Monday, October 3, 2011

Why is the “old Church” coming back?

This is a "test chapter", if you will, of a book I'm in the early stages of writing, with the working title The (New & Improved) Catholic Why? Book (after a book written in the early 1980s by Andrew M. Greeley). The target audience of the book are Catholics in the middle ground between the "spirit of Vatican II" Church they grew up in and the resurgent "old Church" growing back up around them. I'd appreciate any constructive feedback.

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There are two competing stories — meta-narratives, if you will — about the Second Vatican Council, the changes it made, and the main body of Catholic beliefs and practices that came from those changes.

One story has it that Vatican II made many substantive changes that led to a completely new and different Church, or would have if traditionalists hadn’t started pushing back. Oddly, this meta-narrative (the “hermeneutic of rupture”) is favored not only by liberal Catholics but by sedevacantists and many traditionalists as well.

The other story is that, while the Council authorized some changes in discipline, they made no substantive changes in doctrine but rather re-presented traditional teachings in more modern, more affirmative language. Many other unauthorized and unwanted changes were snuck into the life of the Church using “the spirit of Vatican II” as a Trojan horse, changes prompted by secular political and social theories dressed up in Scriptural language. This is the meta-narrative (the “hermeneutic of continuity”) favored not only by conservatives and most traditionalists but by Pope Benedict, who coined the phrases.


In retrospect, it could be considered bad timing that the Council introduced what changes it did make in 1965, just as Western civilization was undergoing the cultural and intellectual revolution known variously as “the Vietnam era”, “the Woodstock generation” and just “the Sixties”. The children of World War II and the postwar “baby boom” who were just coming into the universities at the time interpreted the changes — and the Council documents, if and when they read them — in the light of the social and political movements of the day, as did many of the young priests and nuns who had just taken their vows.

If the Tridentine Mass could be changed, heck, everything could be changed. Couples started using contraceptives in anticipation of a liberalization of Church teaching on sex. Priests and nuns began to have sex with one another in anticipation of a dispensation from clerical celibacy. Theologians began to introduce Marxist and socialist thought into their works, against the explicit condemnation of many popes beginning with Bl. Pius IX.[i] Music liturgists began replacing older hymns with guitar-centered, folk-style music despite the Council’s stated preference for Gregorian chant (specifically giving it “pride of place”)[ii] and the organ.[iii][1] Latin, once the universal language of the Church, nearly disappeared, dying a second death.

It could be argued that much of this expectation of change was a massive exercise in self-deception, brought about in part by a process of religious formation that had relied for too long on memorization of the cut-and-dried answers provided by the Baltimore Catechism, as well as a priestly education process that failed to properly form seminarians as theologians. To the question, “Why can’t this be changed?” the parish priest often didn’t have a satisfactory answer; sometimes he was the one asking why.

Not everyone embraced the new Church. Besides those who preferred, and stubbornly clung to, the Latin Mass, others found the new catechesis watered down, the homilies now full of irritatingly unspecific happy talk, the music almost uniformly third-rate and clamorous, and the liturgy lacking any tangible sense of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist … even when the priest stuck to the actual words of the Missal, which wasn’t always a given. The disaffection increased when innovations such as lifting hands at the words “Lift up your hearts” and holding others’ hands during the Lord’s Prayer were introduced. Moreover, as priests and nuns left, some of the changes to many parishes’ administration, along with the increasing insistence on lay participation, marginalized the role of the priest to that of a figurehead “sacrament dispenser”, making it less attractive to boys and young men.

What I would suggest is that the weakening of the liturgy and adulteration of catechesis actually serves more to defeat Church liberals than does any conservative push-back. The more the Church is “just like any other Christian communion”, the less people feel compelled to stay with it; those who return are more likely to do so better educated in the Church’s doctrines, and therefore more conservative. Moreover, the liberal insistence on the heterodox values of contraception and abortion has created a form of ideological suicide pact by allowing traditionalists to out-breed liberals.

The sex-abuse scandals that broke open in 2002, as shameful and heartbreaking as they were, actually paid dividends to the conservative wing. For one, so far as there was an increased loss of Catholics to other faiths or no faith, the losses mostly came from cultural “Christmas-and-Easter Catholics” and nominal “cafeteria Catholics”, especially where the two groups intersected. Regular Mass attendees, on the other hand, stayed in droves, while other cultural and nominal Catholics were driven back to orthodoxy and regular practice out of defensiveness.[2] Web logs, or “blogs”, had just started to appear; now more and more of them became devoted to defending the Catholic faith. It was also about this time that EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network) really began to take off, bringing to the fore heavyweight Catholic apologists such as Karl Keating and the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, and providing a cultural icon in its founder, Mother Angelica.

The more committed liberals that leave the Church, the better the chance the conservatives that remain have to convert the rest. Research done at Rensselaer Polytechnic has shown “the prevailing majority opinion in a population can be rapidly reversed by a small fraction [≥ ≈10%] of randomly distributed, committed agents who consistently proselytize the opposing opinion and are immune to influence” (Xie, Sreenivasan, Korniss, Zhang, Lim, & Szymanski, 2011). While there are no hard studies to prove it, anecdotal evidence suggests that parishes more orthodox in their teaching and traditional in their practices, especially those that have introduced and sustained the old devotion of Perpetual Adoration, are the ones doing the most growing and thriving. And the more public opposition and hatred the Church gets from non-Catholic sources, the more counter-cultural appeal it derives as a sign of contradiction and becomes a magnet for cultural conservatives.

In sum, liberals never succeeded in driving conservatives and traditionalists out of the Church. By taking out of the liturgy and doctrine its peculiar Catholic “crunch”, it succeeded only in making the “new Church” bland, generic and unlikely to retain the very people it hoped to attract … and making the “old Church” more appealing in the process. In this manner, the progressives sowed the seeds of their eventual defeat.

Bottom line answer: The “old Church” never really went away, and the “new Church” is too busy cutting its own throat to stop it.


[1] In fairness, the Council did permit other forms of music, such as sacred polyphony, and other instruments, with the qualifications that “they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action” and “the instruments are suitable, or can be made suitable, for sacred use, accord with the dignity of the temple, and truly contribute to the edification of the faithful.” There is some dispute as to whether guitar-centered music, especially the pop-style “praise and worship” music now often heard at teen Masses, truly qualify; I don’t intend to debate this here. (Second Vatican Council, 1963)
[2] My own reversion began about this time.