The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was arguably the most significant event in the Catholic Church in the 20th century.  No other issue has had such wide-ranging effects on Catholics throughout the world, and none (excepting, perhaps, contraception) is debated with as much vigor among Catholics today, more than 40 years later.  Although it was the 21st ecumenical council in the history of the Church, Vatican II was only the fourth in the past 500 years.  More importantly, it remains unique in the sense that no doctrinal definitions or condemnations were issued by this council.  As Paul VI, who was Pope at the close of the council, said, “it had avoided proclaiming in an extraordinary manner dogmas affected by the mark of infallibility.”

What, then, did this council do?  It produced 16 documents stating the Church’s position on various issues, ranging from the nature of the Church and the role of the laity to the reform of the liturgy.  Certain principles were enunciated that seemed to contradict earlier Church teaching, such as those concerning religious liberty and ecumenism.  Some bishops formed a bloc to counter what they saw as liberal trends at the council, the product of la nouvelle théologie.  At the head of this group (the Coetus Internationalis Patrum) was Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, then superior general of the Holy Ghost Fathers, the largest Catholic missionary order in the world.  In 1970, he would found a new religious order dedicated to preserving the traditions and practices of the Church before Vatican II: the Society of St. Pius X.

The SSPX was founded to maintain a traditional scholastic formation for the clergy, although it was to become better known for its exclusive use of the Tridentine Mass and its principled opposition to what its leaders saw as the novelties of the Second Vatican Council.  These perceived novelties continue to be a subject of debate in Catholic circles, with many Catholics arguing that a revolutionary “spirit of Vatican II” obscured the true meaning of the council, while some on the fringe reject the council outright and, often, the Church with it.  Fr. Claude Barthe, the author of Beyond Vatican II: The Church at a New Crossroads, is a former member of the SSPX.  In an attempt to reconcile varying views on the Second Vatican Council, he has written a brief but concise study that analyzes the council and the application of its reforms, especially under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Fr. Barthe begins with a consideration of modernity, and especially of the democratizing element in ecclesiastical affairs.  The debate over the liturgy of the Catholic Church in the Roman Rite, the Mass celebrated by the vast majority of Catholics worldwide, offers perhaps the most public exhibit of this democratization.  Although Pope Benedict XVI seems in favor of a more widespread celebration of the ancient Roman Mass (commonly known as the Tridentine Mass or the Mass of St. Pius V), many bishops, most notably in France, are opposed.  Fr. Barthe uses their resistance to bolster his argument that democracy (under the guise of “collegiality”) has weakened the understanding of authority inside the Church.  The crisis in the Catholic Church today is undoubtedly one of authority.  Fr. Barthe notes the grave decline in vocations, belief, and Catholic practice since the council and argues that the aggiornamento, the opening to the world proclaimed by Blessed John XXIII, has taken its toll on the Catholic faithful.

In a chapter dedicated to the question of married clergy in the Western Church, Father Barthe considers the efforts of liberal pressure groups since the close of the council to effect a change in ecclesiastical discipline.  Since the issue is not one of dogma, and because of the serious decrease in priestly vocations, Fr. Barthe suggests that a success on this point would amount to a great modernist victory, similar in impact to that of the institution of seminaries following the Council of Trent.

According to Fr. Barthe, the majority of Catholics fall into two broad camps: a “center-left” or conciliar party, which seeks to further the reforms inaugurated in the Church since 1965, and a “center-right” party, which defends a “true” interpretation of the council, a reform of the reform, and which argues that much of the recent devolution springs from an aberrant interpretation of conciliar documents.  These two camps do not include the “extreme left” (the “Trotskyites of the Church”) or the “extreme right” (traditionalist Catholics).

Forty years ago, Fr. Ratzinger was one of the periti (experts) at Vatican II and worked with such liberal “reformers” as Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx and Karl Rahner.  Today, as Pope Benedict XVI, how does he view the council?

A clue to the Pope’s comprehension of the issue may be found in his 2005 Christmas address to the curia, the papal court.  (The entire speech is printed as an Appendix to this book.)  “No one,” Pope Benedict argues, “can deny that in vast areas of the Church, the implementation of the Council has been somewhat difficult.”  The Holy Father then observes that two varying interpretations of Vatican II have developed over the past 40 years: “the hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” and “the hermeneutic of reform.”  Of the former, he says:

The hermeneutic of discontinuity risks ending in a split between the pre-conciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church.  It asserts that the texts of the Council as such do not yet express the true spirit of the Council.  It claims that they are the result of compromises in which, to reach unanimity, it was found necessary to keep and reconfirm many old things that are now pointless.

Such language is striking, to say the least.  Some writers have argued that quotations such as this indicate that the Pope has taken traditionalist critiques into account.  The Holy Father adds, however, that “the hermeneutic of reform . . . bore and is bearing fruit.”  Thus, Benedict XVI falls into the “center-right” camp, desiring to place Vatican II in conformity with the Tradition of the Church, while evincing a willingness to condemn certain modernist excesses.

Fr. Barthe believes that the ascension of Benedict XVI to the Throne of Peter “inaugurates . . . a phase of transition for the Church, that is to say, a process of exiting from the atypical state in which this Council had placed Her.”  The speech to the curia in December 2005 signaled what could be the beginning of a sincere and candid debate regarding the council, one in which Fr. Barthe hopes a “common front” can be constructed from those on the “center-right” and the traditionalists.

The question of religious liberty has been, and will likely continue to be, the most contested subject.  Blessed Pius IX, in Quanta Cura (1864), condemned the proposition that “liberty of conscience and worship is each man’s personal right” as “insanity.”  Yet Dignitatis Humanae, the most controversial of all the documents of Vatican II, states that “The Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom.”  While Dignitatis Humanae does note that this understanding of religious freedom “leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ,” there does seem to be some tension between it and Quanta Cura.  As this issue touches on doctrine, a definite answer must be given.  Over the past 40 years, volumes have been written on this subject, and it is certainly beyond the scope of this review to summarize the arguments of both sides.  Suffice it to say that this change, whether in principle or in emphasis, has led to a disastrous change in policy on the part of the Church: Since 1970, Rome has gone so far as to request Catholic countries such as Colombia, Spain, and Portugal to modify their Concordats so as to incarnate the new emphasis on religious liberty.

Fr. Barthe aptly subtitled his book “The Church at a New Crossroads.”  With Benedict XVI now steering the Barque of Peter, optimistic expectations regarding both a broader permission of the traditional Latin Mass and fresh discussion of the principles and merits of the Second Vatican Council seem justified.  Beyond Vatican II, while stopping short of suggesting concrete solutions, is a good introduction to the root problems the Church must address.  Fr. Barthe’s closing assessment is worth noting: If the doctrinal and liturgical divisions are not addressed under this pontificate, the Church will likely continue in a “process of auto-destruction,” as Paul VI called it.  If they are addressed, then—Deo volente—we may soon witness the shoots of the promised springtime that, so far, has failed to appear.


[Beyond Vatican II: The Church at a New Crossroads, by Fr. Claude Barthe (Fort Collins, CO: Roman Catholic Books) 159 pp., $19.95]