Questions Answered


Question: On the fiftieth anniversary of Vatican II, what are the positive and negative results of this Council?

Answer: The Second Vatican Council is the watershed event of the Catholic Church in the 20th Century. Though 50 years have passed since it was concluded, the optimistic fruit of this Council, which John XXIII had in mind when calling it, have yet to be fully realized. John XXIII stated that the text: “This is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Th 4:3) should be written over the doors of the Council. John Paul II, who wrote a study of the document on the Church, immediately on his return after the Council, instructed his diocese that it was clear that the purpose of the Council was to answer the question: “Ecclesia, quid dicis de teipsa (“Church, what do you have to say for yourself?”) Academic reflection on the nature of this Council has termed it: “The Council of the Church.” The answer was that the Church is a mystery, which is the Greek term for “sacrament” and means “a physical sign joining us to eternity.” This fact is clear in the document on the Church which quotes an ancient Father of the Church, St. Cyprian:

The Church is seen to be “a people brought into unity from the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” (Lumen Gentium, 4)

The hope was that a vigorous and sober examination of the means used by the Church to proclaim the Gospel would lead to a deeper and more spiritual appreciation of the Church as an institution which transcended time and space. This appreciation would, in turn, initiate a flowering of spiritual life for the laity responding to grace.

John XXIII basically regarded the Council as the prolongation of the First Vatican Council, which was never formally closed because of the political situation in Europe. In fact, the bishops had meant to discuss 50 schema, which included the topics dealt with by Vatican II in 1870, and they only discussed two. John XXIII wanted these other topics examined with very specific goals in mind. They were:

  • Make Catholicism more accessible to the contemporary world;
  • Address the distressing disunity of Christians largely in response to the totalitarian and secular threats to religion;
  • And assiduously study and implement the richness of the Catholic tradition in a setting which would not just be an apologetic reaction to Protestantism and secularism.

The latter goal included a systematic return to the thought of the Fathers of the Church, which had, at times, been lost through an overemphasis on a kind of Neo-Scholasticism, and a desire to address the already burgeoning attempt to renew the Sacred Liturgy, especially in response to an impoverishment of the liturgy in the 19th Century in music and spirituality. One must, for example, place this intention in the context of the recovery of Gregorian chant begun under Pius X, which was finally coming to fruition in the late 1950s and early 1960s. These intentions have always been generally categorized under two terms dear to the Council: aggiornamento (updating) and resourcement (a return to the sources). The return to the sources would include correcting the influence of the Enlightenment on Neo-Scholasticism by actually reading the texts of Thomas Aquinas. Ecumenism also became not only a prominent theme, but also a permanent one, though the optimism and the euphoria of the Church in pursuing this has given way to a deepening divide from certain of the mainstream Protestant sects.

An immense literature, both critical and uncritical, has accompanied the attempt to implement the documents of Vatican II since its closure. Controversy and misinterpretation began even during the celebration of the Council itself. It is difficult, in the face of all that has gone on since, to maintain an objective perspective. Some important points need to be stressed, however, in our evaluation of the life of the post-Vatican II Church. For some, there needs to be a “Vatican III” to further liberalize the Church. For others, Vatican II is seen as an unfortunate event which should be repudiated. A balanced approach eschews both these tendencies.

A more realistic assessment of this Council would be that a study of the actual texts of the documents is essential. Though there is a way to interpret them which is more in keeping with the relativistic philosophy of the sixties, this was not the intention of most of the bishops, or the Pope, who approved them. Thus, the correct way to interpret them is not to seek problems, and subtle denials of the traditional faith, but to take them at face value. Most of the people who wrote and approved these documents were trained in a Scholastic philosophy, which affirmed the fact of absolute truths. Though many of the Council Fathers wanted these to be expressed in more Scriptural and personalist terms, so that they might more accessible to those not trained in Scholasticism, they were certainly not based on a denial of the Scholastic philosophy of real and unchanging essences and natures. The “hermeneutic of continuity” not “discontinuity” is thus the key to their interpretation and understanding as an action of the Holy Spirit.


Question: Much has been made of the innovation of Vatican II in the question of religious freedom. Was this really a change in doctrine?

Answer: The question of religious freedom is one which occupies a good deal of dissatisfaction with Vatican II. The understanding of the Council regarding this can be found in the document, Dignitatis Humanae. From the outset, it is important to keep clear that though there should be a freedom of conscience in embracing the truth, this is not true regarding what constitutes the truth itself, and especially, the religious truth in relation to the society of the Church.

Some theologians after Vatican II saw the Council’s teaching as an assault on the Scholastic idea of an objective nature of man which had been the basis for moral teaching in the Church for centuries. For example, John Mahoney, S.J., in the Clarendon Lectures at Oxford published in 1987, opines:

It may also be a growing dissatisfaction with the traditional concept of “nature” which has contributed in recent years to the focus on moral attention moving from “human nature” to “human person” or “human dignity.” Thus, the Second Vatican Council was certainly not unaware of the whole moral tradition centered on the law of nature when it nevertheless considered basing objective moral standards on “the dignity of the human person,” and finally decided to propose the need for such standards as based on the “nature of the {human} person and his act.”

One should beware of reading a denial of the philosophia perennis. Mahoney seems to imply that this was the purpose of the Council Fathers.

People like Daniel Maguire used the teaching on religious liberty as a touchstone to show that the Church had basically jettisoned the traditional Scholastic idea of an objective human nature.

