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A story that circulated in the decades following Vatican II goes like this: when St. John XXIII was asked why he was calling the Second Vatican Council, he opened the windows and declared, “I want to throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in.”
Despite its popularity, there is no real evidence that John ever said such a thing. It is, however, a pithy summation of the attitude that sparked the Council and the Church’s subsequent upheaval: the pre-conciliar Church was a stuffy, stagnating institution, too focused on gloom and doom that needed a sweeping rush of new air to bring a new Pentecost. It was a much more optimistic story, and one that defined the era.
Though well-intended, it is impossible to deny that the “spirit of Vatican II” that came through the windows wrought havoc in the Church. Liturgy, custom, catechesis; it was all radically changed. It was all set down under one narrative, but the story was now different: many of its themes and philosophical principles changed, though its goals were purportedly the same.
It is impossible to examine all components of the “spirit of Vatican II,” but one major shift hinged upon an attitude in the spirit of the document “Nostra Aetate:” other religions were no longer to be held at length. Rather than warning about their dangers, for the sake of world peace and progress, the Church must collaborate with them, and “hold in sincere reverence” any truths contained therein.
Perhaps with proper catechesis, this attitude could have been faithfully realized. But the windows were opened to the world, and the world, like the flesh and the devil, always takes a chance to push in.
When the spirit of Vatican II came, it brought modernism and relativism. The idea that “non-Catholic beliefs contain truth” became “non-Catholic beliefs are true.” This was a massive subversion of what God has always instructed to his people: there is one way and one truth to the one life we need to seek. In the new story? Not necessarily.
I keep coming back to narrative, and that is because there must be one. Humans are drawn towards stories, full of patterns, symbolism and themes that resonate in us as true, even if we cannot put our finger on why.
Catholics are meant to see things that way. When evangelists are sent on mission, they go to tell a story: how God created the world, its fall and his quest to save it, and what it takes to participate in this salvific work.
Ancient Church historians had such an acute sense of this that when they wrote even secular histories, they identified the providence of God and the moral lessons to be drawn from it, much like how the inspired Scripture is intended to be read.
But modernism and relativism seek to relegate it to a story, not the story. Modernism insists on the lack of spiritual reality, and relativism creates an agnostic atmosphere that holds everything in an eternal skepticism. If everything is in some sense true, is it possible to claim objective truth?
The declarations of Christ about the narrow way, the coming judgement, the necessity of belief in him become uncomfortable, even though they have been an essential element of the story God authored from the beginning.
In a relativistic world, nobody should set the narrative, certainly not the Church, and many Catholics –– laity, clergy, and hierarchy –– have come to believe this: that it should not lead the world to Christ, but it should accompany the world as it seeks for meaning. And to accompany is to follow, wherever that leads.
Now, Catholics who unwittingly accept these erroneous principles do so because they believe that it will help win souls; if people could just see that the Church wants what the world wants, that it is relevant and helpful to advance the goals of progress and peace, they might be compelled to believe.
But to attempt this is to lose sight of what the Church truly is, and anyone brought to faith by this conformity to the world are coming to believe in something that Catholicism just strictly cannot be.
The Church set the world ablaze throughout history by being true to itself, true to Christ, telling his true story, and we must have hope that it can again –– but only if the influence of the world’s narratives is uprooted from our hearts.