The fight for tradition after Vatican II is as old as the council itself – LifeSite

(LifeSiteNews) — Throughout the decades following Vatican II, many great thinkers and artists have understood the importance of preserving Catholic tradition, including the magnificent rite of the Mass in the Tridentine form. They have recognized both the acute danger to the faith and the cultural impoverishment posed by ambiguous statements on doctrine and the dismantling of the traditional liturgy. With the artist’s intuition, they’ve had a clear vision of how much is at stake in the battle to defend tradition. 

Even some non-Catholic writers and thinkers, such as Agatha Christie and Kenneth Clark (who later converted to Catholicism), recognized how much the Church stood to lose with the abandonment of the traditional Mass, and the result was the famous 1971 “Agatha Christie” appeal to Pope Paul VI by prominent English figures, begging for the preservation of the Latin Mass. The signatories stated that “the rite in question, in its magnificent Latin text, has… inspired a host of priceless achievements in the arts – not only mystical works, but works by poets, philosophers, musicians, architects, painters and sculptors in all countries and epochs.” One result of the letter was the granting of an indult for the use of the Tridentine rite in England and Wales.

A recent open letter published in The Times on July 2, 2024 echoes the 1971 appeal. Like the Agatha Christie letter, it includes prominent signatories from British society, many of whom are not Catholic. In light of recent rumors about a forthcoming Vatican document that will further limit the celebration of the Latin Mass, this new petition asks Pope Francis not to restrict the Tridentine Rite, with its “magnificent spiritual and cultural heritage.” Some of the famous individuals who have signed the 2024 epistle include cellist Steven Isserlis, composer Lord Lloyd-Webber, historian Tom Holland, and opera singer Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. We can only hope that this petition will produce as much fruit as its 1971 model. 

Several prominent Catholic writers lived through the tectonic shifts within the Church that occurred during and after Vatican II (1962-65). They wrestled with the changes, many of them expressing extreme skepticism about the direction of the Church. One Catholic who signed the Agatha Christie letter and felt confusion and dismay over the changes in the Church was novelist Graham Greene, famous for his tales of espionage as well as his masterful and deeply Catholic work, The Power and the Glory, about the persecution of Catholics in Mexico in the 1930s.

Mark Bosco, S.J. in his book Graham Greene’s Catholic Imagination speaks of the confusion Greene felt following Vatican II. “Like many British converts in the early twentieth century, Greene had a sense that being part of the Catholic Church was. . .a way to oppose a culture grown unprecedently secular. Catholics were differentiated from the comfortable agnosticism of modern England and… [brought] ‘not peace but a sword’ to the discourse of an easy, bourgeois religiosity.” In other words, part of Greene’s reason for being Catholic was because Catholicism stood like a rock immovable in the fickle sea of the age, opposing the spirit of the world. But at Vatican II, churchmen seemed to capitulate to that spirit. Bosco writes, “The Council’s dialogue with the intellectual and ideological currents of the postwar years challenged some of the very reasons many converted. Greene, 61 years old at the Council’s end, is representative of the general population of Catholics who were trying to think though and negotiate the reform movement in the Church. The effect of such ‘reorientation’ in theology, morality, liturgical practice, and ecumenism became a kind of ‘disorientation.’” Disorientation, confusion, and concern are excellent adjectives for what many Catholics like Greene experienced in the wake of the Council.

Though Greene read some of the questionable Modernist theologians championed at the Council and approved of an increased emphasis on ecumenism, he greatly disliked the New Liturgy. “Greene felt there was a diminishment of the supreme power, aura, and aesthetic beauty that the liturgy had traditionally played in the imagination of Catholics. In this respect he agreed with other, more traditional English converts concerning the liturgical changes begun by Vatican II.” Bosco notes that Greene was asked by the International Committee on English in the Liturgy to provide suggestions for the translations of the Mass, which he did, but not without expressing his fears that the Latin Mass would be swallowed up and disappear after these translations.

Greene recognized certain disorders and inconsistencies introduced by the New Mass. “He complained in interviews about not being able to follow the vernacular Mass in the many places he traveled, his annoyance with the ‘freedom given to priests to introduce endless prayers – for the astronauts or what have you,’ and his grief over the abolition of the reading from John’s Gospel that used to end the Tridentine liturgy.”

Another Catholic writer who was even more staunch and explicit in his disapproval of the direction of the Church was novelist Evelyn Waugh. Waugh deplored the “reforms” of Vatican II and felt utterly crushed by them toward the end of his life. He welcomed the end of the Council with a sigh of relief, though he understood with crystalline clarity that the damage to the Church was only beginning. In a 1966 letter to Cardinal Heenan, he wrote “Very many thanks for your kind letter which encourages me to cling to the Fatih despite all that is being done to degrade it. It is a joy that you are back amongst us and that the Council is over. I cannot hope that either of us will live to see its multitude of ills put right.” Waugh’s assessment of the situation was not completely without hope, as he acknowledged that “the Church has endured and survived many dark periods,” but he lamented, “It is our misfortune to live in one of them.”

Regarding the New Mass, Waugh had this to say in a 1965 letter to Archbishop Heenan:

Apart from the distress at finding our spiritual habits disordered (and I know this is a minor concern compared with the graver dangers to faith and morals openly propounded at the Council) my friends and I are totally at a loss to understand the new form of the Mass. Any idea that it will attract Protestants may be dismissed. The Anglicans have an elegant comprehensible form of service. All they lack is valid orders to make it preferable. If a completely English Mass is desired the first book of Edward VI, with very few amendments, would be satisfactory. Instead we have a jumble of Greek, Latin and uncouth English.

