By the Time We Got to Woodstock
Vatican II and “the Spirit of Woodstock”

Christopher Ferrara

The Gospel calls you to rebuild the original unity of the human family...
Pope John Paul II on World Youth Day 2000

And we've got to get ourselves back to the garden.
Joni Mitchell on Woodstock 1969

INTRODUCTION — National Review Meets Woodstock

Thirty years ago today, August 15, 1969, the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady, some 500,000 young people made their way to Yasgur’s Farm in upstate New York to participate in “three days of peace, love and music.” The gathering was advertised as the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, although Yasgur’s Farm was actually located in the nearby hamlet of Bethel. Bethel means “house of God” in Hebrew, but those half-million souls were not seeking God’s house that late-summer weekend. This I know, for I was one of them. Yes, I confess it here and now: I went to Woodstock. Unlike so many of my contemporaries, however, I have no drug-laden past to unbosom. Even in the midst of my youthful wandering from the Church, I never ceased to view the drug culture with utter repugnance. There were no trips to the Aquarian pharmacopoeia for me. Not once. Not even close. Not even at Woodstock. No, my occasions of sin lay elsewhere back then, as they do now. Nor was I interested in any of the utopian nonsense surrounding the event. I was one of those who were “just there for the music,” as the hippie purists rather contemptuously described the children of the suburbs who had actually paid for their Woodstock tickets. And although I was a “serious musician” at the time, pursuing the foolish dream of becoming one of the world’s leading drummers, I had not entirely lost the capacity for right reason. How many avid readers of National Review were there among the 500,000 rock pilgrims at Bethel? I feel safe in saying that I was very probably the only one.

By the time we got to Woodstock the plans were in place for the destruction of the Roman Rite. Only three months after the festival of “peace, love and music” had ended in Bethel, Paul VI announced the decision that would bring peace, love and music to the Roman liturgy. Five years post-Woodstock I was out of the music business, God having patiently but firmly arranged things so that I would follow a different path. In 1974, my first year of law school, I became fast friends with a Jewish classmate who gave me Malcolm Muggeridge’s Jesus Rediscovered to read. This was the first step on my way back to the Faith—a journey God in His mercy allowed me to make without falling into hell. By 1974 the Age of Aquarius had thoroughly infected post-conciliar Catholicism. Pope Paul had taken to publicly wringing his hands over the rocking and rolling of the Church to a tune for which he himself had counted off the first measure: one, two, three, FOUR, the Latin Mass will be no more.

Vatican II: An Ecclesial Woodstock

We should have seen it all coming in the giddy, almost hippie-like locutions of Gaudium et spes. One can imagine Wavy Gravy (a kind of hippie bard who made public announcements from the Woodstock stage) reading various passages from Gaudium et spes, including: “Thus, the human race has passed from a rather static concept of reality to a more dynamic, evolutionary one.” Right on. Groovy. Of course, an evolutionary concept of reality leads inevitably to the negation of any fixed distinction between one thing and another (what Romano Amerio has called “the loss of essences” in post-conciliar thinking), ending in the impossibility of thought itself, which is replaced by a series of phenomenological intuitions masquerading as genuine ideas. Such intuitions are the basic stuff of the post-conciliar novelties. For example, there is the intuition that there can be “Christian unity” without the abandonment of Protestant confessions and the return of heretics and schismatics to the one true Church. This notion is not really a thought as such, for no one can provide an intelligible explanation of how such a thing could be possible; it is a mere feeling that “Christian unity” can somehow be achieved without all Christians belonging to one and the same Church.

