A Blast from the Past: When Affirmation of Vatican II Was a Given

Every so often, one sees an old photo or reads an old news clip and is struck by just how different life was back then, more than one had realized.

I recently had such a moment when Pray Tell  colleague Rita Ferrone sent me this quotation from the 1985 extraordinary Synod of Bishops in Rome:

Unanimously we celebrate the Second Vatican Council as a grace of God and a gift of the Holy Spirit from which many spiritual fruits in the universal churches, in the particular church and also in all people of our day have gone forth. Unanimously and with joy we also verify the Second Vatican Council as a legitimate and solid expression and interpretation of the deposit of faith, as it is contained in scripture and in the lived tradition of the Church. We are determined to proceed further in the way which the Council has indicated to us. There is full consensus among us on the further necessity of promoting an understanding and an application of the Council – both as to its letter and as to its spirit.

I had almost forgotten: there was a time when acceptance of the ecumenical council was a no-brainer for Catholics. Affirmation of Vatican II was unanimous for these bishops, and this both in letter and in spirit.

There was a time, not so very long ago, when there was no internet. There was a time when Catholic social media were not full of anguished wrangling about whether to reject all of Vatican II, or most of it, or only some of it. There was a time when the Roman rite had one form of the liturgy – the one issuing from Vatican II – and it was clear to everyone that the Catholic Church’s agenda was learning ever more how to celebrate that form of the liturgy well.

To be sure, there was a pre-Vatican II liturgy, and small groups were permitted to celebrate it as a concession, but it was obvious to most people that Vatican II had decreed that the old liturgy be replaced with a reformed one. The question on everyone’s mind was not how two liturgical forms, one approved by the most recent ecumenical council and the other not, could mutally influence each other. The question, rather, was how to implement the Council, and how to understand why the Council decreed the transition from one thing to another.

There was a time when the entire final report of a synod of bishops would be reprinted in … wait for it …  the New York Times!

There was a time, before Summorum Pontificum, when a Pope could write the following. This is Paul VI, responding to Jean Guitton’s query as to why he wouldn’t concede the 1962 to breakaway Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and his followers:

“Never. This Mass … becomes the symbol of the condemnation of the council. I will not accept, under any circumstances, the condemnation of the council through a symbol. Should this exception to the liturgy of Vatican II have its way, the entire council would be shaken. And, as a consequence, the apostolic authority of the council would be shaken.”

Oh how far we’ve come!

I suppose most of the Catholic people in the pews (yea, pandemic, but you know what I mean) are blessedly oblivious to the liturgical conversations on Catholic social media. But many of the most committed clergy and lay people are very much affected by all that.

Tensions and divisions are a reality of our time, but they are not inevitable. In her journey through time, the church rides many waves of history and sails through many controversies and difficulties. We’ll navigate the present difficulties too, with the Lord’s assistance.





  1. “Unanimously and with joy” — with joy! — This affirmation of the Council situates the whole work, and softens the critiques that the rest of the report later has to offer. I was not familiar with this quote, but I remember this time well. It was a healthier time.

    1. A major decision of the 1985 Extraordinary Synod was the launching of The Catechism of the Catholic Church, a decision which was seen by some as unhealthy Roman centralization.

    2. A major decision of the 1985 Extraordinary Synod was the launching of The Catechism of the Catholic Church which some saw as Roman centralization while its proponents saw it as needed to counter the confusion caused by those who appealed to “the spirit of the Council.'”

  2. This reminds me that I was ordained shortly after the Council. There was an excitement in the air those days that later generations could not experience. We were immersed in the spirit of “aggiornamento,” and could actually feel the fresh air entering, as the windows of the Church were thrown open, as good Pope John described it. Those were heady days. That’s why I think so many of those who speak of the “spirit of the Council” today have a less plenteous understanding of that term than those of us who were there at time – less experience of the fresh air. Heck, when the Council was convoked, my own Archbishop was just three years old.

