Before Criticizing Vatican II, Know It!

My wife and I met at a conference hosted back in 2012 by the Pontifical John Paul II Institute at CUA on “The Challenge of Vatican II”, commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the convocation of the 21st ecumenical council. While I got to meet and talk with such Catholic superstars as Cardinal George and David L. Schindler (which put me into a Catholic nerd Beatlemania frenzy), the highlight of my night was meeting the pretty and intelligent lady from Poland who would become my wife.


Around the time of that conference, my wife was new to America, particularly to the Catholic Church in America. Listening to all the discussions about the post-conciliar debacles prompted her to ask me why the Catholic Church in America was so different and seemingly more confused than it was in Poland (note: I do not claim to know the full history of the reception of the Council in Poland. But I do know that they had Wojtyla and Wyszynski, which is saying a lot—take a look at Wojtyla’s Sources of Renewal: The Implemenation of Vatican II to get a sense of understanding of its implementation).


My wife’s confusion has not abated in the last eight years. We have met more and more American Catholics who are openly suspicious of Vatican II, tending to see it as leading to “the infiltration of the enemy into the heart of the Church." Some even claim that it creates a new religion. Reigniting debates about the orthodoxy of the Council is a bit strange given that we have had two post-conciliar Popes (JPII and Benedict XVI) who were at the council and now with Pope Francis who clearly pronounced, “[Vatican II] is the magisterium of the church.” I guess some Catholics only heed the popes they like.


My wife never heard such suspicions in her rather traditional Poland (perhaps it exists now), but she can understand why people are distrustful of what they claimed came from the Council. This includes everything that was a part of the sex abuse crisis. But the question is whether those abuses (doctrinal and sexual) were truly from the Council. It is true that there was a tendency—it still exists with growing force—following the Council to water down the faith for a false irenicism. Ecumenism was in the air. But the Council warned about this (see Unitatis Redintegratio, 11). In order to better explain things to my wife, I have tried to better understand the Council and the history of its reception. I have had to become more familiar with the history preceding the Council, its documents, the details of the conciliar debates, and the important changes in schema so as to better understand the subtleties of the texts, making sure not to misunderstand them. Obedience to the Church is sufficient for Catholics, but some Catholics may be called to enter the fray.


I recently filmed a course on Vatican II for the Word on Fire Institute with the purpose of helping people better understand its four constitutions and the post-conciliar history of its reception. At the time of filming, little did I know that discussion about the council would erupt in the Summer of 2020. But this made me all the more convinced that the resources I used for the course should be more widely known. I have compiled a list of books that helped me in putting together my course. It should be a good start in better understanding and appreciating this great council that so often gets no respect.


The Conciliar Documents


First, read the documents themselves and make sure to pay attention to what is in them and what is not in them. Also, know the meaning of the terms. I am shocked to see people blame the council for things that are not even in the documents. Word on Fire just released its own collection of the four constitutions.If you want to read all the documents, be careful what English translation you choose. The best would be to read the translation on the Vatican’s website. Even better, would be to learn Latin so as to read the official text.



The Final Report of the 1985 Extraordinary Synod on the Celebration, Verification, Promotion of Vatican II


This report details the concerns the bishops had in the proper reception and implementation of the council. One of the most significant suggestions that was made by the bishops was the need for a universal catechism which we have in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church.



Pope Benedict XVI’s 2005 Christmas Address to the Roman Curia


In this address, Pope Benedict outlines a ‘hermeneutic of reform’ in contrast to a hermeneutic of discontinuity or rupture.


Investigating Vatican II: Its Theologians, Ecumenical Turn, and Biblical Commitment by Jared Wicks, SJ


This book is an excellent history of the council, helping us better understand Pope John XXIII’s intentions for convoking the council. Wicks highlights the key moments in the council and the importance of many uncelebrated theologians such as Pieter Smulders helping me broaden my knowledge of influences at the council.



The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II: Continuity and Reversal in Catholic Doctrine by Thomas G. Gaurino


In this book, Fr. Gaurino does an excellent job helping “students and others understand how Vatican II is properly integrated into the theological tradition of the Catholic Church even as it significantly reorients Catholicism in some crucial areas.”



The Liturgy Guys


Listen to the podcast episodes on the Liturgical Movement, Sacrcosanctum Concilum, and the post-conciliar liturgical documents.



Communio’s “Keeping the World Awake to God”: The Challenge of Vatican II.


This is a collection of talks given at the conference where I met my wife. The Pontifical John Paul II Institute has hosted many conferences since then on conciliar documents (on Lumen Gentium, Gaudium et Spes, Dignitatis Humanae). Videos from the conferences can be found here.



The Reception of Vatican II and Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition both by Matthew Levering and Matthew L. Lamb


These collections have very insightful commentaries on the individual documents, reading them in light of the Tradition. Dr. Matthew Levering has an afterword in Word on Fire’s Vatican II Collection.


Henri de Lubac More Paradoxes, especially section “Council. Collegiality. Para- and Post-Council.”


Henri de Lubac was at the council (read his Notebooks on the Council) but lamented the developments that quickly followed the Council, especially in vernacular translations of the liturgy. Fighting against the post-conciliar trends that he saw as a distortion of the meaning of the council, he founded the international theological journal Communio with Joseph Ratzinger and Hans Urs von Balthasar.


What Happened at Vatican II by John O’Malley’s SJ.


O’Malley’s reading of Vatican II is more along the lines of seeing it as an “event”. The Bologna school of interpretation of conciliar history took such a stance. The collection that best represents this school is the five-volume History of Vatican II by Joseph A. Komanchak and Giuseppe Alberigo.



Freedom, Truth, and Human Dignity: The Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty by David L. Schindler and Nicholas J. Healy.


This declaration is one of the most contentious documents of the Council. In this book, Schindler and Healy correct a misunderstanding of the text by showing how it is based on an earlier schema and does not include the changes made in the final schema.



The One Church of Christ: Understanding Vatican II by Stephen A. Hipp.


Most presentations of the ecclesiology of Lumen Gentium lack insight. In this book, Dr. Hipp elucidates more of the most disputed terms from Vatican II, ‘subsistit in’.


An Essay in the Development of Christian Doctrine by St. John Henry Newman.



While dead long before the council, Newman can be seen as the theologian who shaped Vatican II. It is very interesting and telling that many of the objectors to Vatican II rarely mention this saint. Strict Thomists sometimes misread him as foreshadowing modernism (a term they like to throw around), but good Thomist scholars like Reinhard Hütter have put that idea to rest in his book on Newman, showing that while the angelic doctor is not explicitly mentioned in Newman’s writings, he nevertheless is always implicitly informing his thought. In many ways, this council can be called “Newman’s Council”. Bishop Barron has a brilliant 12 lesson course on the thought of Newman. This Word on Fire Institute course would help you better understand the theological principles informing Vatican II.