Second Vatican Council at 50

AP In this picture made available by the Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano, Pope Benedict XVI greets the faithful after the … Continued


In this picture made available by the Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano, Pope Benedict XVI greets the faithful after the Urbi and Orbi blessing at the end of the Easter Mass in St. Peter’s Square at the the Vatican Sunday, April 8, 2012.

Fifty years ago today the Second Vatican Council began with a clear indication of who had gained control of the Catholic Church’s direction. From the Latin Mass to meatless Fridays to the concept of salvation, numerous components of the faith were set to be reformed, led mostly by clerical academics who had served on preparatory commissions. So powerful were they that Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, a conservative who headed what is now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (which the future Pope Benedict XVI would later lead), was vocally heckled and silenced by his participating colleagues.

As described to journalist Robert Moynihan by Monsignor Brunero Gherardini, who attended the council and lives at the Vatican, Cardinal Ottaviani was addressing the 2,000 assembled bishops in October 1962: “As he speaks, pleading for the bishops to consider the texts the curia has spent three years preparing, suddenly his microphone was shut off. He kept speaking, but no one could hear a word. Then, puzzled and flustered, he stopped speaking, in confusion. And the assembled fathers began to laugh, and then to cheer…” This was on day three.

It turns out, according to Monsignor Gherardini, that it was Cardinal Achille Lienart, a leading liberal from France serving on Vatican II’s board of presidency, who cut Cardinal Ottaviani’s microphone. Ottaviani would later author a major critique of the vernacular Mass that came out of the council, a plea to Pope Paul VI that fell on deaf ears.

Some of the reformist-oriented clergy participating in the Second Vatican Council would eventually rise through the ranks of the Catholic Church. Karol Wojtyla (the future John Paul II), who was a young archbishop in Cracow, was seen as the liberal counterweight to Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, who was the conservative, yet popular, primate of Poland. Father Joseph Ratzinger (the future Benedict XVI), was the periti (theological expert) for Cardinal Joseph Frings of Cologne, writing the cardinal’s speeches for the council, including one calling Cardinal Ottaviani’s Vatican office too traditional and authoritative. Even though Raztinger had been ordained a priest over a decade ago, his attire throughout the Second Vatican Council was a secular business suit and necktie.

The results of holding a council during prosperity in order to modernize the institution quickly became disastrous. While countless priests, brothers and nuns quit, most Catholics stopped attending Mass and the remaining Catholics largely embraced dissent. Even Pope Paul VI, who led most of Vatican II, reflected 10 years after the council’s opening with an infamous observation that “from some fissure the smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God.”

Fast-forwarding, the Latin Mass has made a comeback, in part because of the rightward-drifting Pope Benedict. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, head of the church in the U.S., writes about restoring meatless Fridays and fasting. And the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), a traditionalist order of priests, has forced the Vatican to address the substance of the Second Vatican Council. Religious liberty and the Mass are at the heart of the talks, including whether the SSPX is permitted to simply ignore these pastoral (as compared to dogmatic) writings. Ecumenism, which was called “the enemy of the Immaculata” by Saint Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan priest killed in a Nazi concentration camp, is being weighed and discussed after 40 years of visits to mosques, temples and other non-Catholic houses of worship with little conversions as a result. To contrast, when Pope Pius XII negotiated with the chief rabbi of Rome, the rabbi converted to Catholicism and chose Pius’ name of Eugenio as he was christened.

Defenders of the Second Vatican Council from a center-right perspective have insisted that nearly all negative indicators of the Catholic Church have stemmed from the “spirit of the Council.” As seminaries continue to close (all but one remains in Ireland), parishes continue to merge and convents are redeveloped, a key question ought to be what tangible, positive results have occurred in those five decades. No one has been able to point to an actual statistical benefit of Vatican II and its 16 documents. Ironically, the only current growth in vocations is in religious orders such as the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter that reject the new Mass and most of the liberalizations of Vatican II.