In the evolutionary tenor of Gaudium et spes we see quite clearly the influence of that Woodstockian acid voyager of neo-modernism, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Citing a German study of Teilhard’s influence on the Council, the always-helpful Cardinal Ratzinger explained it this way:

The impetus given by Teilhard de Chardin exerted a wide influence [on the Council]. With daring vision it incorporated the historical movements of Christianity into the great cosmic process of evolution from Alpha to Omega: since the noogenesis, since the formation of consciousness in the event by which man became man, the process of evolution has continued to unfold as the building of the noosphere above the biosphere. [Far out, man!] That means evolution takes place now in the form of technical and scientific development in which, ultimately, matter and spirit, individual and society, will produce a comprehensive whole, a divine world. [Right on!] The Council’s ‘Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World’ took the cue; Teilhard’s slogan “Christianity means more progress, more technology,” became a stimulus in which the Council Fathers from rich and poor countries alike found a concrete hope . . .[i]

In short, the influence of the great charlatan induced the Council to say something very much like “this is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.” Indeed, can it not be said that Vatican II was the Church’s own Woodstock, a kind of ecclesial walk on the wild side, with its own “spirit of Woodstock” which came to be known as the “spirit of Vatican II”? Ratzinger himself confirms this very impression:

Anyone whose ear is still attuned to the speeches made during the last session of the Council knows how eager the Fathers were . . . to do something for mankind that would be concrete, visible, tangible. The feeling that now, at last, the world had to be, could be changed, improved and humanized—this feeling had taken hold of them in a way that was not to be resisted. After all the surprises (!) that had emerged in the realm of theology proper, there reigned a feeling at once of euphoria and of frustration. Euphoria, because it seemed that nothing was impossible for this Council which had the strength to break with attitudes that had been deeply rooted for centuries; frustration, because all that had thus far been done did not count for mankind and only increased the longing for freedom, openness, for what was totally different.[ii]

What other council in the entire history of the Church was possessed by such a spirit?

The Conciliar Spirit of Woodstock

To our great misfortune, the spirit of Vatican II, unlike the spirit of Woodstock, did not vanish as soon as the event was over. No, it hung around the Church like the last holdouts at Woodstock, who sat dazedly in the garbage-strewn mud-bowl that was Yasgur’s Farm. What are we to make of the fact that more than 20 years after the Council the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was still describing as a “daring vision” the same Teilhardian claptrap about the “noosphere” and “noogenesis” which had been condemned by the pre-conciliar Holy Office? It seems that some Churchmen have never lost their nostalgia for those heady days of “the longing for freedom, openness, for what was totally different.” The silly notions of a theological mountebank like Teilhard are cherished like the vinyl record albums some members of the Woodstock generation still hoard in their attics. But, like the spirit of Woodstock, the spirit of Vatican II has produced no change for the better in humanity—only a huge mess that will take a very long time to clean up.

The Church’s own version of the spirit of Woodstock persists to this day, prowling about in search of the “new humanity” extolled in Gaudium et spes and the “new advent of the Church connected with the approaching end of the second millennium” proclaimed by John Paul II in Redemptor hominis. The neo-Catholic commentators obligingly keep the restless spirit of Vatican II alive. In the November-December 2000 issue of Catholic Dossier, for example, the neo-Catholic luminary Janet Smith wrote, in all seriousness, that “soon we may see the Church the Council envisioned.” And what Church, exactly, would that be? Smith cannot say, exactly. Neither can anyone else.

According to Cardinal Ratzinger, writing 13 years earlier, “the real reception of the Council has not yet begun . . . The task, therefore, is not to suppress the Council but to discover the real Council and to deepen its true intention in light of present experience.”[iii] Ah, so in order to find the real Church, which “the Council envisioned,” it will be necessary first to find “the real Council.” And what, exactly, is the real Council? Cardinal Ratzinger cannot say, exactly. Neither can anyone else. But according to the Cardinal, the search for the real Council means that the Church “must relinquish many of the things that have hitherto spelled security for her and that she has taken for granted. She must demolish longstanding bastions and trust solely in the shield of faith.”[iv] Which things, exactly, must the Church relinquish, and which bastions must she demolish? Cardinal Ratzinger cannot say, exactly. Neither can anyone else.

More than thirty-five years after the Council we are still bobbing in a tempest of ineffable intuitions, passed off as “developments” of Catholic doctrine. At least Joni Mitchell could offer us the clarity of a metaphor when she sang of bombers turning into butterflies “above our nation.” What can the connoisseurs of post-conciliar ambiguity offer us for a vision of the future? Not even a metaphor.

