Rorate Caeli

"Vatican II: Still Waiting to be Implemented?... -- A Comparison with the Reception of the Council of Trent" - by Côme de Prévigny

Vatican II: Fruits that will germinate, or spoiled fruits?

Côme de Prévigny
Rennaisance Catholique
Feb. 7, 2023

John XXIII wanted to "bring a little fresh air into the Church" and, sixty years ago, the most heated minds promised the Catholic world a real "springtime", an unhoped-for renewal that would undoubtedly give hope and youth back to the venerable institution. The crowds were to fill the sanctuaries while the workers were to find their way back to the baptisteries. Obviously, the decades have passed and the promises have not been kept. In the great naves, one can only breathe the odors of pigeon droppings and the mold of fungi favored by humidity. Churches have been deserted, seminaries have closed and dreams have been dashed. With the passage of time, the prophets of good omen have bent their foreheads terribly, and they mask their wrinkles to suggest every day that we wait another year to see a new dawn shine on Christendom. Until a few years ago, some well-informed observers ventured to tell us that it would take fifty years to expect to receive the fruits of the famous Council. Now we have to wait a hundred years. "It is true that it takes a century for a Council to take root. We still have forty years to make it take root", Pope Francis warned without being discouraged. What is the truth of this? Should we be patient or has the essential message of the aggiornamento been received?

The comparison with the Council of Trent

The great argument inviting Christians to be cautious while waiting for the renewal of the Church after Vatican II consists in having recourse to the history of the Council of Trent, which was held for two decades, from 1545 to 1563, mobilizing the energy of five successive popes. Responding to the great upheaval of the Protestant Reformation, this major event in the Catholic world refocused the clergy on its mission, clarified the faith on several points of the doctrine of salvation and the Holy Eucharist, produced a renewed catechism and considerably improved the life of the Church. The shocks it produced in the Institution were such that, at the end of the 17th century, the saints were still living from the breath of the Counter-Reformation to revitalize modern Christianity. Moreover, in France, was not the famous Council of Trent still being applied in 1610 when Louis XIII ascended the throne? Didn't the first major seminaries favored by the Council Fathers wait to be created decades later, thanks to the great intuitions of Saint Vincent de Paul or of Messrs. Ollier and Bourdoise?

That is a shortcut. No doubt we had no press, no radio, and even less internet in the 16th century. Nevertheless, the canons and decrees of the Council were not long in being put into practice. One only has to look at the ardor of St. Charles Borromeo to be convinced of this. As soon as the Council ended, he asked to be relieved of his Roman mandates so that he could devote himself fully to his priests. He returned to Milan to multiply his diocesan tours, to found a seminary and to fight everywhere against the excesses of the poorly-attended clergy. Many of the bishops of his time imitated this great confessor of the faith from the end of the 16th century. Not only did none of them obstruct the doctrinal points that the Fathers had specified at Trent, but they quickly adopted their pastoral recommendations to solidify Catholic spirituality. One of the models of this particularly enterprising episcopate was St. Francis de Sales who crisscrossed Savoy during the first two decades of the 17th century.

However, it is customary to state that the canons of the Council met with strong resistance in France and, indeed, the Parlements never fully approved it officially. The reason for this was not doctrinal opposition in our country, far from it, but rather Gallican pride in maintaining temporal control over the hospitals. This point of detail, combined with the concern of the kings of France not to upset the Huguenot partisans in the heart of a country wounded by the Wars of Religion, made the Parlements reluctant for a long time to ratify the canons of the Council of Trent, while legates and nuncios strove to have the Roman decisions approved. But, in fact, the decrees of the Council had been adopted by the French bishops as early as the 1580s, and many of the new measures had been taken up by King Charles IX in the Ordinance of Blois in 1579 and the Edict of Melun in 1580. It can therefore be said that the Council of Trent was applied throughout the world as early as the sixteenth century, beginning with Italy and Spain. Even in Gallican France, the counter-reformation had been established in the dioceses. The fruits of this were felt and, fifty years after the closing of the sessions, religious practice had been considerably strengthened.

Was the Council misinterpreted?

