Sunday, October 12, 2008

John Lamont on what was wrong with Vatican II

Part I. Why the Second Vatican Council Was a Good Thing & Is More Important Than Ever

Longtime readers will remember the article by John Lamont published in New Oxford Review, which we reproduced online by permission of the editor: "Why the Second Vatican Council Was a Good Thing & Is More Important Than Ever" (Musings, August 31, 2005). That article was prompted by a question raised by NOR in response to a Crisis magazine article by George Sim Johnston, whose article was subtitled: "Why Vatican II Was Necessary." Dale Vree, the Editor of NOR, had written: "We'd dearly like to know why it was. We can think of a few things that Vatican II did that were good and necessary -- but only a few -- and we doubt if an ecumenical council was necessary to accomplish them." Lamont said that this was an excellent question that needs an answer, and his article was written to take up the challenge posed by it.

Lamont's article is one of the best I've seen and too long to be summarized here; but after making the case that the disasters that followed the Council were not caused by its documents, he gets down to the business of laying out why the Council was a good thing. Briefly, he argues that there were two kinds of problems the Council was required to address -- external and internal problems. External problems involved such things as Church-state relations, which required the sort of natural law argument for religious liberty made by Dignitatis Humanae; the evolving relations with Protestants and other non-Catholic Christians, which elicited the kind of ecclesiological statements one finds in Unitatis Redintegrato; and relations with the Jews, which demanded the Church's forthright rejection of antisemitism found in Nostra Aetate.

The internal problems addressed by the Council are far subtler, deeper, and more difficult to discern. It is here, however, that Lamont is particularly illuminating. Following Louis Bouyer, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Servais Pinckaers, he sees these problems as ultimately stemming from the influence of nominalism on Catholic thought in the late Middle Ages, "an influence that gave rise to Protestantism, and that in the emergency of contriving a Catholic response to Protestantism was not properly eradicated." What sorts of problems does Lamont identify?

Among other things, there was a tendency to identify religion with obedience to orders and commandments, and to separate it from happiness and truth. One manifestation of this tendency was was anti-intellectualism and hostility towards reason: "If faith is a matter of obeying orders, then asking questions about Catholic belief is insubordinate." Another was the spiritual weakness stemming from a morality of obligation that regarded the development of a life of prayer, virtue, and pursuit of holiness as the province of the religious, rather than the laity. Yet another was a defective attitude toward the world resulting from this weakness: if religion is seen as a matter of obeying orders and the secular world is largely ignoring the orders, the orders themselves are seen as flawed, in need of being changed, or at least rephrased, to make them acceptable.

The Council addressed this weakness in four ways: it (1) presented Christ as the ultimate fulfillment of human nature, along Thomist lines, with the Church offering the means needed to attain this fulfillment; (2) asserted that everyone, not just religious, is called by God to be perfect; (3) insisted on the necessity of Catholics being familiar with the Scriptures; and (4) promoted, in Sancrosanctum Concilium, the revival of the liturgy that had been developing since the 19th century, and had been endorsed by Pius XII's encyclical Mediator Dei.

Yet, as Lamont states, "These attempts to address this fundamental weakness, however, were received by a Church that was still enthralled by them," which is what explains the disasters that followed the Council and the triumph of the very weaknesses the Council tried to remedy. "Its attempts at overcoming the nominalist mindset were interpreted as rejecting the previous requirement of obedience," freeing "all the bitterness and resentment that had been produced by such obedience ... untrammeled by any intellectual discipline or loyalty to truth. The idea of coming to terms with the world, which was given support by some utterances of John XXIII and Paul VI, was embraced as the main theme of the Council, despite the lack of any basis for it in the conciliar documents." The triumph of this weakness, according to Lamont, "means that the Council's teaching is even more important now than at the time it was convoked," an importance compounded by the fact that the basic Church teaching it sets forth, largely taken for granted at the time, is now widely rejected. "There does not seem to be a better way of promoting these teachings than by getting the clergy and laity to realize that they are taught by the Council that progressives claim as their own," concludes Lamont.

Part II. What was Wrong with Vatican II

Last year, John Lamont published another article, this time entitled "What was Wrong with Vatican II" (New Blackfriars, Vol. 88, 2007) [fee levied for online access]. He begins by rehearsing the broad outlines of the turmoil and catastrophe that followed the Council, admitted by no less an authority than Pope Paul VI in an often-quoted sermon on June 29, 1972, in which he remarked that "from some crack the smoke of Satan had entered the temple of God."1 He notes that Pope Benedict XVI, in his address to the Roman Curia on December 22, 2005, distinguished two different ways of interpreting the Council -- a "hermeneutics of discontinuity and rupture," and a "hermeneutics of reform." While applauding this analysis as quite correct, Lamont observes that it leaves certain questions unanswered. "The bishops at the Council were the same people who presided over the mess that followed," he writes. "For the most part, they either wholeheartedly accepted the "hermeneutics of discontinuity and rupture," or else went along with measures that followed from it." While they may have done so for the most part in the sincere belief that they were implementing the Council, says Lamont, this raises a pressing question: "what was it about the Council that could have promoted its disastrous misinterpretation, and the calamities that resulted from it?"

While ecumenical councils cannot go wrong through teaching anything false, says Lamont, this does not mean that they cannot be "one-sided or ill-judged or even harmful in some respects"; and he gives as an example Canon 26 of the Third Lateran Council.2 Nevertheless, at pains to make clear that he does not think the Council was simply a disaster, Lamont reiterates the claim of his earlier article that the Council was on the whole a good thing and introduced a number of important and needed reforms (see above). But this only makes more urgent the task of sorting out the Council's flaws from its achievements:
This task is especially pressing, in my view, because traditionalists have not gone about it in the right way. I do not think that the Council can be held responsible for the liturgical abuses that followed it; in this I am supported by the view of Fr. Louis Bouyer, an important figure in the liturgical movement, who remarked of the post-conciliar liturgical changes that "perhaps in no other area is there a greater distance (and even formal opposition) between what the Council worked out and what we have."3 Nor do I think that the Council contradicted previous Church teachings on religious freedom, as the Lefebvrists maintain -- the declaration Dignitatis Humanae, on religious freedom, was the most debated and revised document of the entire Council, precisely in order to avoid such a contradiction.
Here is where Lamont approaches his thesis, first by the partial insight found in a common criticism of Gaudium et Spes:
A better criticism of the Council focuses on its constitution Gaudium et Spes, and accuses the document of an unrealistically optimistic view of modern culture. This is true as far as it goes, but it does not get to the heart of the problems with the Council. The circumstances; they go deeper. They are found in two areas; in the Council's teaching on mission, and in the view of the human condition that underlies its approach to mission. By mission I mean the task of converting unbelievers to Catholicism.
A. The Council's teaching on mission

Lamont continues:
The trouble with the Council's approach to mission is that although it stresses that Catholics must seek to convert unbelievers, it gives no adequate reason for doing this. It does give Christ's command to evangelize as a reason, but it gives no proper explanation of why that command is given, or of the good that the commandment is supposed to promote. This, of course, means that the command is unlikely to be followed; and it has in fact been largely disregarded since the Council.
This omission, as Lamont points out, represents a departure from Catholic tradition, which is replete with references to evangelization as an activity that should be undertaken in order to save the souls of unbelievers. Lamont offers ample historical documentation, which I will not detail here. He carefully analyzes the historical statements on invincible ignorance, noting the non sequitur of leaping from the claim that unbelief is not a sin when it is beyond the control of unbelievers to the conclusion that unbelievers will therefore necessarily be saved, despite lacking faith or baptism and still being subject to original sin. Earlier discussions of the subject articulated a more balanced position. Pius IX's statement in Quanto Conficiamur Moerore that unbelief need not be a sin and that unbelievers can be saved despite their unbelief, was never intended or taken as more than a modal statement, an hypothetical possibility; it makes no claim about what actually happens. All of the positions taken by the Church historically entail that, although it is possible that unbelievers can be saved, we should nevertheless endeavor to convert them in order to save their souls. Lamont comments:
However, the Council did not state this balanced position. It made no reference at all to unbelief rendering salvation doubtful. Instead, in its decree on missions, Ad Gentes, it offers the following rationale for missionary activity:
"Christ himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and baptism (cf. Mk. 16:16; Jn. 3:5), and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter as through a door. Hence those cannot be saved whom, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded by God as something necessary, still refuse to enter it, or remain in it (Lumen Gentium, 14)." So, although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel to that faith without which it is impossible to please him (Heb. 11:6), the Church, nevertheless, still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize."4
As a rationale for missionary activity this is absurd, since it does not give a reason for trying to convert unbelievers generally, but only a reason for trying to convert those (presumably rare) souls who are already convinced of the truth of the Catholic faith, but obstinately refuse to follow its command to join the Church. It is in fact a rationale for avoiding missionary activity, since if people are not made aware that God founded the Church as something necessary for salvation, they cannot be lost through refusing to be baptized.
This neglect to mention the traditional rationale for mission could not fail to be noted by Catholics, and it led to predictable consequences. One was to lull Catholics into assuming that unbelief was not a serious obstacle to salvation, which eroded their interest in mission and evangelization. "This loss of interest was noted," says Lamont, "by John Paul II in his encyclical Redemptoris Missio, although that encyclical failed to properly address its cause." Another consequence was to lead Catholics to assume that the distinctive tenets of Catholicism and of Christianity were optional picture preferences. For if people who do not accept the distinctive tenets of Catholicism and Christianity can reasonably hope to be saved, then these distinctive tenets may obviously be thought to be unnecessary and discarded at will. Yet a third consequence for those Catholics who still continued to take salvation and evangelization seriously was to leave them vulnerable to the attraction of religious groups like Pentecostalists and other Evangelical Protestant sects who overtly stress the importance of mission and concern for the salvation of human souls. From this, says Lamont, stems the numerous defections of Catholics to Pentecostalists and other Protestant groups.

