There are many things wrong with Ross Douthat’s recent New York Times op-ed, “How Catholics Became Prisoners of Vatican II,” but the most glaring is his failure to mention the impact of the sexual abuse crisis anywhere in his 1400-word assessment of the past 60 years of Church history. Furthermore, his portrayals of the Council, its implementation, and the current state of the Church are shallow caricatures that reflect common tropes but are not consistent with reality.
The impact of abuse
No scandal or event has caused greater damage to the credibility and reputation of the Catholic Church in centuries than the revelations of the horrifying and widespread sexual abuse of children by priests, which was often enabled by bishops who committed the further crime of covering it up.
The sexual abuse crisis delivered crippling blows to the Catholic Church in overwhelmingly Catholic countries like Ireland, which boasted Mass attendance rates well over 80% in the late 1980s, but dropped to 30% by 2011. Mass attendance there has continued to hover in that range ever since, but baptisms and ordinations to the priesthood continue to drop. The sexual abuse crisis has had a palatable effect on the US Church as well, and corresponds to freefalls in Mass attendance in places that were once Catholic strongholds like Philadelphia and Boston.
Mass attendance doesn’t tell the entire story, of course. According to oft-cited survey results frequently brought up by critics of the Second Vatican Council, adherence to many fundamental Catholic doctrines is inconsistent, even among regular Mass-goers. These critics typically argue that such statistics show a need for better catechesis, a stronger emphasis on doctrine and moral teachings, or even a return to the Latin Mass. Looked at from a different angle, however, we might note that it’s interesting, even impressive, that such Catholics nevertheless continue to be drawn to the Church at all.
The crisis of credibility set off by the sexual abuse scandal can hardly be blamed on the Second Vatican Council. As many have noted, nearly 70% of the priests charged with sexual abuse were ordained prior to 1970 (and who knows how many cases there were before the Church started keeping records). Joining a traditionalist community offers no assurance of protection from predator priests either, as last week’s news of a second arrest of James Jackson – a priest of the Fraternal Society of Saint Peter (FSSP) – on charges of possession and distribution of child abuse images attests. Jackson was no minor figure in the traditionalist Fraternity. Prior to serving as a pastor of parishes in Colorado and Rhode Island, he was rector of the FSSP seminary in Denton, Nebraska – overseeing the formation of future priests.
Arguably, the Church’s only concrete progress in the areas of prevention and accountability on sexual abuse is a fruit of the Second Vatican Council. The assistance of lay professionals and experts in creating policies and procedures has been crucial in the Church’s efforts to implement reforms and rebuild trust. The hierarchy had proven that they were incapable of doing it on their own. The Council, after all, affirmed that lay people “share in the priestly, prophetic, and royal office of Christ and therefore have their own share in the mission of the whole people of God in the Church and in the world” (Apostolicam Actuositatem 2).
After the abuse crisis came to the surface in 2002, it became clear that healing from the episcopate’s collective failure to protect young people in the Church requires lay leadership. The laity must hold the hierarchy accountable if the process of rebuilding trust in the Church will ever succeed. And positive signs are developing. The lay members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, for example, have insisted on their autonomy so that they can report directly to the pope, free from bureaucratic oversight or curial meddling. That lay people have been entrusted with certifying the adequacy of the Church’s response in the area of safeguarding is a concrete step forward for lay leadership. One can only imagine if the Church attempted to confront the current sexual abuse crisis with its preconciliar ecclesiology and understanding of laity.
But gestures like these are drops in the bucket compared to the waves of laypeople who are leaving because they are hurt or disillusioned by the Church. The survivors of clerical sex abuse and their families still endure the ongoing effects of the trauma inflicted upon them. Many Catholics are devastated every year by the closure of their churches. People are turned off by the Church due to spiritual abuse or neglect and other negative experiences. Some decide it’s just not worth their time.
Furthermore, despite the rhetoric used by traditionalists and conservative Catholics, putting the Church’s teachings on hot-button moral issues in the forefront of our religious discourse does not appear to be an effective method of evangelizing, let alone retaining members. Countless young people in the US and other western countries find it difficult to connect with a Church that appears to mostly ignore issues like poverty and climate change while repeatedly insisting on teachings that they believe are unjust to women and LGBT people.
No pope or pastoral program has found a compelling response to the challenges posed by secularism – nothing compelling enough to stem the tide of Catholics leaving the Church, anyway. As I wrote last year, “The bishops of this country apparently fail to realize that they no longer have the standing in society to be taken seriously on ideas, morals, or cultural values. … And the longer they assume a posture of confrontation against the prevailing culture, the more quickly the US Church will collapse.”
