On May 3, Crisis Magazine published an article by Eric Sammons titled “Moving Beyond Vatican II.” In it, Sammons argues that it is time to stop arguing for or against the second Vatican Council. He suggests that it is time to recognize Vatican II as a “failed council” and move beyond it.
Failed Councils and the Arians
To support his argument that it is possible for a council to fail, Sammons presents a quote by Joseph Ratzinger: “Not every valid council in the history of the Church has been a fruitful one; in the last analysis, many of them have been a waste of time.” Sammons then discusses the example of the fifth Lateran Council, which failed to reform the Church sufficiently to forestall the Protestant Reformation.
Though Sammons recognizes that the Holy Spirit is always available to guide an ecumenical council, he argues that the Council Fathers must accept this guidance. He strongly implies that the participants in Vatican II did not accept the guidance of the Holy Spirit, which resulted in conciliar failure. Because of this, he suggests we should “move beyond” the Council, though he does not spell out clearly what this might mean.
It is rather presumptuous for an individual Catholic to judge the success or failure of an ecumenical council. It also seems precipitous. It has been less than 50 years since the Second Vatican Council. Certainly, there have been turbulent times in the years that have followed, but that’s not unprecedented in the aftermath of an ecumenical council.
As Fulton Sheen wrote in his autobiography, Treasure in Clay:
“The tensions that developed after the Council are not surprising to those who know the whole history of the Church. It is a historical fact that whenever there is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit as in a general council of the Church, there is always an extra show of force by the anti-Spirit or the demonic. Even at the beginning, immediately after Pentecost and the descent of the Spirit upon the apostles, there began a persecution and the murder of Stephen. If a general council did not provoke the spirit of turbulence, one might almost doubt the operation of the third Person of the Trinity over the assembly” (pp. 292–293).
A good example of this dynamic is the First Council of Nicaea, held in 325. While few would call Nicaea a “failed council,” the Church was full of confusion and turmoil for the next 50 years. Although the Council condemned the positions of the Arians, they gained control of nearly every diocese in Christendom in the years that followed. New theological compromises were attempted, with various semi-Arian creeds gaining supporters at different points. Things didn’t really settle down until the beginning of the fifth century.
This highlights the weakest part of Sammons’s argument—his failure to properly consider a crucial question. Why might a council fail? He quotes Ratzinger, he cites the fifth Lateran Council, and then he quickly pivots to suggesting that the Council Fathers at Vatican II may have refused the guidance of the Holy Spirit. He leaves out another possibility; that the failure may have been on the part of those who should have received and implemented the Council. There wasn’t anything wrong with what Nicaea taught; the problem was with the Arians, who wouldn’t receive it!
In fact, the full Ratzinger passage that Sammons quotes above supports this view, when read in its full context. Here is a more complete excerpt:
“Not every valid council in the history of the Church has been a fruitful one; in the last analysis, many of them have been a waste of time. Despite all the good to be found in the texts it produced, the last word about the historical value of Vatican Council II has yet to be spoken. If, in the end, it will be numbered among the highlights of Church history depends on those who will transform its words into the life of the Church.”
Toward the end of the article, Sammons says that every council is rooted in its own cultural milieu, and that this means every council contains elements that are no longer relevant or pertinent. He argues that because of the great social and cultural changes since the 1960s, we no longer need to pay attention to Vatican II. This argument is unconvincing. Certainly, every council addressed issues specific to its time. Trent and Nicaea are not exceptions to this, yet it’s unlikely that Sammons would argue that these councils are no longer relevant to us today. His conclusion is only coherent if one assumes that Vatican II is a failed council with no elements of lasting relevance, which is the very thing he sets out to prove. His argument is circular.
Is it really true that Vatican II doesn’t speak to our times? For example, Sammons writes, “in hindsight much of the council seems excessively optimistic about the progress of mankind, particularly in light of how much the world has devolved into a nihilistic culture of death and deception since that time.” Let’s look at this passage from Gaudium et Spes, the Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World:
Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are supreme dishonor to the Creator. (GS 27)
Would Sammons (or any other right-thinking Catholic) find this passage irrelevant? Is it “excessively optimistic,” or is it a critique of the “nihilistic culture of death” that Sammons suggests the Council fails to address? This passage, which decries many different types of attacks on human dignity, also foreshadows the teaching of Pope Francis. Francis, echoing the Council, regularly decries the “throwaway culture” that sees others as mere tools to serve selfish ends and demean those around us.
The Day of our Visitation
What really happened after Vatican II? Progressives and reactionaries both refused to be guided by it: the former preferred to project their own fantasies onto the council, and the latter stubbornly pitted their own understanding of Tradition against it. The result has been that the renewal of the Church that God desires has not yet happened.
What are we called to do in this situation? God’s dealings with his Chosen People in the Old Testament offer a clue. Was the prophet Jeremiah a “failed prophet”? His contemporaries wouldn’t listen to him. He was unable to prevent the destruction of Jerusalem. But this “failure” did not excuse his listeners. Everyone has to decide whether to listen to the word of God, and Jeremiah blessed the few who remained loyal when the majority fell away.
Sammons writes that because the Church has yet to properly implement the Second Vatican Council, we should stop attempting to do so. This is an approach that puts us in grave danger. Like the inhabitants of Jerusalem, there is a serious risk that we will miss “the day of our visitation.” But the example of the Nicaean Council, shows us that it is not too late. We can imitate the pride and arrogance of the Arians and reject Vatican II, or—like St. Athanasius—we can cling to a “failed” council with all our strength. The choice is ours. Shall the Council fail or succeed? May God give us the grace to make it a success.
 Ratzinger, Joseph. Principles of Catholic Theology; Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology. Ignatius Press, 1987, Page 378
Image: Council of Nicaea, 325. Fresco in Capella Sistina, Vatican – http://ariandjabarimchenry.com/first-council-of-nicaea/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30734368