Fifty years later, the greatest accomplishment that can be said for the Second Vatican Council is Pope John XXIII’s stated goal to “throw open the windows of the Church.” Yet from conversions to Mass attendance, it has produced nothing measurable in the upward direction. Perhaps traditionalist Catholics, led by the SSPX, are onto something when they call into question the council itself. Their solution is for the pope to simply erase all 16 Vatican II documents and restore the liturgy, teachings and discipline in place before the collapse of all that was considered good and holy in 1962.

Wolfe is a columnist for traditionalist Catholic publications..

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  • thebobbob

    The rise of radical rightwing Catholicism mirrors the rise of fundamentalist religious organizations world-wide.Embracing irrationality, fantasy and political control, when there is no Reason in belief, is their only option.

  • Belloc

    One of Many,

    At my FSSP, where the Latin Mass is celebrated, each Sunday I see over three hundred souls gather for Mass. 70 percent of them are under 50 years old. Most under 40 have large families of five or more children. Currently, I teach confirmation class to fourteen year-olds. All of them, before class even began, could recite the Precepts of the Church, the Ten Commandments, the Works of Mercy, and describe the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Redemption, and the nature of the Mass.

    My two sons, ages 15 and 18, have served the Mass for seven years. While living in a perfectly “normal” house where we watch TV, use the Internet, and laugh often, my boys have developed a rich devotional life. They’re convinced of the truth of their Catholic faith, and apply it in charity to those they encounter.

    What has been lost, has been recovered. It’s a swelling and glorious wave, blessed by God. “Dark Age Standard Time?” My heart truly breaks for you.

  • Loyolakiper

    This is a phenomenal article and worth the read. The Church need to remember her dignity and from Whom and for Whom she exists…

  • annedanielson

    One need only look at the fruits that came from Vatican II to understand there is no debate. Communion with Christ is not a matter of degree. You are either with Christ or against Him. Vatican II may have thrown open the windows to The Catholic Church, but at the same time it closed her doors so that those who had left His Church spiritually, could remain within His Church physically, causing chaos and confusion while leading many astray.

  • janet_baker76

    This is a good article! Some of the comments, not so much. Benedict XVI is in no way traditional, he is simply willing to use tradition to try to stop the bleeding. He wishes, apparently, to make a new ‘new mass,’ one which uses elements of the traditional sacrifice to cover the protestant capitulations of the new one. His letters and encyclicals, however, continue the direction set by the Council, and when addressed to the Middle East where he urges Muslims to be open to the ‘Good Secularism’ even as Catholicism was, he infuriates them and makes the situation very much worse for Christians there. It was always Catholicism’sperfectly common-sense teaching that there cannot be a separation of Church and state in the matter of morality, and the last fifty years of unrelenting profit-taking on the backs of the poor have proved the point that the Ten Commandments need to be in every school room–and every bank wall. We are in economic and social free fall in the absence of a coherent morality, which Islam can clearly see. It is the principal fuel source for their ‘fundamentalism.’The Catholic Church has become the opening act for a society filled with horror. Benedict is the elder liberal now, celebrating the Council’s fiftieth year and still spouting off about what a springtime it has brought to the world, but more and more theologians, not just SSPX (God bless and keep them) are simply recognizing what a load of cowardice it was.

  • Jackson K. Eskew

    Many thanks to the editor for publishing this. How refreshing it is to see such a clear-sighted article about Vatican II in a major newspaper like The WP. Usually we see only articles from the usual suspects lauding the “new springtime” of Vatican II. It seems that their smokescreens are dissipating as the unmitigated disaster of Vatican II is becoming increasingly undeniable.

    For those interested in going deeper into the conciliar catastrophe, see these books:

    -The Rhine Flows into the Tiber, by Ralph Wiltgen

    -Iota Unum: A Study of Changes in the Catholic Church in the Twentieth Century, by Romano Amerio

    -One Hundred years of Modernism: A Genealogy of the Principles of the Second Vatican Council, by Dominic Bourmaud

