“The Spirit of Vatican II”

You would look in vain for a precise definition of the “spirit of Vatican II.” The phrase is not easily traceable to any specific documents or events connected with the Second Vatican Council, which opened forty-nine years ago this week. The references we hear to this “spirit” are often connected with various aspects of liberalization, which emerged in the Church in the aftermath of the Council. 

These included:

  • Liturgical developments: such as the use of the vernacular instead of Latin; the Novus Ordo Mass, facing the people; communion in the hand; the Sign of Peace; and females as servers, Eucharistic ministers, etc. For many of us, other innovations come to mind – such as guitar Masses; nuns indistinguishable from the local Ladies’ Auxiliary; liturgical dancing; ad-libbing by the celebrant; and systematic replacement throughout the Mass of all instances of “he,” “him,” and “man” by more “inclusive” language.
  • Ecumenical developments: Rabbis, Protestants, and other non-Catholic religionists were invited as observers to the Council, and the practice of including other religions in public Catholic functions has continued often since then. Multiple official dialogues have been conducted with Orthodox, Lutherans, and other Protestants, looking for common ground. Efforts at reconciliation have also included papal apologies to the world for mistreatment of Galileo, the Inquisition, etc.
  • Changes of attitude regarding sexual mores:  The widespread opposition of theologians, priests and prelates, as well as lay Catholics, to Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical against contraception, Humanae vitae, is still fresh in the memory of many older Catholics. Not unconnected with this, as I have argued elsewhere, have been the movements against sacerdotal celibacy requirements, and in favor of the acceptance of homosexuality.

But what exactly was the “etiology” of the new “spirit”?

The French philosopher, Jean Borella, a Catholic traditionalist (although opposed to the extremes of traditionalism like the SSPX movement founded by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre), conducted the most exhaustive philosophical analysis of these developments in his book, La charité profanée. Borella emphasized that, for effective reform of the “reform,” it is important to understand the metaphysical roots of what has taken place.

La charité profanée discusses three stages of the “degradation of the Christian soul.” In the first stage, grace and faith are received as a gift by Christians, placing them on a supernatural level, and entrusting them with a spiritual energy altogether outside the ambit of physical energy, which is subject, like all elements of the physical order, to an entropic “winding down.”

This state of grace is buttressed for the Christian by both the “supernatural religious order” and the “natural religious order,” each containing hierarchical distinctions and differences. These oppositions engender a certain tension, but also an equilibrium that resists reduction to equivalence and homogeneity. The unity characterizing these orders “does not result from the nature of their constituents, but is a principle of hierarchization of all the constituents, each in rapport with the other.”

          Jean Borella

The supernatural religious order includes the following oppositions: Creator/creature, sacred/profane, sacred places/secular places (e.g., temples/ordinary buildings), sacred/secular times (e.g. Sunday/weekdays), sacred/secular language (Latin/vernacular), sacred/secular vestments (e.g., cassocks or monastic garb/lay clothing), sacred/secular functions (priesthood/careers), and sacred/secular institutions (Church/civil society).

The natural religious order incorporates the following differences:  Man/woman, parents/children, master/disciple, prince/subjects, past/present, upright persons/indecent persons, and the normal/the pathologic.

What then happened, according to Borella, is that:

in both the supernatural and the natural orders, there is not one of these tensions and oppositions that the post-council reformers have not tried to destroy. . . .The post-council spirit. . . .intends to annihilate all the forms which try to establish the distinction between the sacred and the profane. Let us not forget something rather comical – that these destructions have operated in the name of a spirit of community, although, as can be seen, nothing has come of this effort but the disappearance of mutual relations, the destruction of all the cohesion among the ordered elements. . . .An “advanced” clergy pursues its own intellectual and cultural modernization. . . .striving to transform the celebrations of the Eucharist into the congregation’s celebration of itself.

In the natural order, a similar dismantling ensued, blurring the distinction between man and woman, child and parents, master and disciple, normal and pathological, etc.

The conditions for such diminutions were established when the magisterium, in Paul VI’s pontificate, was torn “between rival factions that he supported and contended with by turns.” Borella offers the example of a historic, watershed moment at the Council when a specially prepared schema, concerned primarily with combating error, upholding the rights of the Church, and the defense of sacred tradition, was put forward for vote, but suspended/postponed by Cardinal Liénart for further deliberation, in accord with the wishes of the “reform” block at the Council.

In the third stage, he says, as the abolition of the natural and supernatural distinctions succeeds, and entropic disorder ensues, signs of “negative entropy” (negentropy) become manifest – i.e., attempts to create differentiations and oppositions, particularly in areas where they have never been perceived. Borella offers as an example the extension of the Marxist theory of “class conflict” and Freudian emphasis on sexual identity to all domains of life.

Borella, however, sees favorable omens of a reversal – steps taken in recent decades to “reform the reform.” He welcomed the arrival in the chair of St. Peter of an “exceptional pope,” Pope John Paul II, who undertook “with a steadfast obstinacy and without denying the Second Vatican Council, the mending of Christian unity through a return to the unity of faith,” i.e., the “new evangelization.” And he has strongly supported the accession to the papacy of Cardinal Ratzinger, who once criticized self-constructed liturgies as something analogous to the Hebrew worship of the Golden Calf, and has issued a Motu Proprio to facilitate the revival of the traditional liturgy.


Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.

  • Durtal

    I hope someone is already working on a translation of this book. I don’t read French, I’d love to read this one.

