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.



18 thoughts on “The Death of the Spirit of (Pre-)Vatican II?

  1. Pat Schwarz says:

    The teaching of St. Josemaria Escriva and the work of Opus Dei.

  2. A lot of it is semantics. As a retired church musician and liturgist, I considered myself a music “minister” because that was the way I served the people of God. Without the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the attendant courage, I would have been a “gong ringing”. I believe the church musician can be a paid professional who knows a lot about music, period, and/or an inspired musician who knows and cares a lot about God’s people and gives themselves to the Holy Spirit working through him/her.

  3. Mary Jo Bell says:

    Great article! I, too, have done my share of participating “in the church,” which I cherish, but I’ve always found that sharing my faith with my peers has brought infinitely more satisfaction and peace. This is the best way to spread our faith and strenghten
    our Church.

  4. tranxtian says:

    I find this entire article makes no sense.

    1. JCV_Truth says:

      Why? its very simple, the lay people needs to live and proclaim the gospel in every aspect of their lives, not only serving within the Church. Lay people are not the priests employees, they are disciples of the lord with a different vocation: spread the good news in your reality, in the world.

      1. georgianeighbor says:

        Well put. You could have written a clear and concise article about this yourself!

        1. tranxtian says:

          The article above is neither clear nor concise.

          1. georgianeighbor says:

            I have to agree.

    2. abadilla says:

      Of course it doesn’t because it totally rejects the type of Catholicism you probably embraced!

      1. Frantastic1 says:

        As opposed to the type of Catholicism that you embrace that instructs you to come online and flame another person in some sort of Internet pissing contest?

        I find nothing in your behavior to be Catholic.

        1. abadilla says:

          “I find nothing in your behavior to be Catholic.”
          Coming from you that’s like expecting respect for democracy coming from North Korea or the President of Iran. I certainly won’t lose sleep over it. If you are Catholic, I’m a Buddhist!

          1. Frantastic1 says:

            Again with the petty personal attacks.

          2. abadilla says:

            It is you and others who have told us clearly what you believe and since it is the opposite of Roman Catholicism, I’m simply stating that fact when I say you and others are Catholic like Biden, Pelosi, Kerry and others are. Calling a spade a spade is NOT the same thing as “personal” attacks, but you like to play the martyr as you and others spew your venom all over CV.

  5. Katherine says:

    As Joe Biden would say, “malarkey.”
    I was a pre-Vatican II liberal Catholic (in the universally common use of the term). I was active in the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists (ACTU) to bring the Church’s social teaching to workers and I was active in the Catholic Interracial Council, to end racial segregation in Catholic parishes, schools and hospitals.
    Today I am a Eucharistic Minister. Once a month I bring communion to a homebound parishioner. We have 20 other lay people doing the same (most of them to several people; I’m lazy) and the three priests with a full schedule of home visits.
    If I didn’t visit her, no one would. She would love to have a monthly visit by the priest for confession and annointing and weekly communion. Of course, pre-Vatican Council II, few went to communion even monthly and the sacrament of anoiting was not given except at near death.
    I could say “buck up old lady, you don’t so many sacraments so often.” But I don’t.

    1. Tom Hoopes says:

      Okay … I’m in suspense. What part of the article was malarkey?

      1. JCV_Truth says:

        I’m also waiting for the response…

      2. abadilla says:

        Gee, you wrote this a day ago and we still don’t have an answer to what part of the article is malarkey. I’m also eager to find out.

    2. abadilla says:

      “As Joe Biden would say, “malarkey.” Oh yes, that wonderful example of Catholicism in these United States. If you want “credibility,” the last person you should quote from is Biden.
      I do admire what you do in the name of the faith, but you seem to believe in the Council as a “rupture” rather than a “continuity” with the past, and if so, you seem to be part of that Catholicism rejected by this Pope and his predecessor.
      If I’m wrong, “how” am I wrong in my assessment of what you wrote?

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