Guest commentary by Postmodern Conservative.
I know that not everyone reading this blog has a direct interest in religion or Catholicism. But theologically-minded or not there's no denying that the Catholic Church figures heavily in the news, especially on political and ethical issues. Many conservatives—from Ronald Reagan through to the current president—have seen this as an important (and benevolent) role at the very least. One can cite the "tag-team effort" of Reagan and John Paul II in the collapse of the USSR and the Eastern Bloc. Then there is the enthusiastic alliance of George Bush and Benedict XVI in the ongoing culture wars.
At the same time, for many conservatives it is safe to say that the apparent "left turn" by the Church since the 1960s and Vatican II has been a source of consternation. This "modernization" (a.k.a. "modernism" in theological circles) or accommodation with contemporary culture is a point noted by people from every political viewpoint, by believers and non-believers alike. There is no disputing it. Yet whatever the superficial vicissitudes, it would seem that this change in policy has never affected Catholic fundamentals, which remain markedly unchanging. Still it has had an impact on day-to-day activities: the roles of the clergy and laity, the liturgy, pastoral policies, etc. And these things have been keenly felt, often with a sense of confusion and disappointment. Historically speaking, this is not without precedent. The Catholic Church has had plenty of ups and downs throughout the millennia—periods of apparent decline and corruption followed by reinvigoration and reform.
Now with the pontificate of Bendict XVI it is clear that the "Vatican II generation" is coming to an end, and in more ways than one. Benedict (Josef Ratzinger) was a key participant in the Council's proceedings and will likely be the last cleric from that era to be made pope. He also signals the end of a generation because he has become one of the most outstanding critics of the post-conciliar Church. A good example of this is a recent discussion in Homiletic & Pastoral Review of Benedict's encyclical Spe Salvi ("On Christian Hope"). As the Brian Graebe notes:
[I]t is what the encyclical does not say that has engendered no small amount of controversy. As numerous commentators quickly recognized, Spe Salvi contains not a single reference to any of the documents from the Second Vatican Council..... Throughout his writings, interviews and memoirs, Joseph Ratzinger clearly sees the legacy of Vatican II as having been hijacked, and needing to be restored to its proper place in the heritage of the Church.
Benedict is even more outspoken on the Catholic Mass (e.g., the liturgy) and his moves to restore the traditional forms of worship to the Latin (Western) Rite and to the Church as a whole. The recent Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum which has garnered so much attention, is just one example. And the Mass, being the public worship of the Church, is undoubtedly the most visible point of dispute in recent years. To put it in a nutshell, both conservatives and liberals have seen the liturgy as not only an outward manifestation of Catholic culture and piety but also as a crucial indicator of theological direction. They are both right. The question is, how did people respond to the undeniable confusion that erupted in the wake of Vatican II?
Many people (including priests, monks and nuns) simply left. It was one of the worst mass exoduses from the Church in its 2000 year history. Others stayed on, as they always do, with varying degrees of commitment. Then there were the theological minorities on the "left" and "right." Some liked what had happened and wanted to push things even further: changing Catholic teaching on contraception and divorce, admitting women to the priesthood, etc. Others dissented in the opposite direction, criticizing the New Mass that came out of Vatican II as well as many of the pastoral decisions. This "dissent on the right" spanned the spectrum from cautious conservatism to outright schism (e.g., those who denied that the pope was really the pope). In particular, those who insisted on maintaining the old Latin liturgy and criticizing some or all of the post-conciliar Vatican policies were known as Traditionalists. Even these latter represented many different shades of opinion. However it is interesting that a large of number of traditionalists over the years, including some fairly strong critics of the Vatican's past policies have reconciled themselves, no doubt encouraged by the new course in Rome. The most recent example is the traditional Redemptorists based in Scotland.
It is clear that this pope is on a mission. His efforts at the restoration of "pre-Vatican II" Catholicism, as some have put it, were understandably cautious in the first months of his pontificate. But he now seems to have the bark of Peter under full sail. In addition to promoting the old Mass, which has seen an explosion of interest since it was freed up last year, Benedict is planning a commission to restore the New Mass to its original, more reverent rubrics. Meanwhile, as the Church of England, which broke from Rome in 1534, continues to fall apart in its own eager concessions to theological and moral progressivism, Bish. Andrew Burnham has announced his desire for a mass return to Rome on the part of conservative Anglicans.
Populist myths to the contrary, direction comes from the top—whether it's in a family, a government, or a church. And after decades of papal inaction and/or neglect, which reached a low point in the much publicized clerical sex scandals a few years ago, Benedict XVI is taking a hands-on approach which is filtering down to all levels. The new generation of clerics is generally more orthodox than their predecessors and it is these men who are being promoted to influential positions. For example, Raymond Burke, previously Archbishop of St. Louis and an outspoken conservative, is now the first non-European head of the Apostolic Signatura, the highest judicial tribunal in the Church. Meanwhile, Cardinal Cañizares Llovera, a champion of traditional liturgy, is due to be appointed head of the Congregation of Divine Worship.
Summary: Apart from these purely religious developments it will be interesting to see on a secular level what impact a reinvigorated leadership of the Church has on the worldwide culture wars, on such topics as abortion, "alternative lifestyles," and so forth. Just a few generations ago Catholicism had a tremendous moral influence on popular culture in the United States. It seems likely that the left-liberal status quo, now at the zenith of power and hubris, will once again be challenged.... from the highest levels!