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The Next Pope and Vatican II

A Catholicism indistinguishable from liberal Protestantism has no future. Neither does a Catholicism that attempts to recreate a largely imaginary past.

Pope John XXIII leads the opening session of the Second Vatican Council in St. Peter's Basilica Oct. 11, 1962. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)

Polemics about the Second Vatican Council continue to bedevil the global Catholic conversation.

Some Catholics, often found in the moribund local Churches of western Europe, claim that the Council’s “spirit” has never been implemented (although the Catholic Lite implementation they propose seems more akin to liberal Protestantism than Catholicism). Other voices claim that the Council was a terrible mistake and that its teaching should be quietly forgotten, consigned to the dustbin of history. In The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (just published by Ignatius Press), I suggest that some clarifying papal interventions are needed to address these confusions.

 To begin: the next pope should remind Catholics what Pope John XXIII intended for the Council, thereby challenging both the Catholic Lite Brigade and the Forget Vatican II Platoon.

The pope’s opening address to Vatican II on October 11, 1962, made his intention clear: The Church, he said, must re-focus on Jesus Christ, from whom she “takes her name, her grace, and her total meaning.” The Church must put the Gospel proclamation of Jesus Christ, the answer to the question that is every human life, at the center of her self-understanding. The Church must make that proclamation by proposing, “whole and entire and without distortion” the truths Christ gave the Church. And the Church must transmit those truths in ways that invite skeptical contemporary men and women into friendship with the Lord Jesus.

John XXIII did not imagine Vatican II to be a Council of deconstruction. Nor did he imagine it to be a Council that froze the Church in amber. Rather, Pope John’s opening address to Vatican II called the entire Church to take up the task of Christian mission: the mission to offer humanity the truth about God and us, both of which are revealed in Jesus Christ.  The next pope should forcefully remind the Church of this.

The next pope might also engage – and settle – a parallel debate that began during Vatican II and continues today: Did the Catholic Church reinvent itself between October 11, 1962, and December 8, 1965, the day the Council solemnly closed? Or must the documents of Vatican II be read in continuity with revelation and tradition? Curiously, the “progressive” Catholic Lite Brigade and the ultra-traditionalist Forget Vatican II Platoon promote the same answer: Vatican II was indeed a Council of discontinuity. But that is the wrong answer. It is a mistaken reading of John XXIII’s intention for Vatican II. It is a mistaken reading of Paul VI’s guidance of the Council. And It is a mistaken reading of the Council’s texts.

Three canonized popes – John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II – plus the great theologian-pope Benedict XVI have insisted that Vatican II can and must be read in continuity with settled Catholic doctrine. To claim that Vatican II was a Council of rupture and reinvention is to say, in effect, that these great men were either duplicitous, anti-conciliar reactionaries (the tacit indictment of the progressives) or material heretics (the tacit indictment from the far right-field bleachers). Neither indictment has any merit, although the latter has recently gotten undeserved attention, thanks to ill-considered commentaries reverberating through the echo chambers of social media and the ultra-traditionalist blogosphere.

Thus the next pope ought to insist that the Catholic Church does not do rupture, reinvention, or “paradigm shifts.” Why? Because Jesus Christ – “the same yesterday and today and forever” [Hebrews 13.8] – is always the center of the Church. That conviction is the beginning of any authentic evangelization, any authentically Catholic development of doctrine, and any proper implementation of Vatican II.

The next pope should also lift up the Council’s genuine achievements: its vigorous affirmation of the reality and binding authority of divine revelation; its biblical enrichment of the Church’s self-understanding as a communion of disciples in mission; its insistence that everyone in the Church is called to holiness, especially through the liturgy; its defense of basic human rights, including the first of civil rights, religious freedom; its commitment to truth-centered ecumenical and interreligious dialogues. Yes, there have been distortions of these teachings; but to blame the distortions on the teachings themselves is a serious analytical error.

A Catholicism indistinguishable from liberal Protestantism has no future. Neither does a Catholicism that attempts to recreate a largely imaginary past. The Catholicism with a future is the Catholicism of the Second Vatican Council, rightly understood and properly implemented. That happens to be the living Catholicism of today, and the next pope should recognize that, too.

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About George Weigel 468 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).


