'Dramatic Confrontations' Unveiled

Vatican IIby By Melissa J. WildePrinceton Univ. Press. 224p $35

This book is sure to garner much attention from professional sociologists of religion and, probably, historians of the Second Vatican Council as well. In fact, a blue-ribbon panel already responded and critiqued Melissa Wilde’s volume at the annual meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion in 2007. Vatican IIis a historical treasure trove. It breaks new ground in dealing with theories of religious change in institutions, and it answers some key questions about the dynamics of the council.

Wilde, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, deftly draws on pre-existing interviews with more than 80 of the most important bishops and theological experts who were advisers at the council. She independently mined six important archives and delved into the Vatican’s secret archive to retrieve every vote of the bishops at the council. She has read extensively the secondary historical literature on the council. From this material, Wilde focuses primarily on three test cases for the strength of the progressives versus the conservatives at the council: the document on religious liberty, the decision not to have a special schema devoted to Mary but to enfold it in the document on the church and the failure of the council to say anything about birth control.


The dominant, so-called “new paradigm” in sociology of religion (associated strongly with the sociologists Rodney Stark, Roger Finke and Stephen Warner) stresses a “supply side” theory of religion. It argues that religious diversity increases religious participation and innovation and draws almost exclusively on three key factors: religious regulation by the state, the extent of religious pluralism and a denomination’s market share.

Wilde’s study pokes serious holes in this regnant paradigm by insisting that sometimes, even in competitive religious markets, stable religious organizations do not so much compete with alternative religious groups as seek to stabilize the market, control competition and ensure “legitimacy.” Wilde wants us to see that internal organization counts. She attacks the crassness of the supply-siders’ metaphor of “religious markets” by insisting that we look more generally at organizational fields. She also argues, against the supply-siders, that culture matters. Wilde uses the literature from social mobilization theory to cast an illuminating sociological light on Vatican Council II.

Wilde’s key questions are the following: 1) How was it possible, given the conservatives’ initial legitimacy, resources and control over the council’s agenda, that the progressives eventually won? Clearly, resources matter but are not entirely determinative. And 2) How did an internally diverse and conflicting group of episcopal interests allow the progressives to build a winning coalition on the key ecumenical questions? Wilde assesses four different groups of bishops, each reflecting its national or regional location.

One group of bishops, from countries where Catholic market share was stable and the church enjoyed a near monopoly (e.g., Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland), steadfastly resisted the conciliar changes in the direction of collegiality and ecumenism.

A second group, again where Catholic market share was stable but where the church existed in a pluralist religious market (e.g., France, England, Germany, the United States, Canada and elsewhere), put strong priority on ecumenism to anchor legitimacy for Catholicism in a pluralist society.

A third important group, from Latin America, historically had near monopoly of market share but was experiencing slippage, which it perceived as a threat and crisis. Its priority at the council lay with issues of economic justice and finding ways to reach the poor and unchurched. Latin Americans were quite mixed on their votes on issues of ecumenism but ultimately became a crucial factor in the progressive coalition.

A final group, from missionary countries, shared the North Atlantic bishops’ concern for ecumenism and religious liberty and the Latin American bishops’ stress on justice for the poor.

Key to the book is a careful reconstruction of two protagonist groups’ strategies. The progressive coalition, spearheaded by a “ginger group” that met weekly for strategy sessions at the Domus Mariae, served as a conduit for information across the emerging episcopal conferences and proposed ways to reach compromise on documents. A conservative, even reactionary group, Coetus Internationalis Patrum, mobilized only after the second session, displayed weaknesses on the conservative flank and proved ineffective in organizing and coalescing even its own potential “sentiment pool.” Because it rejected collegiality, it could not use the effective strategy of working through episcopal conferences at the council.

Most sociological studies of Vatican II focus more on its reception; few have tackled explanations of its inner dynamics. Historians might find fault with some of the details in Wilde’s overemphasis on bishops as the agents of change (to the neglect of some key actions by theological advisers—one thinks of the crucial role of John Courtney Murray, S.J., and Pietro Pavan in overcoming French episcopal objections to what became the “Declaration on Religious Liberty”); about neglect of attention to the action during inter-sessions when the bishops went back home and reacted with—at least in some settings—a mobilized Catholic public; and about the rhythm of the organizational strategies of the progressives (who tended to let down their guard at the end of the council in focusing on any concerted postconciliar process of organizing against the conservative rebirth.

Very few sociological studies rival Wilde’s big-picture analysis of huge institutional religious change. Though Vatican II is theory-laden, Wilde writes in an accessible and jargon-free fashion to help us see what was at stake and how good organization makes a difference. If I were preparing for an eventual Vatican III, I would find this book an indispensable strategy manual for operations.


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