Vatican II Turns Fifty – Part I: Catholic in an Age of Discontent

The Second Vatican Council convened October 11, 1962. To mark a half-century of struggle between fidelity and dissent, Pope Benedict XVI convenes a Year of Faith.

“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph . . . What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly.” (Thomas Paine, 1776).

When I wrote “At the Twilight’s Last Gleaming: the Fate of Religion in America” two years ago, I had planned to use the above quote by Thomas Paine, but deleted it before sending that post off to be scanned. I decided to focus more on the present than the past, but anyone who knows anything about history knows that the past and the present are not so easily divorced. Today as I ponder the state of the Catholic Church in the half century of struggle between fidelity and dissent since the Second Vatican Council, my deleted quote from Thomas Paine came back to haunt me.

I think Paine’s essay has something important to say to Catholics in the current climate, not only in America but throughout Western Culture. It’s kind of ironic because Paine himself had no use for religion in any form. He was not an atheist, and in fact he called upon the Almighty many times in his essays. He was also not anti-Catholic, as some have suggested. He disregarded all religion equally.

Commitment was Thomas Paine’s religion, and it was sacred to him. As the Revolutionary War between the American Colonies and England commenced in 1776, Paine wrote the above words in an essay he called The American Crisis. Paine had a particular disdain for “the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot” for the conditions they placed on their service to the glorious cause of independence.

They were the colonists who took up arms for the Colonial militia when convenient, then put aside their civic duty to tend to their farms in planting and harvest seasons. Paine’s compelling essay called citizens to the service of the cause of freedom with total commitment, without conditions, and without regard to personal sacrifice.

“What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly.”

In the heat of this past summer, I wrote a post entitled, “Why Are So Many Catholics So Angry with So Many Priests?” It was one of those posts in which I sat in front of this typewriter planning to write something else entirely, but that was the post that came out. Its point was that the Catholic anger I described reflects a far deeper anger that preceded the 2002 crisis of scandal in the Catholic Church and priesthood by decades. I wrote that Catholic anger has not been a response to a decade of priestly scandal so much as that scandal’s frame of reference, and the crucible in which the scandal itself was born.

Readers seemed to agree that the unrelenting hostility toward the Church and priests in some corners of our culture has roots in the 1960s and 1970s, and especially in the implementation of the decrees and documents of Vatican II.

Note the word “implementation.” Despite the dissent of extreme views, the problem has never been the Council itself but rather what happened in its wake. Like the rest of the Western world, Catholics became polarized between the views of the left and the views of the right. In politics, what was once a national divide has become a national abyss the likes of which have not been seen since the Civil War. What happened in the Church after Vatican II is a reflection of what happened at the very same time throughout our culture.

I’m going to make a statement that many Catholics who love Tradition may take issue with, but please know that I share that love. My statement is simple. The Church may not have survived in the West without Vatican II. I’ll get back to this point.


I recently wrote a post titled “Help the Knights of Columbus Restore Civility to American Politics.” I appreciate that some TSW readers put their names on the Knights’ on-line petition for more civility in civil discourse, but in some circles neither my post nor that petition were very well received. A question I had and continue to have is this: Why don’t the Knights of Columbus support their own petition?

At the time my post was published, there were less than 20,000 names on the Knights’ petition for public civility between opposing points of view. That number represents less than two percent of the membership of the Knights of Columbus themselves. I can only conclude from the tepid response to my post and their petition that our culture is so polarized along ideological lines that civility is on a back burner at best, or at worst, gone forever.

In that post, I described some of the traumatic events in American politics and culture between 1962 and 1973 that launched us down a path of political cynicism and distrust of authority. The world and the world’s values changed quickly and chaotically. Western Culture is slowly collapsing, and if there is to ever be a recovery, the Catholic Church and our faith will be essential to it.

It was at the start of that very same decade of immense social change that Blessed Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council. The goal of the Council was not doctrinal, but pastoral. Its goal was “aggiornamento,” the renewal of pastoral practice that Pope John XXIII envisioned would help evangelize a world approaching the 21st Century. So far, much of the opposite has occurred in response, but the Holy Spirit hasn’t finished yet. The point I want to make is that Vatican II remains a work in progress. It now requires a counter-reform to respond to dissent with fidelity.

