Mater Si, Magistra No: Renewal of Tradition in the Catholic Church
It has been over a half-century since the closure of the Second Vatican Council, which ran in multiple sessions from 1963 to 1965 under the papacies of Pope Saint John XXIII and Pope Paul VI. Vatican II, as the ecumenical council is colloquially known, is considered the defining moment of the Church in the twentieth century. The council brought forth historic change to the Roman Catholic Church, fundamentally altering the liturgy and dispensing with centuries of tradition to appease a world society that had freshly emerged from the two deadliest conflicts in human history.
The council, which sought to rigorously examine the challenges that had long plagued the Church in the modern era, was the impetus behind the liberalization of the Catholic Church. The Council Fathers sought to transfer the focus of the liturgical movement from the priests to the laity, ascribing renewed significance to the congregation. This coincided with a movement away from Latin to the vernacular. The way the documents of Vatican II were written allowed practitioners of the Novus Ordo Mass, promulgated by Pope Paul VI, to replace Gregorian Chant with secular religious hymns, thus making the latter the predominant musical tradition.
This and other reforms accelerated the overhaul of traditional customs and likewise reflected the Church's growing aloofness to such things as doctrinal orthodoxy and traditional morality. In keeping with the stylistic changes of the liturgy and the theological approach of aggiornamento, a "bringing up to date," Church architecture, particularly over the past half-century, has been compromised by the spirit of Vatican II. Grandiose cathedrals that once towered over cities and reached toward heaven have been replaced by pedestrian structures devoid of the Romanesque and Gothic elements that in years past fostered the allure and mystique of the Catholic Church. The interiors underwent a similar transformation: tabernacles were, in many cases, relegated to side alcoves, and the centerpiece crucifix was replaced by a resurrected Christ or a barren cross, indistinguishable from Protestant symbolism.
In addition to the liturgical alterations, the rites of the seven sacraments were subject to considerable revision. Traditional vestments were dispensed with, and the regalia of the papal coronation, such as the sporting of the papal tiara, last worn by Pope Paul VI in 1963, was indefinitely retired. Priests have also moved away from the Tridentine custom of celebrating Mass ad orientem (facing "liturgical east," or toward the high altar), instead opting for the more personalized versus populum (facing the congregation), which was consistent with the Church's pivot toward personalized morality and emphasis on self-fulfillment over set dogma.
Perhaps the most salient change is the Second Vatican Council's commitment to ecumenism. Keeping in line with its desire to democratize and reconcile longstanding theological rifts in a rapidly globalizing world, the ecumenical reforms were met with varying degrees of success. In this respect, the Council Fathers had hoped to reorient the Church's perspective to highlight the shared orthodoxies between the Catholic Church and other faiths, a departure from its former practice of highlighting the deviations among other denominations. Some traditionalists viewed these unprecedented measures with horror, believing the Church to have completely abandoned centuries of tradition. But the Council Fathers reiterated that no doctrinal changes had been made; the Council's chief aim was to democratize and appease a modernizing world, not surrender to it.
Over a half-century later, it remains unclear just how successful the Council was in achieving its goals and to what extent the ensuing history of the Church is incumbent upon Vatican II reforms. Some traditionalists cite the vibrant state of the Church prior to the Council's formation in many parts of the world – notably, the United States, Canada, and many parts of Eastern and Southern Europe. Today, Mass attendance in all these regions – particularly those bereft of a prevailing Protestant subculture – has dropped precipitously, suggesting a failure of the Council to deliver on its goals. Incidentally, Mass attendance in the United States has declined as well – approximately three in four practicing Catholics attended Mass on a regular basis prior to Vatican II, whereas now, participation hovers around twenty to twenty-five percent. To some, this is vindication that the Church must restore many of its former traditions or risk annihilation altogether. And while it would be unwise to ascribe a cause-and-effect relationship between Mass attendance and Vatican II, it is nevertheless indisputable that Christianity in the Western world is currently experiencing an existential crisis as people everywhere – particularly the young – abandon organized religion in droves.
Perhaps the most disheartening case of this is the devitalized state of the Irish Catholic Church, which, for centuries, had provided the cultural foundation of one of the most Catholic countries in Europe. Today, Mass attendance barely exceeds thirty percent and remains in decline. This figure is less than a third of its 1950 participation rate and, by some estimates, is markedly lower than in countries that do not have a traditionally Catholic heritage, such as the United States. The long-term results of this wholesale secularization are not yet fully understood. However, the fact that Ireland redefined marriage in 2015 by popular referendum in an attempt to include same-sex couples suggests a certain permanence to these trends, at least for the foreseeable future. Granted, the Catholic Church remains an integral part of Irish society, but its influence has waned considerably in the past few decades, setting the stage for a renewed debate of once untouchable issues like abortion and euthanasia.
