Left Behind

What Catholic historians don’t say is as important as what they do

“Have you met any of these young retro-Catholics?” This question was directed to my table by a priest in his early 60s at the closing banquet for the American Catholic Historical Association several years ago. The priest went on to describe younger Catholics he had met who were interested in Gregorian chant and seemed to agree (gasp!) with many of the Church’s controversial teachings on human sexuality. He spoke as if they came from Mars. In my mid-30s at the time, I was the youngest at the table and close to the youngest at the conference. My attempt to explain that such young people were interested in true authority but not authoritarianism, interested in the documents of Vatican II but not its supposed “spirit,” was interrupted by the after-dinner address, but the blank looks on the historians’ faces made me glad to end the conversation. The past, they say, is a different country—they do things differently there. For many historians, still fighting the battles of their own youth, it is the present that is alien and sometimes frightening.  

Two well-written books on American Catholicism and the tumultuous period surrounding Vatican II share, in different ways, this rather blinkered attitude to the past that celebrates the notion of change in the Church as it looked in 1969, but don’t seem terribly interested in what happened afterwards. 

Colleen McDannell’s The Spirit of Vatican II is the more accessible of the two volumes, while Jesuit Father Mark Massa’s The American Catholic Revolution is, while entertaining and well-written, focused on the history of ideas. McDannell’s technique is to weave together 20th-century American Catholic history with the life of her mother Margaret, who was born in 1926 in Pennsylvania and has lived in various parts of the country. The idea is to focus Catholic history more on the experience of women and suburban communities. Her narrow focus on her mother and her mother’s friends—who all either approved of all the changes in the post-Vatican II era or didn’t think they went far enough—ends up making this a sort of history of what has come to be called “suburban-rite Catholicism” with its protestantized liturgy and its thin theology. 

Massa’s technique is, as in his earlier books, to tell a number of discrete stories that illustrate the effects of ideas on history. A sort of Malcolm Gladwell for the theological set, Massa, like Gladwell, though he claims to cover the messiness of history, often ends up offering a somewhat simplistic view. Both authors largely ignore the period of John Paul II and Benedict XVI’s pontificates.

McDannell’s weaving of the two stories of her mother and the broader Church is deft, but her grasp on Catholic history and theology is shaky. She often refers to “the Byzantine rite” or the “Eastern rite” of Catholicism as if there were only one such rite. She also informs the reader that Vatican I’s major work was “according [the pope] the power at certain times, to speak on morals and faith without the possibility of error,” as if the decision were simply a transfer of power and not a declaration of what is true. At another point she writes, “Most members of the Curia believed that human beings are bent toward evil because of the existence of Original Sin inherited through Adam’s disobedience”—not realizing that Original Sin is not a curial curiosity but a Catholic doctrine. She is much more content to write about the “flavor of Catholicism” or the “mood” of Vatican I than actual doctrines. Thus, the idea that provides her title, the “spirit of Vatican II” is never actually scrutinized.

What is the “spirit of Vatican II”? “Reform, relevancy, experimentation, collaboration, youthfulness, intentionality, openness, humor, protest, and the vernacular were the values taken from the Council debates and documents. A spirit was evolving out of the Second Vatican Council that consolidated and legitimized liberal trends in Catholicism.” McDannell has little interest in the different theological schools of any stripe that percolated at the time, referring instead to a monolithic and reliably tradition-averse “new theology.” 

Her chapter describing the Council’s main decisions is generally accurate but one-sided, especially when it comes to describing how they should be implemented. While she acknowledges that most conciliar decisions were compromises, McDannell echoes the Bologna historians who originally defended a spirit radically different from the letter of Vatican II: those who defended the letter of the Council were acting against the Council. When she describes anything as “promulgated” by Vatican II, she generally means the liberal trends associated with the Council, as when she explains why children stopped going to confession because they could not understand the “complicated notions of sin that the Council had promulgated.”

