Matt C. Abbott
The Catholic Church before and after Vatican II
By Matt C. Abbott
July 30, 2015

The topic of the Second Vatican Council always opens up a can of worms, but so be it. It frequently is the source of (sometimes heated) debate among non-liberal Catholics. Whatever one may think of it, Vatican II is a reality that isn't going to be repudiated by the Church hierarchy in the foreseeable future, if ever.

I fully accept the teachings of Vatican II, but, as I noted in my 2009 letter to the editor in The Wall Street Journal,
    It is not a stretch to assert that the Catholic Church, particularly in the U.S., has suffered greatly since the council took place.

    Kenneth C. Jones compiled an 'Index of Leading Catholic Indicators: The Church Since Vatican II,' published in 2003. Among his findings: While the number of priests in the U.S. more than doubled to 58,000 between 1930 and 1965, that number has fallen to 45,000, and by 2020 there will be only 31,000. In 1965, there were 180,000 Catholic nuns, but by 2002 that number had fallen to 75,000; Catholic marriages have fallen in number by one third since 1965, while the annual number of annulments rose from 338 in 1968 to 50,000 in 2002. (Regarding the annulment process, it is said that, for better or worse, psychological factors have been taken into consideration much more so post-Vatican II.) And, of course, we have the clergy sex abuse scandal that culminated in 2002 and continues to this day.

    Such statistics and events are sobering for any assenting Catholic.
(A significant aspect of the clergy abuse scandal pertains to homosexuality in the priesthood.)

Below is the introduction to the recently-released book Phoenix from the Ashes: The Making, Unmaking, and Restoration of Catholic Tradition, by H.J.A. Sire, published by Angelico Press. Thanks to John Riess of Angelico Press for allowing me to publish this excerpt in my column. Click here to order a copy of the book.

The history of human redemption is the history of the frustration of God's purposes. It begins with a calamity so radical that we cannot even imagine what the state of humanity would have been if God's plan had been obeyed and sin had not entered the world. It continues with the repeated falls of the people chosen by God for his saving action, and then with their double rejection of the Christ, both during his teaching ministry and when his resurrection was preached to them by his apostles. The nation chosen by God to bear witness to him failed in its most essential test.

Three centuries of persecution follow before the new People of God gained acceptance by the world. The next twelve hundred years saw the gradual building of the kingdom of Christ on earth, as the divine word founded a society that became unchallenged throughout Europe, and began to carry its mission into remote lands. Then that course of victory was turned back. The past five centuries have seen a progressive turning away of what used to be Christendom from its old allegiance.

Throughout history, chief among the reasons for reverses have been failures within the Church itself. Ages of health have been followed by episodes of sickness, of which five stand out. Two of them are periods of moral decay: they are the time of the corruption of the papacy in the Dark Ages and the decline of the late Middle Ages. The other three have been times when the Church's life was threatened by the intellectual currents of the age; they are the Arian crisis of the fourth century, the invasion of rationalistic thought that preceded the French Revolution, and finally, the gravest failure of all, the surrender to the modern world that has corrupted the Church in our own time.

My purpose in this book is to analyse the last of these failures, comparing it with those that have gone before. Hence I begin with a historical narrative, for two particular reasons. The first is to give a framework to a number of doctrinal points that have a historical dimension. The second relates to the fact that the history of the Church ought to constitute the prime evidence of God's action in human affairs. Modern culture, however, has developed a version of Catholic history that has turned it into the opposite: a scandal for which Catholics strain to apologise and which others see as an invincible obstacle. There is, therefore, a need to deal with the various parts of the anti-Catholic historical myth as they arise.

In happier days, a defender of his Church could content himself with such an object; today, he has the unwelcome task of turning his argument against what the Church has become. The theme of this book is the betrayal of Catholic tradition in the Second Vatican Council, and the historic catastrophe that has been its result. The nature of that catastrophe can be outlined by a simple contrast.

Sixty years ago, we had in the Church a pope who was revered and obeyed, a doctrinal and moral magisterium that was universally accepted, a respected priesthood, a flowering of vocations, thriving seminaries and religious orders, a Catholic educational system that set a stamp on its pupils, so that lapse from the faith was the exception rather than the rule, a distinctive spiritual life centred on the traditional devotion to the Mass, the Blessed Sacrament, the Virgin Mary, the saints, and the pious practices of centuries.

Against this we now see the opposite: authority beleaguered, moral teaching ignored, theologians who make it their task to attack the teachings of authority as soon as they are heard, a clergy tainted by the gravest moral evils, a headlong flight from the priesthood and the religious life, the eclipse of Catholic teaching in schools, multitudinous lapses from the faith, and the disappearance of the devotional and sacramental life of the Church as our ancestors knew it. We do not need to go back to heroic ages to see our decline; we only need to look to a period still within living memory.

Observers from any other time in the Church's history would have had no difficulty in recognising our plight, and they would have had even less difficulty in recognising the abandonment of orthodoxy. Included in that orthodoxy is the principle that tradition is, with authority and scripture, one of the three pillars of Christian doctrine, and a related principle that the Church's teaching is unchangeable. A view of Catholicism that rejects tradition is therefore a heretical one, as much as the rejection of authority or scripture would be.

