On January 16, 2023, Word on Fire, Bishop Barron’s online apostolate, put out a video entitled “Was Vatican II a Failure?”. It featured Bishop Barron and his interlocutor, Brandon Vogt, conducting an interview-style response to Ross Douthat’s recent opinion pieces in the New York Times on the subject of Vatican II. As a ‘child of Vatican II’ who is intensely interested in observing the real-time effects of Traditionis Custodes, the video – both its very existence and its content – struck me as fascinating.
First, a prefatory note: while I admire the aspirations of Word on Fire, if not all the practical applications, I am not a regular viewer of Bishop Barron’s stuff, which is why I missed this video when it first came out. I don’t suppose many of you are regular viewers, either, but, regardless, to me the mission of using ‘new media’ to evangelize the post-Catholic and post-Christian world is a worthy one. And when I consider His Excellency’s main target demographic, I do think he does decent work. He is well educated, articulate, and unafraid to engage with the world where it is.
However, this attempt to ‘meet the world where it is’ often induces Bishop Barron to avoid, or talk around, the more difficult and uncomfortable truths of the faith, at least for as long as he is able. This often rankles the more orthodox of us, and gives us the impression that he is first and foremost a pillar of the “Church of Nice”. That being said, I don’t think there is any doubt that he is an important voice in the fight for Truth, as his recent piece warning about the problems with the Synod on Synodality shows.
As we all know, the “early returns” on almost every Vatican II metric are abysmal (i.e., Mass attendance is down, belief in the Real Presence has plummeted, use of artificial contraception, etc.). Were similar developments recorded in the immediate aftermath of the Lateran and Nicene Councils? If my study of history serves me, the answer is decidedly “No”.
Second, when it comes to my objective here, to quote the great GK Chesterton, “I make no claim to learning”, but am only asserting “the reasonable right of the amateur” to assess the arguments “which the specialists provide”. It’s not meant to be a comprehensive refutation of Bishop Barron’s thesis, in other words.
In his ‘interview’, Bishop Barron is prompted by Vogt to address each of Ross Douthat’s ‘conclusions’ as laid out in his New York Times’ piece, namely that the Council was necessary, the Council has failed, and the Council can’t be undone. For such a well-educated scholar, the attempted answers to Douthat’s concerns were less impressive than I would have anticipated.
In response to “the Council was necessary,” for example, Bishop Barron essentially states that “Well, the leaders of the Church at the time certainly thought it was”.
OK. I suppose that’s true, but it isn’t very enlightening. Were they correct in their assumption that it was necessary, or not? Why did they think it was necessary, and were they proven right by history? What about the pre-conciliar Church was so inadequate to meet the challenges of the times? Appeals to authority are not illegitimate, per se, but they’re never very satisfying. Even attempted answers to Mr. Douthat’s questions would have, I believe, been more useful to all sides of the debate.
Bishop Barron’s response to the second prompt, that “the Council has failed”, was lengthier and more “nuanced” (as the kids like to say), but no more convincing. On the one hand, he punted the question, asserting that it was too early to tell whether it had been successful. To make this fly, His Excellency pointed to other councils that appeared to have failed in their immediate aftermath (e.g., Lateran), or other councils that bore fruit long after their conclusion (e.g., Nicaea). These comparisons may be valid at a high-level (“Hey, these things take time!”), but it would be more convincing if there were a comparison of the aims of each council, as well as their early results and effects within the Church. As we all know, and as Bishop Barron himself has pointed out previously, the “early returns” on almost every Vatican II metric are abysmal (i.e., Mass attendance is down, belief in the Real Presence has plummeted, use of artificial contraception, etc.). So, to be fair, were similar developments recorded in the immediate aftermath of the Lateran and Nicene Councils?
Most of my life in the post-conciliar Church has felt like apostolic missionary work, not really being fed and led by my “mater et magistra” so much as sifting through stones that should have been bread. I would hazard a guess that most of my orthodox peers feel the same.
If my study of history serves me, the answer is decidedly “No”. Although their full effect may have taken time, there were no disastrous “unintended consequences” that stunned the Church. The Councils of history were called to address on-going controversies and issues, not to imagine a “better way to engage the world.” And, while the controversies they addressed did not magically go away at the close of those Councils, they’d provided crystal-clear clarity on Church teaching, which led to their ultimate success.
The bishop’s next response to the second prompt was most disappointing. After briefly admitting that there was “very bad implementation in the West,” he goes on to reframe Douthat’s conclusion into a question: Ask not “was the council a failure”; ask “why did we fail the council?” I’m paraphrasing, but here are some direct quotes; “How come we resisted it? Why has Vatican II been so thoroughly resisted on the left and the right? And when will we Catholics get with the darn program?”
In charity, I want to believe this wasn’t meant in the way I received it, but it felt like I was being gaslit. As a bona fide child of Vatican II, who was raised in a family that was fleeing the results of that “very bad implementation” and doing what it could to resist and reverse it, what ‘program’ exactly am I supposed to get with? Upon reflection, most of my life in the post-conciliar Church has felt like apostolic missionary work, not really being fed and led by my “mater et magistra” so much as sifting through stones that should have been bread. I would hazard a guess that most of my orthodox peers feel the same.
Bishop Barron’s final response to the second prompt was academic in nature but a bit contradictory. At the prompting of Vogt, he explains the well understood “post hoc propter hoc” logical fallacy and accuses the critics of Vatican II of falling prey to it. Not everything bad that has occurred since Vatican II can be causally attributed to Vatican II.
