What Went Wrong with Vatican II

Author: Ralph McInerny

What Went Wrong with Vatican II:
The Catholic Crisis Explained

Ralph M. McInerny

Chapter One

The Forgotten Teachings of the Council

On October 11, 1962, Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council in St. Peter's Basilica with a speech full of hope and promise. Recalling the Church's previous councils, the Pope said that Vatican II was called to reaffirm the teaching role of the Church in the world.

In calling this vast assembly of bishops, the latest and humble successor to the Prince of the Apostles who is addressing you intends to assert once again the Church's Magisterium [teaching authority], which is unfailing and perdures until the end of time, in order that this Magisterium, taking into account the errors, the requirements, and the opportunities of our time, might he presented in exceptional form to all men throughout the world.15

The problem facing us, the Pope pointed out, is the same today as it has ever been: Men stand either with the Church or against Her; and rejection results in bitterness, confusion, and war. Councils testify to the union of Christ and His Church and promulgate a universal truth to guide individuals in their domestic and social lives.

Far from being motivated by foreboding and concern for the modern world, Pope John XXIII was full of optimism. Many had come to him lamenting the state of the world, seeing it in steep decline. We live, they implied, in the worst of times. Not so, said John XXIII:

We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world was at hand.

In the present order (if things, Divine Providence is leading, us to a new order of human relations which, by men's own efforts and even beyond their very expectations, are directed toward the fulfillment of God's superior and inscrutable designs.16

John XXIII discerned even in troubling modem circumstances possibilities for the Church to fulfill Her mission of preaching the gospel of Christ more effectively. Throughout this opening address, he was filled with exuberant optimism.

And he was quite clear about what he wanted the council to accomplish: the defense and advancement of truth.

The greatest concern of the ecumenical council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously.17

John XXIII said that in our day there is already sufficient clarity about the teaching of the Faith. The emphasis of the council should thus not be doctrinal but pastoral. It should consider how best to convey the truth of Christ to the modern world.

He said that errors are best dealt with in a gentler way than heretofore. The same charity should suffuse our dealing with our "separated brethren." Here the Pope strikes the note that will fuel the ecumenical movement among the churches.

The closing prayers of his address convey the simplicity and faith of John XXIII:

Almighty God! In Thee we place all our confidence, not trusting in our own strength. Look down benignly upon these pastors of Thy Church. May the light of Thy supernal grace aid us in taking decisions and in making laws. Graciously hear the prayers which we pour forth to Thee in unanimity of faith, of voice, and of mind.

0 Mary, Help of Christians, Help of Bishops, of whose love we have recently had particular proof in thy temple of Loreto, where we venerated the mystery of the Incarnation, dispose all things for a happy and propitious outcome and, with thy spouse, St. Joseph, the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, St. John the Baptist, and St. John the Evangelist, intercede for us to God.

To Jesus Christ, our most amiable Redeemer, immortal King of peoples and of times, be love, power, and glory forever and ever. Amen.18

Lively Debate Characterized the Sessions

The Second Vatican Council met in four sessions. The first session opened, with the papal address just recalled, on October 11, 1962, and closed on December 8 of the same year. Pope John XXIII, whose idea the council was, need on June 3, 1963. He had expressed the hope that, if he were not still alive when the council ended, he would watch its joyful conclusion from Heaven.

His successor, Paul VI, called for the second session to begin on September 29, 1963, and it ran until December 4, 1963. The third session was held from September 14 to November 21, 1.964. The fourth and final session ran from September 14 to December 8, 1965.

Anyone reading the exchanges between the bishops during the sessions of the council must be impressed by the high level of the discussion. For example, the discussion of the Declaration on Religious Liberty was feared by some to fly in the face of earlier Church teaching, obviously a serious reason for caution. Proponents, respecting this concern, were eager to allay it. Participants in the debate opposed one another against a background of a shared concern for the tradition of the Church. Some would, reduce this spirited and often profound exchange to a conflict between liberals and conservatives, but such a reduction misses the depth of the discussion.

Some interventions in the council are more impressive than others, of course, but what is lacking from these actual sessions is the kind of ideological dogfight reported at the time in periodicals and shortly thereafter in the multi-volume histories of the council.

