Vale Vatican II: Moving On

Two documents, both episcopal but both quite different, have captured my attention these last few weeks. The first was the motu proprio of Pope Francis, Magnum principium, devolving primary responsibility for the liturgical translations to bishops’ conferences. It has already been dealt with on this site here and here and here, but one thing from it lingers in the mind: that “great principle” of the title, which is really something of a great misrepresentation:

The great principle, established by the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, according to which liturgical prayer be accommodated to the comprehension of the people so that it might be understood, required the weighty task of introducing the vernacular language into the liturgy and of preparing and approving the versions of the liturgical books, a charge that was entrusted to the Bishops.

One searches in vain through the conciliar decree on the liturgy for anything that adequately justifies this bold assertion. Whoever drafted this for the pope got away with quite the deception. But then, the new liturgy is based on misrepresentations and deceptions, as revealed by the unbowdlerized history of the Council that has been emerging these last few years from the pens of many scholars. Of course they are only taking up the work of Fr Wiltgen’s The Rhine Flows into the Tiber (1967), in which the liberal-leaning author guilelessly lays open to view the machinations by which the liberal minority manipulated the majority; and of Michael Davies, whose trilogy Liturgical Revolution gives, in immense detail, the workings, context and implications of the highly-flawed Council proceedings and aftermath.

The other document was the pastoral letter this past weekend from Bishop Egan of Portsmouth, to mark his 5th anniversary as bishop of the diocese. As usual from Bishop Egan, there is nothing doctrinally questionable in his teaching, and indeed much that is encouraging in his optimistic and active orthodox vision of the life of our diocese. One thing is striking though: he makes no mention of the Council, neither in text nor in footnotes. While he adopts a couple of tendencies that mark modern Catholicism of both the sound and less-sound type (of which more later), this failure to mention the Council seems very positive.

Since I hold no office there is a freedom for me to say what follows that many other clergy (and even lay academics) would not have (assuming that they agree with me, which I know many do).

The reason I think Bishop Egan was right not to mention the Council (though I am not saying he did this with deliberation) is that it is time now to let go of the Council. It happened over half a century ago, was conditioned by and directed to the world of the 1960s, a world that has changed beyond recognition as of 2017. It described itself as a pastoral council, and it sought to repackage the teaching, life and worship of the Church to suit a world in flux. For this very reason the Council was necessarily going to have a best-before date. That date has been passed. The sad thing is that its milk turned sour very soon after packaging.

Bishop Egan reports that Mass attendance in the diocese is 13% of the Catholic population. Just after the Council (when things had already started to change) Mass attendance in England (I do not have a figure for Portsmouth but it would have been in the vicinity of this national figure) was just under 53%. In a Church that had been reshaped to meet modern needs, with a liturgy likewise adapted as never before, Catholic practice by the most obvious measure plummeted. Dr Joe Shaw has demonstrated that according to other measures, such as ordinations to the priesthood, Catholic vitality has plummeted.

By any reasonable standard of judgment the application of the Council failed, miserably, to achieve the Council’s aims. This statistical revelation of decline is quite apart from the decline experienced by Catholics as they have seen dogmas, doctrines, morals and many other elements of Catholic life thrown into chaos in the wake of the Council. St John Paul II and Benedict XVI, in their different ways and according to their lights, attempted to stem the ecclesial wasting away. But while ever the main nutrition of the Church was based on the Council (usually very loosely) then the Church will ever be gaining a pound a losing two.

Of course the decline is not universal. The Church grows apace in the developing world, where a different social and attitudinal dynamic is at work. The Church is growing in the West in certain places too. But here’s the rub: it is growing precisely where much of what was discarded by the post-conciliaristas is slowly and sensibly being reclaimed and integrated into the world of 2017 rather than the mid-1960s. What they are reclaiming is essential, timeless Catholicism rather than the tired mantras and shibboleths of the “Vatican II Church”. The young have discovered, and many of the older re-discovered, that there was a Church before Vatican II, and it was healthy, vital and beautiful.

