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Why did Vatican II kill renewal?

Longtime Catholic Workers Mark and Louise Zwick look back in puzzlement and sorrow: What Happened to the Tremendous Renewal Possibilities after the Second Vatican Council? They don’t really answer the question, except by going off on a ramble through post-60s history that ends in a harangue about Michael Novak, heartless capitalism, and John Allen as the running dog of the neoliberals. Still, they give an inspirational—I mean that seriously—account of the pre-Vatican II spiritual and intellectual movements that in the end annihilated themselves, taking much of the Church with them, through their institutional triumph at Vatican II.

From the account it appears that the pre-Vatican II movements were everything post-Vatican II Catholicism is not: serious, grounded, disciplined, orthodox, profoundly at odds with liberalism and the Enlightenment, and intent on pursuing a specifically Catholic and Christian course. So why were results so much at odds with what proponents wanted and expected? I wasn’t there, and I haven’t studied the matter much, so it’s hard for me to say. Still, some possibilities come to mind that are at least worth a weblog entry:

  • No matter how well-intentioned and even admirable a movement for return to sources and renewal of religious life may be, it’s likely to involve at some level and among some participants a desire for self-assertion and shaking off the strictures and authorities of religious life as it actually exists here and now. Also, it’s possible for even good and intelligent people who are striking out on new paths to make mistakes. For that reason discipline and discrimination as well as inspiration and devotion are needed.
  • Normally, it’s the function of the hierarchical Church to provide the discrimination and discipline while others provide the devotion and inspiration. Saint Francis wasn’t pope and he didn’t try to get an ecumenical council to make his ideas official policy. Unfortunately, that’s the approach the new movements took at Vatican II. As a result the hierarchy lost its critical distance from new initiatives and speculations, so it could no longer judge and set limits effectively. The outcome has been the blobbiness of current Catholicism.
  • On the other side, the attempt to institutionalize charisma destroyed it by introducing the usual vices of bureaucratic institutions: mediocrity, laziness, lack of personal commitment, reduction to slogan and formula, and so on. The nature of the new movements was such that what was best in them couldn’t possibly survive that. Dorothy Day was one thing, a functionary engaged by the diocesan social justice office to exercise the prophetic role of the Church by drawing up position papers is something else.

As a final comment, it seems to me that an lack of clarity about the dangers of expecting too much from formal institutions in realizing Christianity may lie behind some of the Zwick’s comments on heartless capitalism. You don’t have to be a commie to have some issues with Michael Novak, but it does seem to me that extreme anti-capitalist rhetoric suggests socialism. The rhetoric doesn’t make sense unless you believe that the basic problems are institutional and thus soluble by basically institutional means.



I have had exchanges with another member of the extended Catholic Worker family on an email list. I tend to concur with your final comment. There is much that is worthwhile in the social and economic analysis of distributism/Catholic Worker etc. but the social analysis of even its thoughtful exponents can’t seem to separate itself from a relatively conventional (and hence shallow) critique of “capitalism”. They understand distributism, subsidiarity et al but confronted with the evils of the world they fall back on a systemic critique, which as you point out demands systemic and institutional redress—far away from the local, traditional movement they are convinced they are proposing.