Who began the undoing of Vatican II? Was it already Pope Paul VI??

Abbot Giovanni Franzoni, OSB, former abbot at St. Paul’s Outside the Walls in Rome, was a participant in the Second Vatican Council. He recently spoke at a theology conference of his experience as a council father. He stated,

Today, in many places, even in our environment, it is said that John Paul II and then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – as of 2005, Benedict XVI – were the ones who put a stop to the post-conciliar ferment, imposing a restrictive, minimalist interpretation of Vatican II. However, in my opinion, it was Paul VI himself who set the premises so that the Council could be, at least in part, “tamed” and the post-conciliar period “cooled down.”

See the full text of his talk at the website of the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland.


  1. Interesting perspective – reminds me of some NT scripture scholarship I’ve read that posits the later books of the Christian canon are already “taming” or “cooling down” the essence of the Christ event.

  2. As driven home even further in Rita’s “praise of rupture”, the above comment illustrates well the problem that so many of us have with attitudes towards the Council. The Council was not an “event”, certainly not in such a way as to be analogous to the “Christ event”. It was not a “birth”. The Church is not “born again”, there is no “second Pentecost” or an especially potent measure of “spirit” poured out in comparison to others. The implication that the Council is an echo of the “Christ event” or the “rupture of the Church’s newer birth” is, I think, seriously misguided.

    1. I would add a counter-caution: it was definitely experienced subjectively in an analogous manner by many participants and implementers. The texts themselves are not complete; the context is just as important (as any good historian knows). The context here was that so many bishops and theologians had operated under an atmosphere of fear for so long (Benedict XV ameliorated this somewhat) that, when the climate of fear was lifted, it was experienced (as sudden lifting of fear often is experienced in many other contexts) as a kind of new birth. For example, as we saw Peter Nixon allude to in his thesis posted on this site, going into the Council, many bishops were (it turns out) afraid of being too openly associated with championing the permission for the vernacular in the liturgy; when decisive interventions were made on its behalf, and it was made clear there was no longer anything to fear on the score, the shift from fear to enthusiasm was palpable, and reinforced by the alacrity with which many bishops implemented it.

      So, while there are worthy cautions about “rebirth” in ecclesiological doctrine, that’s not the only level of meaning here; it’s not even the only important level of meaning here. At other levels of meaning, it’s apt. Finger wagging against it is, therefore, not credible unless and until it takes the coexisting levels into account.

  3. I don’t think there has been one person, or one moment. In my own reading of the post-conciliar liturgy documents, there’s a certain enthusiasm with Inter Oecumenici through the 1960’s. 1970 gets a little darker, a lot more foot on the brake pedal with Liturgicae Instaurationes.

    I have no idea why. Jealousy. Caution. Alarm. Who knows?

    I suspect that world events and student unrest in 1968 contributed to a lot of it. It sure scared the %&#@ out of my mother, otherwise I might never have become Catholic.

    I’m just waiting for a pope, or even just a bishop or two, to adopt the motto, “Fear is useless. What is needed is trust.”

  4. there is no…especially potent measure of “spirit” poured out in comparison to others.

    Hmmm? Not sure this is the case. An ecumenical council is not simply a juridical act; it is an ecclesiological act, which is always essentially a pneumatological act. Councils are significant not because they are based upon the democratic mathematics of “majority,” but because the Spirit of Christ is acting precisely in a significant manner and uniquely manifesting itself – a manifestation different to and not usual to the ordinary course of ecclesial life. Thus it seems in fact there are more qualitatively “spirited” events in the life of our church – the ecumenical council being the most profound. Maybe reading Congar, de Lubac, et.al., or some Eastern fathers would help clarify this point for you.

    1. An “ecumenical council” is a pan-Roman synod, nothing more and nothing less. If the abbot is correct, it appears to have been Paul VI’s plaything to do with as he was moved to do. The schimera of collegiality was carefully maintained even if it was quietly becoming a discarded toy for John Paul II and for Benedict XVI. Lip service being paid while it is quietly and effectively gutted.

      No sense continuing to weep for its demise. We just have to move on and think about what lies ahead.

      1. “pan-Roman synod, nothing more and nothing less”? Really? Even ignoring the presence of Orthodox and Protestant observers, surely the active participation of non-Roman bishops of various rites of the Eastern Catholic Churches marks the breaking of the “Roman” monopoly. Further, the respect the Eastern Churches won (regained) at the Council continues as they “de-Romanize” their liturgies and laws. FAR more than a “pan-Roman synod.”
        As for what lies ahead, we dare to hope all will be saved.

