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Paul VI Did Not Exist: A “Nostalgic” Response to George Weigel on Vatican II

Above: Pope Paul VI with one of his greatest critics, Joseph Ratzinger, whom he appointed bishop and then cardinal in 1977 before his death.

When Vatican II Turned Forty

Twenty years ago, a week before the fortieth anniversary of the opening of Vatican II, Mr George Weigel, a great admirer of that assembly, wrote an assessment of it for, of all publications, the National Catholic Reporter. The basic thrust of his column is simple: a reading of Vatican II as a power struggle within the Church is incorrect. He does not deny that the Church has collectively “got(ten) Vatican II wrong” in many ways, and did so “by thinking of it chiefly in terms of church politics.” But in “the council’s masterwork,” Lumen Gentium, we see that “(t)he universal call to holiness, not the struggle for ecclesiastical power, was the central motif of Vatican II.” This is both true and a good thing to say, especially in a publication so deeply invested in reading Vatican II and its aftermath as a series of power struggles: of bishops against an overcentralized papacy and curia; of heretical theologians against bishops; and ultimately, of Modern Man™ against the Faith once delivered to the Saints.

But twenty years ago, Mr Weigel was still able to entertain some doubts as to the ultimate fate of Vatican II in the Church’s life, and he goes on to say:

I’ve been much struck recently by the question of whether, in the mid-third millennium, Vatican II will be remembered as another Lateran V or another Trent. Lateran V was a reforming council that failed; Trent was a reforming council whose success defined Catholic life for almost four centuries. Lateran V’s failure was one cause of the fracture of Western Christianity in the Reformation – and thus of the wars of religion, the rise of the modern state, and the gradual erosion of Christian culture in Europe. Getting it wrong, in this business of conciliar reform, can carry high costs.

With all due respect, this question was put incorrectly. By its 40th anniversary, Vatican II was already neither another Lateran V nor another Trent.

Trent began in 1545, which puts its fortieth anniversary in 1585. By that point, the Church had already made huge strides in implementing the reforms which it had ordered, and the movement to continue doing so was gaining strength every day, with the strong leadership and support of the Papacy. The spread of Protestantism had been checked in much of Europe, and reversed in some places; the evangelization of the New World was proceeding apace. New religious orders such as the Jesuits and Oratorians were thriving and spreading, and inspiring the older ones to highly successful reforms. The model of Counter-Reformation bishops, St Charles Borromeo, was still alive, and a leading figure in the implementation of the Council’s decrees.

It hardly needs saying that forty years out from Vatican II, the Church was not thriving as it was in 1585.

On the other hand, the fortieth anniversary of Lateran V occurred in 1552… smack in the middle of the Council of Trent. Forty years after Lateran V had failed so spectacularly to bring about any of the reform that the Church so desperately needed (and by so failing, had helped to trigger the Reformation), the Church did not content itself with monomaniacal repetition of the catchphrase, “You have to accept Lateran V!”, while ignoring the fact that everything was burning down around it. Rather, it recognized that its previous feint at reform had failed catastrophically, and set about at Trent to do well what it had done badly at Lateran V.

It hardly needs saying that forty years out from Vatican II, the Church wasn’t doing this either.

The truest parallel with Vatican II to be found among the ecumenical councils is that of Constance (1414-18), the highwater mark of the Conciliarist movement, which taught that the ecumenical council as an institution is superior in authority to the Pope. (i.e., a power-struggle: so ironic…) A wave of enthusiasm for something new, something which everyone hopes will bring great benefit to the Church, is quickly followed by a sudden and almost inexplicable dissipation of that enthusiasm. Just as the bishops who attended Constance did not bother to attend the next council which they themselves had called for, the bishops who wrote (with their periti) and approved the documents of Vatican II seemed afterwards to care little or nothing for what they had written.

Weigel himself acknowledges as much in the same column.

I never seriously read the texts of Vatican II until the mid-1970s, despite eight years in high school and college seminary and two years of graduate studies in theology. I don’t think I was alone in this. [No, he most certainly wasn’t.] In those days, one read about the council … (but) one didn’t wrestle with the texts of the council itself.

