We often hear that one of the justifications for Vatican II was the imperative to find a “new language” to speak to the modern world. We were told that Vatican II was a Council oriented toward “mission,” and a new spirit of dialogue and encounter. The idea was that if the Church spoke the patois of modernity, she’d more likely be able to penetrate mainstream culture, thereby bringing it into the Catholic fold. Another way of framing the Council’s purpose was that the Church needed to find new ways of “listening” to the quickly changing and increasingly complex modern world. Optimism and excitement were in the air, as expressions like “New Springtime,” “New Evangelization” and even “New Pentecost” were coined to convey the sense of hope, opportunity and of course, newness.
As it turned out, much of this “new language” approach meant the acceptance of premises and assumptions of an increasingly hostile post-Christian culture. The adoption of a “new language” also coincided with the abandonment of the Church’s traditional language, vocabulary, concepts and rituals that had been relied upon by the Church for centuries to communicate and worship.
At first, maybe it sounded like a good idea. The times were changing and, if we were going to stay relevant, we needed to show that we too were adaptable. If we speak the “language” of the times, we can better connect with the times and its people.
While Church leaders of the 1960s occupied themselves with newness, the architects of post-modernism were amassing strength, influence and confidence, formulating their own secular rituals and intentionally ambiguous vocabulary to mask the darker elements of its agenda. No doubt, they viewed the Church’s dizzying project of deemphasizing, downplaying and deconstructing its own unifying practices, precise language and ancient liturgical rite as a golden opportunity. Their objective of cultural upheaval and hegemony would be a lot easier.
Some in the Church, skeptical of the new approach, asked questions that are obvious to us now: What if the doyens of the new times don’t want to be converted? What if they are quite secure in the possession of a radically different, yet coherent and robust system of thought, one that isn’t interested in change or conversion, but in revolution, overthrow and assimilation? What if, rather than the Church changing the secular culture, the secular culture slowly begins to change the visible Church? What if watering down and swapping out the Church’s time-tested language, customs and traditions results in the weakening of the Church’s ability to offer a convincing, credible and coherent alternative to ascendent cultural Marxism and Progressivism?
It’s hard to deny that this is exactly what happened shortly after the conclusion of the Council, and it’s encouraging to see more people arrive at this conclusion. Pope Benedict XVI biographer Peter Seewald recently observed,
Nevertheless, it had become clear that the Vatican Council had strengthened forces that sensed an opportunity to jettison basic tenets of the Catholic Faith with the help of an ominous “spirit of the Council” to which they consistently referred.
In his final book, A Godly Humanism: Clarifying the Hope That Lies Within, Cardinal Francis George wrote:
The Council documents invited more pluralism in moral theology and theology in general and severed the connection between a particular method of doing philosophy and the methods of Catholic theology. This development opened the door to approaches to moral theology and moral philosophy rooted in perspectives that earlier in the century would have been associated with the intellectual peril called modernism.
Later in the book he notes,
A secular crisis developed when the Council changed the Church’s relation to the world for the sake of evangelizing. . . . The listening became “catching up,” and the renewal, too often became self-secularization.
This last passage is quite remarkable. Cardinal George seems to saying that the “self-secularization” within the Church after the Council is a direct consequence of the Council’s whole approach to evangelization.
In concrete terms, what did this “self-secularization” of the Church look like? Here are a few examples.
Secularized churches and liturgy: Countless historic and beautiful Catholic churches, built with the sweat, labor and devotion of pious and scrappy immigrants, were gutted and whitewashed to align with the iconoclastic and anthropocentric zeitgeist of the day. We haven’t forgotten what they did to our once-noble cathedral in Milwaukee. Sacred spaces that once called to mind heaven and eternity have been refitted as beige social spaces that call to mind the living room. A separate article (or book) could be dedicated to chronicling the catastrophic changes made to the liturgy itself, the flood of appalling abuses and the irreparable harm they inflicted on the faithful.
