Catholics have been arguing about the Second Vatican Council—about what it did and didn’t do, about what it meant and still means or what it never meant and could never mean—for half a century. Many reform-minded Catholics today are disappointed by what they see as a retreat, under the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, from the council’s mandate for change, especially change in how the church is governed (see “Bishops or Branch Managers?”). Other Catholics, alarmed by the disarray that followed the council and mistrustful of attempts to reconcile Catholicism to a decadent, godless modern world, have applauded papal actions disciplining “dissenters” and reemphasizing traditional markers of Catholic identity. What reformers see as a rejection of the council’s promise of intellectual openness and ecumenism, traditionalists view as an indispensible move to safeguard truths of faith threatened as much from within the church as from outside it. Catholics who grew up after the council, meanwhile, often dismiss the polemics of both sides. To them, the changes that so disrupted the everyday lives of pre–Vatican II Catholics—the vernacular Mass with its visible role for the laity and particularly for women, the cataclysmic decline in vocations, the virtual disappearance of confession, the tolerance for public dissent from church teachings—are unremarkable, and comprise the only church they’ve ever known.

The result, it seems, is that there are currently several different, sometimes contending ways of being Catholic. To some degree that has always been so. The notion of the church as a rigorously disciplined and monolithic enterprise is largely myth, and modern myth to boot (see “An Imagined Unity”). What is not myth, however, is the dramatic change in the self-understanding of Catholics brought about by the council. For at least two centuries Catholicism saw itself as a bulwark against the spread of pernicious liberal and democratic principles, and held fast to a monarchical and aristocratic worldview in which the church enjoyed a privileged civic, cultural, and political role. At Vatican II, the bishops called off this long and ultimately futile struggle against modernity. Not without ambivalence, they reconciled themselves to the separation of church and state and to the idea of religious liberty (see “Outvoted, Not Persecuted”). They then went further, extending the hand of fellowship to other Christians, to non-Christian religions, and especially to the Jewish community, while warmly endorsing human rights and aspirations for democratic self-determination. Even the pursuit of technological and material progress, long viewed with world-weary skepticism, was encouraged.

And so a church once narrowly focused on the world to come suddenly discovered much to praise in the world at hand. Most important, perhaps, the laity was now urged to bring its faith into the secular sphere, to transform a fallen world rather than retreat from it. This effort at aggiornamento, or updating, looked back to certain neglected aspects of the tradition (ressourcement) for inspiration and guidance. That project was in part an effort to find within the church’s own traditions theological and philosophical sources that could more firmly ground and thus defend what was morally sound in the modern world’s understanding of human dignity and individual liberty.

There is nothing intellectually, theologically, or politically tidy in this long-delayed encounter between the church and the post-Enlightenment world, as the ongoing struggles between the Vatican and theologians and the Vatican’s recent criticism of women religious remind us. Nearly forty years ago, longtime Commonweal columnist John Cogley offered the following assessment of the council’s aftermath: “The religious community that survived the early onslaught of bigotry, with a certain style; that built up an enormous citadel of protective institutions to protect its identity; and that valiantly fought its way out of the ghetto to achieve acceptance in American life may yet have to face its greatest challenge.” As Cogley understood it, the challenge was the seemingly irresistible, yet questionable, attraction and authority of modernity itself, with its atomizing individualism, triumphant materialism, scientific hubris, and deep skepticism about the existence of any transcendent values or reality.

Can the church rise to this challenge? So far the results are mixed. What seems certain is that not everything that worked in the past will work now. The “New Evangelization” now being implemented must do more than resurrect the apologetics of an earlier era when the church had more social and moral capital at its disposal. The larger cultural situation has changed in fundamental ways, and so has the church. It is no longer possible to protect Catholic identity by encasing it in small, carefully guarded institutions; both American life and Catholic life in America are too fluid, too differentiated, too focused on a forever idealized future. Like it or not, Catholics of all theological and ecclesiological opinion have been profoundly shaped by the larger culture’s deep skepticism toward hierarchical leadership and tradition itself. Cultivating more fruitful Catholic practices and associations will require experimentation and leadership (both lay and clerical).

Just before his death last month, Milan’s Cardinal Carlo Martini lamented the institutional and pastoral paralysis gripping the European and American church. He cast a sorrowful eye on “pompous” liturgies, “empty” religious houses, and the church’s stifling bureaucracy. “Where are our heroes today who can inspire us?” he asked, and went on to recommend that the pope and the bishops “find twelve unconventional people to take on leadership roles.” What sort of unconventional people? “Those who are close to the poor,” Martini specified; “who can galvanize young people by being willing to try new approaches.”

One such “new” approach, as suggested by John Wilkins in this issue, would be a return to the council’s embrace of collegiality, and the development of that tradition to include genuine lay participation.

It’s important to keep in mind that over the centuries the church has found a way to flourish in every sort of culture, from empire to the industrializing nation-state. To be sure, today’s world, where social and cultural bonds are often weak and fleeting, presents a unique challenge to an institution that thinks of itself as a cohesive community, possessing a tradition that unites believers even in their disagreements. The sometimes bitter disagreements among Catholics today are not going to end any time soon. But that should not be a cause for pessimism or despair. As the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has reminded us, every institution or tradition is “partially constituted by an argument about the goods the pursuit of which gives to that tradition its particular point and purpose.” In other words, robust debate about the church and its mission can be a sign of health. There will need to be more room, not less, for the “argument about the goods” of the Catholic tradition. 

Modern men and women long for a unity of purpose that extends beyond mere individual striving or difference. Such unity is forged by the conviction that there is in fact meaning to suffering and death, and that the meaning and value of life itself can only be found in a good that reaches beyond this world. That was the first truth the council proclaimed, and to which it called every Catholic to give witness. The need for that witness is even greater now than it was fifty years ago.

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