Vatican II: the View From the Pew

In honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Second Vatican Council, I’ve begun reading John O’Malley’s magisterial history, What Happened at Vatican II.  It’s a fascinating chronicle of the great theological earthquake that shook the Church to its foundations, throwing open doors to let fresh air into dusty mausoleums but also, at the same time, knocking down priceless works of art that had taken centuries to create.

Like most ordinary Catholics over the age of fifty, I lived through it all on the street level, up close and personal:  the myriad changes to the Mass… the nuns casting off their dignified old habits and dressing like school marms… the questioning of virtually everything… the rediscovery of the Church’s mission to the poor and re-commitment to peace… the counter-reformation… the culture wars… all the battles over contraception and divorce and abortion.

I can honestly say that it was a wonderful time to live through.  My generation had a taste of the old and lived through the rebuilding of the new.  We started out in Catholic parochial school saying the Mass prayers in Latin and ended it saying them in Swahili (Kumbaya, My Lord, Kumbaya!).

With the exception of the unexpected catastrophe of the sexual abuse crisis, all of these upheavals have created, I believe, a Catholic Church that is now stronger, more intellectually coherent, more faithful to the Gospel and more capable of enduring the 21st century than what existed before.

Of course, we were all just getting back on our feet again in the 1980s and ‘90s, with a new confidence and energy, when the sexual abuse crisis hit like a cancer diagnosis.  Like cancer, it is life-threatening, terrifying and will leave us weaker than we would have been otherwise… but ultimately, with luck and a lot of chemo, we will survive even this.  (Or maybe not.  You never know with cancer!)

At first, I was on the side of the crazy liberals in the Church.  When I was thirteen or fourteen, I thought like liberals did and liked everything new and radical and distrusted anything that smacked of the “old” Church.  The Jesuits in my Catholic high school were stuffing us all full of liberal theology (watered down, of course) from the likes of Karl Rahner, Bernard Haring and Hans Küng.  We played guitar at the high school midnight Mass on Saturdays, hearing tales of the Berrigan brothers and Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker (still heroes of mine).  Everything was experimental, a work in progress.  My high school religion teacher practiced Transcendental Meditation and was into the Charismatic Renewal, even speaking in tongues.  I remember being greatly affected by the writing of a (now ex-) priest, Anthony Padavano, and by the strange Jesuit mystic and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

But by the time many of us got to college, in the mid-1970s, we were already becoming a little skeptical of the whole “scorched earth” liberal agenda.  Many of us began to notice some of the destruction the post-conciliar wrecking ball had left in its wake.  We would walk by (metaphorically speaking) the ruins of old cathedrals and see discarded statutes by the likes of Michelangelo and Donatello lying face down in the dirt – and would ask, Gee, did we have to throw these away, too?

The truth is, Vatican II was a little like the French Revolution – freeing prisoners in the Bastille but also setting up a guillotine in every square.   When things settled down in the 1980s, my generation began to question the questioners, to assess what was gained and what was lost in the revolution.   We read books by the Catholic counter-revolutionaries, such as James Hitchcock’s The Rise and Fall of Radical Catholicism, Garry Wills’ Bare Ruined Choirs and Anne Roche Muggeridge’s The Desolate City.  Some of my friends became more critical of the post-conciliar Church and more open to at least listening to what traditional Catholicism had to say.  Around that time, in the late 1970s, I penned a series of articles about what was lost in what we called then the New Mass, even daring to suggest that the Jesuit liturgies in the “liturgical center” were so informal and irreverent they seemed more like a cocktail party than an act of worship.

Yet, most people I knew could never bring themselves to join the conservative wing of the Church – represented by, say, The Wanderer newspaper or Catholics United for the Faith (CUF).  Intellectually, we remained unregenerate “liberals” on basic principles:  We instinctively knew that fundamentalism of any sort (either Biblical or theological) was untenable and that science and historical scholarship would strengthen, not weaken, Christian faith.  But we were becoming, I suppose, aesthetic conservatives, people who found the modern efforts at liturgy and church architecture to be decidedly inferior to what was found in the past.  I guess this made us Anglicans, people with radical theology but a preference for tradition and good taste.