  3. And please also do not miss the final 1985 Synod statement – “There is full consensus among us on the further necessity of promoting an understanding and an application of the Council – both as to its letter and as to its spirit.” Addresses the tired contrary memes and debates around those who condemn the term *spirit* when looking at VII and subsequent change.

  4. Is there anyplace in the historic heartlands of Catholicism where the Church is stronger today than before Vatican II? A single diocese even?

    If there isn’t, it really shouldn’t be a surprise that questions about the Council are being raised.

    1. Since elements in the Curia were trying to sabotage the Council’s vision and its reforms by 1985, it is not surprising that the fresh air turned stale. And not simply in liturgical matters. Contrast the bishops’ pastorals from the 70’s and80’s with “Faithful Citizenship.”

      1. Not a single diocese better now than before the Council in Italy. Or France. Or Spain. Or Portugal. Or Austria. Or Belgium. Or Ireland. Countries that, between them, Catholicized the planet and that now can’t even Catholicize themselves.

        Those who argue for an uncritical embrace of Vatican II are going to have to do better than “it would be worse without the Council.”

    2. Hi Tom,
      Logical fallacy alert. It’s called “post hoc ergo propter hoc.” Because something happened after the Council does not mean it happened because of the Council. As I look back over the events that have diminished the numbers in church institutions in America, most are about sex. Humanae vitae distanced a whole generation. This was not the fruit of Vatican II. Priestly celibacy was not the fruit of Vatican II either, yet many men left the priesthood because of celibacy. Look at the number of married deacons. There are plenty of men who want to serve the church, they just don’t want to be celibate anymore. Another example: The sex abuse crisis. This was not the fruit of Vatican II at all, but it has been the cause of bleeding of institutions and diminished trust in the hierarchy. The role of women: many have left the church or don’t pursue involvement because they believe the church treats women as second class citizens. Nothing to do with Vatican II, it’s about sexism. The younger generation now spurns the Church as anti-gay. Again, not about Vatican II.

      1. Tom,

        Rita is correct in naming your false logic. There are massive declines in organized religion around the globe going back 50 or 100 years or more. All the institutional declines since 1965 could well have happened to the same extent without Vatican II. Note the declines in institutions strength of Eastern Orthodoxy in the west during this time period – and they didn’t have a Vatican II.

        I know it *feels* like there is a causal connection. But don’t trust that emotional feeling, for it does not constitute a data-driven, factual analysis.


      2. I am not saying that Vatican II is solely responsible for the collapse of Catholic religious observance since it occurred. It may or may not bear some responsibility.

        I am saying that Vatican II completely failed in its goal of Catholicizing the modern world. It is time to face up to that fact, not to deny it, obfuscate it, or minimize it. And certainly time saying, as many here do, that Catholics who question Humanae Vitae are right to do so, but Catholics who question the application of Vatican II’s liturgical decrees are anathema.

      3. Was the goal of Vatican II really “catholicizing the entire world”?

        Not only have you given us an example of logical fallacy, but you haven’t grasped a major essence of the Council. It had no liturgical “decrees” as such, but a constitution. That document was intended to be a blueprint for reform, not a cookbook.

        Sociologists studied Catholics in the 70s. Lay people remained active in part because of liturgical reform. HV accelerated an evacuation that had its seeds in 19th century Europe. The Church had little to say about the excesses of the endless wars and colonialism, continuing to align far too often with the rich and powerful. Church identification was already falling after WWII in Europe. The US was spared the immediate impact, but another post-conciliar miss bears fruit. What do you suppose that one would be?

  5. In 1985, I would guess that most participants of the synod had strong memories of the council, and not a few had participated. Do any participants still live today besides Ratzinger?

    And yet, it was just three years after this that the apostolic letter Ecclesia Dei was published. Something was percolating somewhere.