OK. Fair enough. But immediately after making that point, Barron goes on to wax poetic about the “fruit of Vatican II”, the explosion of the Church in Africa and South America. But isn’t that in and of itself an example of the “post hoc propter hoc” fallacy? Things are good in Africa? Terrific! So why did Vatican II work in Africa but nowhere else in the world? I’m confused, Excellency.
Then, in an extraordinary leap of logic, Bishop Barron states that the decimation of the Church in the Anglosphere (conveniently ignoring the obvious flourishing going on in TLM communities) is “the old Church”, whereas the “Church of Vatican II” is very real and vibrant, just browner and more southern. Leaving aside that this assertion contradicts his first point – that it is “too early to tell” – it’s hard to interpret this as anything but a very convenient reading of the data. To his credit, he does go back and admit that the results in the Anglosphere really aren’t good, and “maybe …. it does call for some, ya know, redirection or calls for some rethinking…”, but then he finishes with asking the turned-around question again, “How come we resisted it?”.
Yes, of course, Catholicism isn’t defined by four priests in every rectory, nuns in the schools, and full pews, but neither is it defined by a lack of those great fruits of faith. And aren’t those things, however time and culture bound they might be—aren’t they signs of a thriving Church?
The third of Douthat’s conclusions is then addressed. Stated in his trademark negative way, “the Council cannot be undone”, Douthat means that the Church can never recover the authority and credibility it has squandered or would squander by trying to correct its mistakes in Vatican II. In response, the good Bishop rejects Douthat’s meaning of ‘can’t go back’ and then agrees that we ‘can’t go back’ and asserts that we shouldn’t want to. After all, he argues, Catholicism isn’t defined by a vibrant parish Church with four priests in the rectory and nuns teaching in the schools. The early Church had no parishes, or diocese at all… but there were evangelists and saints.
Bishop Barron then repeats the question: “Did that happen (evangelists and Saints)” after Vatican II?” His answer is no, it did not, and that is our fault. I repeat: Huh?
So, what do we need to do? Bishop Barron starts with the assertion that we definitely “can’t go back to a now defunct cultural form”, we have to engage the world all the time, while we avoid using the world as a criterion.
Now, I too disagree with Douthat’s conclusion, but the more I reflected on Bishop Barron’s answers, the emptier it became. Yes, of course, Catholicism isn’t defined by four priests in every rectory, nuns in the schools, and full pews, but neither is it defined by a lack of those great fruits of faith. And aren’t those things, however time and culture bound they might be—aren’t they signs of a thriving Church? And what makes that cultural form “now defunct”? Because the world “has so moved on”? Who cares! We aren’t to use the world as a criterion anyway. Right? Isn’t that what he just said? Are we to have no criteria at all as we “engage the world all the time”?
I’m reminded of CS Lewis’ exposition of the progressive fallacy:
“We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”
I find it difficult to accept this cultural form as anachronistic and “now defunct,” especially given that I live in and around communities where this is very much still the reality.
The episode finishes with Bishop Barron reacting to Vogt’s reading of Douthat’s most scathing critique – a comparison of the Church to the old Soviet politburo, declaring victory while presiding over obvious crisis and decline. First, Bishop Barron objects to calling Vatican II a mere parish renewal project, as that would provide grounds for its dismissal too lightly. It was an ecumenical council after all, with the Church gathering together its highest authority. Nevertheless, he laments, “this dream of Vatican II has not yet come true”, by which he means “the biblical renewal, the liturgical renewal, the renewal of the moral life, the role of the laity…”
Bishop Barron does conclude with an admission that it is important we not pretend that Vatican II has been a rousing success in all of its effects, and that it is fair to ask the question “Why? Why hasn’t that dream come true?”
To see this important question even being asked here in 2023 – nearly 60 years after the close of the Second Vatican Council, even if rhetorically – is a step in the right direction. To see it being addressed by a high-profile bishop in the United States, even if inadequately, is a step in the right direction.
I hope and pray that, someday, Bishop Robert Barron will not only ask but also attempt to answer those “fair” questions a bit more boldly.
Overall, I found his responses to the question “Was Vatican II a Failure” more than a little disappointing. If I were to put it in my most Douthatian voice, a parody of his response might read something like this: “Failure? No way! First, there is no way to tell yet, these things take time… And just because things are admittedly really bad in the West right now and have been declining since the council, that doesn’t mean it had anything to do with the Council. And look at Africa! How amazing is that?! So much Vatican II goodness. The West, if you think about it hard and squint a little, is really the Old Church, ya know? And by the way, if you think the Council failed, maybe you should ask yourself why you failed the Council?”.
When put that way, with just a bit of tongue in cheek, it really does come off like an old Soviet leader… maybe not Stalin hiding the Holodomor, but definitely Khrushchev admitting only to the failures of Stalin.
But, in all sincerity, I found great hope in this video, too. To see this important question even being asked here in 2023 – nearly 60 years after the close of the Second Vatican Council, even if rhetorically – is a step in the right direction. To see it being addressed by a high-profile bishop in the United States, even if inadequately, is a step in the right direction. The first step in recovery is admitting you have a problem. Perhaps this video wasn’t that, exactly, but it was a pre-cursor to it – a consideration that, yes, we may well have a problem. In the early stages of recovery it is not uncommon for there to be a desire to minimize or deflect or explain away the obvious. That itself is part of the process of recovery, perhaps we could call it “pre-covery”.
Let us hope this is the beginning of that full recovery we all pray to see happen inside the human element of Holy Mother Church.
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