A reader’s comment on my article yesterday about one of the failures of Lateran V reminded me of another instructive episode from the history of the ecumenical councils. In 2002, one week before the 40th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II, George Weigel, a great admirer of that assembly, wrote the following: “I’ve been much struck recently by the question of whether, in the mid-third millennium, Vatican II will be remembered as another Lateran V or another Trent. Lateran V was a reforming council that failed; Trent was a reforming council whose success defined Catholic life for almost four centuries. Lateran V’s failure was one cause of the fracture of Western Christianity in the Reformation — and thus of the wars of religion, the rise of the modern state, and the gradual erosion of Christian culture in Europe. Getting it wrong, in this business of conciliar reform, can carry high costs.”
But by its 40th anniversary, Vatican II was already neither another Lateran V nor another Trent. Forty years after the start of Trent puts us in the year 1585. By that point, the Church had already made huge strides in implementing the reforms ordered by the Council, and the movement to continue doing so was gaining strength every day, with the strong leadership and support of the Papacy. The spread of Protestantism had been halted in much of Europe, and even reversed in some places; the evangelization of the New World was proceeding apace. New religious orders such as the Jesuits and Oratorians were thriving and spreading, and inspiring the older ones to highly successful reforms. The model of Counter-Reformation bishops, St Charles Borromeo was still alive, and a leading figure in the implementation of the Council’s decrees.
It hardly needs saying that forty years out from Vatican II, the Church was not thriving as it was in 1585.On the other hand, forty years after the start of Lateran V puts us in the year 1552… smack in the midst of the Council of Trent. Forty years after Lateran V had so spectacularly failed to bring about any of the reform that the Church so desperately needed (and helped trigger the Reformation), the Church did not content itself with monomaniacal repetition of the catchphrase, “You have to accept Lateran V!”, while ignoring the fact that everything was burning down around it. Rather, it recognized that its previous feint at reform had failed catastrophically, and set about at Trent to do well what it had done badly at Lateran V.It hardly needs saying that forty years out from Vatican II, the Church wasn’t doing this either.If we wish to find a more useful parallel between Vatican II and another ecumenical council, we will find it, rather, in that which was held in the Swiss city of Constance between 1414 and 1418. I hope I will not try the reader’s patience too much with some necessary historical background.In 1309, the Popes took up permanent residence in the French city of Avignon. The reasons behind this are irrelevant to my purposes; what is relevant is that the Pope himself thus became the Church’s most prominent absentee bishop. (Since he was also the temporal ruler of Rome and environs, the ensuing long papal absence also reduced the Eternal City itself to an appalling state.) This scandal of almost 70 years’ standing was ended in 1376, to be replaced within a year by a far greater scandal, the Great Schism of the West, which lasted for forty years, during which there were at first two, and then three different claimants to the throne of St Peter. By the time the Council of Constance began in 1414, the reputation of the Papacy was deservedly at one of its lowest ebbs.The former cathedral of Comnstance (which ceased to be a diocese in 1821), seat of the sixteenth ecumenical council.
In reaction to what seemed to many a radical failure of the Papacy to fulfill any part of its purpose, there then arose a movement now known as Conciliarism, the idea that the ecumenical council as an institution within the Church is superior in authority to the Pope, and that the Church should look first and foremost to it, and not to the Papacy, for leadership. Constance itself was the high-water mark of the movement, and in a great wave of enthusiasm for such councils (which will, I think, strike almost any modern reader as completely bizarre), in October of 1417, it issued the decree Frequens, establishing that henceforth, they would be held continually: five years after the close of Constance itself, seven years after the close of that council, and thenceforth, every ten years.
The Pope whose election finally settled the Great Schism, Martin V, closed Constance the year after his election, announcing that the next council would be held, according to the schedule laid out by Frequens, at Pavia in 1423. He was still alive five years later, and in due course sent his legates to Pavia; they arrived to find two abbots waiting for them. Over the following weeks and months, they were joined by fewer than 30 other prelates, whose assembly achieved nothing other than to announce that the next council would be held in the Swiss city of Basel in 1431. In that year, Martin V was succeeded by Eugenius IV, whose legates found the same tiny numbers at Basel that his predecessor’s had found at Pavia.
The Church now recognizes Basel (which lasted for 14 years, changing its location twice, and its purpose on the way) as an ecumenical council, but not Pavia; the reasons for this are very complicated, and not germane to my purpose. My point is rather that noted by Mons Philip Hughes in his book The Church in Crisis: A History of the General Councils: “Almost nowhere, it seemed, were bishops interested in General Councils. The great wave of enthusiasm which had carried the decree Frequens had crashed more rapidly than it had risen.”This is the truest parallel we will find among the ecumenical councils with Vatican II: a wave of enthusiasm for something new, something which everyone hopes will bring great benefit to the Church, followed by the sudden and almost inexplicable dissipation of that enthusiasm.
Just as the bishops who attended Constance and issued Frequens did not bother to attend the council which they themselves had called for, the bishops who wrote and approved the documents of Vatican II seemed afterwards to care nothing for what they had written during it.
The versus populum altar installed in Notre Dame de Paris by Cardinal Lustiger in 1989, destroyed by the collapse of the church’s ceiling in the fire of April 15, 2019, an innovation never asked for by Vatican II.To stick to the purview of NLM: they wrote in Sacrosanctum Concilium that “there must be no innovations (in the liturgy) unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them,” and showed no interest in the fact that any number of innovations were introduced into the liturgy that the good of the Church genuinely and certainly did not require. They wrote that “Gregorian chant … should be given pride of place in liturgical services,” and that “the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites” and showed no interest in the fact that the ensuing reform permitted them both to vanish almost entirely. They wrote that “(T)he accounts of martyrdom or the lives of the saints”, which have been read in the liturgy from the very earliest days of the Church, “are to accord with the facts of history”, and showed no interest in the fact that such accounts were removed from the Divine Office almost entirely.
Similar examples might be drawn from any of the Council’s documents; here I offer only one more. In Dei Verbum, they wrote very rightly that “Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold, that the four Gospels … faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation…” They then showed no particular interest in the fact that teachers in seminaries and Catholic theological faculties embraced the worst of modern Biblical “scholarship” and openly denied this very point.
What, then, do we learn from all of this? No more, perhaps, than to ask a question: “If the very authors of the document of an ecumenical council showed no enthusiasm for its implementation, why must I be required to show even more enthusiasm for it than they did?