    As one who was born in the early 1960s, I don’t remember the Council event, but my formative experience of the church was that of a church in transition, a church adjusting to changes (only some of which were directly attributable to the Council). My parents, my Catholic school teachers and priests all had been formed prior to the Council, had been taught to reverence many things which the Council reformed. We children were quite aware that the adults around us were struggling to assimilate the changes which were washing over them. I don’t remember any adults speaking out against the reforms – loyalty to Holy Mother Church was too well-drilled into them – but it was not a time of serenity. The loyalty remained, but some of the corporate confidence was cracking during this time. I hope it is not disloyalty on my part to note what I observed: that the Council’s aftermath placed burdens on the adults around me. Perhaps the church always had done so, one way or another.

    Ah well. By 1985 I was out of college, already was charging ahead (in the most modest way possible) with evangelizing liturgical music that was being composed pursuant to the liturgical reforms. Not all was conflict in the church. Some of us were working to continue to unfold the Council’s vision, even when we weren’t particularly aware that that’s what we were doing.

  6. Yep, *catholicizing the world* gives away Tom’s criteria for judging. Actually, key documents of VII pointed Catholicism away from this type of goal – in fact, we again forget that VII was called primarily to address the most glaring issue/hypocrisy – the divisions between Christianity and then, by extension, the divisions caused by religious denominations. So, Dignitatis Humanae: Declaration on Religious Freedom; Unitatis Redintegratio, Decree On Ecumenism, Nostra Aetate, Declaration On the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. Keep the history in focus – the European Church was already being impacted (using Tom’s criteria) by the time of VII; agree that w/o VII, the global impact in the First World would have happened sooner. Agree with Rita’s significant impacts – would add others e.g. clericalism.

  7. As a lay person with little knowledge of events, it seems that I could say the move to reform the reform has caused confusion within the church. If one wants to look simply at cause and effect, one could say the emptying of the pews is related to the measures undertaken by the Vatican and the hierarchy.
    Of course, the reason why only 25% of baptized Catholic millennials go to church is not just because the church has moved more traditional during their time of formation. It is obvious that a whole hose of issues are present: the way the church treats LGBT, second class status of women, its emphasis on sex, at the same time allowing clergy sex abuse to run rampant, to name but a few. I have sons and nieces and nephews all baptized Catholic, that have been married in the past fifteen years, and of those only one niece was married in a Catholic Church, and that was ten years ago.

  8. The above quotation from St. Paul VI is misleading. Papa Montini was referring to the way that Archbishop Lefebvre wanted to use the pre-vatican ii liturgy and not to any inherent contradiction between the pre and post vatican ii liturgies. In fact, Paul VI stated this concerning the reformed liturgy on November 26 1969: “if we look at the matter properly, we shall see that the fundamental outline of the Mass is still the traditional one, not only theologically but also spiritually.”

  9. I dunno, that 1980s statement seems to me more like a facade in a Potemkin Village rather than a real indication that there was more unity in the Church. If anything, it highlights just how much of a forgone conclusion the present divisions were even back then.

  10. View from the Pew
    Regarding: List of dioceses that are failing, or shrinking, and otherwise not thriving; at least by measurable standards of: number of women and men consecrated in marriage, number of men or women consecrated in orders, societies, and congregations, number of baptisms, amount of Sunday collections, amount of property accrued, number of institutions – school, hospitals, orphanages “owned by the local bishop”, number of men ordained to an order, and so forth …
    – While those dioceses point to needed change on many levels, they are not alone in the church. They are connected and uplifted by those dioceses throughout the world that are thriving, even in their poverty. Their existence validates Vatican II.

  11. Looking back to an earlier Synod of Bishops, that of 1967, which was given a demonstration of the new order of Mass. Complete with the demonstration that the reform made a sung Mass (essentially a sung dialogue Mass) the norm.
    Cardinal Heenan, Abp of Westminster, commented, in the synod,
    “At home it is not only women and children but also fathers of families and young men who come regularly to Mass. If we were to offer them the kind of ceremony we saw yesterday … we would soon be left with a congregation of mostly women and children. Our people love the Mass, but it is a Low Mass without psalm singing and other musical embellishments to which they are chiefly attached”
    At least in Britain it seems Heenan’s forecast proved correct. Heenan’s knowledge of psychology was sufficient to allow him (30 years earlier) to masquerade as a psychologist. But of course with all the other things going on at the time, in the church and in society, we cannot easily see which factors were dominant. Personally I prefer the opportunity to sing as a member of the congregation, my ideal is very much in line with GIRM.

