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The New Conciliarism: Vatican II Overdrive
The runaway enthusiasm for all things new is getting pretty old; meanwhile, "the kids are old rite"
As a historical phenomenon, “conciliarism” refers to the view that a general council of the Church is superior to the Pope in matters of faith and morals—that a Pope can be trumped, so to speak, by all the bishops assembled. This error was dealt a series of blows throughout the second millenium of Christianity, culminating in the coup de grâce of the dogmatic constitution Pastor Aeternus of Vatican I.
A new start from zero
In the past sixty years, however, a new form of conciliarism has arisen, one harder to define with precision yet far more influential: the view that the Second Vatican Council, all by itself, redefined the Church and her theology from top to bottom. In the memorable words of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, speaking to the bishops of Chile in 1988:
The Second Vatican Council has not been treated as a part of the entire living Tradition of the Church, but as an end of Tradition, a new start from zero. The truth is that this particular Council defined no dogma at all, and deliberately chose to remain on a modest level, as a merely pastoral council; and yet many treat it as though it had made itself into a sort of “super-dogma” which takes away the importance of all the rest.
For historians of the influential “Bologna school,” the Council gave birth to a new Church; ushered in a new age; cleared away mountains of debris and decadence; proclaimed at last an ecumenical Gospel that sought out the world and passionately embraced it.
While the falsity of such a bald statement may cause a wry smile, it is a sad fact that this peculiar brand of conciliarism has been the main force at work in the wreckage of the sacred liturgy for over fifty years—and has aggressively returned, after a sort of siesta, in the rupturist “forwardism” of Pope Francis and his courtiers, busily chasing dreams of an unlimited and illimitable synodalism that pays homage to Vatican II as its inspiration (whether accurately or not—such questions of truth hardly seem to matter to the main protagonists).
It would be no exaggeration to say that a new “Great Schism” has appeared in the twentieth century: a schism between a self-styled modern Church and the Church of Tradition. This virtual schism, like the doctrinal somersaults and rampant liturgical abuses that are the hallmarks of its proponents, rivals every crisis the Church has faced before. It is worse because more subtle, pervasive, and “official,” wrapping itself in the mantle of hierarchical endorsement.
As students of Church history know, the Holy Spirit does not allow the Church to be storm-tossed and in danger of shipwreck for so long that all is lost. All the hard-won gains of the aging old guard—religious liberalism, laicism, secularism, feminism, soft modernism, horizontalism, relativism, and so forth, a whole litany of “-isms” that have replaced the Litany of Saints as the guiding lights of Catholicism today—are being called into question by a new generation of believers, partly inspired by the writings of a deceased “pope emeritus” who was a major force at that very Council whose spirit is claimed to be embodied in the new Mass and the new style of worship. Those who follow the Catholic media can see it daily: the graying liberals sound outraged, panicked, desperate. The more intelligent among them must surely know the sun is beginning to go down on their long-reigning agenda. This is why they are now savage in their crackdowns and reprisals. They must act while they can; time is running out.
A walk down memory lane
The Bergoglio-Roche Weltanschauung has been with us for a long while: it has the taste of stale bread. “Nothing new under the sun,” as Ecclesiastes observes.
Let’s consider a tall and unrepentant rupturist of the past, the once-upon-a-time papal MC for John Paul II, Archbishop Piero Marini.Back in 2007, the annus mirabilis when Summorum Pontificum was released, Marini published a book that made quite a splash… in the puddles in which he traveled. Bearing an oddly self-compromising title, A Challenging Reform: Realizing the Vision of the Liturgical Renewal contains little to surprise those who are already familiar with the standard (“Bologna”) history of the Council and the divinely inspired reforms attributed to it, or rather, to the Holy Ghost.
Anyone who has dared to dip into Annibale Bugnini’s ponderous memoirs will find Piero Marini’s book not terribly original. It comes across rather as the last gasp of a dying cause, a kind of “rage against the dying of the light” from an energetic retiree.
At a press conference in England shortly after the book appeared, Marini portrayed in livid terms an ongoing battle between “conservation and progress,” between “the center and the periphery.” He wanted his book to sound “an invitation to look to the future, to take up with enthusiasm the path traced by the council.” How’s that for tendentious? We—the Church of the ages—are the periphery? Tradition is the democracy of the dead, Chesterton said. It is the soft-modernist faction of the Council that is the periphery, with its loud minority opinion.
