What is going on in the Church these days? How to understand the origin of our present dilemmas, and what to do about them?
Like many of you, I’ve wrestled with these questions for years. As a recent convert, I started to ask questions after becoming aware of liturgical abuse in my parish. I have gone through an agonizing, years-long process of trying to figure out why irregularities were so common at the Novus Ordo Masses I attended. Some seemed minor, and others were appalling, but abuses were characteristic of virtually every liturgy I attended in different parishes, cities and countries. Over time, mainly through self-education, I learned about the problems of Vatican II and discovered the existence of the Tridentine Mass, which gave me some answers about why there is a crisis in the Church and what to do about it.
This is a personal statement, not a theological treatise, about my spiritual journey, which is still a work in progress.
I was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church in 2009. Early on, as I was still learning the basics of the faith, I turned to Catholics I trusted to explain the variations in teachings and practices I was experiencing. When I mentioned problems in the Church or expressed skepticism about an utterance of the pope, or described my own troubling experiences with the liturgy and priests, I was urged to calm down and not to fret over such issues, but to focus rather on my own salvation. That is good advice, and yet I don’t think Catholics are called to be ignorant of Church affairs or to blindly follow error.
The Novus Ordo Mass is valid, I was told; offer up the liturgical abuses. Altar girls and Communion in the hand are no problem because they are permitted – don’t worry about it. But I have learned that beliefs and practices that are common and widespread in the Church today were unheard of and even condemned just 50 years ago. What happened?
Has the Roman Catholic Church changed so much that it may be called a new church, a new religion whose adherents are new Catholics – “Neo-Catholics”? The term may be an apt description of faithful Catholics, those often described as “conservative,” who refuse to acknowledge that the Catholicism of today is in many respects different from that of the past; who swallow the Vatican II reforms hook, line and sinker; for whom John Paul II and Benedict XVI are the ultimate authorities and conservative champions; for whom EWTN is the lodestone of orthodoxy; and who defend any and all innovations as long as they are “approved.”
What follows is not a definite statement of opinion or belief, but rather an open letter from a confused Catholic trying to make sense of the modern Church and my place in it. I will organize my thoughts into separate parts to keep things clear.
II. Some Observations of Changes in the Church
The Roman Catholic Church has changed a lot since Vatican II. Consider: a new Mass, new breviary, new liturgical calendar, new code of canon law, new Bible translation, new mysteries of the rosary. New vestments, church decor, architecture, and art. New language (vernacular), new prayers, new wordings of rites (e.g., ordination, baptism, marriage, funerals, exorcism), new catechism, new Rules of religious life, new liturgical readings. Dropped Septuagesima, Ember Days, and Rogation Days; loss of minor orders; loss of feasts. Revived permanent diaconate. Communion while standing. Communion in the hand. Altar girls. Relaxed disciplines (e.g., Friday abstinence, Eucharistic fast); new canonization procedures; new annulment procedures; obscuring of the meaning of extra ecclesiam nulla salus; new theology of Christ’s kingship and the Church’s social teaching; new teachings on ecumenism and religious freedom.
For years after my catechesis and baptism, I was ignorant of these issues. But when you read the saints and study Church history, you start to get a sense of how the Faith used to be preached and practiced, which stands in stark contrast to the lived experience of the Faith today.
Cardinal Newman is famous for saying, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” If you get deep into the pre-Vatican II history of the Roman Catholic Church, you risk ceasing to be Neo-Catholic and becoming “traditionalist.”
Whether or not the changes listed above are good or bad, I slowly started to discover, when they are taken together, how drastically the Church has transformed (and continues to transform), and in a short period of time. It is overwhelming. No matter how valid or even beneficial any given change (or “reform”) may be, such a profound remaking of a long established religion – a religion charged with the fundamentally conservative mission of preserving Tradition and passing on the Deposit of Faith – is an earthquake. And if “lex orandi, lex credendi” is true – if how we pray and worship affects what we believe and profess – this is a total makeover of the Church, not just in “externals” or “non-essentials,” but in people’s understanding of faith and morals, as well.
