I mentioned in the previous post that there is a long tradition in America of two distinct parties within the Catholic Church. I referred to them as two Churches and so they are in every sense except the strictly canonical. At the end of the nineteenth century there was a major clash between these two factions as the “Americanist” party headed by Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore and Archbishop Ireland of St. Paul tried to check the influence of the German Bishops such as Heiss, Katzer and Messmer successively of Milwaukee, Krautbauer of Green Bay, and other German-born prelates who were anxious to preserve the distinct ethnic heritage of German Catholicism. This Europeanist party was not strictly German by any means as it also included several ultramontane prelates such as Corrigan of New York and a generation later O’Connell of Boston –both of whom were anxious to be more Roman than the Pope. (You might want to look at entries for March 10,11, 16, 17, 19,20, 21, 22, 23, 25, 27, 28, 29, 30, April 2, 5, 10, 13, May 22, 2011, January 5,6,7, 12, and August 14, 2012 for more on this topic of American versus European influence on the American Church.)
By the middle of the twentieth century under the leadership of Cardinal Francis Spellman the two traditions had more or less melted into a distinctive American Catholicism that tended to be socially and politically conservative but post-ethnic culturally. Catholics were mostly working class and so tended to be Democrats (but this was a time when the southern Dixiecrats were keeping the part from tilting too far to the left) and pro-Labor. While there were still some ethnic parishes that preserved Old World devotions, Polish and Italian for the greater part, most Catholic parishes were pretty homogeneously bland American even as their parishioners had intermarried and lost much of their distinctive ethnic traits.
Initially most American Catholics adjusted well to the changes of the Second Vatican Council. There was an enthusiasm for ecumenism and interreligious dialogues and churches (and synagogues) began holding joint services for such occasions as Thanksgiving. Discussion groups began meeting in home to help Catholics get to know more about their non-Catholic neighbors and non-Catholics to come to understand better our beliefs and practices.
The Liturgical changes were well accepted at first too. People didn’t question the bishop or the priest—we were taught not to, but even more, the Liturgy was beginning to make sense to us. We were no longer the passive by-standers but hearing the scriptures in our own languages and sharing in the prayers—and the initial feeble attempts to sing—pleased most of us. There was pain sometimes when a statue grandpa had donated was removed from the Church or the sanctuary where we were married was changed around from the way it had been on that special day, but most of us were happy enough to see some life in old Mother Church. Like a widow “of some years” who was suddenly taking an interest in her appearance again, the Church began looking better and better. Granted some of the music was pretty awful at first—“here we are, all together, as we sing our song, joyfully….” Frankly, there was a lot of crap but over time things got better. And let’s be honest, the choirs hadn’t been doing Palestrina—at least with any success—in those years before the Council.
I am not sure what happened but somewhere in the mid to late seventies a reaction began and then began to build up steam. There had always been a handful of people who were very unhappy with the changes of Vatican II. Some of these had drifted off into the schism of Archbishop Lefebvre—a French Prelate who rejected the Council and its liturgy. Others had gone to even more radical groups who declared that Popes John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I and II had all been false popes because of their “heresies.” And there were those who just didn’t like the Council and either stopped attending Mass or found churches where the changes were minimal.
Several movements sprang up calling for a restoration of the pre-conciliar liturgy at least as an option. Others called for the conciliar liturgy to be revised along more traditional lines. Pope John Paul gave a limited permission for the pre-conciliar liturgy to be celebrated again and later in his reign extended this permission further. Pope Benedict has extended it further still. While only a small minority—less than 5% of active Catholics—have embraced this return to the pre-conciliar liturgy, it has appealed to a disproportionate number of younger clergy. And to a great extent it has opened up again the split between the Americanist party in the Church and the Europeanist party. Some parishes have restored the elaborate outdoor processions for such occasions as Corpus Christi or rogation days. They build churches in the neo-gothic or baroque styles. Priests wear their soutanes and birettas and lacy cottas have replaced the more sober albs of the liturgical renewal. Other parishes continue to build churches where that congregation is wrapped around the altar. Contemporary Church music is sung rather than the Latin chants. Social action committees and “small faith communities” are more likely to be seen than Legion of Mary praesidia and while groups of parishioners still gather for the rosary after morning Mass, the youth group gathers for Taizé prayer. The priest is “Father Bill” or may just “Bill” to most of his flock. Two churches once again. But this difference is even more complex than it first appears.