  5. In 1996, over lunch with 100-year-old retired Bishop of Copenhagen, Theodor Suhr, OSB, who was appointed bishop by Pius XI in 1939, a member of the preparatory committee of the council, and present at the first two sessions, I asked him what he regretted most about the council. Without hesitation he said, “We didn’t go far enough. Paul VI got cold feet.”

  6. Great article! The undoing of Vatican II is not about doctrine, or policy but about the failure to implement a modern collegial social structure in the Church.

    By collegiality I mean what takes place in many organizations and businesses which is not democracy by any means. In the public mental health system it means that all the people who reported to me were such colleagues that they did most of my official job so that I could be such a colleague to my boss, the CEO, that I could help him or her run the organization. And my bosses were very comfortable being colleague to someone who had a lot of talents which they did not have.

    My sense is that the Vatican, the Popes and the Curia, except perhaps for John 23, never really have accepted the bishops as colleagues who might help them run the universal Church. And most bishops have never really accepted priests as colleagues who might help them run the diocese. And most pastors have never really accepted laity as colleagues who might help them run the parish.

    The past social structure of the church emphasized the bishops great autonomy within the guidelines set down by Rome, and the pastor’s great autonomy within guidelines set down by Rome and the local bishop. To suddenly have bishops being colleagues to Rome and helping Rome to run the Church, and priests being colleagues to bishops in helping them run dioceses, and laity being colleagues to pastors in helping them run parishes would be a huge change. It looks like democratic chaos even though that certainly does not happen in modern businesses and other organizations!!! No wonder people at all levels got cold feet about collegiality after Vatican II.

    The solution is a bottom up solution. Because far more pastors have allowed laity to be colleagues in helping them run the parish than bishops have allowed priests to be colleagues in running the diocese, or Rome has allowed bishops to be colleagues in running the universal Church.

  7. Yes, Vatican II was a great, many-dimensional historical event. The event filled the 1960s, but old, dead Roman ways came back into prominence in the 1970s; the defense of Humanae Vitae was a central element in that, and involved the reining in of bishops and the discouragement of theologians. Paul VI, for all his admirable and saintly qualities, ended up embodying a church of fear.

  8. A friend of mine always says that after a Church council there is a period of adjustment where the proverbial pendulum is still swinging. In some cases, this can last as long as a few generations.
    I think it’s clear that the pendulum is still swinging post Vatican II. Where it rests will probably be somewhere between the heady seventies and the ‘Summorum Pontificum’ moments.
    I think there is a degree to which the Church backpeddled after Vatican II. I guess it’s like the great idea that you have in a bar on a night out, which looks a little different when you get into the office the next morning.
    Shame really… we are called to be radical, and I really feel that Vatican II is bringing us back to the early Church period where we were really at our best as a movement.

    1. I really feel that Vatican II is bringing us back to the early Church period where we were really at our best as a movement.
      The raddy trads are encouraging B16 to do just about everything, but that. It isn’t the church of the catacombs and the domus ecclesiae they want to recall, but for the pope to embrace the one-size fits all heirloom liturgy of the 16th century and joyfully take us back to the happy days when bishops were real men, the Counter Reformation.

      1. Actually, I don’t think the 16th century is the benchmark. It’s the second half of the 19th century. Which is worse.

      2. Honestly, this is just nonsense. Just one example… we have some pretty good ideas about how they sang Gregorian chant in the 19th century. Do people sing it that way. No. They use the Solesmes books and increasingly the latest scholarship.

  9. I remember taking classes in Paris from Yves Congar op, and when he took up questions from the Council, he would get a twinkle in his eye and remark “these things are for our grandchildren!” Often in history it has taken about 100 years for the ideas of a Council to settle in for the ordinary workings of the Church. I suspect we are in for several more ‘swings of the pendulum’. There is hope!

  10. Despite his faults, Paul Vi is one of my heroes of twentieth century Catholicism. He did many things right, from my perspective, in implementing conciliar decisions and in appointing the people who oversaw that implementation, especially in liturgy. His experience with Pius XII, in Milan, and John XXIII opened for him a world that he had hardly imagined and gave him access to a Catholicism that was unfamiliar to him before that. I have in my office three photos of my conciliar and postconciliar heroes: John XXIII, Paul Vi, and Annibale Bugnini. Fittingly, given the times, the Bugnini photo is actually of his burial crypt.

  11. I lived on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota for 7 years. One thing I became aware of while I was there was the legacy of the treaties between the US government and the different tribes. The way many of these treaties were and are implemented was and is completely opposite of the way they were written and interpetted to the people who signed them. Are the documents of the 2nd Vatican Council just a religious version of an American Indian treaty? Great reading, full of possibilities, and worthless because neither the Great White Father in Washington or Rome ever had any intention of abiding by them?

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