Above: Pope Julius II “the Warrior Pope” who convoked the failed ecumenical council, Lateran V. Portrait by Raphael.
Here is a counterfactual for you. The year is 1545, and the Catholic Church is in shambles. The Protestant revolt has spread across Germany, France, Scandinavia, and into Eastern Europe. Violent uprisings against the established order during the Peasants’ War (1525) and the siege of Munster (1534), the Ottoman invasion of Eastern Europe (1529) and warfare between France and the Holy Roman Empire threaten the stability of Europe even as the virus of religious heresy spreads apace. Rome, beset by a deeply corrupt curia, was paralyzed for nearly three decades after Luther began his break with the Church, fearing the outcome of an ecumenical council might jeopardize its power.
But now, a new generation of bishops and Churchmen has finally managed to gather in the city of Trent, to debate the crises of war and Reformation, sometimes quite acrimoniously, but finally determined to do something about them. As the bishops file into the nave of the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, the bishops take their seats, a sea of red birettas filling the great cathedral. Finally, they begin debating the momentous issue of how to reform the Church and heal the division caused by the Reformation. But before the first bishop can raise his voice to speak, a voice interjects.
“Stop! This council cannot proceed. It must be dissolved immediately!”
The other bishops look to their confreres, whose countenances betray their astonishment at this assertion. Before they can react, the voice acquires a face, who shouts at them with indignation.
“You are all heretics and schismatics, guilty of the sin of denying the Holy Spirit!” The man, who appears otherwise quite sane, goes on in this manner for some time, until the bishops demand an answer, to which the man retorts: “you have betrayed the Fifth Lateran Council, an ecumenical council called by Pope Julius II, who was chosen by the Holy Spirit. Your unfaithfulness to the council is why the Church has not flourished. We must go back to her documents and taste their pure and living doctrine, and only then will the Church flourish again!”
As preposterous as this scenario might sound—it is amusing to think what a St. Charles Borromeo might make of such a person—it is precisely what those insist that “the Vatican II hasn’t been tried yet” crowd insists upon in the face of all evidence. They deny that the precipitous decline of membership and mass attendance in the 1960s and 70s has anything to do with Vatican II, but their most effective response is to shoot the messenger and insinuate the Catholics pointing out this fact are somehow unfaithful, perhaps even heretical, for noticing its failure.
Short History of Failed Councils
Ordinary Catholics, not being acquainted with the history of the ecumenical councils, might be tempted to believe such assertions. But as Bishop Paprocki has noted, a council can have “failed in its objectives” while still being valid. Just a few examples should suffice to make the point.
The most obvious examples are those councils that largely failed because they were not “received” by some great body of the Church and did not achieve what they set out to do. Second Lyons (1274) seemed to reunite the East and West, until Pope Martin IV excommunicated the Catholic Emperor of Constantinople in order to call a false crusade against him. The other reunion Council, Ferrara-Florence (1439), did achieved more success by forming a basis for the Eastern Catholic churches. But still, the majority of Eastern Christians have not come into communion with Rome as a result.
In other words, these councils were valid but failed in their objectives.
Something similar happened in the case of the Fifth Lateran Council, mentioned in the scenario above. Pope Julius II so tightly controlled the proceedings of Lateran V that it appeared to many not to be a genuine council at all; many Germans, for example, ignored it, calling for a “free Christian council in German lands” within in the Holy Roman Empire. Skepticism of papal sincerity with regards to reform scuttled any success it might have, even though many of its ideas would be repeated at Trent.
Even councils we remember as successful did not always achieve all their immediate objectives. The Council of Trent (1545-1563), so successful in reforming the abuses that led to the Reformation and reinvigorating Catholic life in the late sixteenth century, did not achieve the “extirpation of heresies… the peace and union of the Church” or “the depression and extinction of the enemies of the Christian name” as promised in its opening session. The fourth Lateran Council (1215) was largely successful in its reform efforts but failed in its “ardent desire to liberate the holy Land from infidel hands,” which it too, failed to realize.
It might even be said that an ecumenical council was a failure precisely because it did achieve its stated objectives. The Council of Vienne (1311-1312) was called by Clement V at the behest of Philip IV of France, for the purpose of hearing accusations against the Knights Templar. Clement V dissolved the order, but we now know that Clement V pardoned some of the Knights, and the motives of Philip IV have always been suspect, as he was financially indebted to the order.
Of course, some councils, though they failed to achieve their immediate goals, were received in the long run. The first Council of Nicaea (325) is remembered for the creed it promulgated, but it did not bring the unity that the Emperor Constantine hoped for when he convened it. It took another half century of theological wrangling, rival synods, imprisonments, excommunications, and finally another council in 381 (Constantinople I) to define the nature of the Trinity and the final form of the creed. Even then, that later council was not even recognized as being ecumenical until yet another council at Chalcedon, seventy years later in 451.
