Rorate Caeli

“Lofty concepts and great hopes cannot be separated, in practical judgment, from their effects” — Guest article on the Birthday of Vatican II

The main hall in Pennsylvania Station, 1910-1963

Few other occurrences in history have their achievements celebrated as often as does the Second Vatican Council. So, although rather tiresome, the laudatory commemoration of the sixtieth anniversary of the opening of the Council is de rigueur for today’s rather tiresome ecclesial establishment. Worthy of note, however, is the defensive tone adopted for the birthday party in which the Council’s partisans have made a point to defend the Council ab initio—insisting that it was necessary to hold the Council and that it was, in conception, a great and a good moment in history—one that remains untarnished by, and even divorced from, its aftermath.

Those who see the Council in this manner are, for the most part, Baby Boomers (e.g., George Weigel) and members of the generation that preceded the Boomers (what name shall we give the generation that produced Bergolio, Biden, and Pelosi?). For this cohort, the Council was the New Frontier for Religion. Just as the political torch was passed to a new generation in the wake of the disasters of the first half of the twentieth century, so too the Council would usher in a new age of Catholicism that would surpass Church’s reliance upon morality manuals and the stale memorization of Scholastic conceptions and rules. It was the moonshot for the Church.

It is easy to mock or scorn this view now, but, in proper perspective, these notions are understandable. The mid-century desire for renewal, for a more Scriptural and Christocentric expression of the Faith, was legitimate. It was also legitimate to address the Church’s relationship to the modern States, deeply scarred as it was by more than two hundred years of revolution and uneasy coexistence. Putting aside the impossible-to-answer question of the Council’s “necessity,” it was not inherently absurd or nefarious to wish to take up these matters in an effort to strengthen the Church’s spiritual and political life.

The defenders of the convoking of the Council still feel profoundly the “dream” of this revivified and dynamic Christianity. What they wanted (they plead) was good and noble, just as the architects of the Great Society would say they were driven by the desire to eliminate poverty, hunger, and ignorance. But these lofty concepts and great hopes, while laudable in themselves, cannot be separated in practical judgment from their effects—from the results that these efforts caused in reality.

The Great Society did not eliminate poverty, hunger, and ignorance. Its results are mixed and complex—it achieved some good results, but also caused unintended negative consequences that continue to haunt our political and economic life. The Council did not achieve its ends, either, and its bizarre and disastrous “implementation” cannot be separated from its history. Although a factually inaccurate conflation, the Council by now has been nearly identified with the Novus Ordo and all the changes to Catholic life and practice that came in its wake.

Thus, the defense of Council’s commencement, its documents, or what this or that bishop really said, retain at this point only an intellectual appeal; as a practical matter these sorts of points mean nothing, because they came to nothing. We know that the Council did not order the elimination of Latin in the Mass and the implementation of Communion in hand. We get it. But these things happened after the Council and were done in its name. The present pope and his curial officials invoke the Council as the infallible authority for all that has come after it. To question or critique these post-conciliar practices is to reject the Council, we are told!

Sadly, the defense of the Council per se, therefore, becomes nothing more than an effort at historical accuracy. It tries to explain (usually in the best light possible) why the Council was thought necessary and the lofty goals of (some) of its participants, but it has almost zero practical application for the resolution of the roiling crisis that the Council unleashed.

These efforts also ignore the “lived experience” of the generations that came of age in the Council’s aftermath. The pre-conciliar generations were the beneficiaries of the old system, with its stability and intellectual rigor; its reliance on the widespread presence of priests and religious, and its ability to exert great spiritual and academic influence on those with whom it came in contact.

The generations that followed the Council—like mine—encountered a completely changed landscape. When I was awakened to the Faith at the age of 14, I knew nothing about Vatican II or the Latin Mass. But from the first, I felt instinctively that something was amiss in the Church that I loved. I saw the great and unused marble altar affixed to the wall of our high school chapel with a Latin inscription above it; I saw old yearbook photos of the many Jesuits in their cassocks; the boys kneeling at the daily Mass; the emphasis on classical learning; the Sodality of Our Lady. I knew, by a sort of sensus fidelium, that the guitars and the hand-holding and the felt banners and the bad hymns were alien to the Church.

Certainly, I was not taught to believe that; on the contrary. Yet, looking back, for me and for those few of my generation who retained the Faith, I feel as if we were travelers, returning home after a long journey, to find the ruins of a once-great civilization—unable to understand why, exactly, our forefathers had torn down and abandoned its great halls and magnificent temples.

Put crudely, as a practical matter, I do not care why John XXIII called the Council. I do not care about the dreams of its periti or the inspiration it gave to Catholic schoolboys under the tutelage of nuns whose orders would be eviscerated a few years later. I do not subscribe to the ideological effort to suppress reality, for it is this effort that prevents the Church from fairly and justly judging its past—praising what is praiseworthy, but discarding that which is harmful or the product of false and misplaced hopes.

A metaphor comes to mind from the world of great public architecture. The demolition of Pennsylvania Station in New York began in 1963. The grand railway station, more splendid even than Grand Central Terminal, was too expensive to keep up. It was, moreover, a relic. The days of railroad travel were ending. It was no longer needed, and progress demanded that it give way to a new, modern Madison Square Garden. Time marches on; the needs of society change.

Penn Station still exists today. It is there, buried beneath Seventh Avenue. It is a functioning railroad station, the busiest in North America. Ten of thousands pass through it every day. And it is, undoubtedly, the most reviled public space in the City of New York.

The allure of progress is powerful, but, like the unclean spirit gone out of the man only to return with seven more, it can leave its object in worse condition than that in which it was found. There is a place called Penn Station where people board trains, but the retention of the name, the function and the location does not, in reality, mean that Penn Station still exists. It was torn down, to the shame of those who allowed such vandalism. The only relevant, practical question for those who loved its beauty is whether it can ever be rebuilt. 

Christian Browne is a practicing attorney in New York state. A board member of the Nassau County Catholic Lawyers Guild, he earned his J.D. from Fordham University in 2004.