A couple weeks ago I wrote a monumentally long post on Vatican II -- indeed so much so that I'll start out by promising this one will be much shorter. A lot of that consisted of chewing over things Frank Sheed had said in his book The Church and I, which (due to the nature of Sheed's work) talked a lot about catechesis. This led a couple people to ask, quite rightly given my tendency for topic drift, "My question is, did dissatisfaction with catechesis influence John XXIII's decision to convene the Council?"
No, I don't really think so.
The poor level of active understanding which lay under the things everyone had memorized in elementary school certainly added to the sudden free-fall after the council, because all too many people had no clear idea of what was and what was not possible in the Church. But why call a council when there was no great heresy to fight?
I think Sheed's take, and one which is quite believable to me, is that in the unbounded optimism which so many in the Church felt in the 20s through the 50s, it seemed like the Church was ready to come out of the defensive posture which it had been in (to one extent or another) since Trent and win over the world.
From the point of view of a publisher, Sheed talks a bit in his book of the instinct which prevailed in much of the Church in the first half of the century of disciplining rather than disputing. Whether dealing with modernism or Feeneyism, Sheed argues that there was a tendency to label, reject, discipline and while perhaps not addressing the questions raised in a compelling fashion. Perhaps in keeping with this, Sheed describes several situations in which Sheed & Ward was asked by the Vatican to remove specific books from circulation -- though in each case it eventually proved that no one at the Vatican had actually read the book, they were simply acting in response to a complaint which had been passed up the ladder from priest or layperson who had objected to the book.
It sounds like, to some extent, a motivation for the council was that a combination of the optimism of Catholics about the overall strength of the Church, and an optimism about their standing in the world, led people to believe that the Church could afford to "loosen up a bit" and start discussing things more openly. Perhaps the Church could bring exciting new insights to the questions represented by modernism. Perhaps the Orthodox and even some Protestants could be won back into the fold. Liturgy and catechesis could be revitalized so that the laity (already just about the most educated and involved in the last thousand years) could become even more active in their faiths.
There were already encouraging signs. Gilson was bringing Thomism out of it's turn-of-the-century moribund state. The liturgical movement was seeing success in getting the laity to pray the mass, rather than pray their rosaries during the mass. There was a renewal of interest in the Church Fathers, the Eastern churches, scriptural analysis, etc.
So I think part of what John XXIII must have been thinking of in calling the council was: why not harness all this energy through a council? Why not really let it loose, rather than having small, dedicated groups of theologians, priests and laity struggling to bring about new things while at the same time occasionally suffering from stiff opposition from those who were suspicious of change on principle's sake. This had, after all, been a real problem in the last hundred years. Cardinal Newman was viewed with great suspicion by a great many in Rome. And more recently the liturgical movement, writers on religious freedom, non-Thomistic theology, etc. had often been under some level of suspicion.
To an extent, this has worked. We have seen a lot of good study of the early Church, the Eastern churches and great doctors of the Church other than Aquinas. We've seen John Paul II's Theology of the Body, which it's a bit hard to picture gaining wide attention in the pre-conciliar Church.
And yet, it's clear that there was over-optimism in the idea that the Church could open up discussion on everything without opening up confusion on everything. We were not nearly as strong as we thought we were. We were not nearly as well catechized as we thought we were. And we tried to make too many changes too fast, with the result that all too many people (bishops, priests, religious and laity) began to think that the "spirit" of the council was simply to change whatever one wanted whenever one wanted.
The result was chaos, and I think things are only starting to calm down now, as people find themselves bouncing off the increasingly clearly defined walls that holy men like our current pope have spent the last twenty years trying to build up and enforce. People are I think much more conscious that there are limits which aren't changing now than they were in 1977, and one may certainly hope and pray that in 2037, they will be more so than they are now.
Certainly, there are many results of the post-conciliar chaos that I would rather not have grown up with. However, it is hardly unique to experience periods of deep confusion in the Church's history. I thank God I wasn't born in 1378, at which point one would be 39 by the time that the Council of Constance ended the period of dueling claimants to the papacy.
Perhaps some day an article on Church history will say, "The period from 1968 through around 2020 saw much confusion at all levels within the Church, as the liturgical and theological implications of the Second Vatican Council were sorted out. A short but catastrophic drop in vocations caused some contemporary writers to speculate that the priesthood and religious life might undergo a fundamental change or be abolished all together, and liturgical life was often disrupted as a result of clumsy and excessive implementations of the council's allowance of some use of the vernacular in the liturgy. However, theological chaos gradually died down as it became clear that the Church's devotion to the deposit of faith was unshaken, and many of the liturgical disputes which at the time had rent the faithful were resolved when Pius XIV's new Roman Missal of 2023 clearly codified the rubrics of the 'new mass' and required the use of sung or chanted Latin propers on Sundays and Holy Days, while still allowing a fully vernacular, spoken 'low mass' on weekdays. It was perhaps in response to seeing Rome's increasing focus on the dignity of the liturgy the pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople formally declared their Churches to be in union in 2037, though formal union with the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches would not follow for many more years."
The reluctant pot-stirrer
2 hours ago