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The Welcome Demise of Enforced Optimism

The meltdown of the Church in the West since the Second Vatican Council doubtless has many and complex causes, but I am convinced that the foremost cause of it is the fact that churchmen[1] have betrayed much of Catholic Tradition and legislation, and have merited divine punishment as a result—let us call it a period of disciplinary suffering as an invitation to repentance and conversion.

Bishops, priests, and even popes have turned their backs on the preconciliar liturgy and Magisterium as well as on many points in the actual teaching of the Second Vatican Council. Such actions, and the “structures of sin” they put in place, serve as massive impediments to any renewal in the Church. This impediment will not go away of its own accord but only through a conscientious repudiation of discontinuity and a courageous effort to rebuild the desolate city.

For example, the Second Vatican Council, in harmony with the Magisterium before it, says that the language of the liturgy is and shall remain Latin, albeit with some use of the vernacular, and that Gregorian chant deserves to have chief place as the music proper to the Roman Rite. One could add, as a different kind of example, the abandonment of worship ad orientem, which Saint Basil the Great, among other Church Fathers, identifies as part of apostolic tradition—a view that, far from being patristic hyperbole, finds support in the best scholarship, such as that of Fr. Michael Lang and Fr. Stefan Heid.

Enforced Optimism

For decades there has been an enforced optimism, a truly embarrassing fantasy to the effect that renewal is blooming everywhere, the Church is so much better off, the liturgy is better than ever, and so forth. One sees it in some of the committee documents cranked out by the Vatican that seem bent on ignoring or downplaying all the statistics and trends and the plain facts of liturgical abuse, catastrophic catechesis, and outright rupture. One finds it in many writings of John Paul II—for example in Ecclesia de Eucharistia, where he rhapsodizes: “Certainly the liturgical reform inaugurated by the Council has greatly contributed to a more conscious, active, and fruitful participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Altar on the part of the faithful.”[2]

Particularly striking examples of this nostalgia for a 1970s utopia occur in the speeches of Pope Francis, going all the way back to the start of his pontificate. For example, in a sprawling interview in September 2013, he claimed:

Vatican II was a re-reading of the Gospel in light of contemporary culture. Vatican II produced a renewal movement that simply comes from the same Gospel. Its fruits are enormous. Just recall the liturgy. The work of the liturgical reform has been a service to the people as a re-reading of the Gospel from a concrete historical situation.[3]

It’s nice to know the reform was a success on Mars; one wonders if Pope Francis will ever have more sober thoughts when he returns to Earth. Confronted with the lowest Mass attendance rates in recorded history, churches closing, religious houses empty, clerical abuse cases having liquidated or bankrupted dioceses, contraception and abortion ubiquitously accepted (and now, apparently, promoted by forces in the Vatican), and the youth culture a cesspool of violence, addiction, and sexual depravity, we dare to prattle on about the enormous fruits of the Council and of its liturgical reform?

The element of unreality in such statements truly forces one to question whether there might be an alternate reality somewhere to which members of the Church hierarchy have privileged access, while the laity, abandoned by their shepherds, are left to muddle along in the all-too-painful world of mediocrity, banality, and hebetude, Modernism in pulpits and classrooms, proliferating public and private vices.

These words of Wilhelm Roepke, in chapter 1 of A Humane Economy, are remarkably apropos:

It is quite terrifying to see how people, and not least their spokesmen in public, remain insensitive and criminally optimistic in the face of the social and cultural crisis of our times. If anything, the crisis is getting worse rather than better, and the danger of exaggerating it seems incomparably smaller than that of minimizing it with deceptive, soothing words.… So, once more, we move in a fateful spiral from which no easy escape is now possible, least of all by the reckless optimism of those who refuse to face the facts and problems of the crisis.

Those words were penned in 1958. Although Roepke is writing about an economic and cultural crisis, his words have far greater application to the liturgical and cultural crisis within the Church. Think about the frequency with which the hierarchy’s spokesmen issue statements “clarifying” some new inanity uttered by a Prince of the Church. Or used to. Nowadays they don’t seem to care much.