Just the idea that the Church and its practices can change so much and so quickly is a departure from the concept of a Faith that is unchanging and unchangeable. The problem is not just the novelties, and their great quantity and sweeping scope, but also the way in which such changes are taking place. As Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI noted with regard to the liturgy:
The liturgical reform, in its concrete realization, has distanced itself even more from its origin. The result has not been a reanimation, but devastation. In place of the liturgy, fruit of a continual development, they have placed a fabricated liturgy. They have deserted a vital process of growth and becoming in order to substitute a fabrication. They did not want to continue the development, the organic maturing of something living through the centuries, and they replaced it, in the manner of technical production, by a fabrication, a banal product of the moment.1 Cdl. Ratzinger in Revue Theologisches, Vol. 20, Feb. 1990, pp. 103-104; Source
This is the new church of today. The “conciliar church.” The new Mass – a valid Mass authorized by the pope – has led, in Benedict XVI’s words, to “devastation.” It explains why tens of millions are leaving the faith, and why vast majorities of Catholics in the USA, Europe, Latin America, and everywhere, if you ask them specific questions about the Faith, either do not know the faith or openly disagree with it. Very small numbers of Catholics go to Mass every Sunday, or even once a month. This represents a collapse of faith and morals. Some warn of widespread apostasy (such as Our Lady of Akita). Benedict XVI also said, “I am convinced that the crisis in the Church that we are experiencing today is, to a large extent, due to the disintegration of the liturgy.”
Paul VI and John Paul II confirm the post-conciliar crisis.
In 1968, Paul VI said,
The church finds herself in an hour of anxiety, a disturbed period of self-criticism, or what would even better be called self-destruction. It is an interior upheaval, acute and complicated, which nobody expected after the Council. It is almost as if the church were attacking herself. We looked forward to a flowering, a serene expansion of conceptions which matured in the great sessions of the Council. But …. one must notice above all the sorrowful aspect. It is as if the Church were destroying herself.2 Pope Paul VI, December 7, 1968, Address to the Lombard Seminary at Rome; Source
In 1972, Paul VI said,
We have the impression that through some cracks in the wall the smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God: it is doubt, uncertainty, questioning, dissatisfaction, confrontation[.] … We thought that after the Council a day of sunshine would have dawned for the history of the Church. What dawned, instead, was a day of clouds and storms, of darkness, of searching and uncertainties.3 Pope Paul VI, June 29, 1972, Sermon during the Mass for Sts. Peter & Paul, on the occasion of the 9th anniversary of his coronation; Source
In 1981, John Paul II stated,
We must admit realistically and with feelings of deep pain, that Christians today in large measure feel lost, confused, perplexed and even disappointed; ideas opposed to the truth which has been revealed and always taught are being scattered abroad in abundance; heresies, in the full and proper sense of the word, have been spread in the area of dogma and morals, creating doubts, confusions and rebellion; the liturgy has been tampered with; immersed in an intellectual and moral relativism and therefore in permissiveness, Christians are tempted by atheism, agnosticism, vaguely moral enlightenment and by a sociological Christianity devoid of defined dogmas or an objective morality.4 L’Osservatore Romano, February 7, 1981; Source
In this era of novelty and confusion, I am inspired by St. Paul: “Therefore, brethren, stand fast; and hold the traditions which you have learned, whether by word, or by our epistle” (2 Thes. 2:14). And “Jesus Christ, yesterday and today, and the same for ever. Be not led away with various and strange doctrines” (Heb. 13:8-9).
Benjamin J. Vail, OFS is a Franciscan tertiary from the USA living with his family in Brno, Czech Republic.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||Cdl. Ratzinger in Revue Theologisches, Vol. 20, Feb. 1990, pp. 103-104; Source|
|2.||↑||Pope Paul VI, December 7, 1968, Address to the Lombard Seminary at Rome; Source|
|3.||↑||Pope Paul VI, June 29, 1972, Sermon during the Mass for Sts. Peter & Paul, on the occasion of the 9th anniversary of his coronation; Source|
|4.||↑||L’Osservatore Romano, February 7, 1981; Source|