A Roman Catholic priest in a small Greek parish stood at the altar. His colorful vestment read “Jubilee 2000”. What a figurative flash to the past! Folk mass, felt banners and banal vestments represented the short-lived embracing of faddish cultural trends. This was part of an unwritten zeitgeist summed up as the “Spirit of Vatican II”, or “change for change’s sake”, which claimed dozens of priceless high altars in its wake.
During this era, say from the 1970’s to the 1990’s, vocations to the priesthood or sisterhood plummeted. From a practical perspective, young people taking vocations become tied to the institution they served. They need a sense of stability, whether the vocation is in the Church or the Military. I saw this in friends who resigned from NROTC during the transformational tenure of Navy Secretary Ray Mabus. Seminary attendance had stabilized under Pope Benedict XVI, who pontificated on subjects as mundane as clapping at mass, calling the specter “religious titillation”. Young revolutionaries today work outside the Church, and the seminaries attract a more philosophically and spiritually mature candidate.
The Vatican has long been a powerbroker among the royalty of Europe, and a temporary retreat in the late 19th century was an aberration to norms. The First Vatican Council (1870-1871) can be seen as an ecclesiastical retreat from the world at a time when Italy and Germany had just been unified. This council reinforced the authority of the Pope Pius IX, urging the faithful to look to him as an empirical bedrock of stability in a changing Europe. Piety and transcendentalism, Archangels and Demons, dominated Catholic spiritual life. This era gave birth to parish churches with astonishing high altars and stained-glass windows; many of which in America can be seen around large-city downtowns today.
The Church did not wait until the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s to reengage the world. Instead, it was drawn back into contemporary affairs not long after it had retreated:
Pope Leo XIII expressing concern about the dignity of the working man and his family in the age of industrialization;
Pope Pius X ensuring charitable assistance to American immigrants arriving from Southern Europe;
Pope Benedict XV and Emperor Charles of Austria working to limit the devastation of the First World War;
Pope Pius XII asserting Vatican authority over Mussolini’s fascist rule in Italy, on issues such as protection of Jews.
“Opening up the church” is a common catchphrase about Vatican II. Indeed, Italian clerics dominated the Papacy and other key Vatican offices. In the United States, Irish-Americans dominated the priesthood. To the chagrin of Southern European newcomers, these Irish clerics retained the mark of WASP oppression, preferring the Low Mass, and remaining reserved from parishioner’s daily lives. Some describe the intellectual environment of the priesthood and Catholic scholarship as rigid and stultifying.
If anything, Vatican II gave a long-awaited green light empowering the faithful to use their talents to further their understanding. This in turn has refreshed philosophical debate within members of the Church, especially concerning the interface with political governance. As far as lay leadership is concerned, cracks in a hierarchical veneer emerged by the 1930’s. After receiving threats from the Ku Klux Klan, Father Charles Coughlin took to the radio with messages in favor of Christian social democracy, and against “the international money-changers in the temple”. Bishop Fulton Sheen also took to the radio, but worked from official Church teachings. Dorothy Day, a laywoman, started the Catholic Worker Movement. She printed a newspaper, advocated for labor rights, and provided relief for the poor. The internet today provides a platform for Catholic-focused websites such as EWTN, Church Militant, and One Peter Five.
The New Saint Basil’s Hymnal, printed in 1958 and still used in traditional parishes, excised “good old hymns” of the Victorian Era on the grounds that they contained lackluster theology and doctrine. In the same decade, Pope Pius XII removed redundancies from the Tridentine Missal. Recognizing that centuries of add-ons had complicated religious observance, the Church simplified rules on fasting and prayer routines in the 1950’s.
“Vatican II opened the church, and the people left”: Yes, the Catholic Church has attrition issues. But think of the many Christmas-and-Easter Catholics, who are peripherally attached to the Church. The decline of Mainline Protestantism serves as a cautionary story. For the Greatest Generation, attending mass on Sundays was a social obligation. When asked, many couldn’t elucidate on tenets of the faith, or on personal spiritual beliefs. Later generations did not feel a need to attend mass or even affiliate with the church. For an increasingly sophisticated and middle-class audience of Cultural Catholics, self-discovery is real learning, and pastors should guide with a fusion of approachablility and moral certitude is required: a “no judgement zone” policy has decimated the stature of once-solid institutions like the Episcopal Church; and too much “judgment day” talk- think the Mormon faith- deters wandering souls.
Importantly, Vatican II encouraged dialogue between neighbors, statesmen, and global citizens of different faiths. This is essential in an increasingly connected world, but was discouraged in a different time, lest the faithful be drawn to heresy. Father John Main, a Benedictine Monk, developed Christian meditations from his travels to Southeast Asia. Politically, social tensions have emerged in the Muslim world, especially in places like Indonesia, where limited ecological resources pit neighbor against neighbor. Today, snippets of Catholic teaching float around the halls of Congress, and into the courtroom; under the mantle of Natural Law. Catholicism, like Judaism, is not merely a religion, but also the basis of philosophical and moral codes.