The Man Who Dared Speak the Truth

I don’t know a single faithful Catholic who is anything but devastated about Benedict XVI’s act of abdication, which paved the way for a decade of terror. All the same, it cannot be denied that Joseph Ratzinger had an unusually perspicacious insight into the trials of our times. He was not afraid to speak boldly and openly about the crisis in the Church, and, particularly, its liturgical causes and manifestations. Consider the following characteristic statements he made in print:

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…

The liturgical reform, in its concrete execution, has moved further and further away from this origin [in the best of the Liturgical Movement]. The result has not been reinvigoration but devastation…. In place of the liturgy that had developed, one has put a liturgy that has been made. One has de-serted the vital process of growth and becoming in order to substitute a fabrication. One no longer wanted to continue the organic developing and maturing of that which has been living through the centuries, but instead, one replaced it, in the manner of technical production, with a fabrication, the banal product of the moment…

We have a liturgy which has degenerated so that it has become a show which, with momentary success for the group of liturgical fabricators, strives to render religion interesting in the wake of the frivolities of fashion and seductive moral maxims…

I am of the opinion, to be sure, that the old rite should be granted much more generously to all those who desire it. It’s impossible to see what could be dangerous or unacceptable about that. A community is calling its very being into question when it suddenly declares that what until now was its holiest and highest possession is strictly forbidden and when it makes the longing for it seem downright indecent. Can it be trusted any more about anything else? Won’t it proscribe again tomorrow what it prescribes today?…

The turning of the priest toward the people has turned the community into a self-enclosed circle. In its outward form, it no longer opens out on what lies ahead and above, but is locked into itself. The common turning toward the East was not a “celebration toward the wall”; it did not mean that the priest “had his back to the people”: the priest himself was not regarded as so important. For just as the congregation in the synagogue looked together toward Jerusalem, so in the Christian Liturgy the congregation looked together “toward the Lord.”…

Moving the altar cross to the side to give an uninterrupted view of the priest is something I regard as one of the truly absurd phenomena of recent decades. Is the cross disruptive during Mass? Is the priest more important than Our Lord?[4]

As priest, bishop, cardinal, and pope, Joseph Ratzinger did not believe that pretending or keeping quiet was the approach to take. Yet many clergy and laity have, for decades, sat back twiddling their thumbs while the Church has been crumbling, for fear of speaking hard truths. While we must always speak with humility, charity, and respect for legitimate authority, it can never help to tiptoe gingerly around the real issues that face us—beginning with the absolutely unprecedented rupture in the Roman liturgy that was perpetrated by Pope Paul VI. One may not contest the sacramental validity of the Novus Ordo narrowly construed, but one may seriously question its fidelity to Vatican II, its continuity with the Tradition, the pastoral wisdom of its promulgation, and its long-term viability.

These are wide-open questions that we can and must discuss for the sake of the Church’s common good—a good that is not exclusively the hierarchy’s concern but embraces and involves every Catholic. John Henry Newman argued in his Letter to Pusey that a Catholic convert has the right and the duty to express his opinions on debatable matters, an observation that applies to any sincere Catholic:

He perceives that, in matters which happen to be in debate, ecclesiastical authority watches the state of opinion and the direction and course of controversy, and decides accordingly; so that in certain cases to keep back his own judgment on a point, is to be disloyal to his superiors.

While it will be impossible to find anyone more ready than a traditionalist to defend the office of the pope as defined in Pastor Aeternus of the First Vatican Council, at the same time he will adamantly oppose a certain kind of papal overreaching and its corresponding hyperpapalism. As Ratzinger stated with unusual forcefulness, the pope is the servant of Tradition and not one who may act as if he can, with a wave of the hand, change whatever he pleases:

After the Second Vatican Council, the impression arose that the pope really could do anything in liturgical matters, especially if he were acting on the mandate of an ecumenical council. Eventually, the idea of the givenness of the liturgy, the fact that one cannot do with it what one will, faded from the public consciousness of the West. In fact, the First Vatican Council had in no way defined the pope as an absolute monarch. On the contrary, it presented him as the guarantor of obedience to the revealed Word. The pope’s authority is bound to the Tradition of faith, and that also applies to the liturgy. It is not ‘manufactured’ by the authorities. Even the pope can only be a humble servant of its lawful development and abiding integrity and identity…. The authority of the pope is not unlimited; it is at the service of Sacred Tradition.[5]

Early Retirement for the Novus Ordo

The pope has authority to change certain human elements of the liturgy, but such an exercise of papal authority risks bringing many evils in its wake if it is done on the basis of dubious modern philosophy or modernist-leaning theology. A pope should receive the benefit of the doubt whenever possible, but there is by now too much evidence, both theoretical and practical, of the failure of the liturgical reform and its implementation to allow us to be ostriches with our heads stuck in the sand of pious platitudes. Can anyone read the scholarly work of Dr. Lauren Pristas on how the orations of the new Missal were produced by an ideological committee eager to ply their scissors, resulting in a retention of only 13% of the verbatim orations of the Tridentine missal, and come away feeling anything other than a sense of profound tragedy and even righteous indignation? The Catholic people were robbed of their centuries-old tradition. No wonder the Church is in a state of crisis.

The Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite, the Missal of Paul VI, is irreparably broken. Due to the false principles, exploded assumptions, and rationalistic method behind its composition, it was wrong from the first day, and it remains wrong, no matter how well it is celebrated. Its prayers and rubrics embody a hermeneutic of rupture that cannot be cured without a complete reworking that would bring it substantially back into line with the preceding liturgical tradition. As far as incremental reform goes (for example, if we look to how some Oratorians celebrate the new rite), nearly every successful step has involved adding or substituting something from the old Missal, or removing something novel. In most respects, the Ordinary Form becomes better by becoming the Extraordinary Form. As such, the Ordinary Form does not so much need to be reformed as it needs to be retired, so that the genuine Roman Rite may once again occupy its proper place in the life of the Catholic Church, as it had done for centuries before.

A sign that this judgment is true was the enormous, more than ten-year saga over the 2011 translation of the modern missal of Paul VI. After so much ink had been spilled, so many versions and revisions, such bitter partisan polemics, so much anticipation and emotion, the fact remains: this new translation is not only uneven in quality, in some places erroneous, and bereft throughout of traditional language of pleading (deign, vouchsafe, beseech); above all, it is simply an improved translation of prayers that are themselves flawed and represent discontinuity.[6] At its best, a translation is only as good as the original text.

Consider, on the other hand, the situation in any parish or chapel that celebrates the traditional Latin Mass. The prayers are the classic prayers that have nourished the faithful for centuries, going back in some cases to the earliest centuries of Christianity. Many faithful in the pews have hand missals with eloquent translations of the prayers. Sometimes these translations are not completely accurate either, but it does not matter so much because the worship being offered to God is not done by means of a translation, but by the altogether reliable Latin in the altar missal. As Pope John XXIII taught in the Apostolic Constitution Veterum Sapientia, it is entirely fitting that the Church’s worship in her Western rites and uses should be conducted in a language that is no longer evolving but has achieved stasis of diction and meaning, a language that is not the possession of any nation but the common heritage of all. When we use the Latin Church’s mother tongue and follow her time-honored tradition, we find peace, security, stability; there are no decades-long battles about what “register” of language should be used, no disappointments about lost opportunities. The world of the classical Roman rite is far beyond that bureaucratic wrangling and Heraclitian flux. The traditional Latin Mass is serious and single-minded about worshiping God, and it does so without cutting corners, without compromises, and, above all, without committees.

The future of the Roman rite is the old Roman rite in its slowly developed perfection, not the modern rite that resulted from an editorial hack-job intended to respond to the needs of that most uncertain of targets, “Modern Man.” True and lasting Eucharistic revival will coincide with the retirement of the Bugnini Missal as a colossal mistake, a novelty and a deviation that does not even successfully embody many of the plain desiderata of Sacrosanctum Concilium.

Since the thing formerly known as “the Ordinary Form” is not by any stretch of the imagination a renewal of the rite that existed prior to it but a radical departure from it—a liturgical invention on a scale never seen before in Church history, never even dreamt of—it follows that the Novus Ordo must be laid to rest and the old Missal taken up again universally, with the immense veneration it deserves and with an appropriate attitude of trust in the Divine Providence that developed this liturgy within the Church over a period of more than 1,600 years in its Latin form.

Zealous Minorities Shape the Whole

Back in days when Ratzingerian candor was prized at the Vatican, it was remarkable to see how eminent clergy and theologians were willing to say outright, without beating around the bush, that the liturgy formerly known as the “Extraordinary Form” emerges from a deeper Eucharistic and priestly spirituality and builds it up more effectively. In response to the interview question “Why is it worthwhile to promote the [traditional] Latin Mass?,” Archbishop Guido Pozzo of the Ecclesia Dei Commission responded:

Because the ancient rite of the Mass makes explicit and highlights certain values and certain fundamental aspects of the liturgy that deserve to be maintained, and I am not speaking only about the Latin or Gregorian chant, I am speaking about the sense of mystery, of the sacred, the sense of the Mass as a sacrifice, the real and substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the fact that there are great moments of interior recollection, interior participation in the divine liturgy. All these are fundamental elements which are particularly highlighted in the ancient rite of the Mass.[7]

Now that there are several thousand priests and hundreds of thousands of faithful in almost one hundred countries who are dedicated to celebrating or assisting at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in the usus antiquior, the question is no longer “Will the old Mass survive?” Even the humiliating liturgical Jim Crow laws unleashed by Traditionis Custodes have done no more than galvanize this zealous minority, unveiling in full view the malice and Modernism of their persecutors.