  1. I have been making the same point about the election of Pope Leo XIII in 1878. The conclave following the death of Pius IX was torn between reactionaries who wanted to return the Church to an idealized Middle Ages that never existed, while the radicals wanted to devolve the Church into national bodies along the lines of the Church of England. Since the factions were split into sub-factions, neither faction could forward a viable candidate, so they selected the ailing Cardinal Pecci, Archbishop-Bishop (long story about that) of Perugia, who was expected to die within the next few weeks. This would presumably buy the factions time to do a little politicking and locate someone to carry out an agenda. Surprising even himself, Pecci (who took the name Leo XIII) didn’t die, but went on to have the second longest pontificate up to that time back-to-back with the longest to date. Disappointing both radicals and reactionaries, Leo XIII steered the Church along the orthodox path, avoiding the modernists on both sides of the aisle.

    • Your comment relates an interesting piece of history. Can you list a source regarding your comment where the cardinals wanted to devolve the Church into separate churches or national bodies. If that was the case, I would say it failed because the Holy Spirit would have non of that. But it also shows how the devil will try to destroy the Church.

  2. It seems to me that you may have inadvertently endorsed the exact point of some of the V-2 critics. For example, if during the course of a modest career I were to write a manual of instruction to staff and subsequently discover that it created 50 years of constant fighting and controversy over its meaning, I might say to myself that perhaps the document could have been more precisely worded. I might also concede that maybe I should go back to the drawing board. My original intentions may have been good and noble, but something was obviously lost in the translation. And sometimes it is better to start fresh, rather than fix with band-aids.

    • Guess what? Pope JP II and Benedict did precisely what you suggest. They settled controversies around what Vatican II really meant, they defined the hermeneutic of continuity, they replaced troublesome bishops with bishops that held the correct interpretation of Vatican II. By the end of Benedict’s papacy, the ship was on course again. Then the disaster of Francis hit, and all the anti Vatican II nuts came out of the wood work to claim that everything had always been bad, and that Vatican II was the cause of all the grief. It wasn’t, but the breakaway sects in the church like to paint it that way.

      • If John Paul II and Benedict “settled controversies about what Vatican II really meant”, why are those controversies continuing to rage and mount today?

        • Because the documents of the unfortunate council are hopelessly flawed, in part by the deliberate machinations of nefarious participants in the council (by their own admission) and the weak prelates who failed to resist these bad actors. Everyone got a bit of what they wanted in the committees’ work, and then every individual was able to manipulate the ambiguities and internal contradictions to his own purposes.

          One of the main purposes of a council is to produce clearly written documents. The unfortunate council failed in this respect, as shown by recently written books (well reviewed here at CWR) whose fine authors are still trying to interpret the meaning of the documents more than 50 years after the fact. (NB – not plumbing the depths of their meaning, but attempting to find and explain it!)

          A simple logical test: a good council would fulfill its basic function and produce clear documents; the unfortunate council failed in this respect (ample evidence per above); ergo, it was not a good council…or, simply, it was a bad council. (And yes, a valid one, Sam…no breakaway sect ideologue here.)

          • The smoke of satan did roll in there at some point…but the divine intervention forced it to stop short of completely destroying the Church. Remember that the commission that studied contraception, one of the more satanic items attempting to push through during the council, recommended that Church allow that practice and only the firmness of the pope (by then, Paul VI who, they hoped would follow along the lines of his liberal predecessor) and his divinely inspired steadfastness on those matters of life and death saved the church from committing the largest sin ever.

            We need to pray for our popes, even the bad ones. That is our strongest recourse against this disease of modernism eating the Church from within.

  3. Addendum – My simple example does not account for the fact that I may not be guided by the Holy Spirit in business communications. But does the Holy Spirit’s guarantee extend to precision and clarity?

  4. My response to Weigel is very simple: how after 55 years can anyone rationally deny the catastrophic objective results of Vatican II? Weigel presumes that he somehow has a privileged ability to intuit the “intentions” of John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, yet it is not their “intentions” but their actions which are important. The objective catastrophic results of Vatican II exist notwithstanding their “intentions” and precisely because their objective actions and failures to act were, to put the matter gently, unavailing.