    -Open Letter to Confused Catholics, by Abp. Marcel Lefebvre

    -The Catechism of the Crisis in the Church, by Matthias Gaudron

  • Bryan17

    From a family of 10, actually small back in the 70’s, there was too much divisiveness within the church:, drunken pastors, angry nuns, exclusion of women. The concepts taught are great, the delivery and interpretation of those concepts through draconian outdated rules to control many of us baby boomers who see right through the facades is the true downfall of a great religion. And now we have to listen year after year about corruption and abuse hidden for so long. We are now voting with our wallets and demanding justice for violations of the law. What a perfect storm when their realestate is tanking and the attorneys’ fees pile up. I once got a blank look when I asked our pastor why he did not mention women joining the convent on Vocation Sunday. The silence was deafening. The church has no ears…

  • Bryan17


    The Turning Point, by Robert Mc Clory, about Vatican II Council on Birth control. Unbelievable the power of the Roman Curia to undo all of the work of theologians, cardinals, bishops and lay people from all over the world. Married couples invited were not even allowed to room together initially. Just an amazing account of what transpired.

  • janet_baker76

    They Have Uncrowned Him, by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, and Open Letter to Confused Catholics by the same author–don’t make me type it again, even though it’s a common enough French name. Both are incredibly lucid–oh, I see you already have Letter to Confused Catholics, so let me just second that vote.

  • Ben1548

    “Their solution is for the pope to simply erase all 16 Vatican II documents and restore the liturgy, teachings and discipline in place before the collapse of all that was considered good and holy in 1962.”

    Fat chance! The Pope is bound by the decisions of an ecumenical council of which he is head.

  • amelia45

    I think the falling away of Catholics from their faith has little to do with Vatican II and much to do with changes in society that simply overwhelmed the Church. And, not just the Catholic Church but many Protestant faiths, too.

    The great advances in society, the formation of democracies, ending of slavery, empowerment of women, happened without the Catholic Church, even despite it.

    It is ironic, but I think also true, that the work of the Catholic Church in educating people also created people who were empowered to think and reason, to weigh life choices that earlier generations did not feel equipped to deal with.

    What doesn’t work in nations governed under a democracy and with an educated people, is the absolutist, monarchial model of Catholic Church leadership. We have taken Christian values of love, community, and justice – particularly justice – and made them into standards for self government. What is in conflict is the demand by the Catholic Church that we obey, utterly and absolutely, where we have no voice and no power.

    Perhaps it is in part that duality – of power in the world but no power in our faith – that makes for conflict now. That, and the insistence that everyone toe the line, that treating grown-ups as children just doesn’t get it any more.

  • wolfeken

    Ben1548 — have you read any of the documents from the dogmatic Council of Trent, in direct conflict with the pastoral Vatican II’s documents? Ken

  • Luciana Cuppo

    A well-written article, meaty and to the point: good journalism knows no traditionalist barriers. The remark that, “traditionalist Catholics …are onto something when they call into question the council itself” is astute, but the solution can hardly be to sweep Vatican II under the rug and pretend it never happened. The only reasonable solution seems to me that propounded by Msgr Gherardini in his recent ‘Il Vaticano II. Alle radici d’un equivoco’ [Vatican II: At the Roots of an Equivoque]: a thorough knowledge of the facts (the turned-off microphone is but an episode) and an equally thorough reassessment of Vatican II, which is no sacred cow. The chips will fall where they may, perhaps even off the shoulder of clerics who think they can do no wrong.

    Luciana Cuppo

  • Luciana Cuppo

    Ben 1548, that’s precisely the point. Vatican II made NO dogmatic decisions of its own, because it did not want to: it chose to be a pastoral council. Thus, its documents are not binding (except when they repeat the dogmatic statements of previous councils), not for the Pope or for anyone else, and should be examined by qualified specialists to see whether they are in conflict with any points of Church teaching.

  • Luciana Cuppo

    Oh well, let me add to the list of suggested books: Brunero GHERARDINI, ‘The Ecumenical Vatican Council II: A Much Needed Discussion.

  • Jackson K. Eskew

    The Ottaviani Intervention, available for free online, is also essential reading. And look for something about it on Youtube.

  • tony55398

    How does meatless Fridays, Latin Masses and Pre Vatican II traditions make a better Church. I’m a product of the 50,s and I could see than that the Church was headed for trouble. Does the return of mortal sins, our gentle mother on earth sending its people to hell for eating meat on Friday, make a better Church? This author wants to return to the rigid era of do what I say or go to Hell. Nothing like the good old days, where the Priest was virtually a god, mortal this and mortal that. Nothing like conservatives, Jesus’ main opposition to change, to a new way of life in Christ.

