“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, 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.