Even this brief look at the history of our moral teaching should prompt us to describe our teaching competence in more modern terms. Either we must admit a drastic relativism which would allege that all of that teaching was right in its day or we must admit the presence of error in the history of the pilgrim church […] To stress the point: […] the teaching of Gregory XVI and Pius IX that it was “madness” to allege religious freedom as a right of man, and a necessity of society, and the proclamation of Vatican II that such freedom is a right and necessity in society—such teachings are not consistent or mutually irreconcilable. Even full recognition of the historical context that spawned these statements does not establish doctrinal continuity. (In Readings in Moral Theology, 1982, 45)

Daniel Maquire even goes so far as to say:

Still, to assert that in all this there is no {doctrinal} change is to play semantic games.(Ibid.)

Though it is true that for many centuries the Church had taught the importance of the state having an established religion, this was never represented in such a way as to teach that people should be coerced into a particular religion by the state. In fact, long before Vatican II, Leo XIII had emphasized a kind of civil right of religion free from coercion, in a distinction he made in one of his encyclicals, Libertas Praestissimum:

Another liberty is widely advocated, namely, liberty of conscience. If by this is meant that everyone, as he chooses, worship God or not, it is sufficiently refuted by the arguments adduced. But it may also be taken to mean that every man in the State may follow the will of God and, from a consciousness of duty and free from every obstacle, obey his commands. This indeed, is true liberty, a liberty worthy of the sons of God. (30)

Vatican II makes clear that the religious freedom referred to is that freedom from coercion, which is based on the nature of the will, embracing any moral act invoked by Leo XIII.

But men cannot satisfy their obligation in a way in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy both psychological freedom, and immunity from external coercion. Therefore, the right to religious freedom has its foundation, not in the subjective attitude of the individual, but in his very nature. (Dignitatis Humanae, 2)

Nor is this just an accretion of Enlightenment thinking. Thomas Aquinas teaches this same freedom from coercion which is taught by Vatican II:

Among the unbelievers, there are some who have never received the faith, such as heathens and Jews: and these are by no means to be compelled to the faith, in order that they may believe, because to believe depends on the will. Nevertheless, they should be compelled by the faithful, if it be possible to do so, so that they may not hinder the faith either by blasphemies, or by evil persuasions, or even by open persecutions. (Summa Theologiae, II-II, 10, 8 ad corp.)

The key to the solution to this problem lies in an important distinction which first recognizes the obligation of the intellect to assent to the truth. Conscience is bound to seek the truth, and there is only one true religion. From the standpoint of truth, there is only one true religion, and all are morally obliged to seek it. There is no religious freedom in the sense of indifferentism, which teaches that all religions are really saying the same thing. But the other side of the distinction expresses the necessity of seeking this truth, without compromising the freedom of the will by coercion. Coerced conversions would be both immoral and contrary to faith. The act of faith must be free to be moral. The Church recognized in Vatican II that state coercion in religion might not only compromise the truth of Christian conversion, but also lead to coercion of the Church as has been practiced many times in civil societies, even Catholic ones, over the centuries.

Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

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  1. Avatar Vicky Gordon says:

    Though I usually read your articles with interest, this explanation of the effects of Vatican II seems carefully parsed to put a positive spin on what any truthful person would admit has been a rocky process. Regarding its goal of modernizing the Church to re-fertilize and foster the faith, Vatican II was an unmitigated failure. Rather the result has been a crisis of faith not seen since the Protestant Reformation. Priests and religious have left in droves and the small number of priests and a lack of vocations continues to plague the church. In addition, very many Catholic schools and parishes have been closed, practicing Catholics are a fraction of those who claimed Catholicism in the 1960s, and most of those are aging.
    Finally, I object to your using Daniel Maguire as a reference. He not only has left the priesthood but has become a vocal supporter of abortion and Planned Parenthood, even serving as the Master of Ceremonies at the Planned Parenthood fundraiser. It is a disgrace that he is still on the faculty Marquette University and yet another symbol of the utter poverty and lack of fidelity of Catholic universities (particularly Jesuit institutions). The church is not in flower but a tree decaying and fighting for its life in many ways.

    • Avatar Mike Ryan says:

      Your connection of Vatican II with the departure of many priests and religious, and the collapse of vocations in certain countries, is asserted rather than proved. It is rather like the argument that Vatican II authorized the full use of the vernacular in the Mass because that development happened after the Council. Just because one thing happened after another, it does not necessarily mean that it was caused by it. Nor do I see any direct connection with the Council, and the decline in the number of people attending Mass in certain countries. One might as well argue that the enormous rise in the number of Catholics in Africa and Asia was caused by the Council. Incidentally, one enormous fruit of the Council was the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

  2. Avatar Vicky Gordon says:

    I should not characterize the Church as a decaying tree but rather the true tree if life which has been bruised and battered by those who were meant to be its stewards and which has suffered as Christ on the Cross. Were it anything but a divine institution fed by the author of life, the decisions of the last few years would have destroyed it.

  3. Avatar Martin B. Drew says:

    Freedom was given to man by God to choose with the intellect and will the catholic church and the Tradition and doctrines of the Church. The Church alone has the priesthood and the extraordinary episcopal magisterium. Choosing the church will give a person a faith that is alive.

  4. Avatar Martin B. Drew says:

    Vatican II did not change doctrines of the church for they are transcendental that is a systematic theology . study. The Church is one true good and beautiful and Apostolic . Freedom must be allowed and respected since it came from God.

  5. This piece is strangely brief in light of all the good research of the past ten years. All it says is “relax, Vatican II was OK.” Even as doctrinal ambiguity reigns at the leadership level. It is indicative of why Catholics are so distressed by ‘Yes Men’ priests, who can’t bring themselves to really criticize the hierarchy even as it continues to steer the Church in screwball directions in modern times. Vatican II hardly deserves the “Bravo!” executed here. A much more frank discussion might start with this small but excellent primer: