The alternative Catholic future

15 04 2019

I read a review in Harper’s Magazine of a new book on Thomas Merton and his personal foibles. Having resisted the urge so far to read Merton, I will probably not read this biographical expose either. On the other hand, this article was of interest to me in that it also describes the trends at the time within the Catholic milieu. From Archbishop Fulton Sheen to Evelyn Waugh to a nascent Liturgical Movement, there was a genuine optimism of message within the general pessimism toward materialist modernity. Catholics could be in the world but not of it, and the world would still listen. Merton’s own Seven Storey Mountain was a cultural phenomenon that influenced everyone from devout Catholics to the beatniks. Only with Vatican II and the 1960’s did the script definitively flip: in opening to the world, the Church showed that it feared it, or rather, that it feared being ignored by it. In the meanwhile, the world began to ignore the Church (except for chances to slander it). It continues to ignore it to this day.

My own exposure to this period extends as well to lesser-known works and movements. Many years ago, I found out about the work of Integrity Magazine, specifically through the book, My Life with Thomas Aquinas, most recently published by the Society of St. Pius X’s publishing house, Angelus Press. Integrity Magazine was a publication in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s which aimed to disseminate Thomistic principles and Catholic insight to the masses in popular form. Also from Angelus Press, I read the now out-of-print book, God, a Woman, and the Way by Fr. Raymond. Here I was also impressed by the nuggets of ancient wisdom and piety baked into a thoroughly modern sensibility. These people didn’t care that they belonged to a thoroughly hierarchical religion that worshiped in a dead language. They still felt that the world could learn much from an institution that was a living anachronism, and indeed, they felt passionately that the world needed this anachronism.

The same could be said about any number of authors, from Maritain and Gilson to Flannery O’Connor and various other literary projects. Franco’s Spain had the Bilioteca de Autores Cristianos (BAC) putting out solid volumes from ancient and contemporary orthodox writers. Cinemas even had to cater to the Catholic population with movies that we all know and love. Around this time, arguably the last great piece of Catholic sacred music, Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem, was written and premiered.

So for decades now I have been captivated by the last two decades before the Second Vatican Council. And I have long pondered “what went wrong”? Depending on my mood and what time of day it is, I can give any number of answers. But my purpose here is to ask another question: What if things didn’t change as radically as what occurred after Vatican II? What if the world changed but the Church didn’t? What if the Church held its ground? What if, to put it rather crassly, the Church passed the world’s “shit test”?

I think looking to the Orthodox Church might offer some insight. Having some vernacular in the liturgy was probably inevitable, as happened in Orthodoxy, but Latin could have remained the lingua franca of Catholics internationally. It was also probably very likely that vocations would have declined. In spite of what reactionary polemicists think, the vocations crisis has as much to do with career opportunities and upward mobility as it does with theological issues. I am not saying that large parts of the Catholic population lapsing into theological progressivism wasn’t a factor, but when young men and women have easier options at self-realization, they will probably choose those options.

It is also possible that Catholic culture would have suffered regardless of whether the Church changed or not. More pervasive technology and entertainment have led people to reject the contemplative and ascetical in general society. A contemporary Merton, Waugh, Pius XII, or Gabriela Mistral would be playing to a different audience now, and having to compete with a cultural regime of comfort and instant gratification. The realm of popular music would have been ill-suited to the traditional message of Catholicism (please refer to the genre of Christian music today), and “serious” music has not improved since the 1950’s, but has rather stagnated. Even if the Church had stayed on message, there is no guarantee that it would have been heard by a receptive audience.

All that is to say that the Church may not have been “holier” for refusing to change course with the “sign of the times”. The traditional Catholic mentality towards the common folk was often legalistic and maximalist. You either lived up to the message of the Church or you were left by the wayside. You see this in modern Orthodoxy where I get the sense that people may not be the most devout in 99% of their lives, but they can certainly look the part in church. That’s not saying that these people or Catholics in an alternative reality are hypocrites. They just aren’t coddled or told that they are holy “just the way they are”, or most know to look the other way. As we have seen the harmful effects of omertá in the recent years in the Church, this may not be a good thing. Or perhaps there would not have been a difference on way or the other.

One thing is for sure in my opinion: I don’t think that the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and the mentality that came forth from it helped in a significant way. Those who stayed or entered the Church after that time would have done so if the liturgy was in Basque or Klingon. This is a point of contention only to those with an agenda. Adherents to modern movements like the Charismatic Renewal would have likely found other more acceptable outlets into which to channel their energies, and those who like sappy 1970s folk music would have found a more appropriate venue for their preference. In that sense, what came after the Second Vatican Council was an absolute loss. The Church bet on the modern world and used tradition as collateral. It lost when the modern world rejected it, and also lost tradition in the process. It bet all it had and gained nothing.

Of course, people would object to these points citing the growth of the Church in Africa and Asia, not realizing that Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, patron folk saint of nasty traditionalists, was the Apostolic Vicar to All of French-Speaking Africa and first Archbishop of Dakar, Senegal before becoming George Weigel’s worst nightmare. So no, the (problematic) growth of the Church in the developing world would have taken place in spite of Vatican II and not because of it.

So I look to that time before the Second Vatican Council as a missed opportunity. What happened would have happened regardless, but now we wouldn’t have hideous churches, forgettable music, and mass confusion as to what it means to be Catholic. One can always speak of “going back,” but we live in a world that is also a product of a weakened and confused Church. The first step for me is to return to the discarded symbols of the past and try to decipher what they mean in our context, like a rusted treasure from a distant shore washed up at our feet.



One response

15 04 2019

I’ve been working on my doctoral dissertation for the past six months or so, and some of my research has involved looking at books and articles about liturgical reform in theory, history, and practice. It’s obvious that the mass was not the centerpiece of Catholic life pre-Vatican II, various devotions, both universal and local, were. The contemporary Catholic obsession with the mass and what it should look like and how it should relate to Catholic life as a whole is very much a recent innovation. At this point, both liturgical reformers and traditionalists both seem like two sides of the same coin, because both operate from the assumption that the mass should be the center of Catholic life (with devotions existing either as spiritual appetizers or not at all) and that the laity can and should understand the deeper meaning behind it, whether from a missal/catechisis or because the words are in the vernacular.

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