Mount Paul Novitiate was a cloistered religious retreat on a small lake in the middle of a thousand acres of forest in New Jersey’s Picatinny Mountains, about 50 miles due west of New York City. When 30 young men from across America showed up there in September 1962, we were a wary bunch of college wise guys, gingerly sticking our toes in the water of a vowed religious life, testing vocations to the priesthood. The Catholic Church we were signing up to serve, it seemed, had not changed since the Council of Trent in the 16th century. And that was fine with us. We wore loafers, chinos, crew neck sweaters. We were attuned to Chubby Checker, J.D. Salinger, Duke Ellington. Yet we were embracing a discipline forged in another era, putting on black cassocks, taking on Gregorian chant — casting off “the world, the flesh, and the devil.”
Already we were drawn by the aesthetic glories of high medieval culture, the church’s global order, Catholic timelessness, moral rigor — all symbolized by the Latin Mass. If ours was a damning God, ruthlessly consigning enemies (whether godless Communists or the Protestants next door) to the eternally boiling lake of fire, we knew that, as Catholics, we were among God’s elect. One day, as priests, we would be God’s elite.
In 1962, Catholicism, especially in America, seemed triumphant — with seminaries and convents full of bright young candidates, parish churches booming, prominently Catholic figures coming into their own in the once-hostile culture, the priest a much-admired figure. The prince of our arrival, guarantor of our relevance, was President Kennedy, whose jovial visage we would remember — but, beginning on our arrival as novices at Mount Paul, not see.
Defining our removal from “the world” was the prohibition of newspapers, magazines, “secular” literature, and television. Instead, we were immersed in the study of Latin, Scripture, and spiritual classics. Monastic hours structured time.
So imagine our surprise when one day in October, a hulking old Philco was carted out of some closet and set up on a bureau in the Novices’ Common Room. The novice master, suspending our work period, instructed us to show up to watch the broadcast of the opening ceremonies of the Second Vatican Council in St. Peter’s Basilica. On that snowy black-and-white TV screen, we saw the rotund, peasant-faced Pope John XXIII deliver the speech that launched a revolution.
The speech was in Latin, and the revolution was still hidden from us. But that day changed everything.
The Second Vatican Council, which convened 50 years ago next month, has been described as the most momentous religious event of the 20th century. Meeting in four sessions over three years, the world’s Roman Catholic bishops sought to reimagine the role the church — the spiritual home of more than one-sixth of humanity — could play in a rapidly changing world.
Yet Vatican II so dramatically failed to fulfill its promise that it registers very little in common memory today, even among Catholics whose faith it was meant to transform. Nevertheless, the changes it initiated were profound, and their current still runs below the surface of an uncertain church. For Catholics like me, the council retains life-shaping significance. Aside from the blessings of family, it was the best thing that ever happened to me.
Far more importantly, Vatican II, from its half-forgotten place in the past, still points to an urgently needed Catholic renewal.
For all of Catholicism’s triumphs in America after World War II, the faith was in trouble. An intellectual aridity stunted the Catholic mind, with few adherents achieving distinction in the arts or sciences. Catholic education at all levels was mediocre. An inbred sense of inferiority still seethed. The Reformation still threatened. However much individual Catholics took for granted notes of modernity, liberal democracy, pluralism, and social tolerance, the church itself heard such references as a foreign language. Roman Catholicism had yet to face up to its complicity in the fascisms of Italy, Spain, and various Latin American dictatorships, while the Vatican’s failure to openly oppose Adolf Hitler’s assault on Jews still haunted the Catholic conscience.
The surprise came when it was the pope who demanded that the church reckon broadly with its shortcomings.
In books and articles over the years, I have often praised Pope John XXIII. But never has his unpredicted arrival on the Catholic scene held more significance than it does right now, when church authorities have returned to insisting that, in matters of faith and morals, Catholicism bears a God-given mandate never to change. Pope John punctured that myth — not single-handedly, but in league with his council.
We seminarians fathomed the depth of change by measuring it in ourselves. Having seen, for example, where the “Christ-killer” charge against the Jews had led, the Vatican II fathers firmly rejected it. But in Scripture class we still read Gospels that demonized Jews. So, taking our cue from the Vatican II fathers, we radically changed how we read the sacred texts, abandoning literalism once and for all. Not only a core teaching was upended, but so was a dominant method of Biblical interpretation.
There was much more: The doom-laden God, whose claim on Catholics had seemed tied to the threat of hell, was discredited by the Second Vatican Council. The God whose love is always on offer was retrieved, and damnation receded as a Catholic fear. Before, the vast majority of Catholic lay people, having been made to feel unworthy, rarely received communion at Mass. The council changed that, along with the basic symbol of changelessness — a Mass that had been in Latin. The Catholic Church retains its vitality today, despite the various priest scandals and bishop outrages, because Vatican II gave the Mass back to the people. When the bell rings at Communion, the people throng forward.
