul from eternal damnation. The Catholic Faith – a gift from Heaven. Vatican II… effectively a curse from hell.

    The likelihood of saving even those who believed in the Pre-Vatican II faith was always considered small in quantity, I speak of the word of Our Lady the Mother of God who showed the children of Fatima the thousands who entered Hell every moment of every day. Now, because of Vatican II and the great loss of Catholic faith that has occurred, how many more have lost the gift of Heaven let alone Purgatory. Few if anyone who lives today has a blessed chance to live in adoration of God for eternity! Many subjectively believe that they will live in Heaven for eternity. Many God have mercy on their souls! Hell is confusion, is ambiguous, is chaos!

    The changes in the Catholic Church has produced which could be listed as a State owned, Hebrew owned, Libertarian owned vehicle which stimulates sensibilities and denies sound wisdom. The Catholic Church no longer exists visibly in its Cathedrals and Chapels. Sure there are a few, but only a few. It does no longer exist in its Shepard’s who are now mere hirelings. It does exist in those who still have the faith.

    The States believe that the unnatural and the natural are one and the same. Hebrew’s believe that justice demands that truth be silence. Libertarians believe that their unrestricted freedoms can justify their malicious behaviors toward their fellow man.

    Non-believers have NO chance for Heaven, least of all those whose purpose has always been the destruction of Catholicism. Protestants believe their opinion is more important than the will of God. So by the grace of God, may those few men of good will, and all those who still have a morsel of the faith be blessed not because of Vatican II but in spite of it. May the humble sinners prayer, be heard by the Almighty All seeing Wonderful Creator God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. Likewise may those who have and are responsible for the production of the Confusion of Vatican II receive their just rewards?

  4. Vatican II was certainly the French Revolution “inside” the Roman Catholic Church! Check out the information documented by Fr. Luigi Villa on the VII Popes at:

  5. **********************************************

    Regarding a deleted comment: Mark thanks very much for the link but it’s very off topic.

  6. Hello Alex,

    Your chief impression of Vatican II seems to be the changes to the liturgy, and your chief impression of the changes to the liturgy seems to be the shift in language. This is understandable, since to the typical Catholic, these are the most readily noticeable.

    Of course, the liturgy was only one of the many issues addressed by the Council – and I can only echo Shane’s comment on these larger issues. But to the extent that it did address the liturgy – in the constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium – it qualified the permissibility of some extension of the use of vernacular with a critical reservation: “Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.” (SC 36). But as with its admonition that Gregorian chant be given “pride of place” in sacred music, this requirement was quickly reduced to a nullity by bishops’ conferences – and a Vatican unwilling to enforce the provisions.

    I think the language issue is a chimera, however. Let us concede that a liturgy mostly in the vernacular will be and is much more accessible to Catholics and converts than an all-Latin one. If this had been all or most of what had been changed – let us say, the traditional Roman Rite simply translated into an accurate and noble English, along the lines of the Anglican Knott missal -we would be in a very different place from where we are now. But this was only the tip of the iceberg of what was altered in the new mass, even in its most traditional celebration.

    This is a critical point. Firstly because a Church willing to alter so radically its ancient and organically developed liturgy at a stroke – in frequent violation of its own principles – calls into question its constancy. Secondly because the profoundly anthropocentric orientation of so many of the new prayers of the mass (and in its rubrics, as in the turning of the celebrant priest toward the congregation you allude to, thus losing the common orientation toward the Lord that has marked the mass East and West since the beginning, to say nothing of creating great temptations to the priest to “perform”) results in a significantly new theological emphasis that may have less powers of resistance to the atomistic and secular society in which it is celebrated.

    We can only speculate how many might have left or joined the Catholic Church had there been no Council and no changes to the mass (I think there would have been significant defections and upheaval no matter what, given the cultural revolution underway). But I think it is unwarranted to assume that such a radical upheaval in the liturgy was necessary to improve either phenomenon, or that many (not all, perhaps, but a great many) of these changes were in fact theologically desirable at all.

  7. I am a recent convert too and I agree with the above comment of Richard M. I am
    shocked at the way Mass is celebrated in most parishes, it is a scandal. Having the
    Mass in Latin would not have kept me out of the church.

    • Hello Patrick,

      I regularly attend the Extraordinary Form now, partly for the same concerns you’ve, and I have to say I’m mystified by Alex’s comment about “mumbled” Latin. Whatever else is true, the traditional mass is almost always celebrated now, because those who actually celebrate it care enough to do it well.

      But yes, I’ve seen my share of truly banal new masses, especially in suburban parishes. It’s a shame. It does not have to be this way. It was not *supposed* to be this way.

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