The problem for Catholics is not the legitimacy of Vatican II. Of course it was legitimate. As the late Notre Dame philosophy professor, Ralph McInerny described in What Went Wrong with Vatican II (Sophia Institute Press, 1998):

“That which makes Vatican II valid is what made Vatican I, the Council of Trent, and every other council valid. To accept one Council is to accept them all. To reject one Council is to reject them all. We cannot have pick and choose conciliarism . . . I take it as a necessary premise the fact that we are bound by the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.” (p. 15).

Dissenting views from both extremes of an ideological divide really seem to be a challenge not for the implementation of Vatican Council II, but for Vatican Council I and its definitions of authority in our Church – definitions of authority that were upheld clearly in the Documents of Vatican II. It comes down to whether our ideologies have become goals in and of themselves, and therefore obstacles to our acceptance of the authority of the Pope and Magisterium. If so, they are obstacles to grace.


During this past summer, I also wrote a post titled “Marking Thirty Years of Priesthood: If I Knew Then What I Know Now.” You have to read to the very end of that post to learn what I would have done if I really did know then what I know now. One of my friends was perturbed with me for the outcome of that post. “How foolish,” she wrote, “that if you had it to do over, you would sacrifice your life and freedom for a Church that didn’t even stand by you.”

Some of my friends don’t get it. If my own comfort was foremost on my mind at ordination, then it is that alone which I should have fled. I was not ordained into the service of my comfort. My priesthood is not contingent upon whether the Church stands by me in my adversity. Don’t get me wrong on this. Just read “Are Civil Liberties for Priests Intact?” for my own pointed remarks on that score.

But my priesthood does not depend upon justice for priests. I’m not quite ready to jump ship just yet. The very notion that some would expect me to abandon priesthood had I seen the awful road ahead of me makes me think of Thomas Paine’s critique of the “sunshine patriot.”

Yet in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, hundreds of priests left the priesthood to go “find themselves.” And it was not just priests who turned on their Church and their commitment when the winds of change became a hurricane. In the decade after the close of Vatican Council II, ten million American Catholics abandoned the Mass.

For a snapshot of just how much cultural values have changed consider this: In 1953, “I Love Lucy” won television’s Emmy Award for Best Comedy. “Dragnet” was honored for Best Adventure. “What’s My Line” scored the Emmy for Best Game Show, and Bishop Fulton Sheen, Auxiliary Bishop of New York, was honored with that year’s highest award for TV: the Emmy for Most Outstanding Television Personality.

From 1952 to 1957, the ABC Television Network devoted a weekly primetime slot to “Life is Worth Living,” a lecture series in front of a chalk-filled blackboard hosted by Bishop Fulton Sheen. It was the most widely viewed and highly acclaimed religious broadcast in television history, and Americans – Catholics and non-Catholics alike – loved it. The show was a ratings blockbuster, and advertisers were in heavy competition for its commercial spots. It was the Super Bowl of American religious television.

In early 1953, at about the time I was born, Bishop Fulton Sheen’s show, which like most on TV then was aired live, broadcast a dramatic reading of a scene from the Death of Julius Caesar. Staring into the camera, Bishop Sheen substituted the name of Caesar with that of Joseph Stalin, the Communist leader and atheist who presided over the post-World War II brutal slaying of tens of millions of his own citizens and other Eastern Europeans. With hypnotic forcefulness, Bishop Fulton Sheen stared into the camera and declared that Stalin “must one day meet his judgment.” America was mesmerized. Three days later, the most feared Communist dictator in history suffered a stroke. A few days after that, he was dead. This was just a month after Bishop Fulton Sheen was awarded an Emmy as the world watched with deepest reverence and devotion.

Could you imagine even the remotest similarity to this story today? Could you imagine the public response if a Catholic bishop was awarded a primetime network slot on commercial television for a weekly discussion on faith and morals and the Church’s place in history? It would not only be impossible, but the outcry would be deafening. It isn’t change in the Church that would make such a thing impossible. It is change in the world.

Western Culture changed. In the wake of Vatican II it drank the poison of this world in great gulps The commitments of Holy Orders faltered, the commitments of marriage faltered, and the commitments of fatherhood faltered setting the stage for the explosion of prisons that I wrote of in “In the Absence of Fathers: A Story of Elephants and Men.” The termination of life for the unborn became defined as a Constitutional right of the already living.

