Catholics of my generation – the generation that came of age during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II – find it almost impossible to imagine the way the world was on October 11, 1962, the day the Second Vatican Council opened.

My generation knows only the post-Conciliar Church with its priest shortages, parish and school closings, and empty confessionals. Dissent, if “grayer” and less energetic than in recent decades, is in many ways more widespread and deeply engrained, especially on questions of sexual ethics and family life.

The self-inflicted wounds of the sex-abuse scandals fester while the enemies of the Church revel in recounting the sins and crimes of her priests. Liturgy, if not the mess it once was, rarely soars and occasionally wallows. But then, how could it be otherwise, given how ugly our church buildings are these days.

The list of gripes is scandalously long.

Compare all this to my generations oft received (and only half-true) account of the pre-Conciliar Church – pious, devout, and vibrant; liturgies well incensed and in Latin – and it’s easy to see the Council as the beginning of a time of decline, dissolution, and decay.

In some sense, of course, it was. The Council was convened before the most violent eruptions began, the cultural vents and spiritual rifts that spewed so much billowing smoke and toxic fume in the ensuing years had been opening and rumbling for decades, though few had the wisdom or vision to see.

It is tempting to think that, had the Council Fathers been more foresighted – more critical of modernity and less ebullient in their optimism – the catastrophes of the past forty+ years could have been avoided, or at least greatly mitigated.

While it’s obvious (especially in hindsight) that all men are imperfect, it is a grave mistake to “blame the Council” for the Church’s woes – as though we’d have been better off without it.

For one, it is impossible to conceive of a John Paul II or a Benedict XVI without the Council. These two popes have piloted the Barque of Peter through some very treacherous waters. In this, the Council has proved an invaluable aid.

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