Waugh went on to contrast the New and Old forms, noting how the traditional liturgy afforded a better opportunity for prayer, recollection, and contemplation – the true forms of “active participation”: “In the old Mass a glance at the altar was enough to inform me of the precise stage of the liturgy… it did not require any high state of prayer to unite oneself to the action of the priest. Repeatedly standing up and saying ‘And with you’ detracts from this relatively intimate association and ‘participation.’”

That same year, Waugh wrote a letter to Monsignor McReavy, asking how little of the Mass it was possible for him to attend without committing grave sin. He concluded the letter with a tone of near-desperation: “I find the new liturgy a temptation against Faith, Hope and Charity but I shall never, pray God, apostatize.” Just before his dead, Waugh wrote, “I now cling to the faith doggedly, without joy. Church-going is a pure duty parade. The Vatican Council has knocked the guts out of me.”

Another famous Catholic novelist who witnessed the changes in the Church with trepidation was J.R.R. Tolkien. His response was bit more cautious than Waugh’s, though still highly skeptical, even heartbroken. Writing to his son Michael about the atmosphere in the church following Vatican II, Tolkien bemoaned the fact that what once felt like a solid safehaven no longer did: “I know quite well that, to you as to me, the Church which once felt like a refuge, now often feels like a trap. There is nowhere else to go! (I wonder if this desperate feeling, the last state of loyalty hanging on, was not, even more often than is actually recorded in the Gospels, felt by Our Lord’s followers in His earthly life-time?).”

Tolkien advised his son to hunker down and pray for the situation to be resolved while remaining faithful to the Church. “I think there is nothing to do but to pray, for the Church, the Vicar of Christ, and for ourselves; and meanwhile to exercise the virtue of loyalty.”

Many of the changes wrought by Vatican II were perpetrated on the basis of a supposed return to a purer, more “primitive” state of the Church. Tolkien saw through this simplistic thinking. He told Michael, 

The ‘protestant’ search backwards for ‘simplicity’ and directness – which, of course, though it contains some good or at least intelligible motives, is mistaken and indeed vain. Because ‘primitive Christianity’ is now and in spite of all ‘research’ will ever remain largely unknown; because ‘primitiveness’ is no guarantee of value, and is and was in great part a reflection of ignorance… Still more because ‘my church’ was not intended by Our Lord to be static or remain in perpetual childhood; but to be a living organism (likened to a plant), which develops and changes in externals by the interaction of its bequeathed divine life and history… There is no resemblance between the ‘mustard-seed’ and the full-grown tree. For those living in the days of its branching growth the Tree is the thing, for the history of a living thing is pan of its life, and the history of a divine thing is sacred. The wise may know that it began with a seed, but it is vain to try and dig it up, for it no longer exists, and the virtue and powers that it had now reside in the Tree.

A memory recorded by Simon Tolkien, J.R.R.’s grandson, reveals the author’s deep love for the Latin Mass and his apparent refusal to accept all aspects of the New Mass. Simon Tolkien recalls that his grandfather “obviously didn’t agree with” the translation of the liturgy into the vernacular and, when attending Mass, “made all the responses very loudly in Latin while the rest of the congregation answered in English.” Simon Tolkien felt uncomfortable, but remembers that his “Grandfather was oblivious. He simply had to do what he believed to be right.”

On the American scholarly scene, writing some twenty years later, we find the words of the much beloved teacher and writer John Senior carrying on the strain of Graham, Waugh, and Tolkien but in a much louder and more urgent key. Senior’s statements were bolder and more public than even Waugh’s, perhaps because enough time had elapsed to reveal the full scale of the crisis unleashed upon the Church. Senior knew that most of the problems began with bad philosophy and theology. “We are under the authority of theologians who deny the laws of contradiction, sufficient reason, and cause/effect,” he wrote in an article published in The Remnant in 1988. “They really believe that the dialectical philosophy of ‘becoming’ which inspired Marx and Engels can be reconciled with Christian Revelation. In practical management this means progress requires a zig to the right and a zag to the left while steering for the Novus Ordo Saeculorum.” With fiery words, he speaks of the momentousness of the situation, which he calls “a rehearsed attack.” “All the kindly statements made on the Mass from Rome console old folks for whom the reforms of the Council came ‘too fast’ and sometimes with unnecessary ‘insensitivity – but no one has said the reforms were wrong. They have refused to face the issue… the shipwreck of the Catholic Church. I mean a new Mass, a new catechism, a new morality, a flagrantly mistranslated Bible, an architecture and music which constitute a thoroughly orchestrated and rehearsed attack on Catholic doctrine and practice.”

Still, with charity and humility, Senior recognized the confusion and the possibility of people of good will staking out varying practical responses to the crisis. “In varied particular circumstances around the world men of good will may make different prudential judgments and come to different practical conclusions, while still agreeing in principle, finding ways to unite to fight the common enemy. It is possible that there may even be saints on both sides of this dispute – like Catherine of Siena and Vincent Ferrer during the Avignon exile – and millions of the less, like us, who must choose now. God help us; we could be wrong.”

From the days immediately following Vatican II to our present hour, writers and artists have rallied to the defense of tradition. We see in the responses of the Agatha Christie signatories, including Graham Greene, as well as Waugh, Tolkien, and Senior, many highly capable minds grappling with the beginnings of a crisis that we are still living through today, as we wrestle with some of the same questions that they did. I find it enlightening and fascinating to witness these great men of letters stake out their various positions. Many observations proffered by their pens remain just as relevant today as when they were stated 30-60 years ago. The recent letter in The Times echoes the words of scholars and artists who, for many decades now, have descried the attacks on Catholic tradition. 

As Senior said, let us hope that men of good will may come together to unite in defense of Truth.

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