Pope John Paul II and the Way through the Post Conciliar Confusion

Pope Benedict XVI recently said: “In practically all his documents, and especially in his decisions and his behaviour as Pontiff, John Paul II  accepted the fundamental petitions of the Second Vatican Council thus becoming a qualified interpreter and coherent witness of it.” This is an important statement by the Holy Father, so I will repeat it: John Paul II is “a qualified interpreter and coherent witness” of Vatican II. I repeat it because the chief problem of Vatican II is that too many who were not qualified have interpreted the Council incorrectly and the Church was made to suffer a long train of abuses at the hands  incoherent or confused prophets of the “new Church.”

The long train of abuses are all too familiar. We need not spend too much time on it lest we make ourselves depressed. One could begin with liturgy. There was an overall loss of reverence by the faithful, explicit denials of the real presence, and undue emphasis upon a communal meal; there were dignity masses, feminist masses, clown masses; you could find dancing up the aisles, dancing and cavorting with liturgical books, and even dancing around the altar; one could hear home spun canons and made up prayers; one could hear rock music, drum music, polka music. Not surprisingly, Mass attendance has plummeted, and participation in the sacrament of penance even more neglected. There has been tremendous confusion about essential doctrines: the divinity of Christ, the miracles of Christ, the nature and need of sacraments, the understanding of sin and the need for penance, the teaching on marriage, family and birth control; heaven, hell and purgatory. We have seen confusion about priestly identity and the role of the laity.  There were priests who want to engage in politics and revolutionary action and others sought to become psychotherapists (see Walker Percy’s Lancelot — “neither fish nor fowl”; and lay people wanted to be on the altar and take over the administration of the parish from the pastor. Catholic politicians set out to lecture the bishops about the true meaning of abortion and birth control. Catholic education sought to emulate the secular schools, with the universities looking to the ivy league schools for a standard of excellence and for academic freedom. Catechetics often abandoned memorization and teaching of doctrine for affective results and social justice.

This is probably a sufficient list to make the case that the post-Vatican II era was a time of great confusion, and as Pope Benedict XVI said, we found an “incoherent witness” to the Catholic faith in the modern world.

At the outset, we must say that Vatican Council did not cause these events; in fact, when serving as Cardinal prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger pointed out that we must not make the logical mistake of attributing to the council all that followed it; logicians speak about the fallacy of “post hoc, ergo propter hoc,” or after this, therefore becaue of this. Indeed, there could be causes more fundamental that cause the disarray. In fact, in the Ratzinger Report we find this statement: “the damage that we have incurred in these twenty years is due, not to the true Council, but to the unleashing within the Church of latent polemical and centrifugal forces; and outside the Church it is due to the confrontation with the cultural revolution in the West,” particularly the “liberal radical ideology of individualistic, rationalistic and hedonistic stamp.” (Ratzinger Report, p. 30) His message then, in 1985, was not to ‘turn back’ but to “return to the authentic texts of the original Vatican II.” In this report we first encounter the notion of a hermeneutic of continuity between Vatican II and the prior councils. And indeed, Pope John Paul II was foremost in establishing the continuity and the authentic interpretation of the meaning of the council. For good reason therefore does Pope Benedict refer to him not only as a “coherent witness” but also as a (if not THE) qualified interpreter of Vatican II.

I think that then Cardinal Ratzinger was correct to see much of the confusion derived from the upsurge of the cultural ideology of the sixties which has now become all but regnant throughout the west and gaining ground across the globe. But much of the post-conciliar confusion could be traced back to a distorted interpretation of the meaning of Vatican II. The sixties were met more than half way by many within the Church. Many were propounding a one sided if not false view of the council on multiple points. These include: (i) the very intention of the council was to update and make the Church “relevant” by abandoning the old doctrines and practices and to understand the faith in light of modern times; (ii) the Church was taken to be “the people of God” understood as a non-hierarchical, horizontal community; (iii) authority was redefined as a co-magisterium and conscience was exalted to a creative status; (iv) the participation of the laity was understood to mean they must function in ministry as priests or alongside them in the activities of the sanctuary; (v) spirituality was redefined in terms of pastoral compassion without truth or without the cross; (vi) sacraments were reconceived with the Eucharist as meal and penance made irrelevant because of the denial of mortal sin; (vii) the social doctrine of the Church was taken as a call to direct social action and political liberation.

