The Council of Nicea fought the heresy of Arianism.I don't know that I'd put it so combatively (I couldn't pull it off anyway; I'm not a marine) but the question remains: How did we get from where we seemed to be fifty years ago to where we are today?
The Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon fought the heresy of Nestorianism.
The Council of Trent fought the heresy of Protestantism.
The First Vatican Council fought the heresy of Rationalism.
And with all that said, the fruits of those councils are multiple and manifest. The Church always emerged stronger. And I think we all know what the fruits of Vatican II have shown themselves to be.
This question has bothered me for quite some time, and it was in seeking answers to it that I bought The Church and I by Frank Sheed. Written in 1974, during the height of what Sheed bluntly calls the "chaos" after Vatican II, The Church and I is a history of the Church in the 20th century English-speaking world, as Sheed knew it through his work with the Catholic Evidence Guild (stand-up apologetics in Hyde Park on on street corners) and running the Sheed & Ward publishing house along with his wife and fellow apologist Maisie Ward.
Sheed arrived in London from Australia in 1920, not by his own account a very educated Catholic, but like many of his contemporaries fully convinced of the truth of the Faith and eager to spread it. Working with the Catholic Evidence Guild, he quickly found that the catechism lessons he had so dutifully memorized did not necessarily help him to explain his faith to others, and so he joyfully dug into theology, the Father of the Church, Aquinas, Church History, and much more.
The '20s through the '50s were the period of the Catholic Intellectual Revival in Britain, with characters such as Belloc, Chesterton, Knox and Waugh dominating the landscape. It was an exciting time to be involved in apologetics. The initial outburst of Modernism in the Church seemed to have been quelled (though in retrospect, Sheed says it was simply driven underground and ignored rather than being effectively fought and defeated on the intellectual field) and as mainstream Protestant sects seemed to be finding themselves increasingly without direction in the modern world, Catholicism seemed to soaring to unheard of heights.
It was also a period of rebirth of intellectually robust Catholicism in the English-speaking world. Sheed describes the atmosphere growing up in Irish Catholic circles in Australia as being one in which it was felt that "The Church had the truth, but the Protestants had all the arguments". Catholics had memorized their catechisms and believed firmly in the sacraments, but had found it difficult to explain their beliefs to others, much less perform effective apologetics. Belloc and Chesterton changed this with a vengence, and a small flood of other Catholic writers and intellectuals followed in their wake.
However, through his work doing apologetics in parks and on street corners, Sheed was in a particularly good position to see what the see the intellectual state of the average Catholic, as well as the intellectual. And what he saw, it seems, worried him. Throughout the '30s, '40s and '50s he spoke to bishops about the state of catechesis (which he generally considered to not be at all good -- in part because those doing the catechising were not themselves sufficiently knowledgeable) and addressed numerous groups of seminarians and teaching sisters.
What he found was that all too often even the priests and nuns tasked with teaching the laity were not able to deal well with questions that went beyond the memorized questions and answers in their catechisms. This was not, he said, through any lack of faith (far from it, there was in intensely strong belief in the teachings of the Church and if anything an overly strong belief in infallibility, which attached the stamp of dogma equally to the everything from abstaining from meat on Fridays and women covering their heads in church to the immaculate conception and purgatory) but rather through a defensive posture which the Church had taken in much of Europe since the Reformation, emphasizing memorization over argumentation and discipline over education.
One of the examples of the kind of "beyond the catechism" questions that Sheed would pose is as follows:
Sheed: "Does the pope need to go to confession?"
Other: "Yes, of course. The pope must go to confession regularly to receive forgiveness for his sins."
Sheed: "But if the priest's authority comes from the bishop, and the bishop's authority comes from the pope, who has the authority to forgive the pope?"
The answer, of course, is: Christ. And since our sins are forgiven through the power of Christ by the priest who acts in persona Christi, any priest can grant the pope absolution. People knew this, Sheed says, in their hearts. They understood that the pope needed and received absolution. But far too often questions like this would stump not only Catholic school children, but also the nuns and priests who taught them, because they weren't used to thinking about what they believed meant.
