Conciliar Reform in the 1960s: Politics Become Religion

church, reform


Why do many Roman Catholics put up so much resistance to reintroducing traditional liturgical elements to the Mass? In two recent articles, Catholic Stand writer Nicholas LaBanca interviewed two Eastern Catholic priests, Fr. Thomas Loya of the Byzantine Rite and Fr. Alexander Wroblicky of the Ukrainian-Greek Rite. Both men observed that Millennials take to elements such as ad orientem worship and Gregorian chant more easily; said Fr. Loya, “Young people … love this stuff because they weren’t told to hate it.” This is a sign of hope that young people, unlike their parents and grandparents, can distinguish religion from politics.

Growing Up Post-Conciliar

One of the benefits of being an editor is that you get to read your writers’ articles before anyone else. Reading LaBanca’s interviews provided me with material for serious reflection. In particular, Fr. Wroblicky struck a chord when he said that “with the Baby Boomer generation … there were a lot of ideas that got intermixed with the intentions of the Council that kind of shaped their worldview.” As true as that is, it struck me as insufficient, almost like a couple describing their relationship as “it’s complicated”.

Father Wroblicky is a Gen-Xer; LaBanca is a Millennial. As the good padre admitted, neither have “any lived experience” of the conciliar era. I was born on the cusp of the Boomers and Generation X; I have no memory of the Council or a Latin Mass. However, I do have a fairly clear memory of a Mass in which the music included Crosby Stills Nash & Young’s “Teach Your Children” and “Day by Day” from the musical Godspell. I was eight or nine, but I’m pretty sure no one went so far as to light up a joint.

That’s as bad as I ever witnessed. I never saw nor even heard of a “Clown Mass” or liturgical puppets until I was in my 40s. At the same time, my closest approach to the traditional Mass was the honor to perform Giovanni Gabrieli’s “O Magnum Mysterium” and Mozart’s Requiem in high school (back when you could perform religious music in a public school without raising a ruckus). Much later, I would attend an OF Mass in English with Cistercian monks chanting responses in Latin, a breathtaking experience.

“This Was Not Done in a Corner”

But while my age cohort was too young to witness or understand the 1960s as participants, we grew up in the 1970s aftermath. We were the first generation to come of age in the reformed Church, a Church that was still trying to process all the changes that had been wrought in the name of the “spirit of Vatican II”. To us, the pope and the Curia were remote irrelevancies. At the time, we accepted and even enjoyed the freedom of the countercultural movement. However, many of us put a skeptical asterisk by the Boomers’ self-congratulatory narrative of the previous decade.

So I get impatient with traditionalists who speak about the Council, the reforms, and the Mass of Paul VI as if these things were done “in a corner” (cf. Acts 26:26), as if they were somehow disconnected from the rest of the cultural cataclysm of the Vietnam era.

In the Introduction to the Millennium Edition of his book The Open Church, the late Michael Novak argued that “the era before the Council was more like a Golden Age in Catholic history than like the Dark Age, described to an eager press by the post-conciliar ‘progressives.’ There were many glaring deficiencies in it … and yet it was in many respects healthier and more faithful to the Gospels than much that came later in the name of ‘progress’ and ‘openness.’”

But other Catholics present at the time would disagree. As Fr. Wroblicky reports, “They don’t want to return to a Church that is highly clerical, a Church that does not allow the people to participate in the Mass, a Church that has lost the sense of the universal call of [sic] holiness [—a loss] that creates a very clerical, structured kind of Church.” The thing to be remembered about the reformers is that they were there, and many of their present-day critics weren’t. The people who drove the reform of the liturgy had had no real experience of any liturgy other than the Tridentine Mass.