The Catholic Church is utterly unappealing to many people who see it as a hypocritical, immoral, and discriminatory institution, and leading with a public insistence on doctrinal and moral purity – which many traditionalist and conservative Catholics seem to think is the solution – will only drive them further away.
Douthat’s distortion of the Council
The deficiencies of Douthat’s article are not limited to what he overlooked. The image of the council that he presents is not only inaccurate but is also overtly political. In an incisive Twitter thread about the column, veteran Catholic journalist David Gibson described it as a “’just-so story’ of Catholicism—assertions with little foundation but lots of flourishes.”
Douthat centers his analysis of the Council around three “realities”: “The council was necessary,” “The council was a failure,” and “The council cannot be undone.”
I find myself in a similar place as the late great Jesuit historian John W. O’Malley when he responded to a column by Douthat in 2014 about the Synod on the Family, writing, “What, then, is to be said about Ross Douthat’s arguments? I expected better from him, and he can do better. A case can be made for his concerns. Yet this is not it. Mr. Douthat’s arguments are so loaded with questionable assumptions, historical and theological short-cuts, and parti pris that it is difficult to know where to begin.”
But begin we must, so let’s take Douthat’s summary of the Council’s goals and the expected outcome:
The Second Vatican Council failed on the terms its own supporters set. It was supposed to make the church more dynamic, more attractive to modern people, more evangelistic, less closed off and stale and self-referential. It did none of these things. The church declined everywhere in the developed world after Vatican II, under conservative and liberal popes alike — but the decline was swiftest where the council’s influence was strongest.
Setting aside Douthat’s theories for a moment, his language implies a political or populist view of the Council, describing “its own supporters” and “conservative and liberal.” This seems to be a category error, and is — at the very least — an odd way to frame an ecumenical council of the Church. Are Catholics today “Nicaea supporters” and “Chalcedon partisans” because we profess the Creed at Mass? Are we “pro-Trent” because we affirm seven sacraments and our priests receive formation through the seminary system it mandated? I suppose Catholics who affirm papal primacy and infallibility are “Vatican I boosters”? Honestly, this approach misses the mark.
Like past councils, Vatican II taught on matters of doctrine and morals, and to frame the promulgation of such teachings in terms of “success and failure” or “support and opposition” is bizarre. The Council set out to teach the doctrines of the Church in a way that resonates with people in modern society and to address some important issues, such as religious liberty, our relationships with other religions, biblical scholarship, and the governance of the Church. It initiated a process that has led to reforms in the Church that continues today. An initiative like the Catechism of the Catholic Church might be considered a project undertaken in “the Spirit of Vatican II” in the sense that the Council did not explicitly call for it, but it’s clearly a fruit of the Council. Other reforms, such as the 2016 and 2018 documents reforming contemplative communities of women religious, were anticipated by the Council fathers but only implemented many decades later. Still, the end result of the Council was the ratification of sixteen documents that participate in the Church’s Magisterium, not ideas that we can grade or score based on their level of “success.”
But clearly that’s not what Douthat means by “Vatican II.” He doesn’t delve into any significant debates over theology or the proper interpretation of the Council. Really, in this column he’s opining on little more than the on-the-ground changes Catholics in Western society experienced following the Council. And he uses the types of talking points regularly found in places like First Things or Crisis or The Catholic Thing. His commentary has very little to do with the Council – or even its implementation – itself. It’s more of a polished-up rehash of conservative Catholic gripes and grudges about Church architecture and hippy priests and guitar Masses and CCD teachers from a generation before he was born. He likely picked up these talking points from his social bubble and I am sure many like-minded people read his litany of complaints with the same familiar satisfaction they experience every time they read similar litanies of complaints.
At several points in the article, he suggests that the postconciliar or “liberal” Church is “self-referential.” Yet what can be more self-referential than a vision of the Church that places so much emphasis on indignation about the Council’s liturgical reform? How can one discuss the Council and not say a word about social justice or the Church’s mission to serve the poor, oppressed, and brokenhearted? The Second Vatican Council and its implementation open up new opportunities to evangelize and to bring Christ to others. But opportunities can be wasted.
The primary crisis in the Church today is a crisis of credibility, and an ideologically-driven, cynical, and pessimistic approach only adds to that. To put it frankly, Ross Douthat’s passive aggressive statements about Pope Francis and what he calls a “listening-session style of church governance” betrays that he needs to do a lot more listening himself. And there is no better time to start than right now. The current priority of the universal Church is the global synod. Pope Francis has implemented this synodal process in order to listen to those who have been hurt, disillusioned, and betrayed by the Church; those who struggle with Catholic teaching; and those who have felt unwelcome. We are all being asked to listen to them and to the Holy Spirit about how we can participate in the Church’s mission to proclaim the Gospel and to help bring about healing and reconciliation.