When John Paul II arrived on the scene, however, all that changed.  He was and remains the greatest hero of my generation of Catholics.  We were lucky to live during an age of living saints, John Paul the Great and Mother Teresa.  JP II represented everything my friends and I thought the Church should be – intellectually daring, open to new ideas, fluent in many languages, willing to talk to and even pray with representatives of all the major religions, yet mindful of Church tradition and a guardian of the deposit of Faith passed on for millennia.

Nutty liberals attacked John Paul as an “arch-conservative,” because he wouldn’t change ancient Church teaching on women priests, homosexuality and abortion, but in fact John Paul was the closest thing to a centrist the Church has ever seen.  As I was writing for Catholic magazines and raising a family, I was definitely a “John Paul II Catholic” – which meant I was fully supportive of Vatican II and opposed efforts to return to a “1950s Catholicism” or a Latin Mass traditionalism (although I sometimes went to Tridentine liturgies to see what they were like).

Like many people in those years, my friends and I were all enthralled by the “new movements” in European Catholicism, groups like Comunione e Liberazione, precisely because they seemed to chart a middle course between the dour fundamentalism of conservatives (represented by The Wanderer) and the “anything goes” liberalism of left-wing “cafeteria” Catholics (represented by the National Catholic Reporter).  We were also greatly influenced by Catholic neo-conservatives (neo-conservative not in a political but religious sense) such as Michael Novak, George Weigel and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, and their journals, Crisis and First Things.

That still represents more or less where I situate myself today:  pretty much smack dab in the middle theologically and politically.  I am a thorough “liberal” when it comes to Biblical studies and scientific issues like evolution and cosmology; yet I remain “conservative” in that I don’t think the Church can or should change its moral teachings on divorce, homosexuality or abortion.  The older I get, the more I prefer Gregorian Chant to rock guitar music; yet I remain as opposed to a fundamentalist perspective on the Bible and Church teaching as ever.

I suppose the main way my friends and I are different today than when we were younger is that we are a little more battered by life and therefore less righteous, a little more aware of the price paid for tradition — and not by us!  In this, we are like a lot of older priests I know.  They are world weary, a bit exhausted, but do their best to be kind.  For example, while I don’t think the Church should change its teaching on the indissolubility of authentic sacramental marriages – Jesus’s “exception” was not for “adultery” as most English translations have it but for porneia, meaning informal common law marriages or people “shacking up” – I have friends and family members, not to mention my own parents, who are divorced.  As a result, we have to find ways to help divorced people live within the arms of the Church with dignity and grace.  The same thing is true for gay people.  I’m not sure how we do that – and I remain opposed to gay marriage – but do it we must.

In the end, I am grateful for the creative whirlwind that was the Second Vatican Council, despite some of the wreckage that came in its wake… and grateful for the millions of faithful Catholics who cheerfully live with its contradictions and internal tensions to this day.  We’re all just muddling through, doing our best to separate the wheat from the chaff, trying to discern what is an authentic development of doctrine and what is a dead-end.  Bishops and theologians argue about these matters, but we laity vote with our feet.  It’s been a wild ride these past fifty years and I can’t wait to see what the next fifty years brings.

Robert Hutchinson


Robert Hutchinson studied philosophy as an undergraduate, moved to Israel to study Hebrew and earned an M.A. degree in Biblical studies. He is the author, most recently, of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Bible. He blogs at

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  • ConvertJournal

    “The truth is, Vatican II was a little like the French Revolution – freeing prisoners in the Bastille but also setting up a guillotine in every square.”

    I agree, although we probably differ on emphasis. On the surface, this looks like a half-good, half-bad proposition. In reality, its execution (vs. the concepts) may have been more bad than good.

    When the French revolutionaries proudly stormed the Bastille, they didn’t know what it contained. They liberated a whopping 7 prisoners – 4 forgers, 2 lunatics and 1 pedophile. The “spirit of Vatican II” guillotine similarly made many changes not understanding what would be lost. Our long path to recovery continues.

