The Death of the Spirit of (Pre-)Vatican II?


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The pre-Vatican II spirit is finally dying out in the Church, the Pope said yesterday.

Well, he didn’t say it that way.

He described how a false narrative hijacked the Second Vatican Council because the media could only cast it in political terms. A political “virtual council” became stronger than the real Council. In American Catholic circles, translate that: The “spirit of Vatican II” crowd beat the “read the documents” crowd.

But now, said Pope Benedict XVI, “It seems to me that 50 years after the Council, we see how this Virtual Council is breaking down, getting lost and the true Council is emerging with all its spiritual strength.”

I submit that this is because the paradigm of the Church is finally changing from the pre-Vatican II mentality to a post-Vatican II mentality.

Often, the right is tagged “pre-Vatican II” and the left “post-Vatican II.” That’s nonsense. The truth is that a strong paradigm of the Church dominated before Vatican II, and Catholics of all persuasions had trouble shaking it.

The Second Vatican Council sought to change the Catholic paradigm. The Council’s message:

  • Lay people aren’t spectators to the priests and religious who are doing the real Catholic work; lay people are the front lines of the Church’s effort to sanctify the world.
  • What happens inside church walls is not the be-all and end-all of Christian life — the Mass is the source and summit of a faith life that is mostly lived elsewhere.

Simply put: Vatican II sent lay people to take the Gospel to the great wide mission field outside church walls. But Catholics had a hard time adjusting to this change in paradigm, and when the Council called for more lay involvement, they applied the pre-Vatican II paradigm and assumed it meant more lay involvement inside the church walls.

And so it happened that the Church through much of my life (I was born in 1969) has been energetically conflating lay and priestly roles.

Tell the Church, “I’m an enthusiastic Catholic!” And the Church was likely to say, “Great! Then be an Extraordinary Eucharistic Minister or a lector.” The Church was sending a pre-Vatican II message: “To be an active Catholic, imitate the priest.”

Worse, the Church was sending a corollary discouraging message to potential priests: “Forget the hardship of priesthood. Be a lay minister!”

We need to learn the language of Vatican II that says: “Lay people needn’t imitate the priest or duplicate his efforts. They are to bring Christ to the world they live in, socialize in and work in.”

Pope Benedict XVI is not the first pope to explain this. In 1997, Pope John Paul II promulgated an instruction “On certain questions regarding the collaboration of the non-ordained faithful in the Sacred ministry of the priest.” We used to write about this at the National Catholic Register all the time.

Eight Vatican prefects signed onto it. One was Cardinal Ratzinger. He said the Church must clearly define roles or risk “falling into a ‘Protestantization’ of the concepts of ministry and of the Church.” He also said that “a loss of the meaning of the sacrament of Holy Orders” and “the growth of a kind of parallel ministry by so-called ‘pastoral assistants’” is causing confusion about the special identity of ordained priests.

The Vatican’s instruction listed legitimate lay roles inside the Church “in the teaching of Christian doctrine, for example,” and “in certain liturgical actions in the care of souls.” In situations of priest shortages, there is even more need for lay involvement.

But the document stressed that lay peoples’ fundamental vocation is “in their personal, family and social lives by proclaiming and sharing the Gospel of Christ in every situation in which they find themselves.” It even said that lay people can’t properly be called ministers — they can only be called “extraordinary ministers” in certain situations.

Pope John Paul II returned to the document again and again, reiterating its guidelines in his Jubilee-Year ad limina addresses to U.S. bishops.

But perhaps that document’s time had not yet come. It seemed to make barely a ripple.

In the years since, much has happened. The “pre-Vatican II” paradigm that saw the priest’s role as the goal for the laity is on the wane. Today’s young people are “post-Vatican II.” They found their faith at World Youth Day and learned to own it on the streets in the March for Life. They don’t long to live out their lay vocation near the altar in a robe. They long to live it in their homes and workplaces, dressed like everybody else.

“And it is our task, in this Year of Faith,” said Pope Benedict yesterday, “starting from this Year of Faith, to work so that the true Council with the power of the Holy Spirit is realized and Church is really renewed.”

Let’s do that. We will lose a pope for a time in Rome. But if we finally embrace the Council, we can gain an active Catholic on nearly every street corner in the world.


Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., where he teaches in the Journalism and Mass Communications department and edits the college’s Catholic identity speech digest, The Gregorian.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of


About Author

Tom Hoopes, author of What Pope Francis Really Said, is writer in residence at Benedictine College, in Atchison, Kansas, where he teaches in the Journalism and Mass Communications Department and edits The Gregorian, a Catholic identity speech digest. He was previously editor of the National Catholic Register for 10 years and with his wife, April, of Faith & Family magazine for five. A frequent contributor to Catholic publications, he began his career as a reporter in the Washington, D.C., area and as press secretary for U.S. House Ways & Means Chairman Bill Archer. He lives in Atchison with his wife and those of his nine children still at home. The views and opinions expressed on this blog do not necessarily reflect those of Benedictine College or the Gregorian Institute.

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