What Happened After Vatican II?

What happened after Vatican II?   Contrary to what some assume, it was in many ways the culmination of the great Thomistic reforms inspired by Leo XIII and was populated by some truly great theologians. There had been a generation of reflection on “Christian humanism” as a potent response to the “atheist humanism” that had arisen in the nineteenth century.

The work of a generation of liturgical reformers was poised to produce tremendous renewal.  The Catholic ressourcement movement was resurrecting interest in the great works of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and new critical editions and translations of those works were being made.

John XXIII was right.  It was the right time for the Council.  No time before or since would have been as propitious – if the moment were properly seized.  The documents inspired the incredible papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI and have been a great gift to the Church. Those who wish to deny that the Second Vatican Council was a “real” ecumenical council, fine.  God bless you.  Look in the mirror.  The person you see there is a Protestant.

So what happened after the Council?  The Sixties and Seventies happened.  The cultural disruption was immense.  In 1962, when John XXIII called for the Council, men were still wearing coats and ties.  The Beatles didn’t arrive in America until 1964. And when they did, they were still wearing coats and ties.

By 1968, the drug culture and sexual revolution were in full swing, and student protests had erupted around the world.  French intellectuals still talk about the revolution of ’68 that brought down the French government.  The Vietnam War had entered an even-more deadly stage. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were both assassinated that year.  Yeats’ description of an earlier age fit those years (as it does again in ours):

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

To what should we compare the Post-Conciliar period?  It would be as if the Fathers at the Council of Nicea had finished their work defining that the Son was “one in being” with the Father in opposition to the Arian heresy, only to find that nearly the entire Church had embraced that heresy, including the Emperor Constantine, and for a hundred years after had to fight a rear-guard battle defending the authentic teaching of that amazing Council – which, of course, is exactly what happened! And ever since, groups have been bowing out after they hit a council they don’t like: some after the first four, others after the first seven, a few after the first twenty.


But keep this in mind: If you were a 63-year-old bishop when the Council was convened, you would have been born in 1900.  So when you were young, most people still would have been traveling by horses and carts. But you would have flown to the Council on a jet plane, and the opening would have been beamed around the world on television. There were hydrogen bombs, the structure of DNA had been revealed, and computers and oral contraceptives had been invented. You would have lived through two World Wars, the Holocaust, and the forced starvation of ten-million Ukrainians.  Given all that, it would have been easy enough to wonder whether the old ways would really work anymore in this “brave new world” of horrors and wonders.

A Jesuit friend says he uses the eight days of his Ignatian Spiritual Exercises to make big decisions, because he knows that when the troubles come, and he’s feeling depressed or despairing, he should avoid taking important steps.  Instead, he lets the time of peace and prayer keep him grounded through the chaotic times.  This was what Catholics should have done during the Sixties and Seventies: taken the wisdom of the Council back home with them and trusted it instead of trying to make big decisions in the midst of spiritual and moral chaos.

If they had learned from the Council instead of constantly trying to tweak its nose in the direction they thought the Church should go, they likely would have avoided numerous problems, such as the burst of sexual abuse.  Instead, a 2000-year tradition of spiritual discipline and understanding of spiritual struggle, supported by centuries of development in canon law, was all chucked aside for modern pseudo-psychological nostrums.

So, the history of the period after the Council can now be written.  The Church was betrayed by a generation of Church leaders who ignored the wisdom of the Council and took the occasion of the confusion of the Sixties and Seventies to indulge their own egos, posing outwardly as champions of social justice while secretly enriching themselves, betraying their oaths of chastity, and looking the other way as others betrayed theirs. Bourgeois bishops posed as populists, and, like so many populists before them, refused to surrender their power to the next generation of authentic reformers until that power was pried from their cold, dead hands.

Historians will not be kind. Descriptions will likely read like this:

“The post-Vatican II Church was dominated by too many bishops who squandered the opportunities presented by the Council and delayed the authentic renewal the Council had envisioned for decades, plunging the Church into several generations of chaos, darkness, and division.  One of the greatest ironies of that age was that, at the time, those involved thought highly of themselves as ‘the best and brightest,’ surpassing all the old, outworn intellectual currents that had come before them. Looking back, most historians consider it one of the saddest periods in Church history, a period of cultural and social disintegration in the world during which the Church should have been making converts preaching the Good News to all mankind, but instead, lost itself in internal squabbles and fickle attempts to deal with widespread institutional corruption.”


*Image: Pope John XXIII rode in the procession to St. Peter’s Basilica at the start of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, 1962 (Paul Schutzer The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock)

You may also enjoy:

Robert Royal’s  Vatican II: The Yes and the No

Eduardo J. Echeverria’s Conscience, Newman, and Vatican II

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.