The problems facing the Catholic Church in Ireland are very much interrelated with the problems affecting the Catholic Church globally; the former is a concrete derivative of a systemic issue whose origins trace back to the fallout of the Council itself. Some, including Pope Paul VI and Pope Benedict XVI, maintained that it was not Vatican II, strictly speaking, that caused the crisis of the modern Church, but rather how the Council was subsequently misconstrued by the burgeoning news media and leftist academicians. Considering the liberal climate of the late 1960s, there is little doubt that the cultural changes of that era impacted the interpretation of the Council. This, in conjunction with the evolving media climate, in which biased journalists labeled the Council Fathers as winners and losers depending on their philosophy, furthered the confusion about the Council's implications. In recognizing this, some blame can still be accorded to those who backed the Council for haphazardly calling for its creation without accounting for the cultural changes that would invariably dint its rollout, regardless of whatever the actual outcome was.
Ultimately, whether or not the Council accelerated today's lack of religiosity is secondary to the larger premise that the modern Church was, in fact, greatly shaped by Vatican II reforms. Knowing this, it would be wise for Church officials to gradually roll back many of the liturgical changes and work toward implementing a more traditionalist platform. Pope Benedict XVI appeared to sympathize with traditionalists in expressing during his papacy that liberals had wrongly interpreted Vatican II by objecting to such reforms as pushing back against local suppression of the Latin Mass, in addition to smaller reforms, like reviving several papal garments that had fallen into disuse. Although these efforts were rather diminutive in theological significance, they nevertheless signaled that the Vatican was at least open to the idea of bringing tradition back to the Catholic Church.
So where left to go for the surviving religious hoping for a grand awakening of their faith?
Some, like Rod Dreher (who left the Catholic Church for Eastern Orthodoxy), believe that a new "dark ages" have befallen contemporary civilization and that the best way to manage the situation is for the remaining few Christians to organize into monastic communities of believers removed from the moral decay of modern times. This so-called "Benedict Option," named for St. Benedict of Nursia (ca. 480-537), is tailored for Americans who wish to preserve genuine Christian culture by displacing themselves from a society that is in its current state outwardly hostile to the Christian faith. Essentially, the debauchery of American civilization has reached a point of no return, forcing the few devout remaining to withdraw from the world, if not physically, then at least spiritually, into true communities of faith that will uphold the principles of the Church and form a "living spiritual relationship with God."
Others have advocated for less drastic measures, though a common pessimism about the degraded state of Western civilization appears to unify many traditionalists. Indeed, there is a clear metaphysical crisis working to dismember any form of objective truth or attach genuine significance to the human person. Above all, the effects of modernity have reduced the dignity of the modern man into nothing beyond a baseless social construct contingent on no substantive higher moral truth. The horrible eventualities that might result from such spiritual lethargy are, at present, unknown.
Christians should hope that at some point in the future, the truths embedded in the writings of such distinguished theologians as Benedict XVI may ignite an awakening of the Logos and a renewal of faith founded in the memoria Ecclesiae, the memory of the Church. Tracey Rowland, writing for the Catholic Herald, put it this way:
When a new generation arises in full rebellion from the social experiments of the contemporary era, craving a human ecology that respects both God and nature, and wanting to be something more than rootless cosmopolitans, Ratzinger's publications will serve as Harry Potter-style Portkeys, giving creative young rebels access to the missing cultural capital – indeed, access to what Ratzinger calls the memoria Ecclesiae.
So long as current trends continue, traditional Catholics may ultimately become the Church's most prominent voice, if for no reason other than that they will be the only ones remaining, thereby forcing it into this direction by default. Naturally, Catholics should hope it doesn't reach this point, but considering that the updated papal idiom of Pope Francis did not usher a wave of disaffected Catholics back into the Church, it seems that a reversal of course might actually be a good thing. The Church would be well advised to stop pandering to lapsed Christians, and instead to strengthen its resolve on doctrine and tradition, especially given the alarming trend of moral relativism among younger people in particular, which is grossly incompatible with the objectivism espoused by Catholic doctrine. A more reverend, disciplined, and ordered Church might ultimately precipitate a rekindling of the Catholic faith and shift the emphasis away from the material and personal and toward the metaphysical and divine.