Journalist John Allen summarized Marini’s identification of historical factors that paved the way for the Consilium’s triumph (I refer, of course, to the super-committee that designed the new liturgy from 1964 onward, not to the Concilium or Council—a distinction that few in Rome seem capable or desirous of making). First, he pointed to “the presence of the council fathers in Rome during the first two years of implementation of Sacrosanctum Concilium, Vatican II’s constitution on liturgy. The bishops themselves, [Marini] said, were ‘the first guarantors of reform.’”
How easily the victors rewrite history! Many who were present at and involved in the Council have testified that the bishops had no idea they were about to witness the wholesale dismantling and reconstruction of the Roman Rite. Archimandrite Boniface Luykx (1915–2004) noted that not a single bishop at the Council believed that Latin would be abolished, in practice, from the celebration of the Mass,that the priest would face the people, or that the prayers would be notably altered. In a moment of honesty, could Marini admit that Sacrosanctum Concilium did not ask for most of the changes that were implemented?
A reformist pope, his band of scholars, and the wretched laity
The second factor in the Consilium’s success, according to Marini, was “the personal support of Pope Paul VI.” Alas, this is no relevation; it is but one more reason to hold this presumptuous pontiff of progressive proclivities in suspicion. People often rush to Paul VI’s defense by pointing out his countercultural stance in Humanae Vitae. We might be in danger of damning with faint praise. Humanae Vitae may seem like a major seismic event in a world of hedonist nitwits, but any Catholic with an instinctive attachment to healthy sexuality, a modicum of religious education, and a morally sound outlook on family life would not for a moment be tempted by something as disgustingly selfish, manipulative, and dishonest as artificial contraception, nor would he or she register any surprise about what the Church had always taught and will always teach.
Let us move on to Marini’s third factor: “The rapid emergence of a network of ‘competent scholars,’ led by Lercaro and Bugnini.” Do I sense what the logicians call a petitio principii—a begging of the question? Competent by whose definition? Many of the fashionable scholarly theories of the mid-century have long since been utterly discredited by subsequent liturgists and scholars such as Klaus Gamber, Lauren Pristas, Alcuin Reid, Uwe Michael Lang, Michael Fiedrowicz, Stefan Heid, and Matthew Hazell.
As the old guard present at Vatican II passes away year by year, Marini pleads that “it is important for the church to retain and renew the spirit that gave rise to the liturgical movement, and that inspired the council fathers to approve the constitution on the liturgy as the first fruit of that great grace of the 20th century which was the Second Vatican Council.” Hmm. The “spirit” (note the lower-case “s”) behind the liturgical movement—is that anything like the particolored “spirit of Vatican II”? What about the real origins of the Liturgical Movement among people who deeply and dearly loved the Church’s traditional rites and would have been disgusted by the superficial (if not sacrilegious) hootenanny that often replaced them?
Anyone with good sense can see that the sudden suppression of huge parts of Catholic liturgical tradition can only have had a profoundly unsettling, disorienting, and destabilizing effect on the Church as a whole. The apparent “success” of the reform has been belied by bitter problems of doctrine and morals that have plagued the Church in the past six decades, centering on a loss of priestly identity, a drastic decline in vocations, and an almost universal ignorance of the Faith and even of the notion of the sacred. Glamorous meetings of prelates conveniently failed to mention the innumerable Catholics who felt betrayed, alienated, and even scandalized by the drastic changes that occurred as if overnight.
Our Lord gave the Mass to the Church for all her people, especially for the simple and the childlike. Lowly laity may not be sophisticated enough to argue about scholarship but they are capable of judging by what they see and hear. Judging by what they saw and heard, many came to the conclusion that the Church herself had either gone bonkers or had surrendered to secularism. No wonder so many stopped going to church.
Rather than rejoicing in a botched reform conducted with all the finesse of bulldozers, one ought to feel righteous indignation about the high and mighty doings of the establishment elite in the heady days of the late sixties and beyond, as they indulged in their liturgical fantasies while carelessly trampling on the hearts and minds of ordinary Catholics who loved the beauty and dignity of the Church’s worship as they knew it.