Many in the Islamic world despise the West today not so much because we do not share their faith, but because we do not share our own. Our faith stopped shaping our culture, and instead was shaped by it.

And when the Church did not change enough to accommodate culture, our culture turned on the Church at the moment “aggiornamento” was set in motion. We will never know what the state of the Church would be today in Western Culture had Vatican II never taken place, but our faith requires us to know and trust that the Holy Spirit is seeing to the continuance of the Church in this world. After Vatican Council I in the late 19th Century, Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman cautioned, “It is rare for a council not to be followed by great confusion . . . The century following each council has ever been a time of great confusion.”

We are at the midway point of that century, and it is at this moment that Pope Benedict XVI calls upon the Church to commence a Year of Faith “as a summons to an authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord, the one Saviour of the world.”

We are not summer soldiers and sunshine patriots. We are not baptized to serve a point of view – either left or right – at the cost of fidelity. Deference to legitimate authority in the Church means setting aside some moments of dissent.

If that is humbling, remember that Thomas Paine was right, after all. “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly.”


Editor’s Note: This is Part I of a two-part post on this topic. Part II will be posted here next week.

About Fr. Gordon J. MacRae

The late Cardinal Avery Dulles and The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus encouraged Father MacRae to write. Cardinal Dulles wrote in 2005: “Someday your story and that of your fellow sufferers will come to light and will be instrumental in a reform. Your writing, which is clear, eloquent, and spiritually sound will be a monument to your trials.” READ MORE


  1. TerryC says:

    As a Knight I can tell you quite plainly why I did not sign the petition. It is quite ironic that you post Inigo Montoya’s famous saying. To one side in the present political contest in the United States civility is failing to call them out for their lies. In other words if the Vice-President gets on national television in a debate and just spouts a series of untruths and I call him on it I am being uncivil. All the time his and the President’s advocates call their opponent a liar and it is uncivil to point out their hypocrisy.
    I fear that the leadership of the Order are being naive. Our rules prohibit a man from bringing politics into meetings of the order, and were probably well meaning and useful in the 20th century. Yet in the last election our Supreme Knight spoke out against Obama, quite justifiably it seems to me having seen what he has done in the last 4 years. Still that seems to me a breach of our rule which prohibits intervention in politics. I say that when a political party supports intrinsic evil in their platform it is past the time to worry overmuch about civility, so-called, and to worry about Truth. It is time to revise old rules and take a stand.
    You continue in my prayers, father.

  2. Liz says:

    Great post, Fr. Gordon, and I love the quotes too. I’m looking forward to part II.

  3. Kathy Maxwell says:

    Hello Father,
    I was so happy to hear Pope Benedict opening the “Year of Faith” with an exhortation for us to return to Vatican II. Anyone who actually takes the time to read the documents produced and to understand them as written, will fall in love with that Council.
    We have not recovered from the misunderstanding and misinformation that followed, but one day we will. The Church cannot be destroyed or corrupted by the world. Only those of us who are Her members can be corrupted. We must cling to Her, always trusting in Him who steers Her.

    God bless you my friend.

  4. Juan Toledo says:

    Hi Father Gordon,

    Thank you for your post, it has revived my interest in reading the original documents, a must before talking about Vatican II. Your balanced comments will help me to do it with serenity. I wish it were a lighter task but, as the late Br. Roger, the founder of the ecumenical Taizé community in France once said, the Catholic Church has to contend with one fact: her preaching frequently is made of too many words.

    In the partial reading I’ve done so far, I have encountered goals for the Council stated by John XXIII himself which surpass the mere pastoral ones: “ . . . it is very natural that the forthcoming Council should provide premises of doctrinal clarity” , one can read “should clarify the principles of the doctrine” in another translation of his Apostolic Constitution convoking the Council. If we come to agree that some of the Council’s paragraphs were opened to ambiguity, then no wonder that the devil used it all to bring about confusion, division and estrangement from the Catholic Church’s teachings.

    Your post calls for a counter-reform based on fidelity, unity and opening to the unfinished work of the Holy Spirit above all clouds of dissent. Amen.

    Pope Benedict XVI spoke recently, in the “Year of the Faith” inaugural Mass’s homily, of our need for persons who will lead us out of our current deserts. You, Father Gordon, are one of them Thank God.

    God bless you and all in the house. In union of prayers, your friend in Christ writing from Spain, Juan.

