Photo: Gary Wills in 2015.
Recently, I have been reading books and periodicals dealing with the post-Vatican II era in the Catholic Church. Of course, we in the year 2022 are also a part of this post-conciliar era, and there is no shortage of literature discussing the Second Vatican Council some fifty, sixty years later. But, as Austin Ruse’s recent article shows, there is something poignant about engaging materials written during or shortly after the Council’s closing. It is one thing to hear contemporary diatribes against the infamous (and often mislabeled) “Boomers” who are allegedly responsible for our Church’s current malaise; it is quite another thing to hear these men and women speaking themselves (such as in The New American Catholic 1968 documentary), or even to hear from those who were spectating from the sidelines while madness ensued. With regards to the latter, two books come to mind: James Hitchcock’s The Decline and Fall of Radical Catholicism (1971), and Garry Wills’ Bare Ruined Choirs (1972).
Both books were written by authors who, at least at the time of their writing, considered themselves to be “liberal Catholics.” Hitchcock, who called himself a “progressive” and “disillusioned liberal,” spared no words against those “rigid” and reactionary conservatives. And Wills was well-known, then and now, as a dissident against Church teaching on abortion, contraception, and homosexuality. And yet, neither book is an apologia for post-conciliar madness. The Decline and Fall of Radical Catholicism points out the hypocrisy of the radical Catholic Left who, despite all their attempts to push for egalitarianism and solidarity, ended up creating new elitist circles. Bare Ruined Choirs laments the way that many of the Church’s most stable features—such as the seemingly-obscure Latin liturgy with all of its Baroque ceremonials and seriousness, the Church’s insistence on being correct, religious orders wearing their distinct habits—were abandoned with hurried excitement.
One can sense, in both authors, feelings of agitation and frustration. But at what? Neither Hitchcock or Wills offer any substantial critique of the Second Vatican Council. While not holding to the ‘conservative’ position (“It’s not Vatican II’s fault but the ‘Spirit of Vatican II”), they also do not share the blind optimism of those featured in the aforementioned The New American Catholic documentary. They watched as the doors of monasteries and convents flew open, their members running towards “the world,” rarely returning to the motherhouse so to honor their prior lifetime commitment. They note how experimental liturgies scandalized many pious believers, and decry the “liturgical experts” assuring them that such radical changes in worship was the “Holy Spirit at work.” Wills and Hitchcock express dismay at the Church losing the very things that made her unique or special. Now forty years later, we can read these books with similar feelings of agitation and frustration, for we know how the situation progressed up to our current day.
If Wills and Hitchcock were sounding the alarm bell less than a decade after the council’s closing, who among the liberal Catholic crowd is willing to admit that, now over a half-century following Vatican II, the hopes and dreams of the progressivist have not been (and most likely will never be) fulfilled? A common refrain by progressive Catholics in the years following Vatican II was that “the pope and bishops betrayed the council” because they did not dismantle priestly celibacy, bless birth control, or push the Church farther to the left. This refrain was repeated by those who often criticized the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI for being “too conservative” (a claim that makes the traditionalist laugh!) However, those very same papal critics have fawned over Pope Francis’ Traditionis Custodes, seeing the Holy Father as championing the Vatican II cause. But it was not too long ago that the progressives themselves were unhappy with Vatican decisions on the liturgy.
Prior to Summorum Pontificum—which, of course, was derided by the anti-Latin Mass crowd—the biggest liturgical complaint of the progressives concerned the 2011 revised translation of the English-language Roman Missal. Changing “for all” in the words of consecration to “for many,” “one in being” to “consubstantial,” “and also with you” to “and with your spirit” was seen as a threat. Some went as far as stating that a literal translation of the Latin texts was akin to “erasing Vatican II altogether”! Needless to say, Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium said nothing of translating liturgical texts in a loose way, and its only mentioning of such translation projects require that it is done by a “competent” authority, later to be confirmed by the Apostolic See. In 2001, when the Apostolic See created the Vox Clara commission work with the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the intention was to return to Vatican II’s care for liturgical renewal by cleaning up previously ambiguous and messy English translations. Whatever one thinks of Vatican II, it is clear that the progressive Catholics only cites it when convenient, in order to advance a cause that the council never promoted.
Liberal Catholics in the early 1970s, and liberal Catholics today, suffer from the same delusion. They are unable to see the futility of their project, one rooted in sand. Despite parroting the idea that Vatican II was a “new Pentecost,” the very council failed in spiritually rejuvenating the faithful. Correlation does not imply causation, and perhaps the “mass exodus” was going to happen whether Vatican II took place or not. But, we might wonder how a “new Pentecost” could lead to the mass apostasy and church closures we find in countries that were once thriving Catholic nations. Liberal Catholics today will point the finger at anyone and everyone but themselves: “devotionalism” is criticized for taking the place of (liberal) Catholic theology; Bishop Robert Barron, “Catholic Barthians,” the Archdiocese of Denver, “[Cardinal] Burke-ists, Francis-haters, & co.” are all clumped together and labeled as “the Catholic hard-right”; those who do not share liberal sympathies are to be re-trained in “Vatican II reception” camps until they walk in-step with the anti-traditionalist crowd. With a total lack of self-awareness, the liberal Catholic asks, “If synodality can’t get young people interested in the Church, then what can?” Apparently, the traditional Latin Mass and orthodox teaching were not considered as options.
To those fighting for traditional Catholicism, it is important to know those who came before us, who were far more marginalized in the Church than we could ever be today. Any Catholic defending tradition today has Michael Davies, Klaus Gamber, Count Neri Capponi, and many others to thank. But contemporary liberal Catholics, there seems to be a purposeful amnesia regarding their predecessors: Sister Corita Kent is remembered for her modern art, her once-popular order remembered for being decimated by modern psychology. Bishop James Patrick Shannon, once hailed as prophetic and the future of the Church, resigned from the episcopate over Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae. The late Fr. Gregory Baum, a key peritus at Vatican II who was instrumental in writing Nostra Aetate, eventually left the priesthood to marry, and who, following his wife’s death, admitted to homosexual activity. The liberal Catholic looks around for heroes, and finds a greying handful. The liberal Catholic gestures to Vatican II, and realizes the need to appeal to its ‘spirit’ rather than its actual documents. The liberal Catholic points to a future that remains firmly rooted in a hippie past, and appeals to a “modern man” who is now old enough to be in a nursing home. Whatever little “victories” they may find in our current day, it is clear that the liberal Catholic is losing. But it is impossible to realize this while remaining faithful to a faithless delusion.