    1. I should have mentioned that hymn singing at Mass was unknown (I think banned) in Westminster. I never heard any music, either sung or played, at a Missa Lecta. There were of course parishes where a Missa Cantata had to suffice on a Sunday as they had insufficient clerics for Solemn Mass. Our school Mass was the abbey’s conventual mass, and a missa cantata.

      1. That must have been peculiar to Westminster. I have vivid memories in the next-door Southwark diocese of school Masses before the changes which were dialogue with all the boys rattling off the responses, facing the people and with English hymns.

  12. The Synod Document noted that in regards to Vatican II, there should not be any opposition between the Spirit and Text.

    I am a skeptic of any talk of the spirit of the council that is not constantly referring back to the totality of the actual texts. It reminds me about an article in the Washington Examiner where David Bentley Hart was being briefly interviewed about how the ‘Impossible Burger’ related to Orthodox fasting requirements.

    Here is the relevant quote:

    David Bentley Hart, an Orthodox theologian and translator of the New Testament, offered a slightly different opinion on abstinence. Hart told the Washington Examiner that, broadly speaking, the decision whether to eat the Impossible Burger should be determined “as conscience dictates.” But, Hart said, in this case, it is probably safer to follow the “letter of the law rather than its spirit.”

    “Anyone can do just about anything and say that there was no violation of the ‘spirit’ of the law,” he said. “But, if one hews rigorously to the letter only, one can wander only so far and make only so many compromises with one’s conscience.”


    The quote “anyone can do just about anything and say that there was no violation of the ‘spirit’ of the law” probably sums up conservative fears about the “Spirit of Vatican II” talk.

    1. Another observation on spirit and letter and council. Vatican II wasn’t designed to be a kind of cyst in religious history, self-contained to the years 1962-65. There was a spirit in the sense of a feeling that many things were possible, an optimism. When I came to the Church in 1969-70, I felt that positivity in my school as a 6th grader and it was part of what led me to becoming a Catholic at that time.

      Some years ago, when I reviewed the post-conciliar liturgy documents of 1964-70, I saw the optimism tempered with Liturgicae instaurationes. I was aware of the increasing frustration of no-new-Sacramentary through the 80s and into the 90s, something that many of us were happily anticipating as we didn’t think much of the MR1. And then we had our own hopes hijacked by reform2.

      What I miss is a sense of optimism about what the Church might and can do. I suspect many traditional-leaning Catholics feel the same way. So we have come to an era of deep disenchantment. The Council and its heady days fade from living memory, and the infighting is above ground and vicious. And people wonder about nones. It’s probably an act of God there aren’t more of them.

  13. I suppose it’s possible to act in bad faith in terms of following the spirit OR the letter of the law. In other words, sticking to the letter can also lead one astray. It comes down to motives, perhaps.

  14. If we’re talking about disrespect of Vatican II in the age of “Summorum Pontificum,” we shouldn’t overlook the many instances in that document, and in its accompanying letter, of staunch lip service Pope Benedict paid to the council. “Many people who clearly accepted the binding character of the Second Vatican Council, and were faithful to the pope and the bishops, nonetheless also desired to recover the form of the sacred liturgy that was dear to them,” he wrote.
    Apparently, Benedict wanted his concessions to the traditionalists to be consistent with the council’s intentions. Is it his fault that that’s impossible?

  15. Pope Benedict also issued Anglicanorum coetibus which has led to a third authorised form of Mass. This further demonstrates his view that flexibility and accommodation are possible. There are now parishes, such as Warwick Street in London, which celebrate Mass in all three forms. This would not be conceivable without acceptance of the ecumenical openness of Vatican II.

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