Peter A. Kwasniewski
“Just before sunrise, the wind got up. It was a vile, stubborn wind ...”
—Tove Jansson, Moominpappa at Sea1
As a historian phenomenon, “conciliarism” refers to the erroneous 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 heresy was dealt a series of blows throughout the second millenium of Christianity, culminating in the double coup de grace of a pair of dogmatic constitutions on the Church: Vatican I’s Pastor Aeternus and Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium. As those who have studied the latter document know, section 25 of Lumen Gentium contains the clearest, most extensive teaching ever given concerning the unique, supreme, direct authority of the Pope over the entire Church and all her members, including the bishops who must remain in union with him in order to remain truly Catholic.2
In the past forty years, however, a new form of conciliarism has arisen, one harder to define with precision and far more influential: the view that Vatican II, all by itself, was a Council that redefined the Church and her theology from top to bottom. For historians of the influential “Bologna school,” the Council gave birth to a new Church, ushered in a new age, cleared away ages 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 the past forty years. So much so, indeed, that a new “Great Schism” appeared in the twentieth century: a schism between a self-styled modern Church and the Church of Tradition. This virtual schism, like the doctrinal rupture and rampant liturgical abuses that are the hallmarks of its proponents, is far worse than any internal crisis the Church has ever faced before, outstripping in combined ignorance, error, and contempt even the horrors of the Protestant revolt.
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 the past forty years. So much so, indeed, that a new “Great Schism” appeared in the twentieth century
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As students of Chuch history know, the Holy Spirit does not long allow the Church to be storm-tossed and in danger of shipwreck. 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 standard and measure of Catholic life today—are now being called into question by a new generation of believers and, ironically perhaps, by the elderly Pope who was a major force at the very Council whose spirit is claimed to be embodied in the new order of Mass and the new style of worship it promotes. 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 that the sun is beginning to go down on their long-reigning agenda.
Standing tall and unrepentant in the ranks of the rupturists is the retired papal M.C. for John Paul II, Archbishop Piero Marini, who was unceremoniously replaced at Pope Benedict XVI’s behest by the infinitely more competent and traditional Monsignor Guido Marini (no relation), a model M.C. if ever there was one. For the remainder of this article, “Marini” will always refer to the bishop plagued with a futuristic agenda and no future.
Back in 2007, Marini published a book that made quite a splash. 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. Anyone who has dared to dip into Bugnini’s disturbing memoirs will find 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, Marini portrayed in livid terms an ongoing battle between “conservation and progress,” and “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? I believe it was Chesterton who said that Tradition is the democracy of the dead. It is the soft modernist faction of the Council that are the periphery, with their loud minority opinion.
Benedict XVI has been the only pope since Blessed John XXIII who seems to have understood with crystalline clarity that Vatican II can have been a legitimate council only if it was intended to be, and is continually received as being, in continuity with the entire Tradition that preceded it. “The path traced by the Council” is, de facto and de iure, the path traced by Tradition—or it is irrelevant, not to say worse. The speech Pope Benedict delivered to the Roman Curia on December 22, 2006 was a beautifully clear indicator of the mind of Holy Mother Church: the Council is to be received within a hermeneutic of continuity, not a hermeneutic of rupture and discontinuity.
Journalist John Allen summarizes Marini’s identification of historical factors that paved the way for the Consilium’s triumph. First, “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) frequently 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?
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.
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The second factor in the Consilium’s success, according to Marini: “The personal support of Pope Paul VI.” Alas, this is no relevation; it is but one more reason to hold this beleaguered pontiff of modernist sympathies in suspicion. People often rush to Paul VI’s defense by pointing out his heroically countercultural defense of chastity and the natural law in Humanae Vitae. We might be in danger of damning with faint praise. Humanae Vitae may seem bizarrely backwards or startlingly revolutionary to 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 unnatural 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 discredited, even ridiculed, by liturgists and scholars whose first job is not grinding axes but understanding the history of Western liturgy. The business about how the Pope historically celebrated versus populum in St. Peter’s basilica was one of the main myths that drove the novelty of the priest’s turning his back to Christ, the symbolic East. We now know, thanks to better studies, that the Pope and the people faced eastwards at the most solemn part of the Mass, so important was their unanimous orientation felt to be.3
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” behind the liturgical movement—is that anything like the particolored “spirit of Vatican II”? What about the origins of the liturgical movement among people who deeply and dearly loved the Church’s traditional liturgy and would have been disgusted by the superficial (if not sacrilegious) hootenanny that often replaced it? I can’t help thinking of a funny quotation by British Dominican Herbert McCabe, no traditionalist he, who nonetheless points out with brutal honesty:
There are satisfying experiences that are immediately satisfying, like drinking good Irish whiskey, but there are other satisfactions that occur only over long periods of time, like having a decently-furnished room. . . . If you are deprived of a decent liturgy for a fairly long period of time you discover an important gap in your emotional life. I might as well say at this point that I think there is a mistaken tendency, more especially in the United States but to some extent here [in England], to design the liturgy for too immediate a satisfaction. I have been with the “underground” groups in the American Church who do not really feel they have celebrated a Eucharist unless they get some kind of immediate experience of personal warmth and enhanced sensitivity. I think the liturgies designed by these people are very frequently in bad taste. I agree with those critics who find the Missa Normativa a little dull, except that I do not think it is altogether a criticism. A room furnished in good taste is a little dull compared to one covered in psychedelic posters saying “Love is Love” and “Mary, the ripest tomato of them all.”4At the same press conference, Marini pontificated: “The goal of the liturgy is none other than the goal of the church, and the future of the liturgy is the future of Christianity and Christian life.” Even the devil quotes Scripture, and Balaam’s ass had intelligent counsel to offer. The future of the liturgy, in reality, is nothing other than, and nothing less than, the Mass of the Ages, the traditional Roman Rite that had organically developed for almost 2000 years until its violent deformation at the hands of Bugnini & Company.
