The Spirit of Vatican II:

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Article Reviews
The Spirit of Vatican II: A History of Catholic Reform in America
By Colleen McDannell (Basic Books, 2011)

For many Catholics, the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) represents a Spirit-led initiative now being dismantled. For others it was a well-meant experiment gone awry. In The Spirit of Vatican II, Colleen McDannell explores those two extremes through the eyes of her parents, Margaret and Ken, whose lives span the pre-, mid-, and post-Vatican II church.

Prior to the council, we witness the couple’s yearning for more relevant theology and practice. After 1965, we get a front-pew view of American Catholic life. Clergy trained for ministry in the Vatican I church struggle to retool and implement reforms. Priests and people eager for renewal break new ground, modeling Pope John XXIII’s aggiornamento. Meanwhile, opponents long for the pendulum to swing back toward the past.

Ever-faithful to their church, Margaret and Ken find themselves caught in a moral firestorm following Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae (1968). While the American hierarchy demanded assent to the ban on contraception, many lay Catholics and local clergy trusted their consciences. In McDannell’s words, “Parish priests felt comfortable laying the decision about birth control at the feet of individual Catholics.”

In assessing the American Catholic environment today, McDannell finds a troubled community. She cites as examples a self-inflicted shortage of parish priests, an influx of conservative foreign clergy who lack understanding of the American character and culture, and a shameful sex-abuse scandal that won’t go away. Faced with a world exploding around us and disaffected Catholics quietly opting out, some seek a reenergized faith through Latin Masses and new translations of familiar texts.

The Spirit of Vatican II urges us to remember what being an American Catholic was like before and during the council, as well as in the decades since. It asks: Who do we want to be as a church going forward?