What the Optimism About Vatican II Was Really About

Meanwhile, John XXIII had announced the Second Vatican Council and thereby reanimated and, for many, intensified even to the point of euphoria the atmosphere of renewal and hope that reigned in the Church and in theology since the end of the First World War despite the perils of the National Socialist era.” – Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in his Milestones Memoirs 1927-1977 page 120.

I can be tempting to see the general enthusiasm for change brought about by Vatican II in a Liberal Conservative divide as portrayed by the media. The “Liberal” view is that the change would open wide doors to be like the world. This is the claim of many when taking about Vatican II.

That enthusiasm was generally present. But we must be careful to note other general trends in society. How could people be hopeful for renewal when World War I and II had crushed the dreams and lives of so many? Humanity in the modern world knew ugliness.

Dr. Larry Chapp made an excellent comment in a recent video on Vatican II. There are two major ways to react to the crisis of the world wars. One could end up in pessimism about humanity and all things. One could also end up in a general optimism that everyone needs to work together and enter into dialogue and form some sort of united plan and vision for humanity moving forward to avoid encountering more wars.

In this framework we can see how the council fathers were enthusiastic about renewal and Ratzinger notes in his memories even though the World Wars had just ended. The Council was doing in religious terms what the secular world was doing by building the United Nations. The Church and many in it were hoping that entering into dialogue with the world and reaching out to it would help create a system where great evils such as the World Wars would be less likely.

The problem was the modern world had little interest in dialoguing with the Catholic Church and in fact was hostile to it more so culturally than at any point. (i.e. at least when you are taking to Pagan’s they still believe in the afterlife and the spiritual realm – modern society stopped doing so)

Hence, we must not impute a general malaise of bad will on the council that is relied on today to score debating points. The texts themselves asked for dialogue and entering into conversation with the world as well as a purification of the interior life of the Church herself.

A second problem was that the pre-Vatican II Church had in a general sense (not every place and person) been forming minds and hearts of the faithful in a legalistic way to follow rules and obligations. When the council lifted some of those rules to allow for more interior and personal initiative, large percentages of the faithful simply through the whole thing out and instead of dialoging with the modern culture with a greater freedom than was allowed previously simply conformed to the culture. (There was no rule against doing this or that being talked about so the general conscience of the time saw no wrong)

To conclude, I want to note that the renewal or the hope of it during Vatican II was well founded on good moral reasons. The malformation in the pre-Vatican II era caused the Church to rely to heavily on rules. This then caused the faithful to be wish-wash when rules were lifted. A Liberal element always present in pre-Vatican II times was then able to take the ship a little to far astray in some areas then the council’s original enthusiasm was all about.

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