Councils Can Fail, but Not the Church
In short, yes, ecumenical councils can fail. But that does not mean the Church has failed when they do. I think one reason why many Catholics can’t understand this is confusion over the doctrine of infallibility. Many seem to think of the Church’s infallibility in positive terms rather than negative ones. Vatican I and subsequent teaching on the subject indicates that infallibility only means the Church is prevented from making serious errors with the highest levels of its authority. But many seem to think of the Magisterium as a sort of divine Magic Eight Ball that yields up easy answers to difficult questions whenever the Church or the pope wants.
None of this explains, however, the absurdity of making support for or putative “opposition” to Vatican II as a litmus test of orthodoxy and fidelity to the Church that many Catholic Churchmen and theologians insist it must be. Vatican II is part of the Church’s history and heritage now, but it is only one council. Moreover, its documents are probably some of the most controversial in all the Church’s long history, whose precise meaning is still being debated at the very highest levels of the Church. It is astonishing to consider that, in the Catholic Church today, one can call into question or even deny openly pretty much any doctrine or practice you like, except Vatican II. Do this as a theologian or churchman, and your career will be over in an instant. And yet Hans Küng wrote an entire book denying papal infallibility (largely in the name of Vatican II) but died a “Catholic in good standing,” whatever that means.
Faithful lay Catholics recognize the chasm between the reality on the ground and the official assertions that consistently deny this reality exists. Moreover, denying that the Council has failed or that there is anything wrong with its document enables those who wish to destroy the Church’s teaching on a whole host of issues by allowing them to use Vatican II as an excuse for doing so. Why so many otherwise faithful “conservative” Catholics continue to do so remains a mystery to me.
The Case of Constance
Die-hard Vatican II supporters still hope the ideas contained in the conciliar documents will become important one day, as was the case with Lateran V. I happen to think they might be right on this point, but the documents of Vatican II simply can’t be the vehicle for them. They are too full of ambiguities, silences, and contradictions, and therefore, too easy to abuse.
Supporters of Vatican II sometimes invoke the Council of Nicaea in this regard, claiming it took time to have its effect. But historically speaking, Vatican II is most like the Council of Constance: not only did its reform efforts fail, but it also called the Church’s authority into question. You may recall that Constance’s main aim was the end of the Western Schism, which it accomplished. But its real aim was reform. The schism had encouraged the growth of Conciliarism, the doctrine that the Church should be governed universally councils, not popes. Many of the men who came to Constance were impressive theologians, such as Jean Gerson. (Constance was the first ecumenical council where academic theologians played a prominent part, another similarity with Vatican II and its periti.)
Constance embodied the hopes of reformers going back half a century. But its attempt to enshrine Conciliarism in its documents nearly tore the Church apart. It caused the Hussite schism and produced rival councils for decades. Its baleful effects lasted into the Reformation era and contributed to it. A rival council sat at Pisa while Julius II convened Lateran V. Hubert Jedin, the great historian of Trent, wrote that the bishops of Germany were so passive in the face of Luther’s revolt because they were waiting for a council to address it—i.e., a “real” council like Constance. Only when a generation of bishops finally determined to do something about the crisis came to power in the Church at Trent did anything change.
So it will likely be with the current crisis. Just as the ghost of Conciliarism haunted the Church for decades and aided in the failure of Lateran V, so in the same way the Spirit of Vatican II haunts the Church today. In the former case, it took an even greater cataclysm, that of the Reformation, for the Church to let go of its dalliance with failed attempts at reform. We should learn from the past rather than repeat those mistakes. It is a terrible fact of history that, though God will not let his Bride ultimately be defeated, the Church has managed to test His love for Her more often and in more dire ways than we care to admit.
Defending the Church’s Authority
Defenders of Vatican II seem to genuinely worry about the effect this will have on the Church’s authority. This is a laudable concern, but after all the revelations of sexual abuse, all the heresy that has spread in the past sixty years within the Church, after all the revelations of financial corruption in the curia, does anyone really think the faithful are going to suddenly decide the Church’s authority is false if Church leaders admit Vatican II made mistakes or didn’t achieve its aims?
No, they will not. They realize that the time for Vatican II has passed, but that God has not abandoned His Church, something the defenders of Vatican II need to remember. It is understandable that some have a hard time doing so, as there are some lovely things in the aspirations of the Second Vatican Council. However, as sad as it may be, sometimes you have to let loved ones go, in order to get on with your life. So it is in the Church: it is time to recognize that Vatican II neither remade the Church nor destroyed it, and reconcile with the reality that it is only a part of the Church’s life, one that should be left firmly in the past.
Darrick Taylor teaches history at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas.