After the Council of Trent was convened in the sixteenth century to address the issues raised by the Protestant Reformation, the Church continued to meet the challenges brought up both from within the Church and from the outside world over the proceeding centuries. Magisterial documents such as the Syllabus of Errors of Pope Pius IX, the establishment of Catholic social teaching by Pope Leo XIII, the documents of the First Vatican Council, and the declarations against both Communism and Fascism by Pope Pius XII during WWII and its aftermath answered the problems of their times with authority and clarity. In the same vein, the widespread social and political changes occurring in the early 1960s which heralded the beginnings of a cultural revolution were recognized by the Magisterium of the Church. Like their predecessors, the pope and bishops sought to answer these challenges preemptively, to give Catholics and non-Catholics alike the spiritual foundations necessary to remain faithful to Christ in the midst of fundamental changes to the traditions and worldview of society. To accomplish this, Pope St. John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council, an enormous undertaking comprising over twenty-five hundred bishops, priests, theologians and others over a span of four years, from 1962-1965, that would be finished by the succeeding pope, St. Paul VI. The interpretation and implementation of the documents produced by the Council have taken many forms and extremes, often with little knowledge of the Council documents themselves, in the decades since the Council concluded. To properly understand the Second Vatican Council, the motivations which inspired its convention and the effects that resulted from its application, both positive and negative, must be carefully examined.
Two predominant forces were at work in causing the Council to be called: the pre-conciliar conditions of the Church including multiple strains of theological interpretation, and the issues which arose in the wake of the Second World War and were only just coming to fruition in the early 1960s prior to the cultural revolution of the late 60s and 70s. The first cause involved the converging of Catholic schools of thought which had been in conflict for some time, specifically between the “modernists” whose primary goal was to address and if possible integrate the prevalent ideas of modern society with Catholic doctrine, and the “neo-Scholastics” who held to the traditional Thomistic system advocated by the Church since the Middle Ages and had been explicitly encouraged by papal encyclicals and the First Vatican Council during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
While the modernists wished to openly consider the ideas popular in their time, such as secularism, Protestantism, relativism, and the propositions of modern science, and to adjust Catholic doctrine to accommodate anything in them which could be deemed fitting, as well as a “return” to the use of Scripture and the early Church Fathers as the highest standards, the neo-Scholastics held that the Magisterial doctrine founded on Thomism gave it a central status as a kind of hermeneutical standard in Catholic teaching and that the tradition of the Church, particularly in biblical interpretation and liturgical practice, should be firmly maintained. Violation of these traditions, they believed, would indicate to the Faithful a breach in the integrity of Catholic doctrine by denying that which the Church had officially approved and practiced for centuries. As Réginald Marie Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., explained in a 1946 article,
How then can the reader evade the conclusion, namely that, since it is no longer current, the theology of St. Thomas is a false theology? ... Further, how can 'an unchanging truth' maintain itself if the two notions united by the verb to be, are essentially variable or changeable?
The Council Fathers hoped to address the concerns of both strains of thought and to reconcile them while remaining faithful to Catholic Tradition.
Secondly, the Council Fathers hoped to answer some of the growing issues in society at large. Many of these issues had already been addressed by Church teaching since the days of the early Church, such as the immorality of abortion and fornication, and at the beginning of the Council these were not as generally approved in society, but others, including contraception and divorce, had only become acceptable in general society after the Second World War, and so required a fresh explanation and doctrinal statement to address them. The Sexual Revolution of the late 1960s and 70s, as well as the growth of socialism in Western nations and the concerns of environmentalism, overpopulation and the conditions of a just war, were only hinted at when the Council began, yet the foresight of the Fathers recognized these issues and sought to answer them as well.
The conclusion of the Council, which had been one of the largest in history, included almost a total consensus on all of the documents composed, and was the first Council in history to be recorded and reported on in great detail by the popular media. The aftermath of the Council and its application by the Church has been met with varied reactions, often to opposite extremes. As Pope Benedict XVI explained, “No one can deny that in vast areas of the Church the implementation of the Council has been somewhat difficult.” The effects of the Council can be categorized according to two distinct ways of interpreting the Council including, on the one hand, “an interpretation that I would call a ‘hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture’… On the other, there is the ‘hermeneutic of reform,’ of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given us.”
The first of these categories, the “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture”, essentially “asserts that the texts of the Council as such do not yet express the true spirit of the Council.” The proponents of this school believe that the Council clung to many ideas and practices which are now obsolete and must be discarded for the full innovation of the Council to be realized. This ideology can be seen as the continuation of the pure modernist school of thought which the Council hoped to answer. As Pope Benedict says, however, this hermeneutic “risks ending in a split between the pre-conciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church.” It can be said that the denial of Church dogma by many post-conciliar Catholic theologians and laypeople alike may be attributed to this erroneous hermeneutic which, despite having been condemned repeatedly by the Magisterium since the Council, lingers to this day, as evidenced by the ideas of many modern Catholic scholars, politicians and others which verge on heresy.
Similarly, the rise of so-called “traditionalist” Catholicism can be seen as a reaction against this movement; while Traditionalism has led to a growth in the study of Thomistic and other pre-conciliar Catholic writings and practices, most notably the Tridentine or Latin Mass, it has also spawned a sect in the Church which denies the validity of the Second Vatican Council, the popes during and subsequent to the Council and even the saints canonized by those popes. This extreme traditionalism, like the modernism against which it is a reaction, has also been condemned by the Magisterium of the Church, while its positive elements have been endorsed by popes, as in the encouragement of Thomism by Pope St. John Paul II in his encyclical Fides et ratio, and of the “Extraordinary Form” or Latin Mass by Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical Summorum pontificum.
The other category, one less endorsed by the popular media or recognized by the extreme reactions to the Council mentioned in the preceding paragraph, is what Pope Benedict calls “the hermeneutic of reform.” This interpretation of the Council, as expressed by Pope St. John XXIII, is a combination of the desire “to transmit the doctrine, pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion” with the Church’s mission “to dedicate ourselves with an earnest will and without fear to that work which our era demands of us.” Remaining faithful to Catholic doctrine and tradition while working to faithfully apply the teachings of the Council to the issues and needs of the contemporary age, incorporating what is valid in them while rejecting what is erroneous, is, according to this hermeneutic, the true purpose of the Council. It can be said that this way of understanding the Council has guided the documents of the Magisterium and the activity of the popes since the Council and has inspired many new avenues of scholarship and relation with the modern world, evidenced by the proliferation of evangelical activity in Africa and Asia, with the “New Evangelization” heralded by John Paul II, in the boom of Catholic biblical studies by scholars such as Drs. Brant Pitre and Scott Hahn, and the amending of ecumenical bonds with many separated Christian groups, most clearly seen in the Anglican Ordinariate and the lifting of the almost millennium-long mutual excommunication of the Great Schism by Pope St. Paul VI and the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I in 1964.
It has also been said by many scholars since the time of the Council that a distinction needs to be made between the actual doctrinal texts of the Council, which as magisterial documents of an ecumenical council cannot be denied and simply represent what St. John Henry Newman described as 'doctrinal development', retaining continuity with fundamental dogma while also addressing the questions of the time; and the "pastoral strategy" employed by the Church during and after the Council. This pastoral strategy can be summarized as: to make the world like the Church, we must make the Church like the world. Following this strategy, not only were contemporary issues answered, but it was felt that, for the Church to be open to new converts from the modern world, it must become like the modern world, removing or "deemphasizing" those practices which might pose an obstacle to conversion. One clear example of this strategy can be seen in the new liturgical rite of St. Pope Paul VI, called the Novus Ordo or Ordinary Form, which, alongside the blatant and subtle abuses that have remained commonplace in its practice since its implementation in the years following the Council (often contrary to its own rubrics and the liturgical principles of Vatican II), also reflects the belief that those things which might offend Protestants must be "deemphasized", i.e. abandoned, in order to make the Church more "welcoming" for them.
In the end, it must be admitted that not only is this strategy incorrect, since the truth of Catholic doctrine and the history of the Church with its attendant traditions, devotions and philosophies cannot be denied and to do so leaves Catholic evangelization impoverished and incapable of truly fulfilling the desires of those to whom it is addressed, as can be seen in the virtual absence of evangelization of Muslims in modern times by the Church, but it has also been an abject failure since the time of the Council. Despite the growth inspired by the principles of the Council itself, the orthodoxy, culture and relevance of the Church in society, particularly in the historic Western nations of Christendom, have disintegrated and, with the help of multiple scandals, have left the Church either irrelevant to modern society or as an object of ridicule and scorn. Not only is the Church in modern times attacked from outside, but it is also rotting from within as heresies, abuses, liturgical irregularities and an overarching desire to 'fit in' with the outside world are allowed to run rampant by a hierarchy that seems either unable or unwilling to correct it, often discouraging the faithful to the point of despair and abandonment of the Church established by Christ as the fullness of truth and the means of salvation on Earth.
The Second Vatican Council, like many Church councils before it, was convened with the sole purpose of addressing the issues of the time, those raised by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Like its predecessors, the Council was a long and arduous process and led to a great deal of misunderstanding and misappropriation by both Catholics and non-Catholics in its aftermath. As with many other instances of challenging and delicately balanced dispensing of wisdom by the Church across the ages, extremism followed in the Council’s wake, whether its ideas were seen as too traditional or too innovative for the interpreter’s preferences. However, if the Council and its documents are understood properly according to the hermeneutic advocated by the Council Fathers and by the Magisterium since its conclusion, and if its pastoral strategy can be modified or outright abandoned in favor of one which recognizes the necessity of tradition for evangelization, its teachings can be applied to great benefit for the Church and the world; these benefits can already be seen today and will continue to grow as the seed is cultivated by those who remain faithful to the Gospel of Christ and the mission to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19 RSVCE) for which he charged all those who believe in him.
 Réginald Marie Garrigou-Lagrange, “Where Is The New Theology Leading Us?”, Catholic Family News Report 309 (1998), 1.  Pope Benedict XVI, Address of Pope Benedict XVI to the Roman Curia (22 December 2005).  Benedict XVI, Address of Pope Benedict XVI to the Roman Curia.  Benedict XVI, Address of Pope Benedict XVI to the Roman Curia  Benedict XVI, Address of Pope Benedict XVI to the Roman Curia  Benedict XVI, Address of Pope Benedict XVI to the Roman Curia.  Matt Fradd and Ralph Martin, “A Church in Crisis w/ Ralph Martin,” at YouTube, www.youtube.com. Fradd and Martin, “A Church in Crisis.”
Kaleb Hammond is a Catholic convert from the mountains of north Georgia. An aspiring writer of both fiction and nonfiction, he is currently pursuing a Bachelor's degree in English and Theology from Holy Apostles College & Seminary. If you would like to see more of his work, consider visiting and subscribing to his blog Catholic Meditations, at https://catholic-ruminations-alcuin18.blogspot.com/ .