A mythology has quickly grown about the Catholic Church of the 1950s and earlier. When I hear people describing features allegedly belonging to the Church then, and comparing them unfavourably with the situation today, I feel as though they are talking about a Church other than the one I remember.
For example, we are confidently told that Bible reading by the laity was discouraged by the pre-Vatican II Church. The truth is that it was encouraged all through the 20th century.
The Society of St Jerome promoted reading of the Gospels by lay people, and its work was praised by Pope St Pius X (see his letter Qui Piam, 21 January 1907). His successor, Benedict XV, in his 1920 encyclical Spiritus Paraclitus, again commended the Society of St Jerome for putting "into the hands of as many people as possible the Gospels and the Acts, so that every Christian family may have them and become accustomed to reading them ... Commendation, too, is due to Catholics in other countries who have published the entire New Testament, as well as selected portions of the Old, in neat and simple form so as to popularise their use."
Pope Pius XII, in the encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu of 1943, urged bishops to encourage the associations that promote daily Scripture reading among families.
It is true that some Catholics, ignorant of what the Church was asking, discouraged Scripture reading; but their position was opposed to what the Church wanted. Their reason was that the Bible can very easily be misunderstood, and that is so. But the solution is, and was, to read it in the light of Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium - as Vatican II strongly stressed in the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum.
Again, it is alleged that in pre-Vatican days people blindly accepted whatever priests, brothers and nuns told them, and were not allowed to think for themselves. In reality, most Catholics were aware that they were not required to accept what individuals said, even priests, and that teaching authority rested with the Pope and bishops. Granted they were, on the whole, more ready to believe what they were told by priests and religious than they are today.
But a major reason was that priests and religious were usually careful to stick to official teaching, and people knew this. Today one has to be much more wary. Besides, the "Father says" or "Sister says" syndrome is still very much with us, commonly in the form of accepting trendy opinions out of harmony with the truth.
It is alleged there was a deplorable absence of active participation in the Mass, with each individual saying his or her own prayers and paying little attention to what was happening on the altar. That charge is too sweeping. Of course, the congregation didn't join in vocally; but most (not all) followed what the priest was doing, and participated interiorly.
The need for each person to participate actively was the Catholic position then as now. It was strongly stressed in a book entitled Pray the Mass, by Father John McMahon, of which I have a copy of the fifth edition, published in 1940. This was a textbook for children in Catholic schools, and was very widely used.
It is true that many people were too passive, and Vatican II tried to remedy this. But it is debatable whether the situation has improved. Do people, on the whole, really appreciate the Mass better now than in pre-Vatican II times? Is there really a keener awareness that the Mass is the Sacrifice of Calvary made present again, and that in Holy Communion we receive the physical body and blood of Christ, together with his soul and divinity? There is greater external participation today, but is there greater interior participation? Or is there less?
We are told that the laity are better educated in their Faith now, due to the opportunities open to them to advance their knowledge, and even gain degrees in theology. Certainly it is easier now for lay people to gain theology degrees, but it is definitely not correct that, in general, the laity are better educated in the Faith. On the contrary, the average Catholic today has less knowledge, there is greater confusion and there are far more errors.
It is said that ecumenical activity has accelerated since Vatican II. It is true that there is more friendliness and co-operation, which is good. But I doubt whether there is more zeal to bring people into the Catholic Church - I think there is less. The numerous activities of Catholic Action organisations in the past are often forgotten by those who deplore the alleged lack of apostolic lay activities.
Religion of fear?
A religion of fear prevailed in the 1950s and earlier, we are told. People were driven by fear of hell and purgatory more than by love of God. Dire warnings of eternal punishment featured prominently in parish missions.
Again I disagree about the situation. There were few Sunday sermons on hell. During parish missions, often held every three years, one night was generally allotted to the topics of death, judgment and hell. We shouldn't forget that Christ in the Gospels has a lot to say on these topics.
Pre-Vatican II spirituality also had a strong emphasis on God's love, an emphasis shown strikingly in the widespread devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
On examination, criticisms of "the old days" typically turn out to be erroneous or grossly exaggerated. Often they are instances of people having failed to follow what the Church was asking of them - as in the matter of Scripture reading. Sometimes they are failings which are still with us - and perhaps worse now. In the case of warnings about divine punishment, I would argue that it wasn't a matter of too much emphasis on these in the past, but too little today.