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Stephen P. WhiteMay 07, 2024
Brothers Leven Barton, left, Florian Rumpza, center, and Angelus Atkinson, sing in Latin during Catholic Mass at Benedictine College Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023, in Atchison, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Catholic life in the United States is deeply rooted in the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. But that might not mean what you think it means.

The Associated Press recently published an article taking an in-depth look at an “immense shift” underway in the church in the United States. Among their conclusions: “Generations of Catholics who embraced the modernizing tide sparked in the 1960s by Vatican II are increasingly giving way to religious conservatives who believe the church has been twisted by change, with the promise of eternal salvation replaced by guitar Masses, parish food pantries and casual indifference to church doctrine.”

The combination of declining Mass attendance with, as the A.P. tells it, “increasingly traditional priests and growing numbers of young Catholics searching for more orthodoxy,” has given the latter an influence within the U.S. church disproportionate to their numbers (which remain relatively small) among American Catholics generally.

One man, speaking to the A.P. about the shift toward a more traditional liturgy at his parish, put it this way: “I’m a lifelong Catholic. I grew up going to church every Sunday. But I’d never seen anything like this.” This is hardly the first time that many American Catholics have found themselves wondering, “What’s happening to the Catholic Church I grew up in?”

In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, the experience of Catholic life in the United States changed dramatically. Nowhere were the changes more immediately apparent than in the liturgy. Latin was out; English was in. Then came the New Roman Missal, and the prayers of the Mass—not just the language in which the Mass was prayed—changed substantially. Many churches were renovated (or “wreckovated,” depending on one’s view) according to the fashion of the times. Tabernacles were moved and altars were ripped out. Carpets were installed in the “worship space,” while guitars were strummed and pipe organs gathered dust.

There were theological reasons behind many of these changes (some reasons better than others), and the changes were not equally radical and disruptive in every place. Many of the major shifts within the church were mirrored by dramatic changes in the culture and society at large and can hardly be pinned on the council.

Nor was it only the liturgy that changed. Catholic practice began to erode at an alarming pace. Each generation since the council has had lower Mass attendance rates than the generation before it. Studies show rapid declines in priestly and religious vocations following the council, and a subsequent decline in Catholic marriage rates, baptisms, first Communions and confirmations.

While it is true that the “ethos of Vatican II,” as the A.P. puts it, dominated much of American Catholic life in the decades after the council, that seems to be changing. But what seems to be replacing the “spirit of Vatican II” is not indifference to the council, still less a rejection of it, but a form of Catholicism that embodies precisely the ecclesiological, sacramental and liturgical vision laid out by the council itself.

It is this reality that makes the shift so difficult to describe using the sorts of terms we usually borrow from politics. As the A.P. notes, to its credit, “[T]he movement, whether called conservative or orthodox or traditionalist or authentic, can be hard to define.”

By way of illustrating the contours of the shift among priests, the A.P. cites a report on a study from The Catholic Project (where I am executive director) at The Catholic University of America. That report reads, in part, “Simply put, the portion of new priests who see themselves as politically ‘liberal’ or theologically ‘progressive’ has been steadily declining since the Second Vatican Council and has now all but vanished.”

[U.S. Catholics are more liberal. Young priests are more conservative. Can the synod help us overcome our divisions?]

And so it has been. The youngest cohort of priests are the most likely to describe themselves as theologically “orthodox.” But they are also the most politically “moderate” and ethnically diverse of any of the cohorts we surveyed. There is reason to believe this shift in priests might be an indicator of where the church more broadly is heading.

Moreover, the trend is consistent and sustained, going all the way back to the years immediately following Vatican II, which ought to undercut any notion (hinted at in the A.P. story) that the shift is some sort of reaction to Pope Francis or driven by the rehabilitation of the pre-conciliar liturgy under Pope Benedict.

“Today’s young priests,” the A.P. writes, “are far more likely to believe that the church changed too much after Vatican II, tangling itself up in America’s rapidly shifting views on everything from women’s roles to LGBTQ people.” All that may be true, but it does not follow that the shift—at least as reflected by American priests—signals a rejection of the council.

Here we get to a critical point that the A.P. story—and to be fair, many Catholics—didn’t seem to grasp. Our debates about the meaning and legacy of Vatican II are not likely to disappear any time soon. Nor can the legitimate concerns of Catholics, unsettled by the shift currently underway in parts of the church, be dismissed. But the shift described by the A.P. shouldn’t be thought of as a turning away from the council.

Rather, the young, vibrant communities described by the A.P. article in places like Madison, Wis., or at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., or in campus ministry groups like FOCUS, are precisely where some of the greatest fruits of the council can be seen in the United States today.

If giving pride of place to Gregorian chant in the liturgy or preferring organ music over guitars or preserving the use of Latin in the Roman Rite are signs that younger Catholics have moved beyond the “ethos of Vatican II,” it’s also worth noting that each of these aforementioned liturgical preferences are drawn explicitly from the council’s own constitution on the sacred liturgy, “Sacrosanctum Concilum.”

Again, if there is a way to describe what these various communities have in common, it will not be in terms borrowed from politics. But it can be found in the council: in the ecclesiology of “Lumen Gentium,” in the understanding of Scripture and tradition laid out in “Dei Verbum” and the vision of the dignity of the human person laid out in “Gaudium et Spes.”

In this, the shift described by the A.P. represents not a rejection of the council but a mature synthesis and integration of Vatican II in the life of local communities and churches. One could even argue (as I have elsewhere) that this shift embodies some of the clearest and best examples of authentic synodality in the American church, though that word is almost never used to describe it.

The church in the United States is not heading back to some mythical golden age before the council. If the model for the future of the U.S. church won’t be found in the 1950s, neither is it to be found in the 1970s.

The radical “spirit of Vatican II,” which so marked ecclesial life in the decades after the council, has largely failed to move the hearts of younger generations. That spirit no longer bears much fruit. To the extent that it sought to grow the church by cutting itself off from what had come before, that project has withered with time. It has no discernable future.

If the generational shift described by the AP is a return, then it is a return to the council and the council’s own roots in tradition. There is reason to hope that, with such deep roots, the church will bear great fruit.

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