Let’s consider the first point — the intention of the Council. The intention of the council was not to invent a new religion, abandon the heritage, or change the basic message of the Church. The very call for a council was stated as follows: “The greatest concern of an ecumenical council is that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine be guarded and taught by more effective understanding.” (Pope  John XXIII) The first document approved stated the intention as follows: “The sacred Council has set out to impart an ever- increasing vigor  to  the  Christian  life  of  the  faithful; to adapt more  closely  to  the  needs  of  our age those institutions which are  subject to change; to foster whatever can promote union among all  who  believe  in  Christ; to strengthen whatever can help to call  all   mankind  into  the  Church’s  fold.” (On Liturgy, §1). And at the close of the Council Paul VI said : “But our council hands down to posterity .  .  . the patrimony of her doctrine and precepts, the deposit entrusted to her by Christ himself. Her people have constantly reflected on this deposit through the centuries  and have turned it into their own flesh and blood, as it were, by giving it expression in their way of life. This deposit of faith is now illuminated in so many of its parts and has come to be  established and arranged in its fullness and integrity. This living deposit of faith constituted by the divine power of truth and grace  is capable of giving life to everyone who receives it devoutly and  by it nourishes his own life.” (Paul VI, Closing Homily) The deposit of faith is a stable, rich and unchanging source of Catholic truth. Pope Paul VI closed the council with this praise of the enduring riches of the Catholic Church, now to be made more accessible to men and women the modern world. No wonder he wept when he heard of the liberal subversion of the Council before the ink on the documents was dry. No wonder his mentor Jacques Maritain issued a denunciation of the pathetic trend of Catholics “kneeling before the world” and abandoning the teaching of Thomas Aquinas. No wonder Pope Paul VI said he smelled the very smoke of Satan in the Vatican. Pope Paul VI held the line against the subversion and misinterpretations on the theological front with his post-conciliar writings; see especially Pope Paul VI, On the Mystery of Faith (Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1966) and On Saints Peter and Paul (Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1967) and The Credo of the People of God. (see this article on Paul VI and Maritain). And of course he had to stand down the great expectations of the western laity for a change in the teaching on artificial birth control, Humanae vitae, for which he was crucified. And he outlined the great positive vision for the Church in his encyclicals on the Church and on Evangelization.

Pope John Paul II inherited a Church in great disarray. God granted him one of the longest pontificates in the history of the Church to get the Church back on track and to cultivate and nurture the seeds of true renewal. 

He expressed a deep appreciation of the importance and meaning of Vatican II. On February 27, 2000 he said that “Vatican II Was the Spirit’s Gift to the Church.” He emphasized the continuity with the past and the central goal was evangelization, making the deposit of faith more effectively taught and lived. “We can say that in its rich variety of teaching the Second Vatican Council contains precisely all that “the Spirit says to the Churches” with regard to the present phase of the history of salvation. (On The Holy Spirit in the Life of the Church and World, §26); and “Many passages of this document indicate clearly that the Council, by opening itself to the light of the Spirit of truth, is seen to be the authentic depositary of the predictions and promises made by Christ to the Apostles and to the Church in the farewell discourse.” §29 He spoke of Vatican II and its teaching on the lay faithful as having a “prophetic significance.” (On the Lay Faithful, §2). Most decisively he held a synod in 1985, at the 20th anniversary of the council, to establish the true meaning and agenda of the Vatican Council. The message of the Second Vatican Council has already been welcomed with great accord by the whole Church, and it remains the “Magna Charta” for the future.” (1985 Extraordinary Synod)..

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