Catholics before and after Vatican II: separating fact from myth

Catholics before and after Vatican II: separating fact from myth

John Young

A mythology has developed, with surprising speed, concerning the Catholic world before the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s.

Apparently it was a place where the priest's word, and even the nun's word, was accepted with unthinking obedience; where Scripture was shunned; where little existed in the way of a lay apostolate; where rules and regulations reigned supreme; where the laity were passive at Mass; where intolerance towards non-Catholics was part of the typical Catholic's mentality.

When I hear people speaking in this vein - people who, like myself, grew up before Vatican II - I am tempted to think they dwelt in a different world from mine.


Let us glance at some of the charges, contrasting the present situation with those days, and paying particular attention to the official Catholic position at that time.

What of the "Father says," or "Sister says" syndrome, which allegedly prevented Catholics thinking for themselves?

There is no question that many people relied heavily on the authority of priests, brothers and nuns. But that did not apply to all, by any means. A sizeable percentage gave them insufficient credence. Indeed, compared with today, I consider the advantage was with the pre-Vatican II Catholic.

Firstly, priests and religious then were far more likely to present the Faith reliably than is the case today, so there was good reason to trust them, generally speaking. Secondly, the people today who boast of thinking for themselves usually do nothing of the sort. They often uncritically follow the lead of unorthodox priests and religious. The "Father says" label characterises them more than the generations they criticise.

We are told Scripture reading was all but unknown, in contrast with the happy position now.

It is true that most Catholics did not read the Bible. But most do not read it now. Then, as now, they heard a good deal of it, particularly, the most important passages, at Mass. Certainly, in this regard, a major improvement has occurred, with more of Scripture covered in the present three-year cycle of readings.

When we consider the actual knowledge of Scripture, though, contrasting now with then, I think the advantage is with then: the people knew Scripture better, and this was because they took it more seriously. Of course that is a generalisation, but I believe it is a correct one. It is also forgotten that throughout the twentieth century up to Vatican II, the Popes urged the reading of Scripture by lay people.

It is said that a vigorous lay apostolate was lacking, because Catholics were too passive.

This ignores an array of lay people, including Dawson, Chesterton, Lunn and Frank and Maisie Sheed. It ignores organisations such as the Campion Society in Australia and the Catholic Evidence Guild internationally, organisations which were composed mainly of lay people. The work of the Guild was to present the Catholic Faith to audiences at outdoor meetings in London's Hyde Park, Sydney's Domain, the Melbourne Yarra Bank and other locations. Most of the speakers were lay men and women. At its peak, the Guild had several hundred speakers. Today it is all but non-existent.

Rules and regulations dominated people's religious lives, it is asserted.

But they did not. Certainly, there was good reason to relax some of the rules, such as the law of fasting from midnight to receive Holy Communion (changed in the 1950s). However, the regulations served a purpose, and most people understood this. Are we any holier now that the Lenten fast has been so relaxed? I don't think so.

When criticisms are voiced about "excessive rules and regulations" in the past, those who voice them are often people who defy the Church laws presently in force - such as those priests who tamper with the liturgy.

It is also claimed that Catholics were very passive at Mass, and this alleged situation is contrasted with the present involvement of the laity. The old expression "to hear Mass" is cited as evidence, as is the then rather common practice of reciting the rosary during Mass.

Meaning of Mass

In my judgment, the meaning of the Mass was clearer then to most Catholics than it is today. Then they were more aware of the Mass as the re-presentation of Calvary; more aware of the involvement of the whole Mystical Body in each Mass - including the Church in heaven; more aware of Christ's Real Presence in the Eucharist.

A popular book called The Mass, written by Father Joseph Putz SJ, and published in 1947, taught very clearly that the Mass is a great drama in which all those participating have their active part, and this, surely, was the sentiment of most Catholics. Today, there is more movement, but probably less activity. By that I mean a lot of people are doing things - the offertory procession, readings, helping distribute Holy Communion, and so on - but there seems generally a less intense participation in the unfolding sacred action.

What about prejudice? Weren't Catholics more prejudiced against other beliefs than they are now?

On the whole, yes, but qualifications are needed. A drastic erosion of belief and blurring of vital truths is a feature of the present day, and it has greatly affected many Catholics. A result is that, only too often, people feel tolerant because of their lack of commitment. One finds that such people can be intensely intolerant when confronted by something with which they strongly. disagree. For instance, if someone defends orthodox beliefs, which are now classified as politically incorrect, people who claim to be tolerant and unprejudiced will show they are nothing of the kind.

It is wrong to be prejudiced, but it is right to oppose error prudently and charitably. Today the second is very often confused with the first.

There will always be distortions and falling short of the ideal. But these appear to be more prevalent among today's Catholics than in the decades immediately before Vatican II.

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