Editor’s note: just as there are disagreements about Vatican II between hierarchs such as Bishop Schneider, Archbishop Vigano and Cardinals Burke and Sarah, traditionalists disagree about the history, nature and future of Vatican II. Mr. Litwinski here offers another perspective which addresses the central claims made by the Roman Pontiff on this issue in Traditionis Custodes. As always, we welcome submissions which seek to debate these important issues in accordance with our editorial stance for the sake of the Mystical Body of Christ.
Bishop Fulton Sheen once observed that “there are not 100 people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.” The same could perhaps be said about the Second Vatican Council.
So often, we hear that the purpose of the Council was to “update the Church to the modern world,” or “to reinvent the Church,” and so on.Such misleading descriptions typically come from those who want to make the Church more like modern secular society: Modernists. And unfortunately, many traditionalists have bought into such characterizations of the Council. In so doing, they sometimes seem to make themselves opponents of Vatican II, when in fact it is traditionalists who are fulfilling the Council’s greatest goal.
Allowing Modernists to claim the mantle of Vatican II is an enormous strategic mistake, akin to letting an opposing team add fifty unearned points to the scoreboard at the start of a basketball game. It is especially galling because Modernists disregard the Council’s clear commands when it suits them (e.g., that the use of Latin “is to be preserved” in Sacrosanctum Concilium). Traditionalists can—and must—argue from a confident position of strength that they are the ones actually fulfilling the chief purpose of the Council.
The Main Purpose of Vatican II
What, then, was the main concern of the Second Vatican Council? Consider the original and most authoritative sources: Pope John XXIII, who initiated the Second Vatican Council, and Pope Paul VI, who oversaw the Council to its conclusion. These are not mere commentators, but rather the two men most responsible for the Council, and who above all others could speak definitively of its ultimate purpose.
In his December 1965 address to the last meeting of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI discussed the main goal of Vatican II. Quoting the words of Pope John XXIII, Pope Paul VI said “The greatest concern of the ecumenical council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine be guarded and taught more effectively.” Years later, in a document accompanying the new Catechism, Pope John Paul II, who had participated in the Council as a bishop, confirmed this was indeed the Council’s “principal task.”
“Greatest concern” and “principal task”: that means it was the single most important purpose of the Council, and by extension, everything else was secondary. “That the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine be guarded and taught more effectively”: the first part refers to “the patrimony of [the Church’s] doctrines.” “More effectively” means successfully transmitting the faith in the real world, in a modern age when “forgetfulness of God has become habitual.” In short, the Second Vatican Council intended to bring about a renewal—growth, not decline—in the life of the faithful.
Clear Commands vs. Flexibility
Now that we understand the Council’s main purpose, we can place its other, secondary concerns in their proper context. We must distinguish between clear, unequivocal obligations on the one hand; and statements that are less definitive and more flexible on the other.
An example of the former is found in Nostra Aetate, where the Council fathers unambiguously “decrie[d] hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.” Here, the Council fathers were entirely clear, without any ambiguity: hatred against the Jewish people is never permissible.
A very different approach is found in the document on liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, which commanded that “the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites,” yet allowed local bishops to “decide whether, and to what extent, the vernacular language is to be used” (while still preserving the use of Latin). Similarly, it gave Gregorian chant “pride of place in liturgical services,” but also allowed the use of other musical forms.
Where Vatican II spoke unequivocally (as in the Church’s relations with the Jewish people), all Catholics should and must accept that particular teaching. The Council fathers knew how to speak definitely when they wanted to.
Where the Council Fathers did not issue a clear command—as with the status of the Traditional Latin Mass—that is evidence of their desire to allow flexibility. Pope Benedict XVI’s expansion of the Latin Mass in Summorum Pontificum reflected both this flexibility and the Council’s stated desire to preserve existing expressions of worship:
The sacred Council declares that holy Mother Church holds all lawfully acknowledged rites to be of equal right and dignity; that she wishes to preserve them in the future and to foster them in every way (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 4).
In his recent Motu Proprio, Pope Francis—the first pope in half a century who had no involvement in the Council—incorrectly implies that Vatican II decided to end the Latin Mass. The Council Fathers never said this. In fact, as Pope Benedict XVI observed, the novus ordo mass (which came out half a decade after the end of Vatican II) was not even part of the Council per se.
How Do We Evaluate the Implementation of Vatican II?
