John XXIII, John Paul II, and the Triumph of Vatican II


Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council in order to modernize the Church and help it get with the times. His vision for reform lives on in those progressive folks who like talking about “social justice” the “spirit of the Council.” Meanwhile, Good Pope John’s revolutionary vision for the Council was stymied by reactionaries and doctrinal conservatives like John Paul II (and Benedict XVI). Partisans of these intransigents seem to break out in hives every time Pope Francis talks about mercy instead of sin or the poor instead of abortion.

This is a tired and lame telling of the last fifty years in the Church. While not without grains of truth, it obscures far more than it clarifies. John Paul II cared a great deal about social justice, and John XXIII certainly cared about the integrity of doctrine. Both men understood the Church’s service to the poor, her solicitude for the “least of these,” her commitments to peace, and her defense of human dignity to be rooted in nothing less than the truth about man, revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. Apart from that truth, love loses its deepest meaning. As John XXIII wrote in Pacem in Terris, “[B]efore a society can be considered well-ordered, creative, and consonant with human dignity, it must be based on truth.”

When he opened the Council, Pope John reminded the Council Fathers—including a young Karol Wojty?a—of why they had gathered in Rome:

In calling this vast assembly of bishops, [I] intended to assert once again the Church’s magisterium, which is unfailing and perdures until the end of time, in order that this magisterium, taking into account the errors, the requirements and the opportunities of our time, might be presented in exceptional form to all men throughout the world.

The Holy Father went on, saying, “The greatest concern of the ecumenical council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously.”

There is bitter irony in those words when one considers the chaos and destruction that followed in the wake of the Council: emptying seminaries and emptying pews, liturgical abuses, the decline of catechesis, the erosion of moral and sacramental discipline. Instances of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, to name a particularly horrible facet of that time in the Church, were already trending upward at the time of the Council, accelerated in the immediate aftermath of the Council before falling off dramatically in the early 1980s. John XXIII would have been appalled by the state of the Church in the aftermath of the Council. He died before he saw what was to come.

That the Council took place during a time of great change is hardly news, yet it bears repeating. Most Catholics alive today (myself included) were not yet born. It’s worth reminding ourselves of the sort of events—some good, some bad, some terrifying—that took place during the Council:

On October 14, 1962—just three days after the Council opened—an American U-2 reconnaissance plane photographed missile launch sites in Cuba, setting off a crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. In February of 1963, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. In August, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. That November, JFK was gunned down in Dallas. Less than a year later, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The following summer, the Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision in Griswold v. Connecticut which invented a “right to privacy,” and laid the groundwork for the travesty of Roe vs. Wade less than a decade later. And by the time the Council closed on December 8, 1965, some 200,000 American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines had been deployed to Vietnam.

It is hard not to wonder how things might have been different if the Church had faced the upheavals of the age from a position of strength and stability, rather than a position of weakness and transition. But then again, who’s to say that the Council didn’t arrive at precisely the right time—that the Council wasn’t just one more upheaval in a time of tumult, but the Holy Spirit’s way of inoculating the Church against the worst of what was about to unfold? What if—despite all she has suffered—the Church is stronger today, more vibrant, and better equipped to face the challenges of our day than she would have been without the council John XXIII called?

Too naive? Wishful thinking?

Pope John Paul II didn’t think so, though he knew the worst of it. He never gave up on the Council. During the Great Jubilee, he reflected on it in his apostolic letter, Novo Millennio Inuente. Thirty-five years removed from the Council and twenty-two into his pontificate, John Paul II saw the Council, not as a source of confusion and disarray but precisely as the remedy to these:

With the passing of the years, the Council documents have lost nothing of their value or brilliance. They need to be read correctly, to be widely known and taken to heart as important and normative texts of the Magisterium, within the Church’s Tradition. Now that the Jubilee has ended, I feel more than ever in duty bound to point to the Council as the great grace bestowed on the Church in the twentieth century: there we find a sure compass by which to take our bearings in the century now beginning.

Just a few days after he had announced his decision to resign, Pope Benedict XVI spoke to the priests of the diocese of Rome about his own experience of the Council. He spoke of the enthusiasm, excitement, and hope that marked the Council sessions. He spoke movingly about the Council as an experience of faith seeking understanding, in St. Augustine’s phrase. He spoke also about the way the Council was understood very differently by the media, which viewed the Council through a very different lens. The result was that the Council came to be misunderstood almost before it had concluded. Nevertheless, Pope Benedict insisted:

[T]he real force of the Council was present and, slowly but surely, established itself more and more and became the true force which is also the true reform, the true renewal of the Church. It seems to me that, fifty years after the Council, we see that this virtual Council is broken, is lost, and there now appears the true Council with all its spiritual force.

God works in His own ways and in His own time. We may yet see the triumph of the “true Council,”—not “the progressive council,” not “the conservative council,” but Catholic Church’s Council—the full “spiritual force” of which is still emerging. If John XXIII’s hope for the Council (which should be our hope)—that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously—has not been in vain, then it is in large part thanks to the Polish Pope alongside whom he will be canonized.

The canonizations of John XXIII and Pope John Paul II should be a reminder to us that while disagreement within the Church is inevitable, division within the Church is a scandal. These two men are being canonized, not because of their pontifical achievements, still less because they represent diverse interests within the Church. These men are being canonized because they both possessed the one thing that matters most: holiness.

As the Church celebrates the great gift of these two saints, we would do well to keep in mind the words Pope Francis spoke a few weeks ago: “It has been said that the only real regret lies in not being a saint; we could also say that there is only one real kind of poverty: not living as children of God and brothers and sisters of Christ.”

Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II, Pray for Us!

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


About Author

Stephen P. White is a fellow in the Catholic Studies program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His work focuses on the application of Catholic social teaching to a broad spectrum of contemporary political and cultural issues. Since 2005, Mr. White has been coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society: a three week seminar on Catholic social teaching, with an emphasis on the thought of Blessed John Paul II, which takes place every summer in Kraków, Poland. He studied politics at the University of Dallas and philosophy at the Catholic University of America. He is a graduate of the St. Patrick's Evangelisation School in London, England.

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