This may seem a pretty harsh judgement, and I wonder if Sheed would have made it so forcefully in a book written in 1964 instead of 1974. Yet it does seem to tie in with some of what I've heard. My paternal grandfather converted in the '30s, as he was marrying my grandmother. My grandmother, who'd grown up Catholic in Iowa, educated for by Irish nuns, mentioned several times that it was perhaps mainly because her husband had received good instruction as a convert that they'd both remained Catholic. He told her so many things she hadn't known before about the faith, that after the war they both enrolled in adult catechesis classes, which she said taught her a great deal about Church teaching that she'd never learned growing up.
On the council, Sheed has several things to say. First, that as an attempt to deal with the issues raised by modernism, religious pluralism, communism, etc., it arguably came fifty years too late. He describes the council as providing a set of blueprints for rebuilding the Church, yet not taking into account the fact that the structure was already falling apart, and there were nearly a billion people living in it during the proposed construction. He applauds some of what the Council had to say on religious liberty, the role of the laity, etc. In other cases he worries that the documents were vague or skirted around the most serious issues.
What happened afterwards, however, seems to have taken even Sheed (with his first hand knowledge of some of the weaknesses of the Church before the council) by surprise. Seemingly overnight, he says, things went from a time where even the slightest questioning of authority went nearly undreamed of, to a situation where nearly any doctrine of the Church could be heard being publicly rejected by some priest or another, with seldom a word of discipline issuing forth.
There had, it seems, been some rumblings of this before the council. Sheed says that there was a known problem in some American diocese of a number of priests quietly leaving the priesthood to get married. In Europe, many of the priests who had entered the "priest worker" movement during the war (taking advantage of being put to work in heavy industry during the war to minister more directly to poor workers) became caught up in communist leaning unions, and a number of the priests had to be disciplined or left the priesthood. A number of European bishops had complained to Sheed as far back as the '30s that half the children who graduated from Catholic schools never entered a church again until they got married.
Somehow this combination of the media story that "the liberal element carried the council: everything is changing"; the cultural revolutions of the 60s; the pill; the sudden slackening in Church discipline; the changing of the liturgy which people had never imagined would change; the changing of practices such as the mandatory Friday abstinence, etc. created the impression that everything was up for grabs. Even Sheed, deeply knowledgeable in his faith and clearly trying very hard to "think with the Church" seems to have been affected by this. Writing in 1974, he mentions in his epilogue questions as to things that may change in the future. Will there to women priests? How will the Humanae Vitae controversy play out?
In an effort not to say "The Church will never..." about things that proceed to happen, Sheed seems to feel the necessity of being much more hesitant than an apologist circa 2007 would be, and I don't think that it was from any lack of orthodoxy.
It's hard to imagine what the Catholic world would be like today had Vatican II not been called. I don't think it would be the rosy view that some, perhaps, imagine. My suspicion is that, rather than the storm of chaos that broke in the late sixties and throughout the seventies, we would have seen a gradual falling away. Catholics would still have started using birth control. The encyclical condemning it would have been more polemical, and the storm of clergy resistance to it might not have happened, but a great many Catholics would have ignored it nonetheless. Vocations would have gradually dried up (rather than falling precipitously) as many Catholic families were smaller, and people fell prey to the sexual revolution. Mass attendance would have fallen gradually, as people left church-going to mothers, grandmothers, children, and "the devout".
The average Catholic parish of today would look more like some of the more affluent Eastern Orthodox parishes, of the variety that is heavy on ethnic members and low on converts.
I suspect that, for all the chaos, we are intellectually richer than we would have been without the council. The culture of discussion has, among orthodox theologians, produced deeper work than the culture of suspicion that landed all too many works (by people ranging from Newman to St. Therese to John Courtney Murray) at least temporarily under suspicion. On the other hand, we would have been spared the embarrassment of the Fr. McBrien's and Sr. Joan Chittisters of the world, and I'm sure that must be worth something.
I, for one, am grateful for the council, for all that its implementation by the human element of the Church has been the usual mixed (and often mixed up) bag. For all that it's pointed to as the anti-thesis of Vatican II, I wonder how much better things looked thirty or forty years after Trent, as the Queen Elizabeth made the Protestantization of England permanent, and the 30 Year War got ready to decimate northern and central Europe, laying the foundation for rationalism as "wars of" became a phrase long to be associated with "religion".