HOW DID WE GET OFF COURSE?
The Second Vatican Council: Why Pope John XXIII Would Weep

July-August 2004By Alice von Hildebrand

Alice von Hildebrand is Professor Emerita of Philosophy at Hunter College of the City University of New York. She is the author, most recently, of The Soul of a Lion (Ignatius), about her late husband, the Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand; The Privilege of Being a Woman (Veritas Press); and By Love Refined (Sophia Institute Press). She has written extensively for many Catholic periodicals and appears frequently on Mother Angelica’s EWTN.

George Sim Johnston has written an article on the still hot topic of Vatican II. The past forty years have been marked by such confusion that we might yet be too close to the events to gauge them with fairness and accuracy. Nevertheless, Johnston’s article, “Open Windows: Why Vatican II Was Necessary” (Crisis magazine, March 2004), is both challenging and thought-provoking. He rightly condemns the “self-satisfied tri-umphalism” sometimes found in the pre-Vatican II Church — the pitiful self-complacency of those who, while living very mediocre lives, nevertheless plumed themselves for belonging to the one true Church. Just as the Chosen People of the Old Testament — instead of becoming humbly grateful for an immense privilege of which they had no merit — could be tempted to look down upon others, so mediocre Catholics too often forgot that the blessing they had in belonging to the one true Church did not justify their feeling superior to others. Unfortunately, human beings have a special talent for going from one error to an opposite one. “Triumphalism” became a slogan to be denounced, with the result that today innumerable Catholics have lost sight of the privilege they have received and shy away from proclaiming the glory of the one true Church. A sad proof of this is a statement of someone close to me — a daily communicant — who chided me for believing that the Catholic Church is the one true Church founded by Christ, and that the Savior has given the keys to Peter. “No religion is true,” I was told. “All of them are seeking the truth.” That Christ said, “I am the Truth” (something that no other religious leader had ever dared assert) is now forgotten. And this is how the inter-religious meeting in Assisi in October 1986 is interpreted.

I take exception to Johnston’s endorsement of Martin Buber’s claim that success is not one of the names of God. Christianity is the greatest success story in human history. Calvary, the greatest imaginable human defeat, was followed by the Resurrection, without which, St. Paul tells us, we would be the most miserable of all creatures. Surprisingly, in his answer to criticisms about his endorsement of Buber’s claim, Johnston replies that Calvary “is the defining event of Christianity.” He does not mention the Resurrection! In a nutshell, Christian history is constant human defeats followed by glorious supernatural victories. St. Paul has expressed this truth in his second Epistle to the Corinthians: “perplexed, but not driven to despair…struck down, but not destroyed…” (4:8, 9). This is success indeed, but a success that God alone can explain.

Johnston tells us that Pope John XXIII wanted to take the Church out of “her Tridentine shell” to an active engagement in the modern world. But the Council of Trent brought a rich harvest of saints and religious orders, all of which were founded with the intention of spreading the light of the Gospel to the world, either in contemplative orders or in active ones. St. Francis de Sales, St. Jeanne Françoise de Chantal, St. Vincent de Paul, the holy Curé d’Ars, Don Bosco (one of the greatest educators of all time), St. Thérèse of Lisieux (apostle of the missions) were all nurtured in the “shell” of the Council of Trent.

Johnston writes that Vatican II aimed at opening the Church to the world, and that because of Vatican II the Church is now “for the world.” But the word “world” is ambiguous. When one reads the Gospel of John, chapters 14-16, one is struck by how often the “world” is mentioned. Christ tells us that the world hates Him, that He has no part in the world. He tells His Apostles that if the world has hated Him, it will also hate them. The Devil is called “the Prince of this world.” One cannot conceive of a sharper rejection of “the world.” There is a religious and metaphysical duel between God and the Prince of this world, and this duel will go on until the end of time, when the Evil One will be defeated. He who loves Christ must hate the world, with all its pomp, for the world is the kingdom of Satan. In Baptism we are ordered to renounce the world. Paul VI lamented that “the opening to the world became a veritable invasion of the Church by worldly thinking” (Nov. 23, 1973).


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