Here is the take-away folks. You can be a history professor at Oxford and still be a complete moron. The really sad this is that Diarmaid MacCulloch is actually writing a history of Christianity. I venture to say that it might belong in the fiction section if this article is any indication.

But the pope was at his most interesting when he jumped from the 15th to the 20th century at the culmination of his address, because he came out fighting for his own view of that most controversial and ambiguous of oecumenical councils, the second Vatican council of 1962-65 (Vatican II). For some Catholics, this revolutionised Roman Catholicism, pointing to new decentralisation, actively involving the whole congregation of the faithful in decisions, and jettisoning Tridentine triumphalism, opening the church to new humility in listening to alternative voices in the quest for the divine. To others, the council did some tinkering, reaffirming old certainties with a little adjustment of language (in more senses than one, since its one absolutely unignorable result was to turn most Catholic liturgy into the vernacular). The latter party would mostly have preferred the council not to have met at all, or at least to have stuck to a script written by Vatican bureaucrats if it did meet. These are two utterly irreconcilable views of an historical event. What would Pope Benedict say?

This. At Vatican II, “the church, on the basis of a renewed awareness of the Catholic tradition, took seriously and discerned, transformed and overcame the fundamental critiques that gave rise to the modern world, the Reformation and the Enlightenment. In this way the church herself accepted and refashioned the best of the requirements of modernity by transcending them on the one hand, and on the other by avoiding their errors and dead ends.” It’s difficult from this to know what the pope might count as “the best” of modernity’s requirements, but apparently even those can be transcended, and plenty of errors and dead ends just get avoided – a bit like a sacralised version of Lara Croft dodging through the nasties. You could hardly get a more defensive vision of the council than this. It sounds for all the world like that most unfortunate and embarrassing of Pope Pius IX’s public statements, the Syllabus of Errors of 1864, which famously culminated in the proposition that it was wrong to believe that the pope “can and ought to reconcile himself with progress, liberalism and modern civilisation”.

What it does mean is that the pope has put himself at the head of the small-earthquake-in-Chile-not-many-dead view of Vatican II? This is entirely to be expected. Neither he nor his predecessor John Paul II liked the direction which Vatican II took, though a veritable industry of official Catholic historiography has assiduously promoted the view that they were all for it and its results. The reality is that soon after the Council, leading Catholic theologians like Hans Küng, Edward Schillebeeckx, Karl Rahner and Yves Congar (whose now published journals do not reveal great enthusiasm for the future Pope John Paul II), complained that the Roman curia was putting brakes on reforms envisioned by Vatican II…

Do you sense his frustration? Here is the thing and the reason I suspect that Mr. MacCulloch is so frustrated; history is written by the victors and his side is losing badly.

The concept that the council or its documents called for a radical break from all that came before is just not supportable. When all you have to support your thesis are the complaints of tired old cranks like Küng, Schillebeeckx, Rahner, Congar who long ago lost any credibility, you are reduced to tilting at windmills.

What history will ultimately reveal is that a small but highly organized group of radicals used the council as an excuse to its own ends. They did great harm for a time, but ultimately the Church recovered and they were forgotten.

This is what the dinosaurs know. That for all their initial success and high hopes in the 60’s and 70’s, they are now irrelevant. The realization of irrelevancy is understandably tough to take and gets expressed from time to time in silly articles or books. These books will be purchased by their aging fellow travelers and end up sold for 5 cents in an estate sale or burned for kindling in the near future.

But don’t be so hard on Küng, Schillebeeckx, Rahner, Congar, or even MacCulloch, irrelevancy is a bi…

ht Luke Coppen