  • JMC

    As one Catholic writer commented in the book “False Friends of Fatima,” Vatican II may have let some fresh air into the “dusty old mausoleums (?!! Mausoleums? Really?),” but it also let in the spirit of the world. Known as the “spirit of Vatican II,” it gave rise to a number of liturgical abuses that have since been condemned by two, if not three, successive Popes. It gave rise to sermons that focus almost exclusively on hermeneutics – not that I’m against exegesis from the pulpit; quite the contrary. I’ve learned a lot about some of the biblical stories. The problem, however, is that you no longer hear sermons about good old right and wrong, which is why you have so many Catholics who don’t really understand what the Church teaches. The emphasis on conscience, while simultaneously neglecting to form that conscience properly, has led to things like Catholics for “choice.” In short, as Mr. Hutchinson implies, too much “baby” was thrown out with the bathwater.

  • TAM

    Well stated but there has been to much tinkering with the TRUTH

  • James H, London

    I’m 42. I never really knew the pre-Vat II worship, but my first conversion experiences took place to the soundtrack of guitars and trained voices. I had a great grounding in the Real Presence from De La Salle brothers, which has never left me, and kept me in the church even as my faith was challenged by evangelicals in school. Growing up in South Africa, I never had time for some bishops’ trendy Liberation Theology, with its approval of Marxism and political violence (the priests almost never mentioned it). At the same time, the charismatic renewal introduced me to genuinely loving, accepting people on fire for the faith and unafraid of explaining it. Suddenly, the Mass was in 3-D, and I really meant every response I made, and every song I played.

    When I first heard a double CD of Chant, I was, well, enchanted. My sympathies then started growing steadily towards a more ‘conservative’ form of worship – right up until I read various blogs (or comments thereon), that Charismatics and people who liked guitar music were ‘aging hippies’, ‘Cafeteria Catholics’ who practiced liturgical abuses (none of which I’d never even heard of) and they should ‘hurry up and die’. At which point I realised why Vatican II had to happen: the old (now Extraordinary) form was simply not capable of inculcating the right moral fibre in the people, and even worse, was capable of hiding sin under an aesthetic cloak. I wonder how long it had been fossilising before 1962?

  • Florin S.

    Nov.3rd: please be aware that John O’Malley’s “What Happened at Vatican II” indicates that Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have all subverted the spirit of Vatican II and O’Malley proposes that they have ignored the ‘collegiality’ theme of Vatican II which, O’Malley believes, indicates that all Cardinals and Bishops are ‘equal’ to the Pope…if you have a deep knowledge of the faith and of the history of the Catholic Church, you might be able to get past this but for those who are just learning the faith or who do not have a deep faith, this is not the book for you.

  • While I agree that John Paul II helped turned the understanding of Vatican II and the Church around it was he who did not directly address the abuse crisis like the next Pope Benedict has. Also JPII did NOTHING for the Latin Mass and left it up to the Bishops. No matter how “great” he was Benedict is the “Pope of Christian Unity” JPII did not really do much in that area either. Let’s just be honest about the Currant Pope’s strong leadership.

  • Joe Q

    Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church says this in chapter 3:
    “Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of
    infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly
    whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still maintaining
    the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter,
    and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in
    agreement on one position as definitively to be held. This is even
    more clearly verified when, gathered together in an ecumenical council,
    they are teachers and judges of faith and morals for the universal
    Church, whose definitions must be adhered to with the submission of

    The 20 ecumenical councils before it are still infallible, like
    the ecumenical council of Trent that declared that Catholics with faith can lose salvation from unrepented mortal (grave) sin. And that baptism or the implicit desire of baptism is necessary for salvation.

  • No name Jane

    Vatican II said this in it’s Constitution Dei Verbum:
    “Consequently it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence.”

    Vatican II showed that traditions should be kept with loyalty. Reading the council’s texts was important.

  • Katieq

    The Vatican II documentm made by the council itself, DEI VERBUM, says in number 9 “Therefore both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence.” check it out at
    If we show this more the liberals will have be re-evaluate their position! Hooray!