I have yet to see a convincing explanation of why I or anyone else should show an enthusiasm for the texts of Vatican II which their own authors never showed, but Mr Weigel’s enthusiasm for them, at any rate, knows no abatement.

When Vatican II Turned Fifty

Ten years after the aforementioned column, it was time to commemorate the council’s golden anniversary; the venue changed to an incommensurably more Catholic publication, First Things, and so did the tack. In a very brief article, he notes (how could one not?) that “Vatican II is sometimes imagined to be an example of ecclesiastical parthenogenesis: the Council just happened, absent significant antecedents, in a decisive rupture with the past.” But this imagining is incorrect: Popes since Leo XIII, he tells us, had been coming to grips with modernity, and Vatican II was, or was supposed to be, the culmination of this engagement.

However, the future reception of Vatican II is no longer to be understood by looking at any previous council.

[It] was like no other ecumenical Council in history, in that it did not provide authoritative keys for its own interpretation: the Council Fathers wrote no creed, condemned no heresy, legislated no new canons, defined no dogmas. Thus the decade and a half after the Council ended on December 8, 1965, was a bit of a free-for-all, as varying interpretations of the Council (including appeals to an amorphous ‘spirit of Vatican II’ that seems to have more in common with low-church Protestantism than with Catholicism) contended with each other in what amounted to an ecclesiastical civil war.

Just “a bit of a free-for-all,” he writes, like a British general of a sang particularly froid describing the Second World War. (Fifty years from the opening of Lateran V, by the way, brings us to the opening of the third and final session of Trent; fifty years from the opening of Trent, and Rome is getting ready to celebrate its second Jubilee of the Counter-Reformation.) Why the free-for-all? Because the Council “did not provide authoritative keys for its own interpretation.” Is it cynical to ask whether this was really a wise procedure for a body whose very raison-d’être is to bring much needed clarity to the Church?

Never fear. The free-for-all is over, because

Providence raised up two men of genius, John Paul II and Benedict XVI… to give Vatican II an authoritative interpretation (and) the truth about the Council. … Vatican II did not displace the Church’s tradition. Vatican II did not create do-it-yourself-Catholicism.

What a relief.

When Vatican II Turned Sixty

Now, another ten years have passed, and any doubts Mr Weigel might once have entertained about the place of Vatican II in the Church’s future life have evaporated as thoroughly as… well, as thoroughly as the enthusiasm of the world’s bishops for Vatican II did after December 8, 1965. In a recent column for the Wall Street Journal, he brands it “the most important Catholic event in half a millennium.” From the Council’s own starting date, that brings us back to 1462, fifty years before Lateran V began; from our present year, back to 1522, five years after Lateran V ended and the Protestant Reformation began. Were it not for the previous assurance that Vatican II is like no other council, and historical parallelism thus dismissed, some might find this worrisome.

It is no longer a question of whether Vatican II will be seen in the future as a successful council like Trent or a failed one like Lateran V. The title of the column, published in advance of a book on the subject released one week before the anniversary, is simply “What Vatican II Accomplished.” As in “Mission Accomplished”?

What a relief.

The sub-header, however, does not briefly summarize these achievements, but like the column itself, brings in the boogeymen, assuring us that “progressives and nostalgic traditionalists” have misunderstood the Council. Vatican II turns out to be as singularly unlucky in its application as socialism, communism, and the other disgusting -isms of the 20th century which it so conspicuously failed to condemn. “If only we had REAL socialism…”

If the job of a sub-header is to summarize a column, John Daniel Davidson of the Federalist wrote this sentence  about this column that would have served the purpose far better. “Every positive development in Catholicism since 1965 is because of Vatican II; every distortion or pathology is a misapplication of Vatican II.”

For we are assured by Weigel that

From his historical studies and pastoral experience, John XXIII knew that the defensive Catholicism of the Counter-Reformation, however successful a salvage operation, had run its course. It was time to raze the bastions that Catholicism had erected and turn its robust institutions into platforms for evangelization and mission in order to engage a deeply troubled modern world.