    • Your simplistic answer is simplistic. Why do you insist on refusing to face any and all facts about Vatican II?
      Fact: The Catholic church has twice as many members as at the time of Vatican II. The church is still growing, both in the US and around the world.
      Fact: Vatican II kickstarted the conversion of large parts of the world that had not been touched before. In Africa and Asia, the church is growing like wildfire – and it is the Novus Ordo church that is doing that. BUT – you guys like to pretend the only thing that matters is the church in the US and Western Europe. You are cherry picking so you can keep complaining.
      Fact: If Vatican II was the cause of all the problems in the church in the US and Europe, why have Protestants, Jews, Hindus and all other religions faced the same decline in church attendance etc? Obviously, any sane person would begin looking at the real causes rather than hide his head in the sand and keep pretending that Vatican II was the cause of the decline.
      Now, if we can stick to the facts and not go running blindly down dark alleys of falsehoods, perhaps we can begin to fix whatever is wrong with the church. But until you guys start learning to face facts, that will never happen, and until that point in time, you guys are hurting the ability of the church to fix its problems.

      • OK, if we need to fix problems, we need to start with the lack of a sense of the sacred in the ordinary form of the Mass. It is focused on “us” and not on Almighty God. Bishop Joseph Strickland’s interview by Bree Dail is a must read.

      • “Fact: The Catholic church has twice as many members as at the time of Vatican II. The church is still growing, both in the US and around the world.”

        That’ actually more of a factoid than a fact. That statistics counts people like Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and the Cuomo brothers as Catholics. Using statistics in that way might cause one to count Trotsky as an anti-communist because Moscow ordered his murder or count Obama amongst defenders of traditional family because he did, at least once, say that fathers matter and marriage is between man and a woman.
        I could go on and refute the other factoids as well, but what’s the point.

    • I agree. What we need to do is to assess the Church’s most pressing needs of our own present, and formulate policies accordingly. If that means discarding some or most of the Council’s prescriptions, then so it must be. It won’t happen, however, if we continue to cling to VII as the ultimate and only authority – a “super dogma,” in the words of then Cardinal Ratzinger – through which we are compelled to view the Church, past, present and future.

  5. In correctly dismissing both the Catholic Lite Brigade and the Forget Vatican II Platoon, Weigel remarks: “Thus the next pope ought to insist that the Catholic Church does not do rupture, reinvention, or ‘paradigm shifts.’”

    The pope will also have to be his own person. That is, he must be IMMUNE to a yet deeper infestation—this being the McCarrickesque lavender presence which is quite content to cross-dress its manipulations as two polarizing theological narratives.

    A prescient clue into this possible interpretation is offered by Josef Pieper who explores the moral virtues directly in his “Fortitude and Temperance (1954).” He writes that chastity preserves the “INTACTNESS” of the human person (as in accord with the reality of things as they really are), and (2) that by the absence of chastity “the cognitive process [is] thereby poisoned and perverted, but also the POWER OF DECISION itself, and even more so, ‘most of all prudence,’ says Aquinas.” At its core, however, the lavender unreality holds instead that consensual sexual acts between adults of the same sex are not violations of the vow of chastity. . . the further unreality of dysfunctional “decisions” surely follows.

    Is the dichotomy between Catholic Lite and Forget Vatican II less about these cover-story trajectories/theologies than it is about an embedded “staph” infection marked by impaired, go-with-the-flow decisions and indecisions—-the emasculated, dissipating instead of fecund, imprudent, disembodied and so-called “spirit of Vatican II”?

  6. “Open wise the doors to Christ.”

    This is a very appealing declaration by Pope John Paul II.

    Here is a compelling statement, in seeming contrast, from Jesus:

    “Enter by the narrow gate. For the way is wide and the path is easy that leads to destruction, and many enter by it. For the way is narrow and the path is hard that leads to life, and those who enter by it are few.” (Matt 7: 13-14)

    Every Council, including the very popular Second Vatican Council, is to be read through the lens of Jesus.

    I agree with Dignatatis Humanae, and with St. Gregory of Nyssa, that men must not be coerced or forced in any way into any religion.

    On the other hand, I do not agree that men like Walter Kasper should be made Bishops and Cardinals, because they teach heresy, and heresy is what they themselves mean by “being modern.”

    Some things may or may not be paradoxes. But others are not paradoxes, such as a Kasper, they are just (material) heresy.

    • There is no contradiction between the phrase open wide the doors to Christ and the narrow gate quote.
      Can you quote somebody authoritative who has proven that Kasper is a heretic? I seriously doubt that he has been declared a heretic as you suggest.

      I know he wrote some objectionable and questionable stuff, but has anyone declared him to be a heretic?

      • Samton –

        Surely you can answer your question.