The Phenomenology of World Youth Day

The spirit of Vatican II goes on and on in search of some epochal manifestation of itself, a kind of lost soul in search of its body. Since 1985 we have been told that the World Youth Days the Pope invented are just such a manifestation. At World Youth Day 2000, Cardinal Stafford pointed to the throngs of youngsters gathered in Saint Peter’s Square and declared: “Here are the children of Vatican II!” Here indeed they are. But how many of these “children of Vatican II” could answer correctly ten basic questions about the Catholic faith? And how many of the “children of Vatican II” from the first World Youth Day in 1985 are practicing the faith today, including the Church’s teaching on marriage and procreation, now that they have reached adulthood? Such questions do not trouble the promoters of these spectacles. For them, the emotion engendered by cheering crowds who make the Pope happy is sufficient evidence of ecclesial well-being. Stafford’s gushing over World Youth Day 2000 is typical of this mentality:

As Pope John Paul II looked out at the vast throng of joyful youth, hearing their shouts of “Viva il Papa” and “Giovanni Paulo” and “JP II, we love you!” ringing in the air—everywhere they gathered with the Holy Father—no wonder he wiped tears from his eyes, swayed with the young as they sang, waved his arms in the air, and let a glorious smile break through, again and again. Here he saw, before his very eyes, the fulfillment of the words of Vatican II to the young, in its blossoming and growth (since the first World Youth Day, over 15 years ago).

So, an ephemeral outpouring of mass sentiment from a boisterous crowd is “the fulfillment of the words of Vatican II.” The crowd sways. The Pope sways with them. All is well. The phenomenon of feelings is the fruit of Vatican II. All empirical evidence of the actual condition of the Church is ignored in favor of a phenomenal event.

It is not merely facile to say that World Youth Day is the Catholic version of Woodstock. We have heard the same extravagant claim for both events: that the world can be changed for the better if only vast numbers of young people—just because they are young—can be gathered together in one place for the promotion of love and peace. Cardinal Stafford, quoting one youngster, enthused that WYD 1997 in Paris was nothing less than “a revolution of love.” But the “revolution of love” in Paris was evidently not accompanied by a revolution of honesty. According to the Catholic World News service (CWN)) the French bishops’ conference was left with $5 million in debts because only about 100,000 of the 500,000 participants in WYD 1997 paid the registration fee.[v] Oddly enough, the proportion of gatecrashers at Woodstock was about the same. As Bishop Michael Dubost complained: “I see many of the youngsters buying T-shirts, Coca-Cola, and numerous unnecessary objects, but not [registration] badges which shows they are not prepared to help.” Neither was this revolution in love accompanied by a revolution in generosity to the Church. A collection taken up from the 1.3 million people who attended the Pope’s outdoor Mass at a racetrack yielded $330,000—an average of 33 cents per congregant. The same people undoubtedly expended vastly more money for Parisian souvenirs.

Nevertheless, WYD ‘97 was pronounced a “papal triumph” by CWN. Had not the Pope attracted a huge, cheering crowd? What is more, “400,000 young people took to the streets of Paris, spreading out across the roads, and at precisely 10:50 am joined their hands in a human chain that stretched over twenty miles.” What was the point of this human chain? According to CWN, the chain faced away from the center of Paris because “the organizers had sought to demonstrate the commitment of young people to be ‘open to the world,’ and a press statement explained that this was ‘a symbol of friendship, of gathering, and an overture to the five continents–a universal appeal for peace.’” Openness to the world, friendship, gathering and peace. Secular aims for what was, in essence, a secular festival. As CWN notes: “Tolerance was also the theme of the papal message on Saturday. In the morning at the church of St. Etienne du Mont, speaking to delegates of the World Youth Day crowd—representing the 140 countries which sent contingents to Paris—the Pope said: ‘The Spirit of God sends you forth, so that you can become, with all your brothers and sisters throughout the world, builders of a civilization of reconciliation, founded on brotherly love.’” Nothing too terribly Catholic there. The crowd at Woodstock would have eaten it up.

