What if Second Vatican Council never occurred?

Suppose there’d been no Vatican II — would the Church be better off or worse off now? 

Vatican II
Pope John XXIII signs the bill convoking the Second Vatican Council. CNS photo

As Catholics marked the 50th anniversary of the start of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) this fall, that question popped up here and there. Leaving aside the subversive intent of those who don’t really have much use for Vatican II, it’s a reasonable thing to ask. 

The answer to it may be more complex than admirers of Vatican II care to admit. But it does provide a useful point of entry for understanding the most important event in the Catholic Church in the century past. 

For starters, it’s easy to tick off issues and areas in Catholic life where the council obviously provided the impetus for major changes: liturgy, the laity, ecumenism and interreligious affairs, the reading and study of the Bible, the role of bishops in teaching and governance. 

But having said that, it’s important to realize that new thinking had already emerged on many of these questions well before Oct. 11, 1962 — the day when Pope John XXIII convened some 2,400 bishops in St. Peter’s Basilica for the opening of the 21st general council in the history of the Church.

Take the liturgy

The liturgical movement for reforms in the Church’s public worship had been under way for more than half a century before Vatican II. And it had produced some notable results, with Pope Pius XII’s 1947 encyclical Mediator Dei (On the Sacred Liturgy) providing crucial guidance and encouragement. 

Pre-Vatican II changes included reducing the fast required before receiving Communion (1953), a sweeping revision of the Holy Week rites (1956), introduction of the “dialogue Mass” involving participation by the congregation (1958) and the use of vernacular languages in the sacraments. 

Still, the council clearly did open the door to further changes. Notable among these were the new rite of the Mass and the all-vernacular liturgy. 

But wait. There’s a continuing argument about how much liturgical change was truly authorized by Vatican II itself. Recent years have seen efforts — encouraged especially by Pope Benedict XVI — to restore the old Mass rite alongside the new and foster a wider use of Latin. In this sense, it might be said that one Vatican II contribution to the liturgy was stirring up a controversy that’s still going on. 

Or consider the question of the laity and the role that they should have in the Church. 

Here, too, much was happening years before the council. 

By the 1920s, the lay movement called Catholic Action had become an important presence in many places. Strongly encouraged by Pope Pius XI, the idea was to recruit and train laypeople to represent the Church in the world as a counter to hostile political and social movements of the day. 

Building on this experience, Vatican II went further. 

Catholic Action was understood to be a setting for lay participation in the apostolate of the hierarchy. Without rejecting that model, the council taught that in baptism laypeople are called directly by Christ to an apostolate that is rightly their own. Vatican II also spoke of a universal call to holiness — in other words, the laity could and should be saints.

Unending debate

While much remains to be done to realize the council’s vision, the role of Catholic laity has made important progress. So have other areas of Catholic life. And so, a good case can be made that, as is sometimes said, the council “blew the lid off” efforts for reform. 

But was that an entirely good thing? Pointing to the reforms already occurring before Vatican II, skeptics say lid-blowing rushed a process that would have gone better if allowed to go more slowly. 

The what-ifs in this debate make it unlikely it will ever be settled. But one thing is sure. Without the council there could have been no “spirit of Vatican II” — that undefined will-o-the-wisp often invoked to justify changes the council never dreamed of. 

In time, the “spirit” morphed into the claim advanced by progressives that the lasting significance of the council was to cut ties with the past and usher in ceaseless, radical change. 

Pope Benedict doesn’t buy that. He points to two approaches to understanding Vatican II. One is a “hermeneutic of rupture” viewing Vatican II as a total break with tradition. The pope rejects that. The other way, which he endorses, is a hermeneutic of reform in continuity with tradition. 

In line with that thinking, much of the authentic renewal in the Church during and since the council has been by way of ressourcement — a return to the sources of Catholic faith and practice: Scripture, the magisterium, and the great thinkers and teachers of the Church. Surely from that perspective, Vatican II has been a success. 

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.