Lamont's discussion is detailed, and he considers various possible objections and offers replies; but these elude the scope of the present discussion.

B. The Council's teaching on the human condition

The second problem, the one underlying the Council's unsatisfactory teaching on mission, centers precisely on the reason for evangelization. Lamont writes:
The reason we cannot be confident of the salvation of unbelievers is that they are human, and are born into slavery to evil, suffering from the cancer of original sin. Damnation is the default setting for humanity -- that is why Christ had to die to redeem us -- so we can have no reason for expecting anyone to be saved unless they have undergone a real conversion. (This applies to Christians as well as unbelievers -- a Christian whose life is not noticeably different from those of the unbelievers around him has no reason to expect salvation.) To deny this is to deny the doctrine of original sin, and to ignore the evidence of human evil that is recorded in all of history. The Council did not of course actually make this denial; but, by remaining silent about salvation as a motive for missionary activity, it gave the impression that original sin and the evil that results from it are not realities. This failure to adequately acknowledge the reality of evil is the second problem with the Council.
Although the chief expression of this deficit is in the Council's teaching on mission, says Lamont, it can be found also in other places. For example, in Lumen Gentium, one of the most authoritative documents of Vatican II, one finds an unfolding of the inner nature and universal mission of the Church. Yet it's description of the Fall, says Lamont, passes over that event in the phrase: "when they had fallen in Adam, [God] did not abandon them."5 Missing is any explanation of the Fall, its effects, why Christ's death was needed to save us from it, or how Christ's death achieves this, even though these doctrines are indispensable for understanding the nature and mission of the Church. The problem, says Lamont, "goes deeper than being unrealistically positive about modern society; it is being unrealistically positive about the human condition itself.

This overlooking of the reality of sin and evil, according to Lamont, was the feature of the Council most responsible for the way the "Church of Vatican II" was fashioned by the bishops and curial officials after the Council. Lamont offers several examples:

(1) One example of an official implementation of this approach cited by Lamont is "the bowdlerization of the Divine Office, the public prayer of the Church." The Office, he notes, "is centered around the psalms, as is traditional, but every passage from the psalms -- and a few whole psalms -- that condemns evildoers, and threatens their punishment, has been removed." He mentions as an example Psalm 62(63), one of the most frequently recited Psalms in the Breviary, which stops at the line "My soul clings to You; Your right hand upholds me." The ending of the Psalm, with its negative message of condemnation upon the evil, however, has been removed. "This really shocking and blasphemous censorship of the Scriptures," writes Lamont, "illustrates how the 'spirit of Vatican II,' of which the refusal to acknowledge evil was a central part, was preferred to God's revelation."

(2) Another official measure Lamont considers is the new code of canon law promulgated after the Council. He cites canonists R. Michael Dunnigan and Charles Wilson as pointing out the greatly reduced role of penal sanctions in the new code, with penalties for specific crimes being reduced from 101 in the old code to 35 in the new, as well as concerns raised by Bishop V. de Paolis, formerly professor of canon law at the Gregorian University and secretary of the Apostolic Signature (the supreme court of appeal in the Church) at the time of Lamont's article.

(3) A third example mentioned is the abolition of the post of the devil's advocate in canonization cases

(4) A fourth is the "grave inadequacy of the new rite of exorcism," a rite, Lamont points out, "that has been described by the chief exorcist of Rome, Fr. Gabriele Amorth, as a farce."6

(5) On the level of one language group, as opposed to the whole Church, he notes the problem of the standard English versions of the liturgy originally produced by ICEL (the International Commission on English Liturgy) in the 1970s, "versions which the new secretary of ICEL, Fr. Bruce Harbert, has described as tending towards the Pelagian heresy."7

(6) As an example of policies not officially promulgated but generally agreed upon, Lamont cites the observation by Dunnigan and Wilson that even the reduced penal sanctions of the new code "have been tacitly abandoned, and that penal sanctions are no longer applied." The most scandalous instance, of course, is the sexual abuse by priests. While canon law requires the punishment of this offense (see canon 1395, sec. 2 of the 1983 code), the canonical requirement was ignored by bishops who simply refused to apply it. "This refusal was a reflection of the post-conciliar practice of appointing 'pastoral' bishops," writes Lamont. "A 'pastoral' bishop was understood to be one who would not confront rejection of the Church's doctinal and moral teachings, but instead treat such rejection as an acceptable option for Catholics -- and would require everyone over whom he had power to do the same."