A sacred cloud, a column of fire, and a New Coke
Marini’s talk in London was full of that peculiar messianism characteristic of Vatican II nostalgics. Here is how it ended: “The Holy Spirit that inspired the liturgical movement and the council fathers still encircles us like a sacred cloud, and guides us like a column of fire,” offering “beauty ever new” as well as “joy and hope.”
That’s what they call rhetoric, folks, but not in the most flattering sense of the word. If it was indeed the Holy Spirit that inspired the original Liturgical Movement, the way we receive its good fruit will exemplify continuity with the great Tradition of Catholic theology and worship. It will not cleave to a path of rupture, a decisive change of course that requires systematically deconstructing what came before and terrorizing those who adhere to it. That would have its origin not in the Holy Spirit, but in the Zeitgeist—or a yet more infernal spirit.
Let us remind ourselves again and again that, for all its weaknesses,Sacrosanctum Concilium expressly says in §23 that
there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing.
To those who are familiar with the wonderfully resilient, impressive, consoling, symbolically rich sacramental rites of the Roman tradition, it would seem obvious that few, if any, changes could have been defensible according to this strict criterion of “genuine and certain good.” It would be like looking into a chest filled with treasures fashioned of precious metals and jewels, and saying: “Let’s get rid of anything in here that’s worthless.” Good luck finding it!
But the Consilium came along and—to the horror of orthodox Catholics, the delight of far-seeing modernists, and the surprise of just about everyone—discovered that the rites of the Roman Church were thoroughly defective and in need of a massive overhaul. An overhaul, in fact, that would culminate, decades later, in 1999’s pathetic banalization of the very rite of exorcism, as if we could pull the wool over Old Scratch’s intellectual eyes. According to exorcists, the new rite doesn’t even work very well; it is certainly much less effective than the old. A personal friend of mine, an exorcist for a major diocese, told me that water blessed by the old solemn formula, inclusive of the salt, is vastly more effective against demons than water blessed (or quasi-blessed) with newer formulas. In a way, if one may compare great things to small, Church leaders made the same mistake as Coca-Cola did, but lacked the marketing brains to realize it and bring back the original recipe. Hierarchical office does not come ready-equipped with a charism of factual analysis or prudent decision-making.
The Consilium found that the Tradition was defective and the People of God were crying out for a new Mass, a new Liturgy of Hours, new blessings, new everything. This sounds like special pleading. Who are we to trust: the Tradition of the Church, which embodies the faith, hope, and love of countless believers and pastors over many centuries, or the Experts whose theories embody (at best) the ephemeral wisdom of academia, here today and gone tomorrow? Why do the Experts think they know better than the common man—or, for that matter, than the Common Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, who is always on the common man’s side?
The whole mentality of the Consilium, as of Marini’s book, smacks of the spirit of Protestantism: we, a select few enlightened by the Spirit of God, will choose what is the best way forward in Catholic worship. The same brazen appeal to a Spirit apparently at the beck and call of church leaders has returned with a vengeance in the pontificate of Francis.
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“Man has come of age; so should the Mass”
In any case, one thing is certain: we should have been prepared to see a lot of this kind of nostalgic resistance from the aging conciliarists. Their generation is now in nearly all the positions of power and their embarrassingly out-of-date mentality will remain in play for at least ten more years. It will become more and more acerbic, accompanied by an increase in acts of desperation. “Just before sunrise, the wind got up. It was a vile, stubborn wind…”
They accuse the traditionalists of wallowing in nostalgia, but as bright a lightbulb as Fr. Richard McBrien once found himself caught short when trying to explain how young Catholics, who never grew up with the Latin Mass, are nowadays flocking to it, loving it, and passing it on to their children. A “nostalgia” for what one could never have remembered is positively indecent and categorically illogical! (As a parenthesis: I was born in 1971, after Pope Paul VI had safely earned his place in the ranks of the worst popes of history, so I can add fuel to McBrien’s ire.)
