Holy Spirit Province Saint-Esprit
Franciscans of CanadaFranciscains du Canada

Ordo Fratrum Minorum

The Church on the Eve of Vatican II

The Church on the Eve of Vatican II


Why did the Second Vatican Council take place? At first glance, the Catholic Church in Canada seemed to be in good shape. In terms of structure, the occupants of Church offices knew their place well; the levels of authority and the respect and obedience that authority expected were clear-cut. Mass attendance was high – in the upper 60s percent – and many parishes boasted of a fervent devotional life. Vocations to the ministerial priesthood and religious life were numerous. Most Catholics would have thought that the Church they experienced had been ever thus – they were not accustomed to change.

Yet, the new Pope – St. John XXIII – was convinced some changes were in order. Although the jovial Pope gave the impression of being a naïve Italian “papa”, he was nothing of the sort. A seasoned Vatican diplomat as well as a Church historian, he was in a good position to judge the state of the Church in the modern world. The Pope’s initial address to the Council made it clear that he judged the Church’s leadership to be overly defensive, even negative, towards this world – and he affirmed that it was time to bring the Church “up to date”. Pope John had the conviction that because of the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit, it was time for the Church to rejuvenate itself – this is probably the best way to understand his desire to bring the Church “up to date”.

If an institution fears unduly the influence of those outside its boundaries, this leads to an over-emphasis on structure and the centralization of authority. This is in view of protecting the identity and goals of its members from the negative influence of those outside. This helps to explain the clearly defined levels of authority in the pre-Vatican II Church as well as its highly centralized exercise of Church authority. The Roman Curia exercised much of the authority that belonged to local Bishops. The Church appeared to be not only a “pyramid” in its structure, with all the authority resting in Rome, but a fortress as well – to protect its members from the modern world.

Not that the Church did not have good reason to be wary of this world. From the 16th century on it viewed itself as a fortress of truth defending itself from the threats of the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and so on. Although the movement to modernity was not – obviously – all negative, the chasm between the Church and the modern world had – by the early 20th century – seemed almost unbridgeable.

Nothing demonstrates this state of affairs better than the Modernist crisis. In the large sense of the word, a “modernist” could be any thinking Catholic interested in modern science, philosophy, etc. An unorthodox Modernist believed that the doctrines, structures and worship of the Church were mere expressions of a religious “sentiment”; they could change according to different cultures, historical events and subjective thinking and tastes. The Church’s crusade to stamp out Modernism deepened the centralization, legalism and fears of “modern” ideas in the Church right up to – and even during – Vatican II.

In the meantime, St. Pope Pius XII sought to make the Church more aware of its more authentic nature in three encyclicals: Divino Afflante Spiritu promoted modern historical methods in interpreting Scripture; Mystici Corporis presented a more spiritual vision of the Church; and Mediator Dei encouraged the renewal of the Church’s liturgical life.

At the same time, earlier, in fact, theologians were returning to the sources of the faith – Scripture, the Fathers of the Church, the liturgy – in view of leading the faithful to a vision of their faith that would be more easily interiorized and more effectively integrated into their lives.  They were convinced that too many Catholics suffered from “extrinsicism”, that is, a faith overly determined by abstract truths and laws that were difficult for them to understand and to live. The “school” theology taught in pre-Vatican II seminaries, which trickled down into the pastoral life of the Church, might have protected some people from the perils of Modernist heresies. However, it also did not enrich the faith of the laity or prepare them for the Good News that they were, by their baptism, commissioned to share with the world. These “back to the sources” theologians were responsible for most of the content in the Council’s documents. They were acutely aware of the need for a deeper and renewed faith – more centered on Christ and the Trinity, both more personal and communal in nature, and more empathetic to and responsible for the “other”. Every document of Vatican II resonates with this dual intentionality of a renewed, more Christ-like faith and a renewal of the Church’s sense of mission to the world.


Don MacDonald, OFM


(This article originally appeared in Celebrate!, Winter, 2012. It was revised and updated, Sept. 2021.)

(Photo by Lothar Wolleh, The Council Fathers seated during the Second Vatican Council, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.)