The Kingship of Christ Forgotten

Of course, this “civilization of reconciliation” does not mean anything like the Catholic social order presented as the ideal in the teaching of the pre-conciliar Popes. That ideal has been replaced by something quite different. As the Pope would later observe in his Message for World Day for Peace 2001:

Dialogue leads to a recognition of diversity and opens the mind to the mutual acceptance and genuine collaboration demanded by the human family’s basic vocation to unity. As such, dialogue is a privileged means for building the civilization of love and peace that my revered predecessor Paul VI indicated as the ideal to inspire cultural, social, political and economic life in our time…. The different religions too can and ought to contribute decisively to this process. My many encounters with representatives of other religions—I recall especially the meeting in Assisi in 1986 and in Saint Peter's Square in 1999—have made me more confident that mutual openness between the followers of the various religions can greatly serve the cause of peace and the common good of the human family.

There is no question here of making converts of the followers of other religions in order to save their souls, nor any mention of Our Lord’s admonition about the consequences of the world’s rejection of His Gospel and His Church: “Do not think that I came to send peace upon the world: I came not to send peace but the sword.” (Matt. 10:27) Also forgotten is the teaching of Pius XI in Quas Primas that there can be no peace worthy of the name without the Social Kingship of Christ over every man and every nation. That is not what World Youth Day and the “civilization of love” are all about. That is not the program of the post-conciliar Vatican apparatus.

Yes, World Youth Days are filled with exhortations that young people who are already baptized Catholics “follow Christ,” but only in the context of a pan-religious brotherhood in which the beliefs of others are respected and even admired, not viewed as forms of darkness from which souls must rescued. And yes, there are outdoor Masses with pop-rock liturgical music, and an opportunity to go to confession, whereas Woodstock was simply and only a pagan festival. But trendy Mass liturgies and even confession can be had at any local parish. Clearly, it is not these things which draw the vast World Youth Day crowds. The rock music, the camaraderie, the chance to be close to a great celebrity—the Woodstock of it all—are what attract so many of the same youngsters who would, with equal alacrity, attend a performance by Britney Spears, Nine Inch Nails or the out-of-retirement Black Sabbath.

The Sacrilege of Pop Catholicism

There is great danger in this use of pop culture to entice Catholic youngsters to attend huge festivals in faraway places. Putting aside the Woodstockian temptation which arises when thousands of immodestly clad teenage girls are thrown together in a bivouac with thousands of teenage boys, there is the incalculable potential for sacrilege. Gerry Matatics attended WYD ‘93 in Denver. The enactment of the Stations of the Cross with a woman in the role of Jesus was nothing compared to what he saw at the outdoor papal Mass:

We had camped out the night before on the ground to be sure that we would have a place for the papal Mass. We all had grimy faces and ‘sleeping-bag’ hair. The assisting priests who were to distribute Holy Communion, implementing enculturation, accommodated themselves to the heat and humidity by wearing tee shirts, shorts, flip-flops and baseball caps along with their stoles. Priests similarly attired were listening to confessions beforehand.

The crowd had been roped off into quadrants, about a hundred of us in each one. When the time came for reception of Holy Communion I knelt at the front of my little quadrant in an attempt to receive the Sacred Host my knees. Hosts were being distributed from big, shallow bowls that could have been used for punch or potato chips. People were reaching over each other’s shoulders to grab the consecrated Hosts from the priests. I saw Hosts falling into the mud, where they were being trampled on. I reached forward and rescued as many as I could and consumed them.

I had been going to the Tridentine Mass since the Fall of 1992 and the Novus Ordo on weekdays. At that moment I realized that if this kind of sacrilege could occur at a papal Mass because of the Novus Ordo rubrics, I could no longer be a party to the new liturgy. It was the last Novus Ordo Mass I ever attended.