In an interview for the National Catholic Reporter (that’s the newspaper Fr. Z calls “the Fishwrap”), Archbishop Marini, his heart swollen with benevolence, compared traditionalists with the carnal Jews who, having been liberated from the bondage of Pharaoh and his evil empire, longed for the fleshpots of Egypt:
First of all, it’s important that I spoke about a path [of liturgical reform], one that I believe is irreversible. I often think about the journey of the ancient Israelites in the Old Testament. It was a difficult journey, and sometimes the people became nostalgic for the past, for the onions and the melons of Egypt and so on. In other words, sometimes they wanted to go back. But the historical journey of the church is one which, by necessity, has to move forward.
(One wonders if Pope Francis found inspiration in Marini for his assertions of “irreversible” change, his harangues on the dangers of backwardism, and his utterance of the Kantian imperative to “move forward”…) Not quite finished with his penetrating analysis, Marini, like McBrien, admits he is puzzled that so many young people are drawn to the older liturgical forms. How can this be? He shares his reasoning process with us:
I see a certain nostalgia for the past. What concerns me in particular is that this nostalgia seems especially strong among some young priests. How is it possible to be nostalgic for an era they didn’t experience? . . . I’m always surprised to see young people who feel this nostalgia for something they never lived with. “Nostalgia for what?,” I find myself asking.
Now that we are finally seeing genuine liturgical renewal and “Eucharistic revival” thanks to the ripple-effects of Summorum Pontificum and the work of clergy dedicated to Tradition, the nostalgia is, in reality, all on the side of the wrinkled cheerleaders with their placards of “Man has come of age; so should the Mass.” They are gazing wistfully back to the sixties while younger and wiser Catholics are thanking God that we’re miles away from that benighted time of false hopes and self-important illusions.
The younger Catholics who take their faith seriously are doing just that: taking it seriously. Taking it as given, not as manufactured; as timeless, not as up-to-date. The Mass is not an experiment, a laboratory for testing academic theories, a do-it-yourself when ordained ministers run dry. It is the one and only Sacrifice of Calvary made present in our midst, in a hallowed form we receive from our forefathers, bearing not only its own sanctifying reality, but also the sanctified history of the communion of saints. The reaction of any sane believer is to fall to his knees in adoration, along with generations of his fathers and—may God in His mercy grant it—generations of children to come.
In my twenty years of teaching undergraduates, I constantly saw young people serious about their faith flocking to the traditional Mass, with little prompting or explanation required. After graduation they continue to attend it, when they can find it; they often get married in a traditional nuptial Mass, seek out the traditional rite of baptism, and so on, in this way leading their children into the sacred mysteries in ways that are manifestly sacred and compellingly mysterious. (I’m sure many of us have encountered young adults who, because they grew up in a parish or chapel run by the Fraternity of St. Peter or the Institute of Christ the King, have never attended a Novus Ordo Mass, and who therefore need to have that strange thing explained to them, since the TLM is already quite familiar!)
Decades ago, I myself was one of those young people who took refuge in the once-forbidden “old Mass,” and as the years go by, my love for it only grows deeper and stronger. It has nothing to do with nostalgia. Nostalgia, at least in the conventional sense of the word, is impossible for people who existed only in God’s mind, not on earth, when Paul VI made his fateful decision to vandalize the Roman rite.
No, this love has to do with something much more fundamental: the transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty. Every soul is created by God to resonate with these transcendentals. We yearn for their presence in a modern world hell-bent on falsity, evil, and ugliness. And the traditional Mass, the crown of all the sacred rites and ceremonies of our Faith, powerfully contains and expresses them.
What a gift! And what a privilege is ours to see this gift once more given and received! The light shines in the darkness—and no conciliarism, no synodalism, no forwardism, will be able to overcome it.
Not to be confused with Msgr. Guido Marini, no relation, who was a model MC for Benedict XVI and for Francis, and is now the Bishop of Tortona. For the remainder of this article, “Marini” will always refer to the bishop plagued with a futuristic agenda and no future.
We have independent confirmation of this claim from Archbishop Robert J. Dwyer of Portland, who said the Council Fathers laughed when one of them warned that Latin might disappear from the Mass.
Tove Jansson, Moominpappa at Sea, trans. Kingsley Hart (n.p.: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1993), 88.
The following diagram may be useful in homeschool catechesis for children in traditional Catholic families: