Paul Blanshard on Vatican II
The Drama of Vatican II: The Ecumenical Council, June 1962-December 1965
If time is reckoned by months and years, it is not so very long since Mr. Blanshard published his bestseller American Freedom and Catholic Power. If, however, time is measured by change, so much has happened to the Roman Catholic Church in the short interval between the publication of that book and the summoning of the Second Vatican Council that we might all have been living for centuries. Then we wondered when reform would begin; now where it will end.
American Freedom and Catholic Power was a vigorous protest against all those things that made the Church of Rome, in its functioning, resemble a police state. It takes courage to make enemies, and of course Mr. Blanshard was much abused. In those days most Catholics, if they read his book at all, probably thought him mad, bad, or both. But I imagine that if the Council came as a shock to them, it was an equal shock to Mr. Blanshard, who might fairly complain that the Romans have caught him bathing and stolen his clothes. Most of the criticisms he then voiced have now been expressed as repeatedly and as strongly by those within the fold.
AS SO OFTEN HAPPENS, many who attacked American Freedom and Catholic Power did so for the wrong reasons. The weakness of that book lay not in its exposure of Roman illiberalism, but in its lack of balance. This was owing to the author’s failure to recognize what religion is fundamentally about. Paul Blanshard on Vatican II suffers from the same defect. The limitations of Mr. Blanshard’s outlook are apparent from his very first sentence. He tells us there that the object of his work is to report on the Council and appraise it in the light of traditional American democratic values. On almost the last page a doubt enters his mind. It could be, he says, that the American way of life is also on trial in the light of the Council’s philosophy. But in order to appreciate what is of worth in this book the reader, like the author, must put this question to one side and take Catholicism at Mr. Blanshard’s original valuation.
For he represents a very large section of our society. He speaks for those who are repelled by the externals of institutional Christianity, whose theology is superficial and knowledge of Church history confined to the more spectacular manifestations of clerical folly or the grosser doctrinal errors of the Papacy. Such people make no distinction between religion and the kind of behavior well-bred atheists agree to call good. They do not really understand that the purpose of the entire paraphernalia of the Roman Catholic Church is to direct man’s eyes to God in this world so they may be capable of a fuller communion with him in the next. For them the word became flesh in order to disclose the Western democratic tradition. To the extent that this tradition stands for values held precious by …
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