And in brief, despite whatever difficulties the Church may be undergoing right now, or may have been undergoing for the last several decades, this is what the Council has purportedly achieved.

The Pope of the Council

This is one of 19 mentions of Pope John by name, in a column of just under 2100 words, which is an average of about one every 110 words. The unknowing reader might be forgiven for getting the impression that the Council itself was actually his work and faithful to his intentions. But Weigel himself knows this to be untrue, and carefully describes those intentions in the conditional mood:

In his opening address to Vatican II, John XXIII suggested how ecclesiastical renewal would take place. … the Church would develop the means to express ancient and enduring truths in ways that modernity could hear. … his hope that Vatican II would be a ‘new Pentecost.’

By this sleight of hand, the Pope who called Vatican II becomes something like a large, disembodied head, floating above the floor and loudly proclaiming, “I! AM!! JOHN!!! The great and powerful!” Wicked, nostalgic traditionalists, get away from that curtain…

Missing from this and so many other discourses about the reception of the Council and its purported achievements is Paul VI, the Pope in whose reign all of the Council’s documents were promulgated, and who, by his action and inaction over the years that followed it, “implemented” it in ways that thoroughly betrayed those documents, and the intentions of Pope John. Even twenty years ago, when the future reception of Vatican II was still a matter of uncertainty, he merited from Weigel no more than a passing mention in reference to his 1965 visit to the U.N., (an institution which constitutes one of the most conspicuous among Modern Man™’s great and ghastly political failures). By the fiftieth anniversary, he had been thrown down the memory hole. Did the decade and a half which Mr Weigel describes as a “bit of a free-for-all” after the end of Vatican II happen to coincide with anything in particular?

Get away from that curtain!

Now, at the sixtieth anniversary, in telling us “What Vatican II Accomplished,” Mr Weigel gives us not a hint of who specifically steered it towards its accomplishments. We must not think of Vatican II as an instance of “ecclesiastical parthenogenesis,” but we are left free to think of its documents as products of spontaneous generation, without father, without mother, and without genealogy.

To rehearse these “achievements” in detail would be as unbearably tedious for you to read as it would be for me to write. I will therefore limit myself to commenting on the first which Mr Weigel enumerates, one which happily coincides with my own area of interest and, such as it is, expertise.

He tells us that “After Vatican II, Catholics worshiped in their own languages, rather than in Latin.” But he does not tell us that the general post-Conciliar abandonment of Latin happened in direct contradiction of the Apostolic Constitution Veterum Sapientia, which John XXIII promulgated eight months before Vatican II: an “achievement,”in Weigel’s presentation, “without father.”

He does not tell us that the all-vernacular liturgy was brought about in direct contradiction to Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, which states that the use of Latin was to be preserved in the liturgy.

“Without mother.”

He does not tell us that when a Sicilian bishop urged the Council Fathers to be cautious about accepting liturgical use of the vernacular, lest a partial permission turn into a Mass with no Latin at all, there was a brief pause, followed by an explosion of laughter, so absurd did the very idea seem to them.

He does not tell us that the Council’s other fifteen documents contain only one brief mention of Latin, precisely because it was taken for granted that Veterum Sapientia had fully dealt with the subject, and there was no need to say any more. Nor indeed could any of them have imagined that any Pope would so cavalierly ignore such an act of his predecessor.

On November 26, 1969, at the last general audience before the promulgation of the Novus Ordo, Paul VI informed the Church that although Latin would no longer be the principal language of the Mass, it would “remain as the means of teaching in ecclesiastical studies and as the key to the patrimony of our religious, historical and human culture. If possible, it will reflourish in splendor.” Mr Weigel does not tell us that that is exactly what John XXIII ordered in Veterum Sapientia, or that none of that happened either.

“Without genealogy.”