(7) Turning to trends and policies outside the hierarchy, Lamont finds ready examples of the refusal to acknowledge evil in the wide acceptance of proportionalism and fundamental option theories by moral theologians. While both of these positions have been condemned by Rome, each is designed to permit or excuse actions formally condemned as mortally sinful, if not to completely remove any actual possibility of mortal sin. Another example of the influence of this mitigation of evil among self-styled 'progressive' Catholics is the general enthusiasm for some form or other of mitigated universalism as set forth by Hans Urs von Balthasar, which claims that we can at least dare to hope that no human being is damned. Yet another example is found by Lamont, also linked to von Balthasar, in the popularity of the connection between theology and aesthetics, which tends to minimize if not altogether neglect the problem of sin. "God is beautiful, and sin is ugly," writes Lamont, "but there is more to its evil than ugliness; ugliness in itself is not sin. Ugliness is unpleasant, but it does not as such attract the wrath of God and bring damnation."

What explains this refusal to acknowledge evil on the part of the Council, according to Lamont, and the adoption of this deficiency as the main aspect of postconciliar changes? "It should be stated that the postconciliar embrace of this refusal [to acknowledge evil] was partly due to shortcomings the Council tried to remedy," writes Lamont. Ignorance of Scriptures was one such shortcoming, and understanding of morality in terms of obligation (as detailed in Lamont's earlier article) was another. Yet none of these sorts of explanations explain the refusal to acknowledge evil on the part of the Council itself. Papal leadership, which Lamont discusses briefly, does not sufficiently account for it either. Given the time frame of the Council -- less than twenty years after Europe had been convulsed by the most brutal war in human history and during a period when a third of the world was groaning under communist tyranny (which the Council refused to condemn) -- this refusal to acknowledge evil, says Lamont, was "grotesquely incongruous and bizarre." Yet Lamont wonders whether it wasn't precisely this situation that led to the problem. In other words, Lamont wonders whether it wasn't the fact that the bishops of Europe had seen Europeans go from unprecedented cultural pre-eminence to committing the worst crimes in human history, that led them to recoil from the condemnation of evil. This reaction would have been exacerbated, particularly, in instances where they had found themselves compromised by moral dilemmas in the face of Nazi or Fascist rule. Lamont even speculates that the roots of this failure may go back to the Counter-Reformation, given that the idea that we have to rely on God's righteousness rather than our own is something that sounds Protestant to Catholics, and was thus devalued in the Catholic Church.

Be that as it may, Lamont states that it was not the Council's failure to acknowledge evil that was the cause of the diasters that followed it -- with the exception of the collapse in mission and evangelization. Yet "it was an indispensable catalyst for these disasters," he says, and lent them most of their strength. "Refusal to admit the existence of evil is not just a negative step; it usually leads to actual involvement in it. This is what happened after the Council, as the sexual abuse scandals illustrate."

How can this problem be corrected? While it is inevitable, as in the case of the sex scandals, that evil cannot be ignored forever, this recognition itself is insufficient. "In order for such a correction ot have its best effects in the Church," says Lamont, "it will be necessary to admit the one-sidedness of the Second Vatican Council with respect to evil, and to remedy this one-sidedness through a better understanding of the teachings of Scripture and tradition on the power and gravity of evil in this world, and on the warfare that Christians have to carry out against it."


  1. Insegnamenti di Paolo VI, X: 1972 (Vatican City: Tipografia Poliglotta Vaticana, 1972), p. 707. [back]

  2. "... We declare that the evidence of Christians is to be accepted against Jews in every case, since Jews employ their own witnesses against Christians, and that those who prefer Jews to Christians in this matter are to lie under anathema, since Jews ought to be subject to Christians and to be supported by them on grounds of humanity alone" (Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, vol. 1: Nicaea I to Lateran V, ed. Norman P. Tanner S.J. [London: Sheed & Ward, 1990], p. 224). [back]

  3. Louis Bouyer, The Decomposition of Catholicism, tr. C.V. Quinn (London: Sands & Co., 1970), p. 99. [back]

  4. Vatican II, Decree Ad Gentes, para. 7, in Vatican Council II: The Counciliar and Post-Conciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery O.P., new ed. (New York: Costello, 1992), p. 821. [back]

  5. Vatican II, Dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium, para. 2, in Flannery (1992), p. 350. [back]

  6. In an interview in 30 Days, June 2001. [back]

  7. In an interview in the Catholic Herald, May 2002. [back]

[John Lamont is professor at Catholic University of Sydney, 99 Albert Road, Strathfield NSW2135 Australia. Hat tip to Prof. E.E.]