Why did we need the Second Vatican Council? Did we need it at all?
Hearing those questions, most Catholics who’ve thought about Vatican II
would probably cite renewing and updating of the Church as solid reasons
for the ecumenical council.
That answer isn’t wrong. But a
half-century after Vatican II (it took place between 1962 and 1965) it’s
clear that a much larger purpose was at work, with Church renewal and
updating its handmaids.
You start to see that when you consider a common objection to the council:
ecumenical councils were convened to handle particular problems. Early
councils dealt with heresies about Christ. In the 16th century Trent had to respond to the Reformation. Vatican I in the 19th
century faced the challenge to the authority of the pope and the
bishopsbut it was interrupted and didn’t say much about bishops.
contrast, there was no crisis requiring Vatican II. By the middle of
the last century, the Church was strong and united in the faith. So this
was a council that wasn’t needed. Wouldn’t it have been better to leave
No, it wouldn’t. The Church faced a grave problem
thenindeed, it still doesand an ecumenical council was required to
address it. What problem? No less than the crisis of modernity itself,
especially the comprehensive undermining of humankind’s
self-understanding and its disastrous consequences for faith, underway
in the West for at least a century or more before the council.
process had many sources, but three especially stand out:
Darwinismpopularized evolutionary theory reducing the human person to
no more than a higher animal; Marxism, whose deterministic account of
history eliminated free choice; and Freudianism, no less deterministic,
which explained human behavior as the acting out of sublimated impulses
from libidinous realms of the psyche.
Capping it off was Friedrich Nietzsche, who boldly announced the death of Godthe bourgeois deity of 19th century Christianity, that isand predicted that a new morality of power vested in a superman (ubermensch) would soon emerge. Hitler apparently took that to heart.
Ordinary people were understandably slow in absorbing all this, but it was gospel for the Western cultural elites of the late 19th and early 20th
centuries. In due course it filtered down to the massesa process
speeded by the horrors of two world wars. Here, then, was the crisis of
modernity that Vatican II needed to confront.
Pope St. John XXIII
put it clearly in his opening address to the council on October 11,
1962. The “greatest concern” of Vatican II, he declared, was to guard
Christian doctrine and teach it “more efficaciously.” That included the
truth about “the whole of man, composed as he is of body and soul” and
created by God not only for life on earth but for eternal life in
The council did its best, and that was pretty good.
Central to its teaching was the Christocentric affirmation that it’s
Christ who “fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling
clear” (Gaudium et Spes 22). The Church has been developing
that exalted vision of human dignity ever since, most notably via the
personalism of Pope St. John Paul II.
Yes, an enormous amount
remains to be done to recapture lost ground. But don’t tell me Vatican
II wasn’t needed. It was, urgently. The problem hasn’t been the council
but the lack of focus in its implementationincluding the constant,
distracting bickering about liturgy. And saying Vatican II wasn’t
necessary is surely no help.