The Spirit of Vatican II

A History of Catholic Reform

in America

by Colleen McDannell

Basic Books, 304 pp., $26.99

For the last 20 years we’ve been caught in a wildfire of unhappy childhood memoirs: of adult writers trying to make the bestseller list by dousing their mothers and fathers with gasoline and striking a match. We’ve been told about anti-Semitic parents, and child molester parents, and adulterer parents, and criminal parents, and drunken parents. We’ve been burned with scenes of incest, violence, and religious mania—and all to cast a flattering light on the authors who, they insist on telling us, were strong enough to survive such childhood horrors.

It’s all been pretty awful, and if nothing else will convince you of the decline of the family in America, this ought to do it: an entire generation without a sense of familial unity or belief in duty to protect their relatives’ reputations. And yet, bad as it’s been, there’s something nearly as bad in that kindly, oh-so-understanding tone some authors use to speak of the past—something almost as insidious in the self-congratulation with which they forgive their own parents for being helpless victims of the backward past.

Colleen McDannell is a fair enough recent example, and just about any parent I know would whack her upside the head. With a frying pan, maybe, since the woman has cashed in her mother’s life to write a book called The Spirit of Vatican II: A History of Catholic Reform in America, of all unlikely things. Actually, McDannell’s topic is not a bad one. Garry Wills’s 1972 Bare Ruined Choirs remains an interesting read, but really, we lack a good, solid social history of what the reforms of the Second Vatican Council did to the lives and faith of ordinary American Roman Catholics. The Spirit of Vatican II says its purpose is to provide that missing social history, but McDannell structures the whole thing around the experience of her parents’ generation—opening the book with a condescending picture of her mother Margaret as a 36-year-old housewife as the council began in 1962 and closing the book with a creepy vision of what the now 85-year-old Margaret’s funeral will look like when it soon comes.

Not that The Spirit of Vatican II is error-ridden, exactly. When she’s doing straightforward religious history, McDannell gives reasonable if unoriginal explanations of the process by which such declarations as Dignitatis Humanae (on religious freedom) and Nostra Aetate (on relations with non-Christians) were passed at the council—together with clear accounts of the important constitutions Lumen Gentium (on dogma) and Gaudium et Spes (on pastoral concerns). She does buy the old and somewhat tired narrative that Vatican II, properly understood, was entirely about empowering the laity and, particularly, women. Indeed, “Charting the changes of the Second Vatican Council” through the life of her mother Margaret “helps shift the focus away from priests, men, and boys and instead toward nuns, women, and girls,” she writes—praising herself for concentrating on the “grossly underacknowledged” role of women in the church, as though the last 30 years of feminist-dominated scholarship on this and other topics didn’t exist.

That old narrative of Vatican II (standard in this country since the 1960s Vatican reporting that appeared in the New Yorker under the pseudonym “Xavier Rynne”) creates two fundamental problems: It leaves conservative Catholics without an explanation for why the council happened in the first place, and it leaves liberal Catholics without an explanation for why their vision of the council’s spirit eventually failed. Left or right, too many still see the church through 1970s lenses—agreeing, in the midst of their raging disagreements, that the Second Vatican Council represents a complete break with historical Catholicism. Is it worth pointing out that a man named John Paul II happened along the way? And that he recast Vatican II as a council entirely in line with church tradition, preserving its gains and rescuing its orthodoxy? John Paul wasn’t on the side of the liberals, and he wasn’t on the side of the conservatives. He was ten steps ahead of them all.

Colleen McDannell holds the Sterling M. McMurrin Chair of Religious Studies at the University of Utah, which is not inappropriate. McMurrin was an interesting man: a national scholar who was also something of a power in the Mormon Church back in the 1960s and ’70s. Those were the days when everybody already knew that the Latter-day Saints would have to make some moves toward joining—politically, socially, and theologically—the rest of Christianity in America. And the question was whether the Christian churches toward which the Mormons moved would be from the liberal Protestant mainline or the emerging conservative evangelicals.

McMurrin plumped for the liberal mainline, and he lost. Badly. But his spirit seems alive in McDannell, whose ameliorative picture of Catholicism today is designed mostly to maintain the liberalism of the laity that she fears is disappearing. Or, at least, a kind of old-fashioned, mainline-consensus liberalism. Social history is her specialty. Heaven: A History, the 1988 book she cowrote with Bernhard Lang, is a nice walk through the world to come, as pictured in various ages, and with the 1996 Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America she managed the difficult task of mocking Christian kitsch without insulting the beliefs of its creators and purchasers.

Through it all, McDannell has worked from a picture of faith as a reasonable and proper thing for people to have—provided, of course, that they don’t carry things too far. That can look quite conservative, in a world with the New Atheists running around declaring religious upbringing a species of child abuse. But it is, at root, a dated and nostalgic thing, uninformative about the times in which we actually live. In The Spirit of Vatican II, McDannell finds herself pleasantly surprised at the survival of Catholicism through everything from the first excitement about the council in 1962 to the latest round of outrage about the priest scandals. But she can’t account for that survival, mostly because she has no idea of what to make of John Paul II’s changing of what, McDannell sees, was the trajectory of Catholicism as it emerged from the 1960s.

And of course, to tell her social history of the ups and downs caused by the Second Vatican Council, McDannell uses up her mother’s life. Yes, The Spirit of Vatican II isn’t brutal and defamatory, the way far too many memoirs about parents have been over the last 20 years. But even the sweetest, most ostensibly respectful accounts pall a little when coupled with the self-superior view that, after all, we can’t really blame our parents for making the mistake of living in those strange, benighted days that are the past.

Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.

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