As a segue, he tells us that the Council “urg(ed) Catholics to become more biblically literate.” He does not tell us that the Holy See under Paul VI stayed mostly silent as Catholic Biblical scholars introduced all the most fatuous excesses of modern Biblical scholarship into Catholic seminaries and schools, from which they slithered down into sermons and catechism classes. Nor are we told that the revised lectionary of the post-Conciliar Mass routinely censors and violently misrepresents the word of God. Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum says that “with maternal concern, the Church sees to it that suitable and correct translations are made into different languages,” but we are not told that the official translation used for the Biblical readings at Mass in the United States is the “colorless, odorless, gaseous paraphrase” known as the New American Bible, nor that it is full of the most gruesome errors.

Sad tales of this sort can and have been told repeatedly about every aspect of the Church’s life over the last 60 years, and they all amount to pretty much the same thing.

The Church lives as it lives now very largely because Paul VI rejected and did not fulfill the will of the Second Vatican Council.

Twenty years ago, Weigel’s rhetorical combination of suppressio veri and suggestio falsi did perhaps serve a legitimate function, not as history or theology, but as propaganda.[1] It encouraged us to believe in one possible understanding of Vatican II, of how it ought to have been implemented, and the prior implementation of it corrected. Whatever the flaws of this understanding may have been, it was certainly better than Paul VI’s. As a priest friend of mine put it to me in mid-2013, “the background radiation (in the Church) was dying down.” St John Paul II and Benedict XVI unquestionably deserve a great deal of the credit for that. Ten years ago, the last full year of Benedict’s reign, it was fully plausible that their far healthier version of Vatican II might prevail, and the worst excesses of the Paul VI years would simply fade into the past and be gently, deservedly forgotten.

Revolution Reborn

But this was before the election of Francis, a man of a very different spirit, who has canonized John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II, but revived the ghost of only one of them. The first Pope to never serve as a priest in the Church as it was before the Montinian revolution is committed to that revolution as Papa Montini himself never was. That brings with it a commitment to a violent, revolutionary interpretation of Vatican II, and all that goes with it: the power struggles which Weigel rejected twenty years ago, the “ecclesiastical parthenogenesis” which he rejected ten years ago, and many other interpretations of Vatican II which he deems inauthentic.

I would be utterly remiss were I not to say that Catholics ought to be sincerely grateful to Mr Weigel for speaking out against this as he has in recent times. Despite no evident fondness for the traditional Roman liturgy, he rightly decried the “Liberal Authoritarianism” of Traditionis Custodes, and rightly branded it “theologically incoherent, pastorally divisive, unnecessary, cruel – and a sorry example of the liberal bullying that has become all too familiar in Rome recently.” When the responses to the so-called dubia about TC followed, he pointed out the absurdity of “Undercutting Vatican II to Defend Vatican II” by issuing orders to the bishops wholly contrary to the spirit of Lumen Gentium. He has repeatedly denounced the de facto revival of Paul VI’s Ostpolitik in the Vatican’s current dealings with the single most murderous organization in human history, the Chinese Communist Party. He has called the recent developments in the Pontifical Academy for Life a second assassination attempt against John Paul II.

And this is all to the good.

As important as these matters are, however, they do not lie at the heart of the Vatican II problem.

Ten years ago, Mr Weigel told us that “Providence raised up John Paul II and Benedict XVI… to give Vatican II an authoritative interpretation.” “Authoritative” according to whom? According to Mr Weigel himself? By all means. But according to Francis, who has set out to destroy some of their crucial achievements: John Paul’s in the field of sexual ethics, Benedict’s in liturgy, and of both of them on the question of moral relativism? Not by any means, and in this dispute, it is Francis, not Weigel, who counts.

And there is simply no reason why Vatican II should not always be plagued with this problem, pushed aside by acts of papal power, and “interpreted” to mean whatever that power wants it to mean, just as Paul VI did. It is being so plagued at this very moment.