The end of Mass at Rocafort by Jose Benlliure Ortiz
Our Lord gave the Mass to the Church for all her people, especially for the simple and the childlike. It is precisely such lowly laity who are not sophisticated enough to judge on the basis of theories and hypotheses, but who judge by what they see and hear—“O taste and see how gracious the Lord is...”
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Anyone with good sense can see that the sudden virtual 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 the bitter problems of doctrine and morals that have plagued the Church in the past four decades, centering on a loss of priestly identity, a drastic decline in priestly vocations, and an almost universal ignorance of the Faith and of the Sacred. The glamorous meetings of ICELated conspirators conveniently fail to mention the countless Catholics who felt betrayed, alienated, and even scandalized by the drastic changes that occurred as if overnight. I was talking to a neighbor one day—someone I’d gotten to know from seeing him so often around town—and when he found out that I taught for the Catholic College, he volunteered that he was a fallen-away Catholic who stopped going to Mass back in the seventies. “I went one Sunday and it was Hallelujah this and Hallelujah that, and I said to myself: What the hell is all this? It sure isn’t Mass!” Years ago, another friend told me a similar story. He said when the drums and guitars invaded the sanctuary, practically overnight, and routed the quiet low Mass he had grown up with, he felt dismayed, betrayed, assaulted, actually sick to his stomach. He stopped going to Mass for years, and nearly lost his faith entirely. Fortunately, he was one of those who, thanks be to God, returned to the Church after the indult Masses began.
Our Lord gave the Mass to the Church for all her people, especially for the simple and the childlike. It is precisely such lowly laity who are not sophisticated enough to judge on the basis of theories and hypotheses, but who judge by what they see and hear—“O taste and see how gracious the Lord is...” And judging by what they saw and heard, many came to the conclusion that the Church had either gone bonkers or had “come of age” and surrendered to secularism. In either case, it was time to stop 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 liturgical 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 innumerable ordinary Catholics who loved the beauty and dignity of the Church’s worship as they knew it.
Anyone with good sense can see that the sudden virtual 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.
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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 and not the Zeitgeist or something more infernal yet, then the entire way we receive and rejoice in the Council and in the liturgical movement will of necessity exemplify the hermeneutic of continuity: the Council is to be interpreted in line with and in light of the great Tradition of Catholic theology and worship. It will not, pace Marini, cleave to the “hermeneutic of rupture,” whereby the Council would signify a decisive change of course that requires systematically deconstructing what came before and terrorizing those who adhere to it.
Let us remind ourselves again and again that Sacrosanctum Concilium expressly says 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” (§23). To those who are familiar with the wonderfully durable and ineffably beautiful preconciliar sacramental rites, it would seem obvious that few, if any, changes could have been defensible according to this strict criterion of “genuine 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 the iron and bronze brooches. 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 a pathetic banalization of the very rite of exorcism, as if we could pull the wool over Old Scratch’s intellectual eyes. According to many exorcists, the new rite does not 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 is considerably more effective against demons than water 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. It seems that hierarchical office does not bring with it a charism of factual analysis.
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 that 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 tenor of the Consilium ascendancy, 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.
In any case, one thing is certain: we will see a lot of this kind of nostalgic resistance from the aging conciliarists; it will be a hallmark of at least the next ten years, and it will become more and more acerbic, accompanied by an increase in clandestine acts of desperation. They accuse the traditionalists of wallowing in nostalgia, but as brilliant a light as Fr. Richard McBrien finds himself caught short trying to explain how young Catholics who never grew up with the Latin Mass are 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! (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, Marini memorably compared the traditional nostalgics 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.Marini is not quite finished, however, with his penetrating analysis. 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.In reality, now that we are finally beginning to see genuine liturgical renewal thanks to Summorum Pontificum and the “reform of the reform” movement, the nostalgia is 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’ve made tracks away from that benighted time of false hopes and Teilhardian illusions. Or better, 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 proving ground for 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 forebears, 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 his children to come.
The Mass is not an experiment, a proving ground for 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 forebears, bearing not only its own sanctifying reality, but also the sanctified history of the communion of saints.
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In my years of teaching undergraduate and graduate theology, I have seen how young people who are serious about their faith flock to the traditional Mass, with little prompting or explanation required, and how they continue to attend it throughout their adult lives, eventually introducing their children to it. I have seen the spectacle of college students who, because they grew up in a parish or chapel run by the Fraternity of St. Peter, have never attended a Novus Ordo Mass, and who therefore need it to be explained to them. I was one of those young people who flocked to the (once-forbidden) “old Mass,” and as the years pass, my love for it only grows deeper and stronger. It has nothing to do with nostalgia. Nostalgia would be impossible for people who existed only in God’s mind, not on earth, when Paul VI made his fateful decision to promulgate the Novus Ordo Missae. It has to do with something much more fundamental than nostalgia: 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!+
- Trans. Kingsley Hart (n.p.: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1993), 88. [back]
- The same section 25 redresses an imbalance from Vatican I: while Pastor Aeternus seemed to focus on infallible ex cathedra pronouncements, i.e., what could be called the extraordinary Magisterium, Lumen Gentium broadened its consideration to include, and to emphasize, the authoritative nature of the Pope’s ordinary Magisterium—a lesson the vast majority of Catholics, both liberal and conservative, have still not accepted. [back]
- For more on this, see Ratzinger, Spirit of the Liturgy, and Lang, Turning Towards the Lord. [back]
- Herbert McCabe, God Matters (New York/London: Continuum, 2005), 215-6. [back]