At Mount Paul, our religious certitude had come rooted in the ancient doctrine that “Outside the Catholic Church there is no salvation.” No idea was more firmly uprooted by the council. As the sessions in St. Peter’s continued between 1962 and 1965, and as we novices moved on to theological study near Catholic University in Washington, we began to engage in “dialogue” with members of other churches — and even with atheists. The council demanded of all Catholics a new spirit of religious openness, which prepared us Americans for similar demands that came then from the religiously fired civil rights movement. Pope John got us ready for Martin Luther King Jr.
King, in turn, taught us that without justice, there can be no holiness. The cloister opened to the streets. My fellow novices and I had left “the world” to embrace the church. But the church now told us that the world was where we belonged — that outside the world there is no salvation.
In a similar spirit, we at Mount Paul had begun as connoisseurs of the Catholic Church’s just-war theory, going back to St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. Ever since the Crusades, Catholicism had fervently preached of one war after another that “God wills it,” and that tradition underscored the church’s belligerent Cold War condemnations of communism. But now Pope John questioned the morality of America’s nuclear arsenal, and his council began the astounding transformation of Catholicism into a peace church. When we seminarians then joined picket lines to protest the war in Vietnam, we were fulfilling the mandate we had from Rome.
What set us young Catholics apart from others of the 1960’s generation is that we had been conscripted into the era’s revolution not against authority, but by authority. Vatican II dared us to change, and we did. Somber piety gave way to raucous joy. Instead of mindless subservience, we took initiatives, reinventing the liturgy, throwing ourselves into anti-poverty work, and recognizing Jesus on the bread line.
Our elders in the church at times looked askance — turtlenecks instead of Roman collars? guitars in the sanctuary? arrests at demonstrations? — but they dubbed us “the new breed” with a certain pride. By the end of our six-year training program, it seemed, we would have a happy new mission. Once ordained, we would bring the miracle of Vatican II to the church and to the world.
Alas, the age of miracles passed. It was naive of us to imagine that so profound a transformation could happen so easily. The very bishops who had launched the revolution were the first to feel threatened by what it required. Less than three years after the council concluded, a 1968 papal encyclical tried to arrest change by condemning “artificial” birth control — in defiance of a consensus then emerging within the church.
With that, clerical conservatism staked its program on bringing back a puritanical sexual morality. No to equal rights for women. No to the surrender of clerical power over the inner lives of Catholics. The long pontificate of John Paul II institutionalized this counter-revolution. Today, Benedict XVI caps it.
Yet basic changes of Vatican II could not be thwarted. Primacy of conscience was taken to heart. From the birth-control encyclical forward, the Catholic people began claiming their own religious liberty, at times rejecting the authority of popes and bishops — and still going to Communion.
Still, many priests and nuns who had embraced Vatican II ideals sooner or later found it impossible to uphold the old authoritarianism. Our situation as servants of a reneging hierarchy became unsustainable.
Instead of a peace church, for example, we found an American Catholic hierarchy strong in its support of the war in Vietnam. Some of us — impudently — picketed Cardinal Medeiros’s mansion in Boston, demanding that he condemn the war. He never did, of course. Others of us refused to be silenced on birth control, and still others insisted that women be ordained. Which part of “no way” did we not understand?
Ultimately my cohort of priests and nuns left rectories and convents in droves. Of that wide-eyed group of 30 who arrived at Mount Paul in 1962, a mere dozen of us were ordained six years later. Most of us resigned from the priesthood within a decade.
Yet if those who left the ministry had taken Vatican II to heart, it showed in how many of us then refused to leave the church altogether. Instead, we became Catholic lay people who openly object to the hierarchy’s betrayal of the council.
By now, the tragic meaning of that betrayal has become evident. Imagine if the other great reform movements of the 1960s had been rolled back. The civil-rights campaign, feminism, the peace movement, and environmental awareness have all transformed our culture. But the most profound religious transformation of the time was cut short, with implications far beyond Catholicism. Membership in the church, especially in Europe and America, has hemorrhaged. The moral authority of the Catholic hierarchy has been gutted. Priests, at best, evoke pity. Nuns upholding Vatican II values are targeted by inquisitors. The magnificent Roman Catholic Church, a millennial font of reasoned faith and aesthetic genius, is on the road to becoming yet another fundamentalist cult.
Other factors contribute to this sorry condition, and other Christian denominations have their troubles, too. But the Catholic hierarchy’s loss of nerve heralded the collapse of religion as a driver of progressive social change and intellectual inquiry. Worse, with the interruption of major reforms in the largest faith institution in the world, the worrying global rise of irrational, intolerant, ahistorical religion was abetted. The men in crimson robes have much to answer for.
Yet this anniversary is a reminder of the wonder that Vatican II occurred at all. A transformation was begun. A certain image of Jesus Christ — of loving kindness, truthfulness, and preference of service over power — became the measure of what the church must be. This Jesus points to a God who views all persons as equals, forgives sin, and takes human fallibility in stride — the popes’ included.
As if Vatican II anticipated its own failure, it planted in the Catholic mind a permanent principle of self-criticism. Fifty years of hesitation have done nothing to repeal it — the oldest edict of natural law: change or die. The reform will come again.