Dialogue: Do Vatican II & Ecumenism Discourage Converts?

Dialogue: Do Vatican II & Ecumenism Discourage Converts? June 6, 2019

[based on an actual dialogue that occurred in September 2009. My opponent’s words were accurately paraphrased, italicized, and in blue]


We have observed several Baptists come into the Church, as a result of the Tridentine Mass. They had been to Novus Ordo Masses and RCIA for a time, and were utterly disenchanted by them. But they are very impressed by the Tridentine Mass and the Roman Catechism of Trent. They were drawn (by the grace of God) into the Church by the ancient liturgical and not at all by the Vatican II vision.

My own story is a mixture of these two elements of today’s Catholicism. In part because of ecumenism: the pro-life movement, I came into contact with good Catholics and first changed my mind on contraception (ironically, a good priest I met in the pro-life rescue movement was utterly unable to defend the Church’s teaching on contraception, but a Catholic friend of mine could).

This same friend approached me very much in line with Vatican II’s urging to speak with Protestants in language they could understand. He and another like-minded Catholic came to group discussions at my home. That was key to my conversion. If they had both looked down on me as a lowly, dumb Protestant, or were afraid to come to my discussions, they would have gotten nowhere, because I wasn’t dumb or closed-minded; I just needed to learn about the Church from folks who knew how to present the fuller truth.

At the same time I converted, I was mentored by Fr. John A. Hardon, S. J., and started attending my present parish, which is a gorgeous building (German Gothic Revival) and very liturgically traditional.

It was really both things that brought me in: solid doctrinal and liturgical tradition and orthodoxy, and a newer, fresher approach to sharing the faith that is partly ecumenical, still completely orthodox, and plain old common sense.

I don’t see that I or anyone have to choose between Vatican II and traditional liturgical practice. Both are good. Both have been greatly abused. I defend both as part of my task as an apologist for the One True Faith.

I am delighted to hear about your conversion story. But as much as you appreciate Vatican II ecumenism, you must remember that before the council, there where many more conversions than we see today.

That’s correct. Nothing I said implies that this was not the case. There was a huge wave of Anglican converts at the time of Cardinal Newman, for example. But of course, he was quite ecumenical as well (especially for his time) and is seen as the “father of the Second Vatican Council.”

Those historical facts, however, do not overcome the fact that my friends, by acting in ways that Vatican II specifically urged, directly caused my conversion to occur. I was simply offering a counter-example, since Vatican II was mentioned in contradistinction to the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM), as if one helps folks convert and the other doesn’t. That is not a hard and fast rule. If the choice is a lousily-conducted Novus Ordo mass vs. the usual reverent, impressive TLM, then obviously anyone serious about liturgy will choose the latter. But a corruption of a thing is not the thing itself.

In fact, I know there are many other conversions of this sort from my own experience, because lots of people have told me that my apologetics helped them convert, and I am nothing if not a “Vatican II Catholic,” just as the present Holy Father and previous one were. I don’t tell people they are idiots and on the way to hell because they are Protestants. I stress common ground and try to educate them about Catholicism, as Vatican II taught us to do. It is applying St. Paul’s method of “being all things to all people,” that we saw him exercise on Mars Hill in Athens.

Ecumenism can be put to use in apologetics and evangelism. There is no contradiction. Many people seem to think that there is, but it just shows that they misunderstand the true nature of each endeavor.

Rejoicing in what we have in common does not mean that we cannot (respectfully, gently) defend that which is distinctive in our belief over against other ones, and try to persuade others of the fullness of the Catholic Faith. Apples and oranges….

Every pope of the twentieth century evangelized and said that non-Catholics who reject the Church are in distinct danger of hellfire: Pope St Pius X in Pascendi, Pope Pius XI in Mortalium Animos; as did Blessed Pope Pius IX in the 19th century, etc. Vatican II is not the starting point for true ecumenism. It did much to harm the spread of the faith.

The word “hell” doesn’t appear in Pascendi; nor does “damned” or “lost” (i.e., one’s soul). Nor does “eternal” (life, or damnation). He mentions “liberal Protestants” in connection with modernists, showing that he recognizes degrees of apostasy or heresy among Protestants. Obviously, then, Pope St. Pius X did not here tell people they are “on the way to hell because they are Protestants” (which is what I said I don’t do, either) and your counter-point falls flat.

It’s the same with Mortalium Animos. Pope Pius XI never says Protestants will go to hell simply for being Protestants (how could he, anyway?, since the Church makes no judgment on any person’s eternal damnation). He asserts no salvation outside the Church (as I do), but that is a vastly different proposition from saying all Protestants will go to hell. Therefore, with all due respect, you have produced nothing from the magisterium against what I stated, that you disagree with.

Vatican II didn’t harm the faith at all. Liberalism and nominalism and abuses of the council did that; not the council itself. The modern apologetics movement, which is perhaps the largest force working today to produce more converts to the faith, is fully in line with the true spirit and nature of Vatican II.

As I’ve noted before, many reactionaries and some “traditionalists” too (you guys can figure out how many), don’t have time to devote to persuading people to join the Church because they are too busy bashing the Mind of the Church and popes and councils and types of Masses. If you doubt that, just look at their blogs and websites, compared to mine (or the dreaded EWTN or Catholic Answers).

If reactionaries and “traditionalists” want to to devote time to those pursuits, they will, but the fact remains today that most folks who are active in defending and spreading the faith fully accept Vatican II, just as the Holy Father said they should, since (as he stated in The Ratzinger Report in 1985) it is based on the same exact authority as Trent.

I fully agree that “Vatican II is not the starting point for true ecumenism.” The Bible is that, in places like Romans 2, St. Paul on Mars Hill, saying “I have become all things to all men that I might by any means save some of them,” and Jesus’ dealings with the Roman centurion, etc.; also St. Augustine’s approach to the Donatists, St. Thomas Aquinas’ elaborate treatment of invincible ignorance and baptism of desire, etc. Lots of things long before Vatican II show us once again that legitimate modern Catholic ecumenism is not out of line with Catholic tradition at all.


Photo credit: yours truly with wife Judy and first son Paul, in December 1991: ten months after I was received into the Church and Judy returned to it. I was already working on my first book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism, at this time.


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