Two documents, both episcopal but both quite different, have captured my attention these last few weeks. The first was the motu proprio of Pope Francis, Magnum principium, devolving primary responsibility for the liturgical translations to bishops’ conferences. It has already been dealt with on this site here and here and here, but one thing from it lingers in the mind: that “great principle” of the title, which is really something of a great misrepresentation:
The great principle, established by the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, according to which liturgical prayer be accommodated to the comprehension of the people so that it might be understood, required the weighty task of introducing the vernacular language into the liturgy and of preparing and approving the versions of the liturgical books, a charge that was entrusted to the Bishops.
One searches in vain through the conciliar decree on the liturgy for anything that adequately justifies this bold assertion. Whoever drafted this for the pope got away with quite the deception. But then, the new liturgy is based on misrepresentations and deceptions, as revealed by the unbowdlerized history of the Council that has been emerging these last few years from the pens of many scholars. Of course they are only taking up the work of Fr Wiltgen’s The Rhine Flows into the Tiber (1967), in which the liberal-leaning author guilelessly lays open to view the machinations by which the liberal minority manipulated the majority; and of Michael Davies, whose trilogy Liturgical Revolution gives, in immense detail, the workings, context and implications of the highly-flawed Council proceedings and aftermath.
The other document was the pastoral letter this past weekend from Bishop Egan of Portsmouth, to mark his 5th anniversary as bishop of the diocese. As usual from Bishop Egan, there is nothing doctrinally questionable in his teaching, and indeed much that is encouraging in his optimistic and active orthodox vision of the life of our diocese. One thing is striking though: he makes no mention of the Council, either in the text or in the footnotes. While he adopts a couple of tendencies that mark modern Catholicism of both the sound and less-sound type, this failure to mention the Council seems very positive.
Since I hold no office there is a freedom for me to say what follows that many other clergy (and even lay academics) would not have (assuming that they agree with me, which I know many do).
The reason I think Bishop Egan was right not to mention the Council (though I am not saying he did this with deliberation) is that it is time now to let go of the Council. It happened over half a century ago, was conditioned by and directed to the world of the 1960s, a world that has changed beyond recognition as of 2017. It described itself as a pastoral council, and it sought to repackage the teaching, life and worship of the Church to suit a world in flux. For this very reason the Council was necessarily going to have a best-before date. That date has been passed. The sad thing is that its milk turned sour very soon after packaging.
Bishop Egan reports that Mass attendance in the diocese is 13% of the Catholic population. Just after the Council (when things had already started to change) Mass attendance in England (I do not have a figure for Portsmouth but it would have been in the vicinity of this national figure) was just under 53%. In a Church that had been reshaped to meet modern needs, with a liturgy likewise adapted as never before, Catholic practice by the most obvious measure plummeted. Dr Joe Shaw has demonstrated that according to other measures, such as ordinations to the priesthood, Catholic vitality has plummeted.
By any reasonable standard of judgment the application of the Council failed, miserably, to achieve the Council’s aims. This statistical revelation of decline is quite apart from the decline experienced by Catholics as they have seen dogmas, doctrines, morals and many other elements of Catholic life thrown into chaos in the wake of the Council. St John Paul II and Benedict XVI, in their different ways and according to their lights, attempted to stem the ecclesial wasting away. But while ever the main nutrition of the Church was based on the Council (usually very loosely) then the Church will ever be gaining a pound a losing two.
Of course the decline is not universal. The Church grows apace in the developing world, where a different social and attitudinal dynamic is at work. The Church is growing in the West in certain places too. But here’s the rub: it is growing precisely where much of what was discarded by the post-conciliaristas is slowly and sensibly being reclaimed and integrated into the world of 2017 rather than the mid-1960s. What they are reclaiming is essential, timeless Catholicism rather than the tired mantras and shibboleths of the “Vatican II Church”. The young have discovered, and many of the older re-discovered, that there was a Church before Vatican II, and it was healthy, vital and beautiful.
So, despite the many virtues of the Council documents, and some its beautiful passages of theological lyricism, they are so laden with deliberate ambiguities, and have been so abused and misrepresented in their application, that are fit only for the occasional reference or quotation. They addressed too specifically a world that disappeared soon after the Council; Gaudium et spes was flawed even then, but now it reads almost risibly.
Thus it makes no sense to be constantly referencing every contemporary initiative to Vatican II, for justification or acceptance-value. It is time to move from a post-conciliar Church to a post-post-conciliar Church; which is to say, it is time to reclaim the Church as She has always been in her essence and her stable form, which has been able to function viably and vitally in every age and circumstance since the time of Christ. In the 1960s mankind, not least of the Catholic variety, seemed to think it had found something new under the sun. How old, dated and desiccated that new thing now looks.
Not that there was nothing good from the Council. For example, despite its abuse, the ecumenical initiative articulated by the Council is essentially sound and worthy of ongoing pursuit. But is has to be doctrinally coherent. That Luther could look on the modern Catholic Church in many parts of Europe and declare himself vindicated does not signify ecumenical progress.
I had intended, as signalled above, to discuss Bishop’s Egan desire (and not only his) that all Catholics become missionaries and apostles. This is an aspect of modern Catholicism that while not doctrinally awry is pastorally utopian. But after the above that must await another day.