Sunday, May 19, 2013

Were Things Really That Bad Before Vatican II?

Sometimes while bored, I like to sit back and reflect upon what used to pass for discourse on matters surrounding traditionalism.  Heck, it's something Pete Vere and myself do on at least a weekly basis.  As a behind the scenes voice in a lot of matters on the blogosphere for now 11 years, I've seen a lot.  Some of it I remember fondly, even if I didn't agree with it.  Other things I remember with nothing but disdain.

One particular argument that makes me want to deliver the Cubito Aequet occurs whenever traditionalists like to point out that, all things being equal, the Church of the Early 20th century was kind of in a golden age, whereas the Church after Vatican II most certainly has not, even by the admissions of every Bishop of Rome since the closing of the Council.  This really isn't rocket science, the data speaks for itself.    By just about every objective criteria, the Church was in healthier shape.  That isn't to say the aftermath of the Council is solely to blame, but when even Pope Francis talks about how a bunch of selfish bishops resisted the Holy Spirit and in their arrogance implemented their own ideas rather than Catholic truth, why on earth are we even arguing this still?

One sees this kind of argument in a recent post by Steve Kellmeyer.  There are things that I like about this post.  He is correct in pointing out a lot of the bad narratives that crop up in some circles about the Second Vatican Council (the "infiltrate narrative") which usually results from a bad reading of objective facts.  (Vatican II had this going for it, no Bishops were physically assaulted and injured during its proceedings, which cannot be said for Trent!)  I also agree with him that a lot of the trouble (as is often the case) comes down to individual Catholics.  We get the Church we build, and a lot of us have been far too busy building our own works alongside those of Christ's.

All this being said, is it still right to say what Mr. Kellmeyer says:

The bishops and priests who wanted to reform what is now the Extraordinary Form of the Mass wanted to do so for a very good reason: the EF sucked wind. It stank. It was at least sub-optimal. In fact, it was so substantially flawed that it required reform.
Even allowing for his typical verbal pomposity, is there something to what he says here?  Do we traditionalists really bury our heads in the sand and act like everything was perfect, when in reality it was quite the opposite?  While you might find a few traditionalists who think this way, the majority of right thinking (and even wrong thinking) trads don't seriously advocate this.  When traditionalists celebrate things like the Anti-Modernist Oath and the various framework around it that for the most part was obliterated following the Council (and after which heresy became rampant amongst the clergy in public), they are recognizing (even on an implicit level) the following:  that the average individual priest was prone to act badly either out of malice or human weakness, so good governance required structures in place to keep him on the proper path.  When we attack the constant innovations and liturgical abuses rampant within the Ordinary Form, we celebrate the liturgical rubrics and discipline that made 95% of those abuses impossible within the Extraordinary Form.

In the end I think it was things like this that truly helped bring about the golden age.  During the pontificates of Blessed Pius IX up to Paul VI, we had a church that internally was thriving, intellectually and spiritually.  The mere fact that you had 6 (or 7 depending on your count) very good popes in a row makes it somewhat of an anomaly in church history.

That doesn't mean everything was perfect.  Of course it wasn't.  Even during a golden age you can see the seeds of a fall sometimes centuries in advance.  At the height of the Kingdom of Israels power (Solomon), you can easily see the seeds of collapse centuries later.  From a secular standpoint, the Principate which worked so good in Ancient Rome during the time of the Five Good Emperors contained the seeds for Rome's eventual fall.  (Indeed, once Marcus Aurelius died, the empire went to hell for the next century.)

The last example is particularly instructive.  Nobody denies that the Rome of those 96 years wasn't a golden age, and one of the most peaceful times of world history.  Likewise, even during the time right before Vatican II there were the seeds of crisis.  Sometimes this crisis even came about because of good policy.  For example, under the framework of the Anti-Modernist Oath, a lot of heretical influences really couldn't gain a wide following.  Yet unfortunately, some good voices also suffered under this regime, thought of as heretical and persecuted even though they were later vindicated.  The attempt to correct this balance after the Council clearly failed, yet that doesn't mean that on the whole, the system in place worked.  The same with the liturgy.  In some places the Latin Mass wasn't being done as devoutly as before, or people weren't able to draw upon the richness the way they should have because of various difficulties.  The liturgy needed gradual reform.  During the days of the Indult and now Summorum Pontificium, traditionalist communities have largely shown what an authentic liturgical reform looks like, as the average Catholic there knows probably ten times more about the liturgy now than their ancestors did even though the liturgies are about 90% similar.

The problem with what came after the Council was that we didn't get a gradual reform.  We got a reform that attempted to change everything, and relied upon commissions of experts thousands of miles away rather than pastors who had a sound knowledge of the needs of their parish on the local level while still adhering to the same general framework everyone else was.  I have little doubt that had this kind of regime been in place during that golden age of the Church, the exact same result we see today would've happened.

This isn't to say that we can just 'turn back the clock' to the days before the Council and expect everything to be good again.  Of course we can't.  Yet in building the Church of today up, there really is a lot we could learn from the lessons of history.  Not just with what didn't work (the "conservatives" out there today can tell us all about that), but what did work.  An honest reading will tell us that the answer is "quite a bit actually."

1 comment:

  1. I am not sure about the Church in the rest of the world, but I do know that American Catholicism had serious problems (arguably to the point of being neurotic) before the council.

    While the veneer of American Catholic culture looked like a golden age in the 1950s, there were serious problems beneath the surface. Many American Catholics were poorly catechized. Many had a stunted sense of moral development and a very legalistic view of the faith. Many understood how to go through the motions of practicing the faith, but didn't understand the meaning behind it. Many were largely Biblically illiterate, leading to Protestant accusations that Catholics didn't teach or understand the Bible.

    So when some of the disciplines and practices changed during the council, including the mass, many asked "Why can't EVERYTHING change?" Others wondered why ANYTHING changed.

    Much of this came to a head in the reaction to Humanae Vitae shortly after the council. The common post-V2 American narrative is that the decision was an arbitrary exercise of Roman power. Even it's popular defenders, such as John Kippley, emphasized obedience to Rome and the unchanging teaching of the Church as THE reason why Catholics should follow it.

    Many American Catholics of that era, liberal and conservative, EXPECTED Rome to act arbitrarily. For conservative Catholics, obedience to Rome's arbitrary commands was the sine qua non of being Catholic. For liberals, they were proof that the Vatican still had too much power and the Church needed further reform. This incorrect belief has colored much of the "culture wars" in the U.S. Church since V2.

    Rome, of course, does NOT act arbitrarily, and I think now people are starting to appreciate the faith as a reasonable one, not an arbitrary one. In the areas of liturgy, I think it took being able to understand the OF to truly appreciate the EF. On the issue of contraception, defenders of the teaching talk less about obedience to the Church and more about the health, relational, and spiritual benefits of avoiding contraception in marriage.

    This is not to say modern Catholicism doesn't have problems. I see a lot of Evangelical Protestant culture creeping into the Church, including privatization (Me & Jesus), isolation (us vs. the world), and politicization (Cathopublicans) of the Faith. But, overall, I am optimistic for the future of the Church.


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