Against those principles we have the school that has been in possession for the past fifty years, which boasts of modernising the Church and adapting it to the contemporary world. That school will be found described in this book as Modernism, for obvious reasons. It is the natural name one would give to an ideology of modernity, and it is also the name of the heresy that was condemned by St. Pius X when it arose in the early twentieth century.

Some defenders of the status quo want to deny that the present climate of thought can be identified with that Modernism, and are piously shocked at the name's being applied, with its heretical implications, to contemporary theology. These are generally the same people who deplore the narrow-mindedness of Pius X in condemning what they admire as a movement of enlightenment. This point will be discussed in its own place, and I will merely borrow here the remark that Jacques Maritain made in his estimate of the post-conciliar scene, "compared with which the Modernism of Pius X's time was only a modest hay-fever."

There are many present-day Catholics who are bewildered to hear it said that the modern Church is in decline. They have known nothing else and see nothing untoward in the present state of affairs. They should not disturb themselves by attempting to read this book. Nor am I addressing those who believe that the Catholic Church needs constant remodeling, and that the novelties of our time are simply due to modern enlightenment. Such a point of view gives little weight to scripture and authority, and even less to tradition, in devising its improvements. Its partisans enjoy the approval of contemporary culture, but they stand self-condemned by the criteria of Christian teaching.

The case I am concerned to address is the one that admits the Catholic premises – the premises of authority, scripture and tradition – and wishes to regard the present state of the Church as compatible with them. Those who defend that position hold that there is no heresy or impairment in the modern Church, and that the aberrations we see around us are perfectly compatible with Catholic tradition. They rebuke traditionalists for ignorance of the Church's history in doctrine and practice, an acquaintance with which, they imply, would make us see the present desolation as normal. It is this interpretation of things that needs to be tested. When we have compared the Church's heritage in worship, in doctrine, in culture, and in philosophy with what exists today, we can take stock of the two, judge their compatibility, and make up our minds about their respective merits.

That task involves an obvious limitation. To make an adequate presentation of the Catholic tradition in history would call for a much fuller account than the sketch I give in the seven opening chapters. Yet that tradition needs to be described, because the knowledge of it cannot be assumed. Catholics who knew the Church before the Second Vatican Council were familiar by their own experience with the teaching and spirituality of tradition. To those brought up since then it is an unfamiliar world, and one which the influence of modern culture, with its disdain for the attainments of the past, makes all the more difficult to understand.

A book of this kind written thirty or forty years ago could have plunged straight into the 1960s, assuming what went before; but one cannot today make a case for Catholic tradition without explaining where we stand historically and culturally. In offering that outline, I intend to present a case that would have been thought commonplace two generations ago, part of the mainstream of Catholic thinking. The fact that today it seems unfamiliar and even outlandish is a measure of how far the Church has estranged itself from its intellectual tradition.

To assess the present state of the Church we need to look back to the heights and depths of Catholic history, so as to observe their parallels and contrasts. The depths present a sad story of human weakness, obscuring the divine destiny of the Church; but they also teach us that human weakness, not surprisingly, does not build lasting structures. Each of its historic failures proved in its time a disaster to the Church, because they were a deviation from its proper nature, and it recovered from them by returning to that nature, by returning to its tradition. That is the predicament in which we find ourselves today.

The movement of renewal that was supposed to flow from the Second Vatican Council has brought the Church as low as at any time in its history, and the realisation is growing that the only way of escape is to repudiate the false lead and return to the ways of traditional health. My aim in this book is to show why that return is necessary and to outline the movements of restoration that announce the new direction of the Church.

The lessons of the Church's modern collapse have been brought into sharper focus by the events since 2013. Pope Benedict XVI surprised the world by abdicating his office, citing problems in the Church's government with which he had lost the strength to deal, and wishing to hand over the task to a younger man. The election that followed did not fulfil his intention; we can now expect another short pontificate which, despite the enthusiastic claims now being made for it, will not mark a lasting course and which may see the evils in the Church brought into new prominence. Its very transitoriness makes it all the more timely to state the longer view, one that draws its lesson from the two thousand years of the Church's history and makes it the inspiration for the future.

© Matt C. Abbott


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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, media and theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He also has an Associate in Applied Science degree in business management from Triton College. Abbott has been interviewed on HLN, MSNBC, Bill Martinez Live, WOSU Radio in Ohio, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's 2019 ‘Unsolved’ podcast about the unsolved murder of Father Alfred Kunz, Alex Shuman's 'Smoke Screen: Fake Priest' podcast, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) and WISC-TV (CBS) in Madison, Wisconsin. He’s been quoted in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and other media outlets. He’s mentioned in the 2020 Report on the Holy See's Institutional Knowledge and Decision-Making Related to Former Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick (1930 to 2017), which can be found on the Vatican's website. He can be reached at

(Note: I welcome and appreciate thoughtful feedback. Insults will be ignored. Only in very select cases will I honor a request to have a telephone conversation about a topic in my column. Email is much preferred. God bless you and please keep me in your prayers!)


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