        In fact, my parenthetical helps to hint your answer. On the other hand, “The Church” no longer confronts heresy, like Kasper teaches. It just pretends its not happening. Especially helpful in that regard are (take you pick: modern, progressive, liberal, open-minded?) Bishops and theologians and seminaries who teach Kasper’s heresy, and (take your pick: conservative, traditional, ultra-traditional, moderate) Catholic and Bishops etc who don’t bother reading what Kasper wrote, so that they can avoid the troubling topic, and pretend reality is not happening.

      • Mayhaps Kasper was not declared a heretic for the same reason Pelosi, Biden, or Cuomo were never excommunicated. Lack of guts on behalf of the hierarchy…

    • A vital distinction must be made indicated during this debate between the mistaken presumption of Church use of coercive authority to compel non Catholics to convert to Catholicism, which is justly forbidden – from that same authority regarding baptized Catholics today (christifideles). Pius IX’s Quanta cura defends the Church’s right to impose temporal penalties on those who breach her laws, not as part of an assertion of the duties of the state, but in an assertion of the Church’s own authority, defending that authority from intrusion by the state. Moreover Pius IX was defending a doctrine of the Church’s authority that the Church still teaches in her legal code. Far from being abandoned as supposedly outmoded social teaching at Vatican II, this doctrine about the Church’s coercive power was retained in a code expressly designed to be reflective of Vatican II. The present 1983 code of canon law still teaches what Pius IX and Bilio both believed: that the Church has the general authority to coerce offending christifideles – Christian faithful, defined in the code as the baptized – for supernatural ends, and to apply temporal as well as spiritual punishments to this end. The obligations the Church has the authority to enforce are ones arising from baptism, under divine law, on belief as well as practice, as well as those arising specifically for Catholics under ecclesiastical law. What Trent endorsed – the coercive enforcement of baptismal obligations through punishments for crimes such as heresy and apostasy – is still canonically provided for. And the Church’s general authority so to coerce is still explicitly taught (Dr Thomas Pink On the Coercive Authority of the Church in Rorate Caeli).

  7. Weigel has given up on the current Pope, as he should. He therefore writes about what the “Next Pope” should do. We are in a weird sort of inter regnum, where the current pope is pretty much useless or harmful, and the only thing we can do is wait for the next pope. Meanwhile, the extremists from the left and right squabble like dogs over the latest bit of road kill. The real Catholics simply wait, wait in hope.

    • No, the current pope continues to stack the college of cardinals with proponents of the extreme left. Sitting and “waiting” in hope may be for some, but at least a portion of “real Catholics” need to be doing a bit more than that.

  8. American Catholics like the American voter are lazy. They don’t want to fight with God’s message(like Jacob fought with the Angel)let someone else do that: that’s what the clergy and religious are for. The American Catholic has all the documents and encyclicals available to them online today – free. To say that the Church has gone too far or hasn’t gone far enough is an expression of a person’s faith. How can we ask God to “Create a clean heart in me, O Lord” when we hang on to our stone cold hearts?

  9. And here’s the footnote to my incomplete reply, above. The reply does not implicate celibate clergy who happen also to be homosexual. God bless the all. But, nor does it exclude heterosexual unchastity. Nor is it limited only to clergy. For both the Titanic and the Barque of Peter, there’s the rest of the iceberg. . .

    Regarding the laity, might we be reminded of the 1948 Lambeth Conference (Anglican communion) where a minority voice still resisted to the end the earlier puncturing of boundaries. Fr. James Schall reflected on their rear-guard opposition to the 1930 vanguard approval of contraception:

    “It is, to say the least, suspicious that the age in which contraception has won its way is not one which has been conspicuously successful in managing its sexual life. Is it possible that, by claiming the right to manipulate his physical processes in this manner, man may, without knowing it, be stepping over the boundary between the world of Christian marriage and what one might call the world of Aphrodite, the world of sterile eroticism. . .Once submission to the given pattern is abandoned, all kinds [!] of variations on the sexual theme which heighten satisfaction can appear to be enrichments of the sexual life? [also metastasizing into INSTITUTIONAL “variations” as well]” (Fr. James Schall, quoted in Cardinal Wright, “Reflections on the Third Anniversary of a Controverted Encyclical,” St. Louis: Central Bureau Press, 1971.)

  10. I believe this time we are facing is a purification of the Church. It needs it. A robust and more traditional church is in the way. I’m almost certain. AMEN! AMEN!

