The other week Pope Benedict XVI phoned a few French bishops, and it wasn’t to find out what they got for Christmas. According to Britain’s Catholic Herald, the pope was doing a bit of old-fashioned arm-twisting in response to these bishops’ very public opposition to Benedict’s intention to grant Catholics more access to the pre-Vatican II rite of the Mass.
On October 30, 2006, ten French bishops, including the archbishop of Strasbourg, released a letter expressing their fear that “the extension of the use of the Roman Missal of 1962 makes the direction of the Second Vatican Council relative… [and] would also risk harming unity among priests as well as among the faithful.” One of the signers of the statement, Bishop Andre Lacrampe of Besancon, has been quoted as saying, “One cannot erase Vatican II with a stroke of the pen.”
Is Pope Benedict about to abolish Vatican II? Not quite. What he is doing, in fact, is implementing one of the council’s guarantees, spelled out in its document on the Mass, Sacrosanctum Consilium, “In faithful obedience to tradition, the sacred Council declares that holy Mother Church holds all lawfully acknowledged rites to be of equal right and dignity; that she wishes to preserve them in the future and to foster them in every way.” Of course, it didn’t pan out that way. In 1969 Pope Paul VI virtually banned the traditional Mass and imposed on the Church the Novus Ordo Missae, the New Order of the Mass that has been the norm in Catholic parishes around the globe ever since.
Paul VI’s Mass was no simple vernacular translation of the traditional text; this was a major edit-and-rewrite job that recast the role of the priest, the people, and even God’s place in the liturgical life of the Catholic Church. It was, in short, a revolution. And as Robespierre could tell you, once a revolution gets rolling, it’s hard to tell exactly where it will end up.
Once the new Mass was put in place, the progressives went on a rampage the likes of which the Church had not seen since the Reformation. On Sunday mornings, while the parish clergy hung out in the rectory, members of the laity distributed Communion to congregations who were instructed to stand, not kneel, to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, and urged to take the Sacred Host, the consecrated bread, in their hands rather than receive it on their tongue. Then came the church “wreckovations” — altars were smashed, communion rails ripped out, statues hauled away to the dumpster or banished to obscure corners of the church, and elaborately decorated interiors whitewashed. The documents of Vatican II did not call for any of these soul-and-gut wrenching innovations, but when confronted the progressives claimed that their actions were in keeping with “the spirit of Vatican II.”
The-not-too-subtle message of this revolution was, if the Mass, the thing the Church held most sacred, could be monkeyed with, then it was open season on doctrine, discipline, religious authority, religious vows, church music, education, sexuality, marriage, and life itself. As the Catholic Church sank into chaos, many Catholics jumped ship. A 1958 Gallup poll found that in the United States 75 percent of Catholics went to Mass every Sunday; today the number has dropped to 25 percent. By the way, on any given Sunday in France, the bishops can count on seeing about five percent of the population.
MASS ATTENDANCE WAS NOT the only thing that suffered in the upheavals that followed Vatican II. Today 53 percent of American Catholics believe that one can have an abortion and still be a good Catholic. And 70 percent of American Catholics in the 18-44 age group say they do not believe that the Eucharist is truly the Body and Blood of Christ, that it is only a symbol of Jesus.
As for religious vocations, the statistics are dire. In 1965, 1,575 new priests were ordained in the United States; in 2002 there were 450 ordinations. In 1965 there were 600 seminaries in the United States; today there are about 200. In 1965 there 180,000 nuns in the United States, 104,000 of whom were teaching sisters; in 2002 there were 75,000 sisters, only 8,200 of whom were in the classroom. As for the famous Christian Brothers who staffed so many Catholic schools, in 1965 there were 912 young men preparing to take their vows; in 2000 there were only seven. (All these numbers come from Kenneth Jones’ Index of Leading Catholic Indicators).
In the aftermath of Vatican II, the Catholic Church has split into roughly two camps. First, there are the liberals/progressives, bishops, clergy, and laity who see Vatican II as a complete break with the Church’s past, its doctrines as well as its traditions. On the other side are the conservatives/traditionalists, those bishops, priests, and laity who insist that Vatican II must be read in light of the Church’s doctrine and traditions. Until now the progressives have had the conservatives on the run. But since his election, Benedict XVI has said openly that Vatican II is just one in a long series of church councils, and to argue that it swept away everything that came before it is to mangle the council documents beyond recognition.
Naturally the two factions have aligned themselves with two opposing schools of theology. The conservatives defend the Church’s traditional God-centered view of the universe. Nothing conveys their perspective better than the traditional Mass in which the priest, the altar boys, and the people all face the altar, with the tabernacle that contains the Host and the crucifix above the altar as the focal points of their prayers. This God-centered perspective also dominates the conservative ideas about themselves and how they interact with their neighbors. It can be summed up in a basic question, “How is one saved?” And the basic answer is, “By keeping God’s commandments.”
THE THEOLOGY OF THE PROGRESSIVES is decidedly man-centered (oops! make that person-centered). Again, it starts with the Mass, where the priest stands at a table facing the congregation (by the way, the Vatican Council didn’t call for that either). The focus then has become the interplay between the priest and the people, and in all too many instances priests have found it hard to resist the temptation to be an entertainer, urged on by his congregation’s appreciative laughs and rounds of applause that are common these days in forward-thinking parishes. God is an afterthought in such places. The tabernacle is off in a side room, usually out of sight, and the crucifix is portable, carried in at the start of Mass and carried out when it is over — and for good reasons: the presence of the Real Presence, the image of Christ dying on the cross make the “worship space” too churchy, which could put a damper on the folksy “I’m okay-you’re okay-God’s okay” spirit of the congregation. In terms of theology the progressives tend to be utilitarian: the issues of a celibate clergy, same-sex marriage, abortion, and euthanasia are difficult and make many people uncomfortable, so the easiest solution to such thorny issues is to sanction them all.
Then in 1988 Pope John Paul II threw the conservatives a lifeline, granting permission (the ecclesiastical term is indult) for priests to say the traditional Latin rite of the Mass. In a document entitled Ecclesia Dei (The Church of God), the pope declared, “Respect must everywhere by shown for the feelings of all those who are attached to the Latin liturgical tradition by a wide and generous application of the directives already issued some time ago by the Apostolic See for the use of the Roman Missal according to the typical edition of 1962.” But there was a hitch: priests who wished to say the old Mass, and Catholics who wished to attend it, had to apply to their local bishop for permission. In response to such requests, few bishops could be described as “generous.”
Conservatives cheered when Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI because he had written and preached in support of the old Mass and often celebrated it publicly himself. Ever since the election conservatives and liberals have been waiting to see what Benedict will do. Now he is ready to act.
Unlike the implementation of Paul VI’s Mass in 1969, Benedict XVI’s decision to take the handcuffs off the old Mass is not a revolution but a challenge. He is not going to abolish the new Mass. Instead he is setting up the traditional Mass with its traditional theology as an alternative to what is available in the typical Catholic parish.
At this writing the document has not been released, and no one at the Vatican who has read it has leaked its full contents. One thing is certain, however: With this document the pope is undermining the monopoly the progressives have had on parish life. For the first time in a long time Catholics who have clung to the traditional teachings of the Church and cherished the traditional liturgy will have a place they can call home.