Michael Matt offers testimony perhaps even more horrific: “At the outdoor papal Mass in Des Moines during the papal visit of 1980, consecrated Hosts were being distributed from cardboard boxes. A group of Hell’s Angels was given Holy Communion in the hand. I saw them washing down the Body of Christ with cans of beer. I was only a child then, but I will never forgot that awful sight as long as I live.” (The practice of communion in the hand ensures that even the papal Masses in Saint Peter’s Square will result in sacrilege, including the spiriting away of Hosts by Rome’s many Satanists.)

At Woodstock, thousands of people (myself included) degraded themselves by lying in the mud for the sake of rock music. But we did not watch God Incarnate fall in the mud and trample Him under our feet. The Hell’s Angels were at Woodstock, and they drank a lot of beer, but not as a chaser for the Body of Christ. Sacrileges unimaginable in 1965, even at Woodstock, are now commonplace on the Pope’s endless road trip in search of the civilization of love, the new humanity and the new Advent of the Church. One must ask how any alleged spiritual good from these events can possibly outweigh the mounting insults to God which their very structure engenders. Who will make reparation for these sacrileges, heaped upon all the others made possible by the post-conciliar “reforms”?

The grotesque attempt to fuse Catholicism with pop culture, to make a Woodstock of the faith, is perhaps a last desperate struggle by the spirit of Vatican II to find a place where it can be seen to live. Everywhere in the Church the awful experiment is being tried. The Pope has allowed his personal (and suitably non-denominational) prayers to be recited on mass-marketed CDs by the likes of Britney Spears and the lead singer for Aerosmith, a Woodstock-era band still plying its trade on the concert circuit. The Pope’s life has been made into a comic book which he heartily approves. (“Karol, Karol, look out!,” shouts one of Wojtyla’s friends as he runs after a soccer ball with an opposing player in hot pursuit.) There is even a Vatican-branded VISA card (raising an interesting question about the application of Church teaching on usury). The Woodstock of the Faith is now complete with merchandising tie-ins.

Catholicism for Morons

In America the fusion of Catholicism and pop culture has already reached its absolute nadir. One of the most striking recent examples to come my way is a magazine called Envoy, whose editorial policy seems to be that Catholicism must be pitched to the level of a moron in order to be attractive to young people.

Envoy’s website has an animated cartoon that must be seen to be believed: It begins with a 98-pound weakling, a Catholic named Joe, being confronted at the beach by a Protestant Bible-thumper, who kicks theological sand in Joe’s face by quoting Scripture passages to support his attacks on the Catholic Church. Having been embarrassed in front of his bikini-clad girlfriend (who is lounging on the sand with her belly-button in view), Joe goes home and bones up on Envoy magazine. We next see Joe in front of a mirror admiring his now-massive physique, covered only by a pair of bikini-briefs, and exclaiming: “Boy it didn’t take me long to brush up on my catechism. Now I have a deeper understanding of my Catholic faith, and a deeper faith too!” (Joe’s deeper faith apparently does not include any sense of modesty.) In the next panel Joe is back on the beach quoting Scripture to the Protestant bully, as his bikini-clad girlfriend (still lounging on the sand and displaying her belly button) exclaims “Wow!” The strip concludes with the girlfriend rubbing up against Joe and clutching his brawny bicep as she oozes: “Oh, Joe, you make me proud to be a Catholic.” In the background, another bikini-clad girl lounging on the beach says: “What a masterful grasp Joe has of the truth and beauty of the faith.” To which her boyfriend replies: “He’s an Envoy reader.”

Envoy is in trouble. The website reports that Envoy cannot survive unless it immediately obtains 50% more subscribers. That is hardly surprising. Envoy can be expected to fail, along with the entire post-conciliar venture of debasing the Faith in a vain attempt to make it more appealing to an unbelieving world. The same lack of subscribers is what plagues the Church throughout the world today. For those who now govern the Church have renounced the divine aloofness which makes Our Lord Himself, and thus His Church, so attractive to the world-weary soul in search of the narrow road that leads away from this place to eternal beatitude. Yes, Our Lord entered the world to be a friend to His fellow man, a friend par excellence. But that friendship is premised on obedience to Him who is our King as well as our friend. And who would dare to slap this Friend on the back as one would some merely earthly companion!

