A couple of years ago at a party, I fell into a conversation with a friendly older gentleman, an Irish American of the baby-boom generation and the greater tristate area. At some point, the discussion turned to family life and the challenges of dragging complaining kids to church, and I said something in passing about the Sunday Obligation, meaning the requirement laid on Catholics to attend Mass on pain of serious sin.
He looked at me with a friendly sort of mystification. “Oh,” he said, “but you know the church got rid of that after Vatican II?”
I didn’t really argue with him. Catholicism was deep in his bones, he had been educated by nuns once upon a time, who was I to tell him what his faith really teaches?
But I think about that encounter, and others like it, as intensely relevant to my column from a few weeks ago — on the failure of the Second Vatican Council to equip the church for the challenges of late modernity, the way its reforms aimed at resilience but led to crisis and diminishment instead.
What I tried to emphasize there, with some nods to the work of French historian Guillaume Cuchet, was that the problem with Vatican II probably wasn’t any given change, any specific controversy that followed — whether over religious liberty or the use of the vernacular in the liturgy or the moral status of artificial birth control. It was instead the sheer scale of the changes, the evisceration of a whole “culture of obligatory practice” (Cuchet’s phrase), which severed various threads binding people to the faith, undermined confidence that the church really knew what it was doing and made people more dismissive of the obligations that officially remained.
The question of Sunday Mass-going is a good example. Technically, the church never said what my friendly interlocutor believed, never lifted the weekly obligation. But when an array of customs that reinforced that obligation were relaxed, from the requirement to fast before Mass to the emphasis on regular confession, the tacit message was the one he received — that the time of stringent rules was over, that henceforth the church would be defined by a more, well, American sort of flexibility.
The idea was not simply to make Catholicism easier, of course; the hope was that a truer Christianity would flourish once rote obedience diminished. But the policy and the results, not the hopes, are what we should be interested in three generations later. And in and of itself, a policy of easing burdens was hardly a crazy idea of how the church might adapt to modernity and keep Catholics in the pews. Spiritual issues aside, from an institutional perspective, you can see the logic of saying, the world is making it harder to be a Catholic, so let’s make it easier to practice the faith.
Indeed, I will say that the relaxed style of the contemporary church offers useful concessions to my own situation as a busy professional juggling an assortment of secular obligations for myself and my family, and operating in numerous environments — familial, social and professional — where many people aren’t Catholics.
But I’m also an unusual case: a teenage convert and a convert’s son, an overly intellectualized believer, a bit of a weirdo in my mixture of laxness and literalism.
For most people, Catholic faith isn’t an idea you’ve chosen that then has corollaries in practice (like get to Mass on Sunday). It’s an inheritance that you get handed and have to decide what to do with. And the foundational problem with the keep-people-Catholic-by-making-it-easier-to-be-Catholic approach, it turns out, is that it removes too many of the signals indicating that this part of your inheritance is important — essential — rather than something you can keep without really investing in it, for yourself or, when the time comes, for your kids.
From this perspective, a key obstacle to getting modern Catholics to actually practice their inherited Catholicism isn’t whether they disagree with church teachings or feel adequately welcomed (as much as those issues matter). It’s that the church is in competition with a million other urgent-seeming things, and in its post-Vatican II form it has often failed to establish the importance of its own rituals and obligations.
For example, my guess would be that more American Catholics skip Mass because of the demands of youth sports, the felt need for a more relaxed “family time” or the competing pulls of work and entertainment than because of any theological or moral issue. And over time, this pattern compounds: The children of those families become couples who don’t bother to marry in the church and parents who don’t baptize their kids, and so decline continues because of cultural priorities rather than beliefs.
Right now, Catholic officialdom is engaged in a so-called synod on synodality, a series of listening sessions and bureaucratic confabs aimed at making the church more welcoming and inclusive — with a strong suspicion from conservatives that the endgame is further liberalizations of church doctrine.
I’m one of those suspicious conservatives, but I think the analysis of Vatican II I’m offering here points to a slightly different set of questions for the liberal Catholics who are having their hour under Pope Francis. Namely, which of their reforms would make the church seem more important to the semi-lapsed? How do you reach someone who doesn’t feel unwelcome at Mass but also doesn’t feel any kind of urgency about attending? If progressive Catholicism is in the business of lifting what it sees as nonessential obligations, hastening toward a possible future where one need not even be Catholic to receive communion in the Catholic Church, what form of obligation can it then instill?
The liberalizers don’t believe that a return to tradition suffices for the present challenge. Very well; as a non-traditionalist in my own practice, I’m evidence for their point. But what is the novel means, the welcoming and affirming 21st-century mechanism, whereby my friend from the party, the ancestral Catholic, can be persuaded that it really, truly matters whether he shows up to Sunday Mass?