Some Mass sites are being eliminated but we can assume with confidence that those who love this Mass and the traditional form of Catholic life it nourishes will not give it up only because their long-time or more convenient location has been temporarily suppressed. The number of faithful who attend the traditional liturgy will continue to grow (if only because the inseparability of marriage and children is still a reality for them), while as we know, the number of Catholics attending the Novus Ordo is shrinking across the Western world, having taken an especially big hit during and after Covidtide. Regarding “creative minorities,” Fr. Zuhlsdorf recently pointed out: “3.5% of a group can bring the group down, turn it around, or take it over. Alinsky knew this. Demographers know this. At 3%, groups gain significant influence.” That is—if they are zealous.

In a talk on religious life, His Eminence Franc Cardinal Rodé admitted that young men drawn to the priesthood today are frequently marked by a conservative bent. This has led and will continue to lead many of them to learn and embrace the usus antiquior, even if they know they will have to celebrate it in secret for a time. In short, if the Catholic Faith survives in any given diocese of the West, it will survive either by embracing the Tradition of the Church, or by dwelling beneath the shadow of the wings of that Tradition. Liberal territories are drying up; the moderate or eclectic approach has shown itself weak and spineless, incapable of responding effectively to the aggressive and even demonic secularism of our time.

Every poll that is taken indicates fewer and fewer Catholics who accept the Church’s teaching on any issue remotely controversial, from the truth of the Real Presence to the evils of contraception, abortion, and sodomitic liaisons. A majority of self-identified Catholics seem to be in favor of homosexual “marriage.” One could go on, depressingly, about the complete catastrophe in catechesis, the decline and fall of most of the Catholic schools, the self-serving bureaucratization of curias and chanceries, the abysmal state of sacred music and the fine arts—but what would be the point? Anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear can tell that, apart from a remnant of more or less traditional Catholics, the Church is in the throes of a desperate disease and the prognosis is looking grim.

Years ago, in the Benedict era, conservatives used to frown on talk of “crisis.” They said things are getting better, the Church has left the silly season, we are turning a corner, soon all will be back to normal and the New Evangelization can really get moving.

Then came Bergoglio. The conservatives don’t sound very convincing any more (if they ever did). In fact, conservatism has been blown out of the water. Traditionalism is the only coherent Catholic worldview still standing.

I will regretfully but more truthfully stick with the language of crisis. We will never find a solution to this churchwide crisis until we reclaim our Roman Catholic birthright, our innermost identity through the celebration of our traditional sacred liturgy. When the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the Divine Office, and the sacramental rites of the Church are once again offered to God in a manner truly in continuity with tradition, then, and only then, will come that “Second Spring” about which postconciliar Popes have spoken with such premature confidence; only then will a new age of evangelization begin in earnest, with the Mass of the Ages as its pulsing heart.


[1] I appeal to Maritain’s and Journet’s distinction between Church and churchmen. The former, being the immaculate Bride of Christ and animated by His Holy Spirit, cannot go astray in teaching or lose her essential holiness. The latter, being fallen men, can and do fall away from the faith or from good morals or from prudence and wisdom in their judgments. Hence we may not say that the Catholic Church has failed, but we can and must say that individual clergy, religious, and laity have failed. Indeed, they have failed the Church and Christ her Lord; it is not Christ or His Church who have failed them.

[2] Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 10.

[3]A Big Heart Open to God,” September 19, 2013.

[4] These quotations are taken from Milestones: Memoirs 1927–1977; Theologisches 20.2, February 1990; preface to the French translation of Gamber’s The Reform of the Roman Liturgy (1992); Salt of the Earth (1997); the remainder from The Spirit of the Liturgy (2000). For a larger selection and bibliographical information, see this florilegium.

[5] The Spirit of the Liturgy, 165–66.

[6] For evidence, see the extensive research of Lauren Pristas, Collects of the Roman Missal: A Comparative Study of the Sundays in Proper Seasons Before and After the Second Vatican Council (London: T&T Clark, 2013).

[7] The interview was given in September 2011; retrieved from on September 25, 2013.

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