A Contemptuous Familiarity

The post-conciliar program of “openness to the world” is precisely an invitation to backslapping familiarity with the Bride of Christ: See? The Church is your friend. The Church can speak your language, after all. After so many centuries of preaching to you, the Church now wishes to understand you and dialogue with you. The Church has come to recognize your good faith, even if, in the exercise of your religious liberty, you choose not to believe. The Church no longer wishes to address you from on high or to frighten you with the prospect of God’s eternal punishment. The Church now wishes, instead, to accentuate the good in all people, all cultures, and all religions. Look!, we have provided music and festivities for everyone, and even a new liturgy that will be more to your liking should you care to join us. Come, link your hands with ours in the human chain of peace, along with the members of every religion or no religion at all. Oh, and yes, we do invite you to consider the Gospel of Christ, which we now, at last, present to you in a non-threatening, less “ecclesiocentric” way. For the Church has discovered, after many centuries of presuming the contrary, that all or most of you are following the one path of Christ in your own way, whether you know it or not. Let us proclaim to you the good news of your salvation.

And the world replies: Since you are now open to the world, to the good in all religions, to different points of view, since you no longer threaten us with hell if we reject what you teach, since you say that we are in good faith, why must we listen to you? And what, in the end, do we really need you for?


In 1973, four years after he had authorized the sacking of the Roman Rite, Paul VI gave a speech in which he lamented that “the opening to the world became a veritable invasion of the Church by worldly thinking.... We have perhaps been too weak and imprudent.”[vi] As the Church continues to suffer through its self-inflicted Woodstock, we can say that the “perhaps” in Pope Paul’s remark ranks among the greatest understatements in human history.

The Church will survive this crisis, just as she has all the others. And even in the midst of it there remain islands of sanity, many within the Church’s official structure. These havens of Catholic calm and sacrality remind me of the very ample tent in which my Woodstock companions and I were able to offer shelter and food to a starving hippie, who had crawled under the tent flap to escape a driving rain in the middle of the night. “Thank you, man,” he said. Thank you, God, we say, in gratitude for the spiritual food and shelter we find in those few places where one can still worship as our fathers did, in peace and dignity, and pass on to one’s children an unreconstructed Catholic faith.

History demonstrates that the Church’s human element is all too fallible; yet it always learns from its mistakes and moves on, having undergone a true reform like that which followed the Council of Trent. The human element of the Church will outgrow its Woodstock, just as most members of the Woodstock generation managed to outgrow theirs. The post-conciliar debacle—which began in earnest, fittingly enough, in the year of Woodstock—will pass into history and assume its proper place and proportion in the scheme of things. Just as the “summer of love” in 1969 ended with fatal drug overdoses and the killing of rock fans at other rock festivals, so will the oft-mentioned but never seen “civilization of love” end in nothing but death and disillusionment over the false promise of world peace without submission to the Prince of Peace. The “opening to the world” at Vatican II will be remembered, if at all, with the mortification its ruinous results have warranted.

How much longer the Church’s mortification will go on, only God knows. After all, Our Lord deigned to suffer the ultimate mortification of public execution on a darkening hill before He raised Himself from the dead in a blaze of heavenly light. Whether we have passed the point of the Church’s crucifixion in this crisis cannot be determined; for all we know, we have yet to reach Golgotha. What sustains us now is the certain knowledge that there will, in time, be a resurrection, a setting aright of all that has gone wrong in the Church. Lord, may we see it soon.


[i] Ratzinger, Joseph. Principles of Catholic Theology. Ignatius Press: San Francisco (1987), p. 334.

[ii] Id., p. 380.

[iii] Id. at 391.

[iv] Id.

[v] CWN report, August 26, 1997.

[vi] Address of November 23, 1973, cited in Iota Unum, pp. 9-10.