0517_ChristTheKing-MassKids1950s
There was life in the Church before Vatican II!

So, despite the many virtues of the Council documents, and some its beautiful passages of theological lyricism, they are so laden with deliberate ambiguities, and have been so abused and misrepresented in their application, that are fit only for the occasional reference or quotation. They addressed too specifically a world that disappeared soon after the Council; Gaudium et spes was flawed even then, but now it reads almost risibly.

Thus it makes no sense to be constantly referencing every contemporary initiative to Vatican II, for justification or acceptance-value. It is time to move from a post-conciliar Church to a post-post-conciliar Church; which is to say, it is time to reclaim the Church as She has always been in her essence and her stable form, which has been able to function viably and vitally in every age and circumstance since the time of Christ. In the 1960s mankind, not least of the Catholic variety, seemed to think it had found something new under the sun. How old, dated and desiccated that new thing now looks.

Not that there was nothing good from the Council. For example, despite its abuse, the ecumenical initiative articulated by the Council is essentially sound and worthy of ongoing pursuit. But is has to be doctrinally coherent. That Luther could look on the modern Catholic Church in many parts of Europe and declare himself vindicated does not signify ecumenical progress.

I had intended, as signalled above, to discuss Bishop’s Egan desire (and not only his) that all Catholics become missionaries and apostles. This is an aspect of modern Catholicism that while not doctrinally awry is pastorally utopian. But after the above that must await another day.

14 thoughts on “Vale Vatican II: Moving On

  1. The most lamentable result of liturgical changes after Vatican II was the manner in which Mass in the vernacular supposedly licensed celebrants to introduce mini homilies at the beginning of Mass instead of commencing with the Entrance Antiphon,to make all kinds of irrelevant asides throughout the Mass,to invite applause for a variety of circumstances, and generally to mess around with the set text of the lectionary to make it politically correct.

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  2. Fr.Thanks,thanks ,thanks -my view entirely.Vatican 11 ,and its Heresies have dogged Holy Mother Church all these years.We are living in a post conciliar age now and the disease of Vat 11.can whither on the vine.May the Bishop of Rome heed the signs of the time.God bless.

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  3. I completely agree with Mr. Johnson and could not have stated my opinion any better. I am one of the pre 60’s generation and would love to see our beautiful church and liturgy as it was in the 1950’s. Thank you Father.

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  4. At some point, a Council rather becomes inseparable from its historical reception – whatever the intention of some (many) of its Fathers. Especially when most of those same Fathers were the very same bishops who fairly obediently went along with (or declined to resist) the revolutionary reception of it.

    I sympathize a little with Pope Benedict’s distinction between a Council of the Media versus a Council of the Fathers; but the latter was so quickly and totally subsumed into the former, that it becomes an academic question. And the Council of the Media has been a resounding and lamentable failure on any metric you care to use.

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    1. I agree the distinction we make between Council and post-Council, and Council of the Fathers and Council of the Media, are now largely academic, especially since I have grave doubts as to whether the Council of the Fathers can ever be retrieved from the reality of its implementation, which has had half a century to embed itself. My suspicion is that in my time even there will be a Vatican III, or equivalent, to repair the damage.

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  5. It is, of course, hardly just Britain which has suffered such catastrophic declines in measurable forms of participation in the Church; in many ways, it is not even the worst off. Recent random data points:

    * The Diocese of Pittsburgh announced last week that it is consolidating its 190 parishes into just 48. According to the Diocese’s own figures, Mass attendance, first communions and confirmations are down 40 percent since 2000, while infant baptisms, church marriages and K-8 school enrollment have declined about 50 percent – all while the number of baptized Catholics in the Diocese has only dropped 4% over the same period.
    * In May, the Diocese of Hartford in Connecticut announced that out of its 200 parishes, 144 will merge and 26 will close outright. Its statistics of participation are in some respects even worse than Pittsburgh.
    * In June, the Diocese of Trier – the oldest diocese in Germany, over 19 centuries old – announced it was closing a staggering 96% of its parishes.