  • Manfred

    You laid out the changes effected in the aftermath of the Council extremely well, Howard. It must be recalled that the original schemas prepared by John XXIII and his aides were largely scrapped at the beginning of the Council, and the schemas prepared by the neo-Modernists were what obtained. The Rhine Flows into the Tiber described this transition. Here, I believe, is the central question: Will only Catholics, and those who aspire to be Catholic, who die in the state of Grace see God and obtain Heaven, or will mostly everyone receive this reward?
    For two thousand years it was the former.

  • Nishant

    Manfred, not at all. The Second Vatican Council explicitly affirmed the necessity of the Church for salvation, and that it must be proclaimed as such, even to those in good faith.

    I agree with the article for the most part. But then, Fulton Sheen said it best,

    “The tensions that developed after the Council are not surprising to those who know the whole history of the Church. It is a historical fact that whenever there is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit as in a general council of the Church, there is always an extra show of force by the anti-Spirit or the demonic. Even at the beginning, immediately after Pentecost and the descent of the Spirit upon the apostles, there began a persecution and the murder of Stephen. If a general council did not provoke the spirit of turbulence, one might almost doubt the operation of the third Person of the Trinity over the assembly.”

    I believe it was because Satan knew his time was short and that a great reunion of all Christians in the Catholic Church may be at hand as a result of the Council. We must not doubt our holy Mother, the Church, but must take due care to implement carefully and correctly what the Fathers of the Council intended.

    Critics and enthusiasts of the Council alike would do well to familiarize ourselves with its teaching and put it into practice.

  • Hieronymus

    Perhaps it would be more accurate to speak of “the jinn of Vatican II” which has been unwisely let out of the bottle and needs to go into it again…8)
    Some of Borella’s books are available in English translations (I have three or four in my library). In any case, I would strongly encourage you to learn to read French – perhaps you would like to know Huysmans in the original.

  • Louise

    Paraphrasing Mr. Belloc: When a man starts to talk about the “intention” of a thing rather than the thing itself, BEWARE. That man is not far from heresy.

    TCT has outdone itself in excellence for some time now. One superb essay follows another. My little brain can hardly absorb it all. But it tries. Thank you so very much.

  • Taylor

    Ah, this will be called “Neo-Skepticism” in the new theology books. I do not recommend that anyone doubt the works of the Holy Spirit in leading the Church to the fruits of an ecumenical council such as Vatican II (not the misinterpretation of Vatican II teachings, but the actual fruits thereof). Jesus made that point very clear to us (that is, to the Faithful).

  • Manfred

    Nishant: Thank you for your thoughtful piece. Perhaps you would share the teachings of the Council you refer to in your last line. I was always told the Council was pastoral and not dogmatic. Many novelties came out of the Council but the one most cited, religious freedom, is very suspect as a teaching as it was never taught by the Magisterium before. Many are also aware that the Vatican has taken the Council off the table as an impediment to the regularization of the SSPX due to the fact that many non-traditional scholars are calling for a Syllabus from the full Magisterium defining what was(?) and what was not taught at the Council.

  • Hieronymus


    Could you possibly name any good fruits of Vatican II?

  • Rick

    The good fruit from Vatican II …? Hmmm. God can allow something like the spirit of vatican ii to exist to bring about a greater good. For example, to dispel the confusion after vatican ii, Pope John Paul ii called a general meeting of the bishops – a synod. I believe this was around 1985. They decided to clarify the real essence of vatican ii. This resulted in the Catechism of The Catholic Church, which came out around 1992.

    That is how God can allow evil to bring about a greater good.

  • Nishant

    Hi Manfred,

    The Second Vatican Council was the 21st Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church. It did not define any new dogmas, but it was still an act of the Ordinary and universal Magisterium and should be accepted with proportionate reverence.

    DH does not teach that man has a right to be wrong. Rather, man has a duty to seek the truth, and therefore the right to do what is necessary, within due limits, to find that truth, so that he might assent to it freely in conscience, which is of course necessary, according to traditional Catholic doctrine, for him to be saved. So all moral rights are essentially founded in the truth and in our right to do what is neccesary to accept it to be saved.

    Like Athanasius Schneider, if I remember correctly? And others. I’m sure such a Syllabus, promulgated to the universal Church as well, would be very helpful. Still, I think we can recognize what was actually said by actually reading the texts, and interpreting it in the light of Tradition.

    Good fruits? Well, like I said, we still need to harvest much of it, because of its often faulty implementation in many places. But the Council laid down Catholic teaching very well on a whole host of issues. Dei Verbum is a masterpiece on Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition and the teaching authority of the Church. Nothing could be further from the text of Sacrosanctum Concilium than the ugly way in which the developments in the Sacred Liturgy have come about.

    ArchBishop Fulton Sheen also deemed Gaudium et spes “brilliant” and said Pope John Paul II would go on to become one of the greatest Popes in the history of the Church before the former’s death.

  • Ben Horvath

    Interesting. After the Council of Nicaea the Arians seemed to win, securing many high church offices in the East and the support of the Emperors, even though their heresy was denounced at the Council.

    They were pretty bold. The Arians even resorted to kidnapping and torture – they kidnapped Catholic bishops and tortured them into signing statements that, while not heretical on the face of the documents, stated Catholic doctrine less strongly than the Nicaean Creed in a way that left open the possibility of Arianism because of the mealy-mouthedness of the statements.

  • Jojo

    Just to let you know. The Vatican says Vatican II did not invalidate past doctrines. “What was, still is.” -Pope Paul VI (pope during Vatican II)

    And we need to read the actual documents of Vatican II (constitutions, degrees)