Any potential recovery of Catholic vitality under the Pope Francis model, any future where the revolution of Vatican II is somehow vindicated after all, hinges above all on the answer to that question.
Of course, all of the foregoing assumes my original premise, that Catholic decline since Vatican II is so substantial as to undermine various attempts (by John Paul II conservatives as well as liberals) to treat the council as a great success. But the premise itself is certainly contested. For instance, by Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, a key Francis ally and possible successor, who recently told a Spanish newspaper, “if we did not have that point of reform that was the Second Vatican Council, the church today would be a small sect, unknown to most people.”
I’ll grant that Roman Catholicism isn’t “unknown” in the current era. But in Hollerich’s region of Europe (he is the archbishop of Luxembourg), it already is a “small sect” by the standards of the past: Some reports have put Mass attendance among self-identified Catholics in Germany at around 9%, and around 5% among Dutch and French Catholics, all part of a steep multigenerational decline. Any secular organization that conducted a sweeping renewal effort that yielded such results would know exactly what to think; any claim that but for those reforms we’d be at 1% rather than 5% would not be taken seriously.
For a more detailed, less facially implausible argument, I recommend a Twitter thread from David Gibson, the director of Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture, replying to my column. His strongest argument is about the post-Vatican II vitality of Catholicism outside the West. This vitality is primarily visible in sub-Saharan Africa, where Catholicism has grown dramatically as the continent’s population has boomed, without the dramatic falling-off that you see elsewhere. Is this due to Vatican II enabling, as Gibson puts it, the “promotion of inculturation and vernacular liturgies,” rather than a stuffy Eurocentric Latin? Or is it part of a wider exceptionalism in much of sub-Saharan Africa to conventional expectations about modernization and secularization, which would have obtained absent the council’s reforms? I don’t think we know, but I grant that the African story cries out for deeper study and complicates any critique of Vatican II.
But the exception is Africa, not, as Gibson suggests, some general “global South” that what he calls my “parochial” American perspective ignores. Yes, it’s likely that demographic momentum carried Catholic growth forward in some parts of the world even as the steep decline began in the West, but the patterns in Latin America are now similar to American and European patterns, except with more losses to Pentecostalism and evangelicalism. (Just between 2010 and 2020, in the pope’s native Argentina, the share of Catholic identifiers went from 76% to 49% of the population.) The post-1960s collapse is worst in Western Europe, but the failure of renewal is evident almost everywhere that Catholicism was well-established before the council.
Then Gibson’s other points are less convincing: He accuses me of lacking “a sense of history” for not acknowledging that the challenges facing the church run deeper than the council. But my column explicitly stated that some version of Vatican II was necessary, that its unfortunate failure does not prove the church could have just continued as it was without facing some sort of crisis, some shock or decline.
He argues that American Catholicism has been “surprisingly resilient” and that “it is likely that the reforms that followed Vatican II enlivened the church in the U.S. considerably and continue to bear fruit.” But American resilience arguably cuts against his argument, since progressive Catholics frequently argue that Catholicism in the United States remains too traditionalist, hidebound, even “integralist,” that it hasn’t gone far enough in the true implementation of Vatican II.
He invokes the chaos that followed past councils to say that by my lights quite a few would have to be “reckoned a failure,” and yes, I think some of them were. Does anyone believe, for instance, that the Fifth Lateran Council of 1512-17 needs to be held up as a great work of the Holy Spirit when it clearly failed to do anything useful to prevent the Protestant Reformation that began the year it ended? Even the Council of Trent plainly failed in some of its objectives, since it did not reconcile Lutherans or re-Catholicize Northern Europe or prevent the Thirty Years’ War. (Though if you believe the current condition of Western Catholic practice and culture will someday be favorably compared to the saints and artists and theologians of the Counter-Reformation era, I have a bridge between the Vatican and Jerusalem I’d like to sell you.)
Finally, Gibson concludes, “at some point a Catholic has to believe that a Council (or synod) is at some level a work of the Spirit and not simply a partisan campaign pitting one agenda against another. That is literally un-Catholic and leads only to cynicism, and bad takes.” I agree with the “at some level” part; for instance, I think you can see the Holy Spirit at work in the Second Vatican Council’s effect on Catholic-Jewish relations alone. But I emphatically don’t agree with the implication that councils and synods can’t be judged and found wanting in their most important practical effects. I doubt Gibson believes this either — unless he takes a very different perspective on, say, the medieval crusades and the councils that encouraged them than the median liberal Catholic.
Ultimately, the business of the Catholic Church is to save souls, to serve Jesus Christ and to manifest the presence of God through its holiness and beauty. And as I said in the column, and I’ll say again: What really breeds cynicism is when the church behaves like the Soviet empire in its dotage and demands constant encomiums to the wisdom and success of a now decades-old renewal project, when everyone can plainly see it’s presiding over crisis and decline.