Who is, in reality, safeguarding the deposit of faith and transmitting it more effectively, thereby achieving the main goal of the Council? And who is merely promoting ancillary goals or agendas—which in some cases were not even part of the Council?
Given the flexibility inherent in much of Vatican II, fidelity to the Council generally must be measured by real world outcomes, not abstract theorizing about what the “spirit” of Vatican II intended. Hypothetically, if tambourines and 1970s-style music actually helped create faithful parishes overflowing with parishioners and vocations, that would fulfill the Council fathers’ main goal. The same is true when Latin Mass parishes achieve Vatican II’s primary aim using more traditional means.
And the contrary is also true: if parishes that have gone all-in on modern styles of worship are declining and closing, they are not doing the will of the Council fathers. Obedience to the more peripheral aims of Vatican II (except to the extent mandatory) does not excuse failure to achieve the main goal. If parishes are closing and Catholics are abandoning the faith, that is not “just something that happened.” Those in positions of authority who oversaw such decline are accountable for failing to do the will of the Council Fathers.
Who is Achieving the Main Goal of Vatican II?
We now have half a century of experience showing which approach is more effective. When we look at Catholicism today, certainly in Western countries, it is clear that traditional Catholics are fulfilling the greatest aim of Vatican II far more successfully than Modernist Catholics.
Not only has Latin Mass attendance by traditional Catholics been significantly growing, but has done so with astonishingly high rates of participation by the faithful: for example, there is 98% weekly Latin Mass attendance in the 18-39 age group. And these are young people who found traditionalism on their own: only 10% of them were raised in the Latin Mass by their parents.
Contrast that with the situation in more Modernist parishes. When we read that Germany’s largest archdiocese plans to close 90% of its churches — 450 out of 500 — by the end of this decade, how can anyone claim the principal goal of Vatican II is being achieved? Or in France, where only 5% of Catholics regularly attend mass? Or in America, where since the 1970s the number of Catholics who have left the faith has swelled 15-fold, from two million to 30 million?
The same is true for Church teachings. Catholics who attend the Traditional Latin Mass are far more accepting of Church doctrine across a wide range of issues. For example, only 1 percent of traditionalists approve of abortion, compared to 51 percent of Catholics who attend the modern Mass. Similar statistics may be found in many other aspects of Church teaching, such as the Real Presence in the Eucharist.
There is an interesting analogy in Scripture. In Jesus’s famous Parable of the Two Sons, a father asks his two sons to go work in the vineyard. One says “I will not,” but afterward changes his mind and goes there to work. The other says “Yes, sir” but does not actually go. Jesus asks: “Which of the two did his father’s will?” The answer, of course, is the first.
From this, we can understand something important about traditional Catholics and Vatican II: while sometimes seeming to resist aspects of the Council, traditionalists are in fact the ones achieving its main goal: that the “sacred deposit of Christian doctrine be guarded and taught more effectively.” They are growing faithful families and parishes and maintaining timeless Catholic values. This is in stark contrast to the Modernists, who hold themselves out as the inheritors of Vatican II yet promote all manner of erroneous teachings, with resulting apostasy, declining vocations, and closed churches.
This is why at every opportunity, we should confidently make the case that Traditionalists are the ones achieving the greatest goal of the Second Vatican Council.
Photo: Vatican II session, public domain.
 We use the term in a general sense to include both the heresy condemned by Pius X and also the general desire to conform all things in the Church to the current zeitgeist of the world.
 Lumen Gentium includes a note at the end (in the appendix by Archbishop Felici) which makes the distinction between the binding and non-binding content of Vatican II. The latter must still be piously received by Catholics, but does not preclude withholding consent in some sense (for instance, on prudential decisions).
 The Novus Ordo Mass reforms “are not simply identical with the Council as such… Someone who does not think that everything in this reform turned out well and considers many things subject to reform or even in need of revision is not therefore an opponent of the ‘Council.’” Joseph Ratzinger, Collected Works: Theology of the Liturgy (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2014), vol. 11, p. 576.
 This is not to exclude the successful growth of a third group, orthodox Catholics who do not identify themselves as “traditional,” but merely to evaluate the claims of Traditionis Custodes regarding Vatican II and the Traditionalists on the basis of the evidence.
John Litwinski is a graduate of a Catholic high school, Benet Academy, and has degrees from Johns Hopkins University (B.A.), the London School of Economics (M.Sc.), and Georgetown University’s law school (J.D.). He is a former partner in a major Chicago law firm and business owner.