Reading some of those accounts of the council sessions, especially those written at the time, is not an edifying experience. Even so relatively sober a book as Fr. Ralph Wiltgen's The Rhine Flows into the Tiber portrays the debates as no nobler than a playground quarrel. Perhaps the saddest description is Fr. Wiltgen's account of Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani being silenced:

On October 30, the day after his seventy-second birthday, Cardinal Ottaviani addressed the council to protest against the drastic changes which were being suggested in the Mass. "Are we seeking to stir up wonder, or perhaps scandal, among the Christian people, by introducing changes in so venerable a rite, that has been approved for so many centuries and is now so familiar? The rite of Holy Mass should not be treated as if it were a piece of cloth to be refashioned according to the whim of each generation." Speaking without a text, because of his partial blindness, he exceeded the ten-minute time limit which all had been requested to observe. Cardinal Tisserant, Dean of the Council Presidents, showed his watch to Cardinal Alfrink, who was presiding that morning. When Cardinal Ottaviani reached fifteen minutes, Cardinal Alfrink rang the warning bell. But the speaker was so engrossed in his topic that he did not notice the bell, or purposely ignored it. At a signal from Cardinal Alfrink, a technician switched off the microphone. After confirming the fact by tapping the instrument, Cardinal Ottaviani stumbled back to his seat in humiliation. The most powerful cardinal in the Roman Curia had been silenced, and the Council Fathers clapped with glee.19

Looking back on it from a distance of thirty-five year reader is more likely to be astonished by the reported reaction of the council Fathers than he is likely to share in it. Fr. Wiltgen was writing in 1977, and his account of the sessions was generally praised for its objectivity, but he, too, operates with the simplistic notions of conservative and liberal.

Such accounts as Fr. Wiltgen's - and let me stress that his is as evenhanded as one is likely to find - seek and find a drama in the proceedings that doubtless characterized the politics outside the hall. There are good guys and bad guys, and in the end the good guys win.

But it is not in histories of the council, contemporary or otherwise, that the council itself should be sought. Nor are the records of the discussions between the bishops the final word. Where, then, is the council itself to be found?

Catholics Cannot Reject the Council

Sixteen official council documents emerged from sessions in which schemata were proposed, altered, replaced, argued, and ultimately voted on. Each of the conciliar documents can be parsed back into a written record of such debates and discussion, but there is no need to characterize such debates in terms of obscurantists and enlightened progressives - not even when, as in the case of the Declaration on Religious Liberty, the debate defines itself in terms of such opponents. For in the end, it is the final document that trumps all earlier arguments and discussion. Once voted on and promulgated by the Pope, a conciliar document is no longer the victory of one side or the triumph of a faction: it becomes part of the Magisterium of the Church.

There is little doubt that, in the minds of many observers, reporters, and even periti, a struggle was going on between the traditionalists and the innovators. Even if this mirrored a struggle among the Fathers of the council, when the dust settled, when the final vote was taken, when a document was approved and promulgated by the Pope, it was the product of the teaching Church. And in Her role as teacher, the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit. Whatever spirited battles took place in the course of the council, the only spirit that matters is the Holy Spirit, whose influence on the promulgated document is guaranteed.

Studying the record of discussions among the bishops, of drafts of documents, and the proposals for change can, of course, aid us in understanding the final approved results. But it is the final documents as approved by the bishops and promulgated by the Pope that contain the official teaching of the Catholic Church. And Catholics have a duty to accept the teaching of a council.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church spells out the infallibility of an ecumenical council:

"The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of the faithful - who confirms his brethren in the Faith - he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to Faith or morals.... The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter's successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium," above all in an ecumenical council.20

Consequently, the teachings of the Second Vatican Council are the official teachings of the Church. That is why the more than thirty years that have passed since the close of the council are evaluated by the Church in the light of the council.

That is why Paul VI and John Paul II have regarded their papacies as dedicated to the implementation of what was decided during those fateful three years of the council.

That is why rejecting the council is simply not an option for Catholics.

And that is why Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre's schismatic movement involved an internal incoherence. He sought to appeal to earlier councils in order to discredit Vatican II. But that which guarantees the truth of the teaching of one council guarantees the truth of them all. Popes Paul VI and John Paul II exhibited a long patience with Archbishop Lefebvre. Eventually, he undertook to consecrate new bishops in defiance of the Vatican, and no more patience was possible. He was excommunicated. 21

What Vatican II Says About the Pope

The same long patience has been shown to dissenting theologians who have undertaken to appoint themselves the final arbiters of Catholic truth and to inform the faithful that they need not accept the teachings of the Holy Father.

Often, they justify this dissent by citing "the spirit of Vatican II," which one theologian explains as follows:

Vatican Council II was an example of democracy in action. Opinion had been widespread that, with the definition of papal infallibility, councils would no longer be needed or held. After Vatican I, it seemed the Pope would function as the Church's sole teacher. Vatican II, however, showed what could be accomplished in the Church when all the bishops worked together. There was significant input from theologians (some formerly silenced). Protestant observers made an important contribution.22

The spirit of Vatican II urges us to balance what the Magisterium says with other points of view throughout the Church. Magisterial teaching is referred to as the "official" teaching of the Church, as if there were another, rival teaching that could trump the Pope.