    And yet as deep as these cuts are, few imagine they will be the last – or that they will not soon be joined by similar such downsizings in many more dioceses in Western Europe and North America. The collapse accelerates, and yet when the disaster is not being ignored or soft pedaled, almost never will one hear anything but self-justifying explanations for the collapse. “Affluence.” “Secularization.” “Changing economics.” And the occasional targeting of the Church’s sexual teachings.

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  6. This is my experience: I received my First Communion on Palm Sunday 1964 when I was 9. I was prepared for it in an essentially pre-Conciliar way. I learned the Catechism, and I already responded, as most children do, to the beauty, order and discipline of the liturgy. Perhaps, too, I already found these things a channel for a subsequent understanding of how beauty, order and discipline communicated important things about the world as God created and intended it. For me, ugliness, chaos and anarchy have tended to represent the world as Man has used and abused the same world. There are some senses in which I thank the Council for making all this so apparent to me, though not without some pain and sufferring at having been deprived for so long by what I once thought I knew, and what I most certainly loved. I hope, that some good may come out of the present crisis with which the Church is faced.

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  7. “It is time now to let go of the Council”? What does this mean? Should we “let go” of the First Ecumenical Council of Niceae? Thirty years after Niceae, St. Jerome observed that “the world awoke to find itself Arian.” In other words, “By any reasonable standard of judgment the application of the Council failed, miserably, to achieve the Council’s aims.” Thankfully, faithful Catholics did not “let go.”

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    1. The difference is that every other ecumenical council was called to deal with a crisis of faith and government, and they made dogmatic definitions which have eternal authority. Vatican II was explicitly called as a “pastoral” council, a novel entity, and defined no dogma, merely restating things and initiating a process of reform that has emptied churches, seminaries, convents and monasteries. Its reforms have failed on its own measures. It was time-bound. We need to salvage what was good in it and move on. As to the implication that I and those who agree with me are not faithful Catholics; well, we are the ones whose backsides are on pews and in choir stalls, who believe all that the Church requires us to believe, and have patiently endured the destruction of so much that was beautiful in Catholic life without jumping ship. So, do tell me who is faithful, won’t you.

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  8. Fr. Hugh, i understand why you would say that “every other ecumenical council was called to deal with a crisis of faith … [and] made dogmatic definitions,” and that the latter – the absence of dogmatic definitions – could explain Vatican II’s novelty, but the latter should not obscure the fact that Vatican II was also called because of a crisis of faith (its in the documents, esp. Gaudium et spes). Furthermore, the process of reform initiated by Vatican II was not the reason why churches, seminaries, convents and monasteries have emptied; correlation, perhaps, but not causation. A better argument can be made that institutions in the Church deteriorated because the reforms of Vatican II had not been implemented; even good people paid little attention to what the Council did and said. Many of them were too busy chasing false interpretations of the Council (as Pope Benedict XVI and others have point out) created by the media and wayward theologians. As for those who held on to the Council, I think of Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. It was also they whom I thought of when I said “faithful Catholics did not ‘let go'”. Nonetheless, my remark does imply that you or those who agree with you are being unfaithful. I did not think of that implication at the time. Nonetheless, you would surely agree that people can sit in pews and choir stalls, believe all that the Church requires us to believe and still be unfaithful. Likewise, I’m sure that you would also agree that fidelity to Jesus Christ and the activity of the Holy Spirit in the Church entails much more than these things, wouldn’t you?

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    1. “Furthermore, the process of reform initiated by Vatican II was not the reason why churches, seminaries, convents and monasteries have emptied; correlation, perhaps, but not causation.”

      When the correlation is this overwhelming, there’s a burden of proof on the claimant denying any causation.

      Was the post-conciliar reform solely responsible? I don’t think even most traditionalists are arguing that. But was it a key factor? I think it’s hard to deny that it was.

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