That They May All Be One

At a time when our nation’s politics can be a source of strife among the faithful, it is good to remember that the bonds of faith are much deeper — infinitely deeper — than any disagreements about politics. This, by the way, does not diminish or trivialize politics; it places politics in a context in which politics can be what it must be, and not what it cannot be.

With that in mind, and keeping in mind that next week marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II, let me refer you to an excellent piece by Michael Sean Winters, someone with whom I often disagree about politics. In this post from yesterday, Winters offers a spirited rebuttal of James Carroll, a man who likes to think the Second Vatican Council “changed everything.” Here’s Winters:

Pope John XXIII’s speech [opening Vatican II] did not, in fact, “change everything.” Well, let me qualify that remark. Clearly, the speech, and the Council it inaugurated, changed everything for Mr. Carroll, and that is what matters most to Carroll – this essay, and others he has penned like it, are nothing if not self-referential. For him, the Council unleashed the promise of reforms Carroll desired. For him, the Council, opened a new day, in which all was possible. For him, the Council cast aside centuries of foolish encrustations of the faith, allowing 20th century Catholics like himself to look past the Church and discern the figure of Jesus Christ Himself. And – lo and behold – Jesus turns out to look a lot like an urbane, late twentieth century, New York Times-reading, Bostonian liberal.


Carroll’s understanding of the 1960s is bizarre. All was good, all was liberating. It is the mirror image of the view of the 1960s held by some conservative Catholics for whom the 1960s wrecked everything. Both views are thoroughly nostalgic and, just so, uncritical. Here we see the chief difficulty in Carroll’s rendering of Vatican II. It is not primarily that he lacks the theological chops to probe its documents. The difficulty is not that he lacks the historical inquisitiveness to recognize the ways that the seeds of Vatican II had been planted years and decades and centuries in advance. It is not that, of course, the Creed, the canon of Scripture, the basic form of sacramental worship, the Church’s teachings on those sacraments, none of this changed, making Carroll’s claim that “everything changed” rather ridiculous. No, the chief difficulty in Carroll’s essay is the sense that he believes the Second Vatican Council happened just for him. This is not analysis, still less history. or theology. It is solipsism on the page.

You can throw out your liberal and conservative labels on this one: we are called to become like Christ, not to refashion Christ (or His Church) in our own image. It is impossible to be one — with Christ or with others — if we remain in ourselves. As for those lesser things that would divide us, remember Jesus’ prayer:

I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.

We are one when we remain in Christ. Cling to Christ. Cling to His Church. That is the only company that matters. Do this and we’ll be sure to find that it is by remaining in Christ that the world comes to believe in Him and in the Father who sent Him.

Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public policy Center in Washington, DC and coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society. The views expressed here are his own.


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  • Julie T.

    Thank you for your thoughtful post, Stephen. I followed the link and read Mr. Winter’s post in its entirety, as well as the com box reaction below it. The drubbing he takes there is just sad and caused me to wonder why he clings so tenaciously to the community NCR represents.



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