  11. I have been reading Mr. Weigel since his 1980’s book “Tranquiillites Ordinis”. I do take issue with some of what he says here. He refers to the Council’s genuine achievements. Its affirmation of binding authority of divine revelation, its biblical enrichment, insistence that everyone is called to holiness, etc. These seem to be related more to processes than results. This reminds me of an article that I read several weeks ago. A general said that we cannot pull out of Afghanistan, we will loose all the gains we have made. Gains? We control less territory now than 10 years ago. To talk about the achievements of Vatican II sounds a lot like so many homiletics platitudes – Everything is fine, God loves you, have a good week. The measurable results tell us that 75% of Catholics attended mass weekly in 1960, and 25% do so now. Recent surveys show that a significant portion of those do not believe in the real presence. There are diocese that report up to 50% of couples coming for marriage preparation are cohabiting. Baptisms are down and marriages are down. Bishops have lost much of their moral authority. Not everything is due to Vatican II, but probably some relationship. We are told over and over that the documents must be read in continuity with Tradition. But the fact that it has to be constantly repeated, (over 50 years later) and that those on both sides of the issue speak of the pre Vatican II Church and the Post Vatican II Church makes it somewhat hard to accept. Although there are issues addressed in the Council that are worthwhile, the documents seem to be too long and open to many interpretations.

  12. I am about half way through Weigel’s book The Irony of Modern Catholic History. He seems to highlight the really smart theologians that were present at Vatican II. Also he seems to dismiss the Popes and Clergy prior to Vatican II that did not have the foresight to understand how the Church needed to change for Modern Times. What I have gotten out of the book so far is that the really smart theologins pushing Vatican II had not use for the treasures and traditions of the Church. There was no place in the Church for with such things as the Latin Mass, not eating meat on Fridays, kneeling for communion etc. The disregard for the Church’s treasures and traditions by these really, really smart theologins got us where we are today.

  13. Oh Weigel, admit Traditional Catholics have been right all along and you’ve been wrong already. We’ll have you back.

    • Nice way to box him up. I wonder if he could Weigel out of it by refuting your statement without losing the arguments he uses in his book… 🙂

      Yup, I’m fully aware this comment will not be published, dear censor, but hey, I might as well say it anyway.

  14. From The Once and Future Papacy

    By Robert Royal

    THURSDAY, JULY 16, 2020

    So far as we know, Pope Francis is in reasonably good health and will remain head of the Church for some time to come. A bad case of the flu earlier this year – which some feared was COVID-19, quite dangerous for an elderly man with only 1½ lungs – seems just to have marginally slowed him down.

    But three books have recently appeared that – if only to get us off our obsessions with viruses, race, riots, toppling statues, and politics – deserve some attention: Russell Shaw’s Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity; Edward Pentin’s The Next Pope: The Leading Cardinal Candidates; and George Weigel’s The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission. The great virtue of each of them is not to offer simple solutions or predictions. They seek more to understand the current situation and the role that the Church is going to have to play in a world that has, even more than usual, gone mad.


    George Weigel is ambitious in his own relatively brief description of what will be needed in the next pope. There’s not the slightest hint of who might fulfill these requirements, which makes the analysis more rather than less relevant, whoever the next pope might turn out to be.

    First and foremost for the next pope is personal holiness and the ability to show the world that its salvation and hope lie only in Jesus – the full Jesus, not only the “nice” Jesus that people, even some in the Church, have been emphasizing since the Enlightenment. Weigel also argues that the next pope will have to make it a central part of his papacy that the “form” of the Church is to be in perpetual “mission.”

    This involves a renewed and redirected engagement by a pope who understands the Petrine ministry with bishops, priests, and laypeople, and who will reinvigorate the New Evangelization, Christian humanism, and the Church’s moral witness in world affairs. In the last category, Weigel rightly counsels the Vatican not to speak out on so many political issues, on which it has little expertise, a habit that diminishes its impact when there’s a public question on which the Church does have moral competence.

  15. I don’t think WWigel us an accurate assessor of Vatican II or really of anything Catholic, except in his own mind. He’s like the editorialist who has the reputation of conservatism but is really a self-inflated failure.

  16. While I have 16 years of Catholic education and perhaps the equivalent of a minor in Theology, I do not feel qualified to speak at length on the above topics. I grew up during Vatican 2 but Vatican 2 was never really discussed in Church or school other than specific changes like Latin Masses, meat on Friday etc. The Church needs to communicate better with its followers. I do not think we need to revisit documents written 50 years ago. The Church is losing many followers and we need to consider giving women a more active role in the Church and rethink the Church’s role in Catholic education.

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