Connecting Church and Social Reform

Moreover, the 1950s had seen an unprecedented boost in the economic and social fortunes of American Catholics. Prior to World War II, the bulk of American Catholics were white ethnics (Irish, Polish, Italian, Eastern European) or Hispanic ethnics, still largely clustered in homogeneous urban neighborhoods, holding predominantly blue-collar jobs, and more or less openly discriminated against by non-Catholic employers. However, the GI Bill and the post-war economic boom enabled Catholics to move up the socioeconomic ladder, move out to the suburbs, and send their children off to college in greater numbers than ever. For the first time, Catholicism had been mainstreamed.

With the door open to full assimilation, many American Catholics of the GI and Silent Generations began to see the Church, with her rules and traditions and anachronistic ornateness, as a hindrance rather than a treasure. At the same time, their children had got caught up in the civil rights movement, which had gained its first victories during the 1950s, and which was increasingly dominated by progressives, socialists, and anti-Western radicals. Many of the priests and religious involved in the reform movement were also members of the civil rights movement and Catholic Social Action.

Swept up in the winds of revolution, the line between Church reform and social reform blurred and eventually dissolved.

The net result was that American Catholics, for the most part, expected more and greater changes than the bishops of the Council were prepared to make. Thus was born “the spirit of Vatican II”, a spirit often invoked to justify reforms going beyond the letter of the conciliar documents (2 Corinthians 3:6: “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life”). If ever the American bishops had had control of the reform process, they quickly lost it. And after Pope Bl. Paul VI promulgated Humanae Vitae (On the Regulation of Human Births, 1968), American Catholic respect for papal and episcopal authority shattered.

Competing Worldviews

Furthermore, the association with the civil rights movement, which expanded into women’s and gay liberation, forged an enduring connection between Church reform and progressive-left politics which remains to this day. Unsurprisingly, the polarization within the Church in America began to reflect the increasing polarization outside the Church. As a result, it’s hard to separate traditionalism from political neoconservatism, an ideology formed out of reaction to and regret for the excesses of 1960s radicalism.

The battle over the liturgy today is less about the Mass itself than it is about competing worldviews. Father Wroblicky is right to point out that traditional elements such as celebrating the Mass ad orientem and Gregorian chant have nothing to do with the real problems of the pre-conciliar Church. But liberals tend towards a fallacy I call the appeal to the calendar: Reinstituting X would require the resurrection of the entire social, legal, and technological order in which X last operated, which is either impossible or undesirable or both. To many Catholics, these elements are part of a Church best left behind in the Forward March of Progress.

By the same token, many traditionalists tend to idealize the pre-conciliar Church. Any liturgy, including the TLM, can be performed with irreverence. As Ven. Pius XII said, “It should be clear to all … that God cannot be honored worthily unless the mind and heart turn to Him in quest of the perfect life, and that the worship rendered to God by the Church in union with her divine Head is the most efficacious means of achieving sanctity” (Mediator Dei 26). The interior disposition matters as much as, if not more than, the exterior rubrics.

Restoring the Tradition

For myself, I would like to see more traditional elements restored to the liturgy. I would also like to see the Solemnity of St. Joseph restored as a holy day of obligation in the US calendar, and a concerted push back to wearing “Sunday clothes” for Mass (mantillas optional). I would very much like to see chant and polyphony reinstated, and Marty Haugen, David Haas, and their ilk sent flying back to the nether regions, there to be forced to listen to “Anthem” played on kazoos until Doomsday.

In other words, I’d like to see the return of splendor and reverence for the Eucharistic mystery to the Mass, whether in Latin or in English. But I would most like Millennials and Generation Z to learn to love the tradition without having it filtered through the “hermeneutic of rupture”. I would like to have it presented to them free of associations created within the turmoil of the 1960s when our politics became our religion. I would like them to embrace the tradition, not in order to resurrect a glorified past, but from which they can establish a more faithful future.

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2 thoughts on “Conciliar Reform in the 1960s: Politics Become Religion”

  1. Pingback: Not Of the World: Catholic Tradition and Separation — Catholic Stand

  2. Pingback: TVESDAY CATHOLICA EDITION | Big Pulpit

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