The Wreck of Vatican II

“With conversion comes trouble,” St. Augustine warned us.  So it shouldn’t be surprising that the major public act of self-examination by the Church – and conversion – the Second Vatican Council, immediately met with trouble, as if to defeat it almost as soon as it was finished.

Yes, it was an act of conversion.  Recall the opening lines of Lumen Gentium: the Council proposes “to unfold more fully to the faithful of the Church and to the whole world its own inner nature and universal mission.”  Why?  So that the faith might be lived with greater richness from a vibrant interior life, and in a personalistic manner, not in mere routine, conformity to external convention, or observance of law.

In the wake of the Council, then Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow Karol Wojtyla devoted his days to implementing it, guided by the question, which he took as key: Ecclesia, quid dicis de te ipsa? (“Church, what account do you give of yourself?”

It’s a question that partly answers itself, because the Church, clearly, must henceforth say of itself that it is a Church that inquires into itself.  And the answer it gives about itself also must become part of what it is.  Put the matter this way, and we see the high stakes necessarily involved in the project of the Council.

Lumen Gentium also tells us the ultimate aim of this process of conversion, which is unity in Christ:

this Sacred Synod. . .eagerly desires, by proclaiming the Gospel to every creature, to bring the light of Christ to all men, a light brightly visible on the countenance of the Church. . . .Since the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race.

It hopes that through the Council “all men might also attain fuller unity in Christ.”

Clearly, the Church could not serve as an efficacious sign of unity if it lacked unity itself.  We need not comment on the incomplete efforts over decades for unity with Protestants or even the Eastern Churches. This failure is, in any case, probably an effect, not a separate datum.  It is an effect of an original disunity introduced into the Church by the sexual revolution and associated technologies.

Humanae Vitae only taught again what the Church had taught for centuries as part of its ordinary magisterium and underlined previously in Casti Conubii (1930) of Pius XI. But its clarity presented the bishops with a dilemma: become “small,” and apparently forsake the goal of bringing in the world as a whole, or stay “big,” but forsake unity.


On the one hand, only a fraction of the faithful was abiding by that teaching already. Only that fraction, presumably, would be open to the enrichment of the faith that would involve giving to the world an account of the meaning of the Church’s teaching on openness to offspring (which is what John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” achieved, authoritatively, for the entire Church). The Church then seems to reduce itself to that fraction, and how could its extensive institutions be preserved, and its goal of preaching to the whole world be sustained?

On the other hand, if some device or rationalization is admitted to cover just the case of artificial contraception – say, the subjectivity of conscience, the need for dialogue, ministry to the marginalized, the shift to politics, and emphasis on procedures – then how can this device be limited only to that case?  Don’t we have a Protestantization of the Church, a “cafeteria catholicism”?

The playing out of the logic connecting contraception to abortion, and the quick appearance of Catholics “personally opposed” to abortion but grimly dedicated to keeping abortuaries open, showed that this would be the case.  And now we wonder that only some small fraction believes in the Real Presence.

Let’s be plain: the Church has been in schism since 1968, if not earlier. Someone who believes that abortion is homicide in principle should be disposed to place his own life at the door of a clinic; someone who is merely “personally opposed” may be disposed to send SWAT teams to arrest this man.  If Catholics are on both sides of such a divide, Catholics are in schism.

Likewise, the Catholic father who is heroically supporting five or six children while mom stays at home, and who cannot afford parochial schools, which are serving mainly contracepting couples with double incomes – sees he is living in a different world.  And then he has to endure homilies exhorting him to the “preferential option for the poor.” And heaven forbid that any priest should preach that artificial contraception is a sin.

So far, we haven’t mentioned the universal call to holiness, another basic theme of Vatican II – arguably its most basic:

The time has come to re-propose wholeheartedly to everyone [the] high standard of ordinary Christian living: the whole life of the Christian community and of Christian families must lead in this direction.

So said John Paul II at the start of the new millennium.  The language is telling: it is ordinary Christian living, yet it involves a “high standard.”

How hard is it, after all, not to procure an abortion, not to use contraception?  Don’t millions of our living brothers and sisters, and probably billions from the past, show that no special merit is to be found here but simply “ordinary Christian living”?

And yet holiness isn’t possible without renouncing abortion and artificial contraception – as well as sex outside of chaste marriage, and sodomy. (I Cor 6:9-10)

So the aspirations of Vatican II were wrecked from the start by attacks on the Church’s members by the sexual revolution. What the last several decades have taught us, I believe, is that devices to preserve the appearance of unity – which now have the character of desperation – have failed.

Some other course is necessary, if “unity in Christ” for “all men” is to be realized.


*Image: Merry Company on a Terrace by Jan Steen, ca. 1670 [The MET, New York]

You may also enjoy:

Mary Eberstadt’s Five Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution, Part I

Richard A, Spinello’s ‘Humane Vitae’ in the Cross Hairs


Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His new book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available.