But what does Vatican II itself say about this? After speaking of the college of bishops and the collegiality that characterizes the episcopal office, Vatican 11 declares that not even bishops, acting apart from the Pope, have any authority in the Church:

The college or body of bishops has for all that no authority unless united with the Roman Pontiff, Peter's successor, as its head, whose primatial authority, let it be added, over all, whether pastors or faithful, remains in its integrity. For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as the Vicar of Christ, namely, and as pastor of the entire Church) has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.23

Obviously, if even bishops, singly or collectively, have no authority apart from the Pope, no other group in the Church has such authority. No other group has the role of accepting or rejecting papal teaching and advising the faithful that they may rightly reject papal teaching.

In a word, according to, Vatican II, the Pope is "the supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful,"24 the successor of St. Peter, the Vicar of Christ on earth. He is head of the college of bishops. He can himself, independent of the bishops, exercise the supreme Magisterium.

In light of this, there seems simply to be no way to read the teachings of Vatican II and find in them any basis for the postconciliar view promoted by some theologians that papal teaching can be legitimately rejected by Catholics.

Yet some theologians continue trying. They suggest that Catholics are bound only by Church teaching that is infallible by dint of being formally and solemnly defined. According to them, such instruments of the Magisterium as encyclicals should be treated with respect, but Catholics have the option of setting their teaching aside.

Catholics Must Submit to the Pope

Is there any support in Vatican II for such a conception? Is acceptance on the part of the faithful limited to solemnly defined teachings, clearly infallible for that reason? The Second Vatican Council also answers this question clearly and forcefully:

This loyal submission of the will and intellect must be given in a special way to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he does not speak ex cathedra, in such wise, indeed, that his supreme teaching authority be acknowledged with respect, and that one sincerely adhere to the decisions made by him, conformably with his manifest mind and intention, which is made known principally either by the character of the documents in question, or by the frequency with which. a certain doctrine is proposed, or by the manner in which the doctrine is formulated.25

Unfortunately, some theologians, particularly moral theologians, for reasons we will examine in subsequent chapters, have simply rejected this clear teaching of Vatican II. They have come to see their role as one of criticizing, passing judgment on, and even dismissing magisterial teaching.

There is no surer protection against this attempted usurpation than the documents of Vatican II themselves and particularly the passages just quoted from the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium.26

There is, of course, something odd in the effort to quarrel with what are obviously teachings of the Church and therefore require religious assent from Catholics. It is almost as if the aim were to discover how little one need believe. But surely, as Vatican II urges, it should be the mark of Catholics that they take on the mind and heart of the Church and show gratitude for God's great gift of the Magisterium.

The calibration of Church teachings that is suggested by distinguishing between the ordinary and extraordinary Magisterium is an important one, but it does not justify any distinction between magisterial, papal teachings that need to be accepted by Catholics and those that do not.

Indeed, to advise Catholics to ignore clear magisterial teachings is to advise them to reject the clear teaching of Vatican II. How ironic that the council should be invoked as warrant for dissenting from the Magisterium when it is precisely the council that rules this out.

To accept Vatican II is to accept what the council says about the Magisterium and the Catholic's obligation to obey it.

As we will soon see, public and sustained rejection of the Magisterium and of this clear teaching of Vatican II - largely by dissenting theologians - has caused and sustained the crisis in the Church.


1-14 are found in the Introduction.

15 Floyd Anderson, ed., Council Daybook: Vatican II, Sessions 1 and 2, (Washington: National Catholic Welfare Conference, 1965), 25.

16 Ibid., 26.

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid., 29.

19 Ralph W. Wiltgen, The Rhine Flows into the Tiber (New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1967), 28-29.

20 Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 891.

21 See Kelly, The Battle for the American Church, 411-417.

22 Philip S. Kaufman, Why You Can Disagree and Remain a Faithful Catholic (New York: Crossroad, 1995), 153.

23 Lumen Gentium, no. 22.

24 Lumen Gentium, no. 25.

25 Ibid.

26 A 1998 apostolic letter of Pope John Paul II gave force of law to this requirement of Vatican II that theologians be faithful to the Magisterium. Called Ad Tuendam Fidem, the letter made deviation from such teachings as Vatican II a violation of canon law subject to punishments up to and including excommunication.

The above excerpt of pages 23-38 is taken with permission from:

Ralph M. McInerny. What went wrong with VATICAN II.
(Sophia Institute Press, 1998, paperback, 168 pgs)

This book is available from:

Sophia Institute Press
Box 5284
Manchester, NH 03108