Thus when McDannell says her mother “approved of the Council’s reforms” but not Paul VI’s teaching on contraception in Humanae Vitae, you can tell that what is coming is not going to be based on what the Council actually said at all. As McDannell often quotes her mother or her mother’s friends, one gets the feel for what was no doubt emotionally exciting to some, but ultimately vapid. Whether it was singing Beatles songs in Mass or laughing with the priest as he mocked the Pope during the sermon, McDannell accepts without question that all was necessary to attract young people to the faith by making it “relevant” and thus achieving “renewal.” After all, the radical changes in theology and practice were justified since Catholics needed them “to experience God in ways that made sense to them, and they began to generate their own religious truth.” 

McDannell keeps the focus squarely on people like her mother who enjoyed the time of change. Anybody who objected to changes is referred to as “fearful” or “disgruntled,” “looking backward” rather than “looking forward.” She rarely adverts to the fact that large numbers, especially of those young people, were leaving the Catholic Church for Evangelical Protestantism and other groups without a need to generate religious truth.

While McDannell seems largely unaware of questions about the validity of the “spirit of Vatican II” she identifies, Father Massa declares that “although it is quite important to understand the intentions of the participants at the Second Vatican Council, its reforms, once promulgated, took on a life of their own, and their results cannot be judged by how closely they hewed to original intent.” Those reforms, he tells us, have “the same historical validity” as the ones that were intended by the Council fathers themselves. Why we are not to judge reforms based on conciliar intent is unclear, as is on what exactly we are to judge them. But Massa ignores this problem and moves on to state his thesis. 

Like McDannell’s divide between those who foolishly followed the letter of Vatican II and not its supposed spirit, Massa’s divide, derived from the thought of Canadian Jesuit Bernard Lonergan, is between those who have a classical mentality and those with a historical one. The classical mentality, which dominated the Church until 1962, simply sees “human nature” and “right action” as static concepts, “resting on eternal laws whose author was God, whose purposes and intentions for humankind could be appropriated through rational study of an immutable ‘natural law.’” The historical mentality, on the other hand, sees that “the historical process itself provided the key to understanding all human meaning, even meaning claiming to disclose transcendent realities superior to the historical process.” 

Thus, Massa’s chapters, which deal with distinct historical episodes like Cardinal McIntyre’s dealings with the California IHM sisters during their internal fights over what the order should be like, are all set up as a fight between narrow classicist conservatives and historically conscious liberals.  

There are two problems here. First, basing many of the reforms on historical consciousness, like the priest facing the people during Mass, has been shown (though Massa and McDannell are unaware of it) to be false. Second, simply setting out each episode as a fight between those who believe in “static” truth against those who believe in “historical consciousness” leaves out the position that much of human and social reality is malleable while there are a number of essential truths that do remain the same throughout human nature and history. It is one thing to say that history reveals many doctrinal and disciplinary matters formerly considered certain to be rather uncertain or even wrong. It is another to say that all of them are uncertain, as Massa hints.

Massa lauds the late Cardinal Dulles for his adherence to historicity, but Dulles, like Benedict XVI and John Paul II—whom Massa treats as naïve “classicists”—believed in both history and natural law, development and change as well as permanent truths. All three understood reform is meaningless if there is no stable, knowable form.

Massa and McDannell don’t look too closely at the present, perhaps because to do so might reveal that the Catholic liberalism associated with “the spirit of Vatican II” is, as Cardinal Francis George of Chicago put it, dead. The miniskirted nuns who rejected Vatican II’s letter are now selling their property since their orders are closing down, while orders that wear habits and believe in “timeless truth” are filled with young women. While Massa claims that in the 60s Catholics found natural law arguments “dated or implausible,” today Catholics are joining Protestants, Orthodox, and Jews in a revival of natural-law thinking. Massa is right that historical consciousness is not going away, but if the post-conciliar period has a lesson, it seems to be that Catholicism without timeless truths is history.


The Spirit of Vatican II: A History of Catholic Reform in America

By Colleen McDannell

Basic Books, 2011

Hardcover, 286 pages; $26.99


The American Catholic Revolution: How the ’60s Changed the Church Forever

By Mark S. Massa, SJ

Oxford University Press, 2010

Hardcover, 190 pages; $27.95


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About David Paul Deavel 27 Articles
David Paul Deavel is Editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture co-director of the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy, and visiting assistant professor of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas. His book Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West, co-edited and introduced with Jessica Hooten Wilson, is now available from Notre Dame Press.