Secularized Sacrament: Not long ago, a Pew Religion Research Study indicated that, among Catholics in the United States, only about one-third believe in the doctrine of Transubstantiation. How did we get here? Look at what has been normalized over the past fifty years at most parishes, and it will start to make sense. Perceptions toward what was held as sacred and “set apart” have been dramatically secularized. The beautiful devotional practice of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament virtually disappeared. Small armies of “extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion” have been enabled to storm the sanctuary, handle the sacred chalice and ciborium and dole out Communion to the faithful like candy. The practice of receiving Communion in the hand, which began through disobedience to clear Church directives in Holland in the ’60s, has become normative. The reception of Communion in the hand undermines transcendence and belief in the Real Presence.
Secularized dioceses: Across bureaucratized dioceses in the United States, “evangelization” has been dramatically re-conceptualized according to secular paradigms and business models. Many working at the diocesan level, bereft of Catholic culture, romanitas and basic formation routinely confuse evangelization with focus groups, committees, gimmicky plans and corporate speak.
Secularized clergy and religious: Often priests and religious abandoned the traditional cassock and habit which, for centuries, were conspicuous symbols of their sacred vows and consecrated lives. They began dressing in a way that was indistinguishable from the layman. Even the black clerical suit with the Roman collar takes its inspiration, not from the cassock, but from the secular business suit. Many women religious moved into apartments and no longer lived in a traditional community as their orders originally intended. Some diocesan priests abandoned the parish rectory, and moved into condos or lake houses. Once again, the idea was that “blending in” with the laity and secular world through similar dress and lifestyle would be a better way to evangelize. But religious orders that embraced the secular “look” (and often took up liberal political activism as their charism) are on the verge of extinction today. It turns out the secular zeitgeist got the better of them.
Secularized schools: Catholic schools were not immune to this destructive process of “self-secularization.” Reflecting on the damage to Catholic priorities within Catholic education R. Jared Staudt notes in Renewing Catholic Schools: How to Regain a Catholic Vision in a Secular Age,
In fact, Catholic schools no longer served as a place of refuge from a secular culture, as the decades following the Second Vatican Council initiated an experiment in increased openness to the world and the adoption of secular models in Catholic education. Catholic identity and traditional pedagogy were sidelined for more utilitarian goals of academic success and career preparation, with a precipitous decline in enrollment following.
Secularized view of the person: In the last year, the bungling response to COVID carried with it the message that Mass and the Sacraments, especially Penance and Anointing of the Sick, aren’t “essential” after all. Dioceses took their lead in how to respond from the secular and corporate spheres, playing “catch-up” or “follow-the-leader” once again. The policies implemented at parishes across the nation gave the clear and mistaken impression that physical health is more important than spiritual health. Is COVID a greater threat than mortal sin? As churches nervously open their doors once again, Mass attendance remains appallingly low, as many wonder if absent Catholics will ever return.
Secularized public square: This past week, as pro-abortion and pro-gender theory Joe Biden received Communion from the notoriously liberal Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the process of “self-secularization” within the Church that began decades ago hit a scandalous new low. Since, he has rescinded the Mexico City policy and pledged to further codify Roe v. Wade in federal law. Meanwhile, prominent bishops are openly quarreling with one another about the elevation of Biden. Some see the rise of a second “Catholic president” as something to celebrate, as a clear sign that the Catholic Church has arrived as a cultural force to be reckoned with in the United States. Those who are wiser and endowed with keener perspectives and abilities of discernment view the inauguration as a scandal, an occasion to don sackcloth and ashes. Biden’s ascendency is simply a higher profile example of an all-too-common phenomenon: dissident, far-left Catholic politicians and public figures routinely showcasing their Catholicism, while bishops do little to nothing to defend stop the scandal and confusion.
The point of this brief rundown of calamities is to underscore that something went seriously off the rails under a Vatican II-centered approach to evangelization of the modern world. It’s time to admit that this strategy of blending into the culture and adopting the “language” of the culture to evangelize the culture has failed. Downplaying or jettisoning distinctive and formative features of Catholic identity, whether liturgical or devotional, as a means of better “connecting” to a hostile culture has failed. It’s time to look at a bold alternative to the status quo, one that is already showing significant vitality and resilience.
Reversing secularization of liturgy: The secularizing abuses that have found their way into contemporary celebrations of the Novus Ordo have become entrenched are extremely difficult to extricate. Also, in many cases the official rules for what you can or cannot do at a Novus Ordo Mass are unclear. The Latin Mass, on the other hand, has very clear rules. They allow for no secularizing abuses. So, where the Latin Mass is celebrated instead of the Novus Ordo, a whole swath of secularizing abuses are necessarily eliminated (or at least obviated) at once.
Reversing the secularization of churches: Where the Latin Mass is celebrated, churches are restored. A striking example can be found here in Milwaukee, and has been chronicled on this blog. St. Stanislaus church had been whitewashed (or, more accurately, beigewashed), its beautiful stained-glass windows that told the stories of the lives of the saints were removed, its floors were carpeted, and its sanctuary filled with tons of poured concrete, all presumably to catch up with the secularizing spirit of the times. The church’s sacrality and Catholicity were obscured. Then the Institute of Christ the King moved in. St. Stanislaus became a Latin Mass parish. And, slowly, every secularizing renovation was reversed.
Reversing bureaucratization: The Latin Mass movement stands in sharp contrast to bureaucratized diocesan programs. The movement is grass-roots. It does not rely on focus groups, committees, or corporate-speak. It relies on the liturgy, on the spiritual guidance of individual pastors, on spiritual reading such as St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devote Life, on the practical experience of a community struggling for the common goal of living as faithful Catholics in a very un-Catholic world, and (perhaps problematically depending on who you ask) on unofficial online resources and commentators.
Reversing secularization in education: The Latin Mass provides a locus around which Catholic communities form. As these communities grow, small schools and educational cooperatives also form, where children receive an education imbued with genuine, countercultural Catholicism. Even in the absence of a school or educational cooperative, Latin Mass parishes will usually provide catechism classes that are much more uncompromisingly Catholic than what is available through the typical PSR or Sunday school program.
Reversing secular reduction of the person: When Masses across the country were shut down because of the coronavirus, pastors of Latin Mass parishes pushed to stay open. In some places, such as Kansas city, they offered to say Mass every hour during the day to allow parishioners to spread out and social distance, if that’s what it would take to stay open. Here in Miwaukee Latin Mass priests celebrated Mass outdoors. At other parishes around the country, they left the doors open and allowed people to attend on the sly. The efforts of these priests to provide the sacraments to their parishioners suggest that they prioritize spiritual health. Their parishioners, by and large, seem to agree. Post-lockdown, Latin Mass parishes are even more packed than before. The coronavirus experience taught many Catholics who they can rely on—who will be there for them with sacramental grace when times get tough.
Reversing secularizing approach to the public square: Communities that form around the celebration of the old Mass are often seen as withdrawing from the public square. But this is often not true. Such communities are often highly politically engaged, and they demand their leadership to do the right thing by the standards of Catholic truth and natural law. Communities of Catholics that attend the Latin Mass are often very involved in the prolife movement. In France, they took to the streets in large numbers to support traditional marriage. More recently, in Saint Louis, they organized to protect the statue of Saint Louis King of France (an icon of Saint Louis Catholic heritage) from being torn down by Black Lives Matter and other agitators. The diocese did little to defend the statue. But the Saint Louis Latin Mass communities banded together and rallied other Catholics to pray the rosary at the statue daily, to overwhelm the anti-Catholic agitators in terms of numbers, and to pressure the mayor and the police department to stop cowering and to defend the threatened icon.
These are small beginnings. But they show us a concrete example of how we can reverse the secularization that swept the Catholic Church following the Second Vatican Council. We can see where we went wrong. And now we can return to a robust and countercultural Catholicism. There is no reason to wait. Others have already begun the work. Let’s carry that work forward.