The Third Vatican Council

In his 1999 biography of St John Paul II, Witness to Hope, Weigel writes that

Twenty years after (Vatican II) had closed… (a) ‘progressive’ party in the Church, thinking Vatican II rather old hat, was busy imagining a Vatican III that would complete the rout of traditional Catholicism which it somehow thought to be John XXIII’s intention in summoning the Council.

That party is no longer “busy imagining”; it is busy putting its imaginings into practice. Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, and stage manager of the current Pope’s pet project, the Synod on Synodultery, somehow managed to be very frank about the matter during a recent lecture of almost Teilhardian unintelligibility.

The current synodal process is a ‘mature fruit of Vatican II’ and shows how ‘a correct reception of the Council’s ecclesiology is activating such fruitful processes as to open up scenarios that not even the Council had imagined and in which the action of the Spirit that guides the Church is made manifest.’

Earlier today (as I write), a Mass was celebrated to commemorate the beginning of the most recent ecumenical council in the very place where it began 60 years ago. Sitting just a few steps away from St Peter’s tomb, the Holy Father who is always ready with an unkind word for his children once again trotted out his new favorite insult for traditionalists. This is an Italian word of his own devising, “indietristi,” which is as clumsy in the mouth as it is in the mind, but easier to say in English, “backwardists.”

Both progressivism, which lines up behind the world, and traditionalism, or ‘backwardism,’ that longs for a bygone world, are not evidence of love, but of faithlessness.

Wonder no longer if the Listening Church will ever extend its listening to “backwardists.” Wonder instead how many progressives heard that and said to themselves, “Wait, aren’t we in charge now? Didn’t he PUT us in charge?” As another papal biographer, Henry Sire, explained a few years ago, this is the very essence of Peronism, and Peronism is the essence of Francis. You may not be interested in power, but power is extremely interested in you.

But alas, alas for the backwardists, those who are always looking backwards to the 1970s, when the bastions of the Counter-reformation had indeed been razed, and the world flooded into the Church, bringing chaos and destruction with it, and the words of the most recent ecumenical council lay safely buried and undigested in the stomach of its spirit. Alas also for the nostalgic, those who are always looking back to the aughts of this century, when the bastions of John Paul and Benedict had not yet been razed, and it was still possible to imagine, at least sometimes, a Church in which Paul VI did not exist.


[1] I would not, of course, say this on the basis of a single column, or three columns. Omitting mention of Paul VI or downplaying him has been a leitmotif of Mr Weigel’s writings about Vatican II and its reception for some time. We have this assertion that St John XXIII was ideologically hijacked, in which we are told that “it took the Church more than 20 years to grasp the full meaning of Gaudet Mater Ecclesia,” the opening speech which he delivered at Vatican II, without mentioning who was Pope for most of those twenty years, and responsible for obscuring its meaning. (Is it cynical to ask if the Pope should be making speeches that take more than 20 years to understand?) We have this assertion that the Berlin Wall fell because once John Paul II became Pope, Eastern Europeans knew “that ‘Rome’ now had their backs (as it hadn’t in the 1970s),” without mentioning who was Pope during the 1970s, when it didn’t have their backs. (Mr Weigel usually assigns most of blame for the obscene moral failure of Ostpolitik to Paul VI’s Secretary of State, Card. Agostino Casaroli.) We are told that “The War of the Conciliar Succession” has been going on since the ’60s, without being told whose failure to rein in the heresies festering in every corner of the Church made such a war first possible, and then necessary. In his 2019 book The Irony of Modern Catholic History, “Vatican II” is mentioned over 300 times by name, and over 250 times as “the Council”; Paul VI, who promulgated all of its documents, is mentioned just over 80 times; John XXIII, who promulgated none of them, over 100 times, John Paul II nearly 280. In Evangelical Catholicism (2013), “Vatican II” is mentioned over 250 times by name, and 145 times as “the Council”; Paul VI 15 times; John XXIII, only 9 times, John Paul II, over 200. And in this recent podcast about his new book on Vatican II, we learn from Mr Weigel that “a lot of mistakes were made in implementing the Council” (6:40), in the passive-voice-of-unattributed-responsibility. Probably not by anybody in particular…

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