That’s one of the bold conclusions drawn by Ross Douthat in today’s New York Times.
Just because a moment calls for reinvention doesn’t mean that a specific set of reinventions will succeed, and we now have decades of data to justify a second encapsulating statement: The council was a failure.
This isn’t a truculent or reactionary analysis. The Second Vatican Council failed on the terms its own supporters set. It was supposed to make the church more dynamic, more attractive to modern people, more evangelistic, less closed off and stale and self-referential. It did none of these things. The church declined everywhere in the developed world after Vatican II, under conservative and liberal popes alike — but the decline was swiftest where the council’s influence was strongest.
The new liturgy was supposed to make the faithful more engaged with the Mass; instead, the faithful began sleeping in on Sunday and giving up Catholicism for Lent. The church lost much of Europe to secularism and much of Latin America to Pentecostalism — very different contexts and challengers, yet strikingly similar results.
And if anything post-1960s Catholicism became more inward-looking than before, more consumed with its endless right-versus-left battles, and to the extent it engaged with the secular world it was in paltry imitation — via middling guitar music, or political theories that were just dressed up versions of left-wing or right-wing partisanship, or ugly modern churches that were outdated 10 years after they were built and empty soon thereafter.
There is no clever rationalization, no intellectual schematic, no sententious Vatican propaganda — a typical recent document references “the life-giving sustenance provided by the council,” as though it were the eucharist itself — that can evade this cold reality.
You can read more here.
The church has to live with Vatican II, wrestle with it, somehow resolve the contradictions it bequeathed us, not because it was a triumph but precisely because it wasn’t: Failure casts a longer and more enduring shadow, sometimes, than success.
You begin from where you are. The lines of healing run along the lines of fracture, the wounds remain after the resurrection, and even the Catholicism that arrives, not today but someday, at a true After Vatican II will still be marked by the unnecessary breakages created by its attempt at a necessary reform.
For what it’s worth (and I know it’s not much), I hold fast to the conviction that we’re only just getting started. It will take decades more, if not centuries, to fully realize the vision of Vatican II.
People will pick and choose what worked, what didn’t, what triumphed, what failed — and some are already clamoring for a Vatican III (when, in reality, a Manila I might be more apt.) No one knows where we are headed.
But I know this: I’m here right now, tapping away on my keyboard, because of the council.
I owe my vocation to Vatican II. So do tens of thousands of other permanent deacons around the world. (Along with countless lay people who have seen their role in the Church strengthened and enhanced.)
The Holy Spirit is at work. I see it repeatedly in my own little chapter of this big story. It bears remembering that one of the enduring successes of Vatican II remains the renewal and restoration of the diaconate as a separate and permanent order. The impact of that reality alone, in so many corners of the world — in innumerable families, parishes, dioceses, missionary outposts and educational institutions — is something for which all of us should be eternally grateful.
Give thanks. Know hope. At the risk of stating the obvious: God is in charge.