It is a singularly intriguing fact that the preconciliar Church was so effective in evangelizing modern culture, whereas the number of converts to the faith seemed to diminish in the sixties and seventies in direct proportion to the presence of the much-vaunted aggiornamento, the muddle-headed belief that the Church needed to be brought "up-to-date."And the number of well-known literary converts from those pre-conciliar days is remarkable indeed. In the English-speaking world there were G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Dawson, Fr. Ronald Knox, Evelyn Waugh, Sheila Kay-Smith, Compton MacKenzie, Alfred Noyes, Hugh Ross Williamson, Sir Alec Guinness, and Malcolm Muggeridge -- not to mention, in the preceding generation, Cardinal Newman, Fr. F.W. Faber, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, to name a mere handful.
The numbers of well-known converts in Europe were equally impressive: Charles Péguy, Léon Bloy, François Mauriac, Henri Ghéon, Giovanni Papini, Gertrud von Le Fort, Jacques and Raissa Maritain, Sigrid Undset, Dietrich von Hildebrand, and Louis Bouyer -- not to mention the likes of Maria Alphonse Ratisbonne in the previous generation.
What is no less interesting about these converts is that most of them witnessed the liturgical experimentation and innovations leading up to the liturgical changes promulgated Second Vatican Council and were appalled by them. Nobody is more familiar with this fact than Joseph Pearce who built his career around this generation of English Catholic converts.
In his review of Joseph Pearce's wonderful book, Literary Converts(London : HarperCollins, 1999; rpt., San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), reprinted by Seattle Catholic (October 11, 2004) from The Latin Mass Magazine, Fr. Eugene Dougherty observes that Pearce's book has a special appeal for those who love the Church and the traditional Latin Mass. The subtitle of the book "Spiritual Inspiration in an Age of Unbelief," he says, reinforced his own faith by affording him the company of authors with whom he grew up: G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Ronald Knox, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Malcolm Muggeridge, and a host of others.
Fr. Dougherty's chief interest in these authors today, he says, is that many of them "experienced" the Second Vatican Council, and that their reaction was generally the same as the fifty prominent English authors who petitioned the Holy Father to preserve the traditional Mass. (Incidentally, the petition was presented to Pope Paul VI by John Carmel Cardinal Heenan, Archbishop of Westminster in London. The story goes that it was the inclusion among the signatories of the non-Catholic mystery writer Agatha Christie, whom Pope Paul VI admired, which persuaded him to agree to what amounted to a unique national exemption from the Novus Ordo, which in fact came to be known as the Agatha Christie Indult.) These 20th-century converts were attracted to the Faith, says Dougherty, by "the very things that the leadership of the Church has now rejected, in the 'spirit' of Vatican II." He writes:
Malcolm Muggeridge, we are told by biographer Joseph Pearce, "could not (at first) bring himself to be a Roman Catholic. The reason centered on his dislike of the changes instigated by the Second Vatican Council. To Muggeridge, the "spirit of Vatican II was destroying Christendom: "Catholicism, he declared, was seeking to reproduce all the "follies and fatuities of Protestantism," and he would not climb aboard a sinking ship.In the following précis of Literary Converts, Fr. Dougherty limits himself to those converts who lived long enough to witness the Council, allowing them to speak in their own voices:
Ronald Knox, who died in 1957, did not witness the Council, but he was aware of the coming destruction of the liturgy. He spoke of the liturgical reformers as "a strange alliance between archaeologists absorbed in their speculations on the rites of the second century, and modernists who wish to give the Church the character of our deplorable epoch." On one occasion someone requested him to use the vernacular in the baptismal rite. His response was, "The baby doesn't understand English and the Devil knows Latin."(emphasis added)
On behalf of these converts to the Catholic faith from Protestantism, Evelyn Waugh asked Cardinal Heenan:Fr. Dougherty concludes:Why were we led out of the church of our childhood to find the Church of our own adoption assuming the very forms we disliked?Christopher Dawson:[There is] ... a philistine and patronizing attitude to Baroque Catholicism expressed by certain "modern" Catholics.Hugh Ross Williamson:The changes [are] echoing everything that was done at the Reformation... the Martyrs have died for nothing.David Jones:One year they abolish the biretta, the next year they abolish the Mass.... I can't understand it all; they'll be pulling down Chartres Cathedral next.Cecil Gill:The vulgarization of the Mass.... One sighs for a Low Mass instead of this brash version of the sacred liturgy.George Mackey Brown:The vernacular has robbed the Mass of its majesty and mystery... so much of its glory has been sort of shed.... There was something very mysterious about the same language being used all over the world.Robert Speaight:The vernacular liturgy, popular and pedestrian, intelligible and distressing, has robbed us of much that was numinous in public worship; there is less emphasis on prayer and penitence, and the personal relationship between God and man... is neglected in favor of a diffused social concern.Sir Alec Guinness:Much water has flown under the Tiber's bridges, carrying away splendor and mystery from Rome since the pontificate of Pius XII... [T]he banalities and translations which have ousted the sonorous Latin and Greek are of a supermarket quality which is quite unacceptable. Hand shaking and embarrassed smiles or smirks have replaced the older courtesies; kneeling is out, queuing is in, and the general tone is like BBC radio broadcast for tiny tots....Cardinal Heenan:If the Church is to remain truly the Catholic Church it is essential to keep a universal language.Christopher Dawson:The existence of a common liturgical language of some kind is a sign of the Church's mission to reverse the curse of Babel and to create a body of unity between the peoples.
At the present time the Holy Father is proposing both Pope Pius IX and Pope John XXIII for canonization. Pius IX, a conservative, convoked the First Vatican Council; John XXIII, a liberal, convoked the Second - which Evelyn Waugh and our other literary converts considered "a betrayal of the principles of Pio Nono," a surrender to modernism with the "home improvements" that the Council proposed.Are these the sentiments of reactionary cranks or prescient prophets? Perhaps neither. Yet there are some remarkable agreements that may be noted. The Oxford Declaration on Liturgy (1996) asserted that ". . . the preconciliar liturgical movement as well as the manifest intentions of Sacrosanctum Concilium have in large part been frustrated by powerful contrary forces, which could be described as bureaucratic, philistine and secularist..
How can we reconcile these two opposites? Was the spirit of Vatican II the work of the Heilige Geist (the Holy Ghost), or the Zeitgeist (the spirit of the times)? Literary Converts answers the question.
Again, a year before he became pope, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in his Preface to Alcuin Reid's The Organic Development of the Liturgy(San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005) that those who, like himself, were moved on the even of the Council by the perception of the liturgy "as a living network of tradition" that awaited sensitive pruning by scholarly experts in order to properly flourish "can only stand, deeply sorrowing, before the ruins of the very things they were concerned for." (p. 11)
Yet again, in The Feast of Faith(San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), Cardinal Ratzinger wrote: "Today we might ask: Is there a Latin Rite at all any more? Certainly there is no awareness of it. To most people the liturgy seems to be rather something for the individual congregation to arrange." (p. 84)
Reactionary cranks or prescient prophets? Or neither? You decide. What's your verdict?