The Second Vatican Council is back in the news lately, with two prominent, tradition-minded bishops revisiting well-known arguments of conciliar interpretation in light two recent Vatican documents, Amoris Laetitia and the Abu Dhabi statement on world religions. Their analyses of the Council, the difficulties in reconciling certain expressions with tradition, and the frightening breakdown of the Church that followed – a breakdown that some even justified under the Council’s nebulous “spirit” – are serious, though faithful Catholics will find their premises and conclusions worthy of debate.
Yet their analyses are now also very familiar. Blaming the Council for the Church’s ills has been a hobbyhorse for 55 years now. At this point, when it comes to arguing about the Council, Ecclesiastes’ tired observation comes to mind: “There is nothing new under the sun.”
Just weeks earlier, as public Masses were resumed after the coronavirus suspension, a little-noticed controversy impressed on me that the problems in the Church today stem from something far more fundamental, and simple, than the formulation of documents that few know about and fewer have read. When the proposal circulated of having Mass without reception of Holy Communion, some faithful and some clergy blanched. Their issue was not solely the deprivation of union with our Lord. It was that they did not see the point of having Mass at all without reception.
Such a thought stems from a profound misunderstanding what the Mass – and the sacrifice that it represents – is for: the salvation of souls. And there is no wonder the goal of salvation has been forgotten, since sin, the tyrannical reality from which we must be saved, has itself been deliberately banished from view, trivialized as a human psychosis, or written off as an obsession of earlier, unenlightened times.
It is the marginalization of sin, more than Vatican II or anything else, that has transformed the life of the Church as we know it in the last half-century. Our entire faith and the structure of the Church rest on three acts: creation, fall, and redemption. By dismissing the fall, and every sin that has come after it, the understanding of redemption necessarily takes on new meaning.
If Jesus did not need to redeem us from sin, then essential doctrines and the sacramental economy have to be reconceived. Consider:
* Jesus Christ ceased to be emphasized as our Savior who sacrificed His life to atone for our sins. Instead, images of “Jesus is my homeboy” became popular. Without a message of salvation, Jesus was reduced to a “great moral teacher” on par with Socrates.
* Shifting the view of the Savior and salvation caused worship to shift as well. Witness how few people today know the phrase “the holy sacrifice of the Mass.” We know from the work of Dr. Lauren Pristas and Father John Zuhlsdorf that, after the Council, the formal prayers of the Mass were deliberately reworked to eliminate references to sin. The turning of the altars to face the people, never mentioned by the Council, heightened a new experience of a community celebrating itself above the sacrifice of Calvary. The general desacralizing of Catholic worship made the Mass seem as it were of no consequence rather than the enduring basis of our salvation.
* Sacramental Confession was abandoned by nearly all the faithful. There is no need to confess if we have not sinned. And if we do not need to confess, then surely there is no need for acts of penitence or reparation. Eight days of the year that still call for abstinence from meat is all that is left of Catholic penitential practice.
* If there is no sin, then everyone goes to Heaven, Catholic or not, virtuous or not. Funerals became canonizations, and Hell was dismissed as a tactic to coerce good behavior. Catholicism became just another world religion on par with the others, since it no longer had anything unique to offer.
* If people do not need to be saved from sin, then there is no need for priests to give up their lives in service of those seeking redemption. The collapse of vocations is a direct result of the banishment of sin.
* Catholic theology, morality, and education all took turns for the worse after this constitutive understanding of sin and redemption was morphed.
Were there other causes of the Church’s post-Conciliar malaise? Yes, of course. But it is not an oversimplification to home in on the trivialization of sin as the root cause of it all. Throughout Church history, lying at the root of heresy is not an intricately woven system, but a misunderstanding of the first principle of revelation. To minimize sin alters the view of God’s entire plan of salvation, from the covenant with Abraham, to the redemption by Christ, to the role of the Church in perpetuating His salvation.
Vatican II’s perpetual detractors will argue that the trivialization of sin was part of the Modernist spirit that infiltrated conciliar documents and the post-conciliar Church. Yet that implies the Council itself is not the definitive problem; the Council and its “spirit” have been invoked to cloak a deeper issue.
It is, therefore, this deeper issue of properly understanding sin and the need to be saved from it that requires our attention above all. For Benedict XVI’s hermeneutic of continuity to have the final word on interpreting the council, sound Catholic doctrines – Creation, Fall, Redemption – must first be restored to their proper place.
*Image: Christ and Sinner by Henryk Siemiradzki, 1875 [The Russian Museum, St. Petersburg]