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.



  • Pat Schwarz

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

  • Fr Ryan

    Tom, thanks for the article.

    A few notes, though. The phrases “Pre-Vatican II” and “Post-Vatican II” are exactly what the pope is criticizing. The Second Vatican Council does not represent a rupture in the Church and so there is no such thing as “Pre-Vatican II” thinking. That phrase was invented by advocates of the “Virtual Council” to imply a sense of rupture. Pope Benedict has spoken and written at length to rid the Church of phrases like “Pre-Vatican II.”

    Secondly, an analysis of American History will show that the Second Vatican Council did not increase lay involvement in the Church, it decreased it. Before the Council, Catholic Action groups, St. Vincent de Paul Societies, Holy Name Societies, Confraternities, Sodalities and the like were gigantic in the US. (Not throughout the world, but in the US). Those were true lay-led apostolates. And they did amazing work. The only two that really survived the 60s were the Knights of Columbus and the Catholic Daughters. A handful of confraternities survived, but not many. Some parishes see the remnants of this in an altar society – but they are mere shells of their former spiritual strength.

    To add insult to injury, The Spirit of Vatican II crowd (the “Virtual Council”) pushed the laity into service in the liturgy effectively teaching that if you read at Mass on Sunday, you don’t have to volunteer at the soup kitchen on Saturday. Lay involvement in the Liturgy is sky high, but lay involvement literally everywhere else is significantly lower than it was “Pre-Vatican II.”

    As a priest and a theologian, I know that Vatican II didn’t teach anything new. Not a single word. It reiterates, it rephrases… It calls for a handful of liturgical adjustments, but it does so without establishing those adjustments in law.

    All of us should know that most of what is associated with Vatican II nowadays doesn’t come from the text: The priest facing the congregation, hymnody at Mass, entirely vernacular liturgy, lay “ministries”, salvation “outside of the Church”… All of those things are either unmentioned or derided as bad by the text of the council.

    The Pope’s central argument is that it is time to put aside the “Virtual Council” and our assumptions about the council and get back to the actual texts. When we do, we’ll realize that there is no “Pre-Vatican II” thinking at all. We’ll also realize that much that we call “Post-Vatican II” is merely thin air.

    That being said, the enthusiasm expressed in the article, in several comments and in the Church today is fruit of the death pangs of the “Spirit of Vatican II” mentality that the pope laments. The fact that the young want to share their faith and want to see people experience the life and joy of the sacraments is the raw fuel that we need to re-establish an authentic lay vocation separate from the sanctuary. Theologically and spiritually, the laity are the front-lines and shock-troops of the Lord! They don’t belong in the sanctuary – we have priests for that – the laity belong in the world… Transforming it!

  • Pauline Lambert Reynolds

    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.

  • Mary Jo Bell

    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.

  • tranxtian

    I find this entire article makes no sense.

    • JCV_Truth

      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.

      • georgianeighbor

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

        • tranxtian

          The article above is neither clear nor concise.

          • georgianeighbor

            I have to agree.

    • abadilla

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

      • Frantastic1

        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.

        • abadilla

          “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!

          • Frantastic1

            Again with the petty personal attacks.

          • abadilla

            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.

  • Katherine

    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.

    • Tom Hoopes

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

      • JCV_Truth

        I’m also waiting for the response…

      • abadilla

        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.

    • abadilla

      “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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