It is impossible to imagine that Vatican II was not applied in the wake of the sessions that brought together two thousand five hundred Fathers between 1962 and 1965. The mobility of the bishops, who crossed the world in a few hours, and the means of communication which informed the whole of Catholicity of the great decisions, greatly facilitated the penetration of minds. Moreover, the measures taken were not long in coming. The most emblematic of these, concerning the liturgy, was the promulgation of a new missal which was distributed to dioceses throughout the world only five years after the close of the Council. In this respect, the application of Vatican II was so violent that from that date onwards, priests who refused to celebrate the holy mysteries according to the renewed form were condemned one after the other, unless they could claim an advanced age. Likewise, the old catechisms were banned to make room for the renewed books. Canon Law was also reformed. All aspects of the Church were affected, from religious dress to sacred songs, from relations with the States to dialogue with other religions and the organization of religious communities. In a few years, the Council had changed the face of the Church.

In the face of the upheavals that had been caused, many people noted errors of transmission. Paul VI confessed that he had the feeling "that through some fissure, the smoke of Satan had entered the temple of God," on the occasion of this great event. In a famous speech, Benedict XVI tried to distinguish the real Council, whose main actors were the bishops, from the false Council, the one that the media had fantasized about and which they had, in a way, imposed on the whole world: "There was the Council of the Fathers - the real Council - but there was also the Council of the media. It was almost a Council in itself, and the world perceived the Council through them, through the media. So the Council that was immediately effective, that reached the people, was that of the media, not that of the Fathers." However, if Vatican II was implemented in the seminaries immediately after the end of the debates, it was not due to the media. If texts were promulgated to reform the liturgy in record time, if the updating of the life of the congregations was enacted as early as the 1960s, it was the prelates of the Curia and the diocesan bishops who carried the pen, not the journalists.

To the objection that the Council had been misinterpreted and that the true spirit of it should be known, Jean Madiran objected that, in the case of Vatican II, there could be no ambiguity insofar as the legislator and the executive were one and the same body. It was the Catholic bishops who both decided on the changes and put them into practice. Therefore, they could well be certain of how to apply the famous Council of which they were both the authors and interpreters.

Dechristianization by storm

At the time of the Council of Trent, Christian Europe experienced a revival of fervor, as the historian Alain Tallon, a specialist in the subject, has analyzed. From the 17th century onwards, the assiduity of the clergy, the impetus of new congregations such as the Jesuits, the Lazarists, the Oratorians and then the Montfortians truly re-christianized entire regions and then evangelized the world, whereas sectors had begun to experience a marked dechristianization during the Wars of Religion. Yet, one hardly notices the surge of fervor that would have followed Vatican II. In his book published in 2018, Guillaume Cuchet analyzed the fall of the practice in France and explained "How our world has ceased to be Christian". However, for him, the year of the break was precisely 1965, during which the practice collapsed never to return to its former levels. There is no need to go on and on about it, the post-conciliar era is dramatic for Catholicism. In our country, vocations are now drying up and the churches of Europe are doomed, sooner or later, to secular conversion or to destruction.

With the internationalization of the Church, hearts try for a moment not to be overcome by despair and they consider the crowds coming from the other side of the world. Now the southern hemisphere comes to the rescue of the breathless Old Continent and the Pope no longer comes to us from our disillusioned latitudes. But let us beware of the mirages of conciliar promises. For sixty years, Latin American Catholicism has been in a terrible decline. Not one of these countries has increased its proportion of Catholics since the Council. For example, Colombia, which had seen it increase by 15% between 1910 and 1970, lost all of those gains between 1970 and 2014. The Roman Church no longer claims even two-thirds of Brazilians, whereas they were almost all Catholic on the eve of Vatican II. A country like Honduras, where the share used to be close to 100 percent, has seen that figure plummet below fifty in recent years. Evangelicals and agnostics have become the majority. This is how circumspect we should be about Latin American Catholicism, which is living on the fires that the missionary centuries ago once gave it.

Samuel Beckett wrote his most famous play at the very beginning of the Glorious Thirty [Translator note: the Thirty post-war years of intense economic development in Western Europe], during which the Council Fathers promised wonders for this land. No doubt it was in the air of the times. After the war years, the men of this century, intoxicated by an unfailing irenicism, wished to guarantee us paradise here on earth by pious intentions. But all this spirit has vanished and the inveterate defenders of Vatican II resemble, sixty years later, the characters of Waiting for Godot who throughout the play wait for the arrival of a character who never comes. The days pass, the years as well, and our friends continue to deny the facts, believing in the blossoming of fruits that will never reasonably germinate. Resorting to dubious historical comparisons or promises that are not binding to save a dated text is no longer in season. No doubt the rich history of the Church teaches us to adopt a more courageous attitude.