  5. Hi Fr Gordon, Will continue to pray for you and the church.Your right the Holy spirit will vcontinue to shape the church.We must pray for the VenerableFulton.J.sheens intercession with Jeus,Mary,Joseph,IHS.

  6. Karin says:

    As always Father~ another excellent post. Thomas Paine’s words are as pertinent today as they were in 1776, for America is once again or still is in crisis today.
    I agree with your thoughts on Vatican II. As someone not quite old enough to remember all what the Church was like before that Council, I do remember some things. (altar rails and mantillas to name two) My feelings now are that Vatican II was and is a good thing, and even as you say, necessary, but I also think that we may have in some areas thrown out the baby with the bath water. The abuses in the Liturgy are proof of that.
    The Church is made up of human beings, all with wounded natures. We as members of Christ’s Mystical Body (and we need to remember that it is His and not ours)need to adhere to Christ’s teachings handed down to us through the Apostles in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition with that same commitment Thomas Paine spoke of. We as baptized Catholics are fighting a battle, but it is not to be a battle with or within the Church, but rather with our western culture which has bought into and feeds us the lies of Satan. Now more than ever we cannot afford to be “summer soldiers or sunshine Catholics”.
    I am looking forward to Part II.
    Continued prayers for you and all the men there.

  7. Bea says:

    I continue to be amazed at how well read you are, Father, and at how well researched your posts are! I can’t fathom how you manage to do this work from within those stone walls.
    Profound thoughts indeed. It made me think of a parallel; of how much fidelity it takes at times to make it through challenging times in a marriage. Summer soldiering doesn’t cut it there either, but an attitude of service certainly helps.
    Looking forward to Part II on the topic.

  8. Ellen says:

    Bravo, Father. I am so awed by you! Thank you for expressing your commitment to your vocation and to the Church in such a civil and courageous way. We should all be so thoughtful and so devoted to our respective vocations! I am very proud to be Catholic despite the liturgical abuses and foolishness because I can ignore that to see Christ. I can’t do anything about the abuses except pray for the perpetrators. In the Mass is everything I need. I attend both the Latin and the Novus Ordo on a regular basis. To me, each one is a glimpse of Heaven. I admit I prefer the Latin Rite but I am grateful to receive Our Blessed Lord in either one. Thank you, Father. I, too, look forward to your next post. May God bless you. You are in our prayers.

  9. M says:

    Looking forward to the second half! Perhaps the reason for the tepid response to the call for civility is that due to the “dumbing down” of public education people do not appreciate the true meaning of the word civility and confuse it with a wimpish tepidness rather than the courtesy that emanates from a temperament that has been tempered by the power of grace to remain in control despite even the most intense provocation. I am reminded of a story by Malcolm Muggeridge of his sheer anger and exasperation over the behaviour of an Indian bureaucrat and his marvelling at Mother Teresa’s unfailingly civil response. When he asked her how she could put up with it she smiled and said it was Christ in one of his less pleasant disguises.It is a reminder to us all that the only way to peace is each one of us striving to be holy and with the daily effort towards holiness will come increasing civility.

  10. An excellent post. Unfortunately for the Pope’s goals for this year of Faith, already one bishop is making it “The Year of Vatican II”, although he does not call it that. He just disses the Church condition in sacred liturgy and customs prior to Vatican II. I hope we will one day be delivered from such shallow and ideological leaders.

  11. Hidden One says:

    Father, I find it exceedingly difficult to think that the Second Vatican Council was necessary for the Church, but I am willing to read Part II, in which I presume you will make your case.

  12. Mary Jean Scudieri says:

    Hi Father Gordon!
    Very good food for thought!
    The faithful still follow no matter where the world goes because it is the same Father, the same Son and the same Holy Spirit. He has said that He would be with us for all times even until the end of the world.
    It is all about faith!
    We do have a Bishop Sheen in Cardinal Dolan,
    He has a different manner but gets people to listen to what he has to say. I stand with him wholeheartedly!
    Love the new format! Thank you!
    God’s love and blessings to you all! I continue to offer my Mass each day for you!
    Your friend, Jeannie

  13. Veronica says:

    The Church would have survived quite well without Vatican II. If the current Church is the result of that “live-saving” Second Vatican Council, Heaven help us!

  14. NBW says:

    Thank you for the wonderful post, Fr. MacRae. Can’t wait for the second installment!

Speak Your Mind