  • Steve59

    It is well established that churches, or other religious organizations, which are not demanding simply decline.

    In other words, if it doesn’t much matter what church you belong too, and God doesn’t really want you to be inconvenienced in any way, then there really is no compelling reason to go to church at all–much less to sacrifice for it.

  • Steve59

    The Church was able to thrive even when Christians were being routinely killed: the problem was not the surrounding culture, but that the Church let down its guard and started fawning over it just as it was going into decline.

    BTW, it is rather early to declare victory for the modern man, in view of unsustainable debt and falling populations in Wester culture.

  • Steve59

    The abusers were modernists: they thought that Catholic sexual teachings were antiquated; that if you could rationalize something the it is right for you; they rejected authority; and they were a result of the turmoil occurring at, and after, Vatican II.

    Also the response was modernist: oh, psychologist can just fix them up–and quick too!

  • tony55398

    If conservatives don’t like the Church as it is, leave it and find one that suits you. The heart of any Church is to Love your neighbor as yourself, the decline of the Church was evident in Europe far before Vatican II with its large but empty Churches. My European ancestors would say that the Bishops would live in Castles, demanding the best 10% from there crops, while the people would barely get by and now the German Church will kick out those who refuse to pay the required tax collected by the government, nothing like love of money. Has it ever occured to you conservatives that Vatican II renewal was in responce to the third secret of Fatima, just maybe it was seen as necessary for the survival of the Church in the modern world. I only wish that Pope John Paul I had lived longer, strange circumstances surround his death and burial, like no other Pope in the modern era.

  • Lasorda

    Uh, we still have mortal sins in the Catholic Church. I take it it’s been a while since you were around the Church.

  • ozarkjoe

    The best author who documented and explained the post V2 mess was William F. Strojie. His writings are hard to find. The church is experiencing mass apostasy at the highest levels of leadership.

    You will know them by the fruits they bear.


    Has any of the RCC’s actions or non actions caused RCs to leave the church? What did the just late Cardinal Martini say?

  • athelstane

    Attendance was starting to decline by the early 60’s, but European churches were hardly “empty” – attendance still averaged over 70% in most of Europe.

    But “love it or leave it” cuts both ways. Should liberals who object to the Church’s longstanding teaching on contraception or same-sex “marriage” leave the Church and find that suits them, too?

  • athelstane

    “How does meatless Fridays, Latin Masses and Pre Vatican II traditions make a better Church.”

    Because they remind us of the Four Last Things.

  • athelstane

    I think the falling away of Catholics from their faith has mainly to do with growing affluence.

    And if there’s anyone that’s suffered from having to toe a line they don’t agree with, it’s been traditionalists over the last four decades,

  • athelstane

    One small quibble in an otherwise sound essay: “the only current growth in vocations is in religious orders such as the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter that reject the new Mass and most of the liberalizations of Vatican II.”

    1) In fairness, this is not quite true. A fair number of religious orders that still retain the new mass (and otherwise embrace Vatican II) as normative are experiencing solid growth in vocations. One thinks of the Ann Arbor and Nashville Dominicans, the Eastern and Western Province Dominicans, or the Missionaries of Charity. However, it is true that these are otherwise fairly traditional orders in other ways, retaining traditional habits or cowls, traditional communal and devotional life, etc.

    2) The Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter (FSSP) is not, in fact, a religious order. It is a society of apostolic life of pontifical rite; members take no religious vows.


    Mean while this pope has shut the window as well as turn the clock back to Dark Age standard time. The words of the late Cardinal Martini are correct and will not go away. Just ask the young adult RCs.


    Belloc, your children are doing fine at this age but do not be shock if they change in years to come with all their indoctrination. Why is it that so many RCs in the western world have lost faith in their church? You need to keep up with what is really going on where as one can in different web sites such as in google news, go into Vatican news and read that daily. There is more going on in the real world then in your little world. Do you know what the just late Cardinal Martini said? God bless.