Catholics of my generation – the generation that came of age during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II – find it almost impossible to imagine the way the world was on October 11, 1962, the day the Second Vatican Council opened.
My generation knows only the post-Conciliar Church with its priest shortages, parish and school closings, and empty confessionals. Dissent, if “grayer” and less energetic than in recent decades, is in many ways more widespread and deeply engrained, especially on questions of sexual ethics and family life.
The self-inflicted wounds of the sex-abuse scandals fester while the enemies of the Church revel in recounting the sins and crimes of her priests. Liturgy, if not the mess it once was, rarely soars and occasionally wallows. But then, how could it be otherwise, given how ugly our church buildings are these days.
The list of gripes is scandalously long.
Compare all this to my generations oft received (and only half-true) account of the pre-Conciliar Church – pious, devout, and vibrant; liturgies well incensed and in Latin – and it's easy to see the Council as the beginning of a time of decline, dissolution, and decay.
In some sense, of course, it was. The Council was convened before the most violent eruptions began, the cultural vents and spiritual rifts that spewed so much billowing smoke and toxic fume in the ensuing years had been opening and rumbling for decades, though few had the wisdom or vision to see.
It is tempting to think that, had the Council Fathers been more foresighted – more critical of modernity and less ebullient in their optimism – the catastrophes of the past forty+ years could have been avoided, or at least greatly mitigated.
While it's obvious (especially in hindsight) that all men are imperfect, it is a grave mistake to “blame the Council” for the Church's woes – as though we'd have been better off without it.
For one, it is impossible to conceive of a John Paul II or a Benedict XVI without the Council. These two popes have piloted the Barque of Peter through some very treacherous waters. In this, the Council has proved an invaluable aid.
In this view, Vatican II didn't cause the ecclesiastical paroxysms that followed; it arrived just in time to ready the Church for the coming trials. The Council provided tools and weapons that the Church would desperately need in the radically altered cultural, social, and spiritual terrain that was emerging. The Council proved a prophetic antidote to the confusion that came after. But it meant entering the desert.
The desert is a hard place and hostile to life. In Biblical imagery, the lifeless desert is a stark contrast to the verdant paradise of Eden. Through the course of salvation history, the desert comes to represent much more than death and exile: the desert becomes a place where the vices of the Garden – pride and rebellion – are unlearned. It is a place where God's people relearn that their strength is in Him alone.
The desert is a place of fasting and of prayer, pointing the way, through temptation and self-denial, to Christ who himself fasted in the desert and in whose Passion our suffering finds meaning. Thus the desert is also a place of blessing.
It is increasingly possible to see recent decades not as a colossal disaster or setback for the Church, but as a time of blessing: as a painful but necessary time of fasting and mortification in preparation for the Church's mission in a changed world. It was precisely this mission for which the Holy Spirit, through the Council, was preparing the Church. The Council was the Holy Spirit's way of inoculating the Church against the worst of late modernity, and it remains one of the Church's greatest assets in the New Evangelization.
Many Catholics today, especially the young, are increasingly hopeful. Theirs is emphatically not a worldly hope, but the hope of a people who proclaim with St. Paul: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all.”
Against very long odds (long, at least, from a worldly point of view) the Church today is flourishing. This is not the result of “overcoming” Vatican II, or “getting beyond” the Council, rather it is one of the true fruits of the Council.
It profits us nothing to pretend the Council has brought only good and left no knots to untie. But neither should we forget that the Council was the work not of man so much as of the Holy Spirit. In this there is all the reason in the world for confidence. As the Prophet Isaiah wrote:
Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
The Holy Spirit knows what He's doing, even when we don't.
Stephen P. Whiteis a fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and the coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society.
This article first appeared on “The Catholic Thing” (www.thecatholicthing.org), copyright 2011, all rights reserved.