What Happened to Fifties Catholicism?

by Michael Potemra

To read memoirs of pre-Vatican II Catholicism is, often, to visit a glorious world of great aesthetic beauty and unambiguous, doctrinally certain religious identity; with the eternal Mass, the perfect work of worship, at the living center of a parish life of great vitality. But the picture can be so compelling, so all-enclosing, that it creates its own skepticism: How could something so perfect have collapsed so suddenly, and with so little protest on the part of its supposed beneficiaries? The default position of many in my generation (born in the Sixties) was to simply believe that the nostalgia is phony in the first place: The Good Old Days were actually pretty awful, and once people realized they had a choice they said goodbye, good riddance, and don’t let the door hit you on the rear end. But Australian scholar Geoffrey Hull has come forward with a rather more specific explanation. In his new book, The Banished Heart: Origins of Heteropraxis in the Catholic Church, he says it was one of the key underpinnings of the pre-Vatican II culture that planted the seeds of that system’s destruction.

In Hull’s thesis, the Sixties revolution in Roman Catholic practice was in large measure a result of the Counter-Reformation and Vatican I centralization of power in the papacy: In the traditional understanding, the pope was the “custodian” of tradition — but the response to the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution made Catholicism expand that role significantly, from “custodian” to “arbiter” (the quoted words are Hull’s). The need for a strong defense against outside attacks on the Church made Catholics rally around the pope, in the name of orthodoxy, little intending that that same power could eventually be deployed in the interest of heterodoxy. (They might in this sense have benefited from an understanding of O’Sullivan’s First Law: “All organizations that are not actually right-wing will over time become left-wing.” In this ecclesial case, of course, the contrast would not be the political one between right-wing and left-wing, but rather one between tradition and experimentation.) Hull writes: “There was a direct cause-and-effect relationship between the spirit of ultramontanism and the general acquiescence of Latin[-rite] Catholics in the Pauline liturgical revolution. Or, put another way, ultramontanism is the difference between the rebellious, strong-minded Catholics [who resisted Protestant changes in] 1549 England and the conformist, unthinking ones of the decades following the Second Vatican Council.”

It’s a fascinating notion, and there is at least a kernel of truth to it: If you’ve been rallying around authority for as long as your culture can remember, that authority can indeed develop a momentum of its own — even at the expense of what the authority is designed to protect. The story Hull tells is a detailed and fascinating one, of interest to any student of the history of Catholicism; but I think it would be dishonest of me not to point out that I disagree with his overall perspective. I love the traditional liturgies that Hull is defending, but I am equally devoted to the Protestant liturgical traditions, and I think the Novus Ordo instituted by Paul VI is a hugely positive development in Christianity’s efforts toward unity. The author’s disapproval of John Paul II is particularly harsh: John Paul, “the darling of the media,” “deemed it his duty to pander to the mood of an age,” and “enthusiastically participated in liturgies in which pagan rites were mingled with secular vulgarities”; in 2005, his Requiem Mass “was repeatedly interrupted by loutish shouts of santo subito! (‘Make him a saint immediately!’) from young men bussed in for the purpose from Poland . . .” You get the idea.

My own suspicion is that the Golden Age of Catholicism was not the immediate pre-Vatican II era, but will rather be the period some 25 or 30 years from now, when the bold Vatican II stances on ecumenism, interreligious dialogue, and religious liberty — and the general openness to the insights of Protestantism and other elements of modernity — will be integrated with a Wojtylan/Ratzingerian love of “the religion of the heart” (traditional liturgy and devotions, accompanied by a vibrant sense of Catholic esprit de corps). So my view of these issues is dramatically different from that of Professor Hull, and only time will tell which of us is right; but I will continue to read his work with interest.

The Corner

The one and only.