Thursday, February 26, 2015


What if Vatican II had never happened?  If there had been no Pope John XXIII?  If Cardinal Siri had been elected instead of Cardinal Roncalli?  Or Cardinal Agagianian?  Or Cardinal Lercaro?
“What if’s” are a tricky field.  But it would not have made much difference who succeeded to the papacy after Pius XII’s death in 1958.  In the 56 and one half years since Pius’ reign ended, there have been six popes on the throne of Saint Peter.  The extraordinarily long reign of John Paul II is balanced by the extraordinarily short reign of John Paul I and the moderately short reigns of John XXIII and Benedict XVI.  In any scenario there probably would have been between five and seven popes for those decades.  While the terms “liberal” or “progressive” would probably be defined somewhat more narrowly, the right end of the spectrum would be, I would think, somewhat the same as it is now and, without the unexpected developments in liturgy, ecumenism, the role of the laity, and other “fruits” of Vatican II, I don’t think there would be the rancor we experience today between the extremes on either end of the spectrum. 
There would have been change.  Not the degree of change that we experienced; but there would have been change.  As for the Liturgy I think we only need to look at the work that was being done in several of the German Abbeys such as Beuron and Maria Laach in the 1940’s and 50’s as well as the scholarship of men like Josef Jungmann and Louis Bouyer.  Changes began even before the Council.  Pius XII had shortened the communion fast and introduced restored rites for the Sacred Triduum at the end of Holy Week.  The Mass of Pius V would still be the foundation for the Roman Rite but I suspect that a certain amount of vernacular would have replaced the Latin, especially in the Liturgy of the Word.  I think too that vernacular chants such as were developed by musicians like Lucien Deiss and Joseph Gelineau would have been introduced.  Even dramatic Mass settings like the Congolese Missa Luba would probably have emerged and been used in culturally appropriate settings.  Laity would have been introduced to do the readings.  On the other hand, I don’t think the chalice would have been restored to the faithful, at least on any sort of ordinary basis and I doubt that Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist would have been introduced.  As I think the “vocation crisis” would still have happened, there may have been a restoration to laymen of the minor order of acolyte with permission for them to administer Holy Communion. 
While the majority of altars would still be turned so that the priest faces the apse of the Church during the celebration of Mass, the practice of positioning the altar so that the priest faces the congregation had already begun in Europe before the Council.  The practice of versus populum altars was particularly strong in Rome where Popes Pius IX, Leo XIII, and Pius X, in their restoration of countless Roman Churches to their ancient forms, had so situated altars in what in pre-baroque Rome was the typical position. At the Council when bishops from America and other outreaches of the Catholic world saw this they brought the practice home, but altars that “faced the people” were not only common in Rome but not unknown in Germany and France with the Liturgical Renewal of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 
There would be no outreach to those of other Christian denominations or to those of non-Christian religions.  We would be instructed to be courteous to all, but any sort of collaboration in either mission or worship would be totally out of the question except perhaps charitable work in times of critical need. 
The distinctiveness of our Liturgy, the peculiarities of our practices (such as no meat on Fridays and other days of fast), the prohibition of social contact with our non-Catholic neighbors (where we could not be in their weddings nor they in ours, or even our being forbidden to attend weddings and funerals involving a non-Catholic service) and the strong barriers against mixed marriages would have led to a great deal of isolation for Catholics that in America and would have created considerable social difficulties.  I suspect that there would have been considerable defections to liberal Protestant groups, especially those with a liturgy similar to ours such as Episcopalians and Lutherans, and that even more Catholics would simply not practice their faith.  John Kennedy could probably not have been elected president in 1960 and there would be few Catholics in public office.  The secularization of the culture might initially have been slowed down a bit if the Church had itself resisted inculturalization, but it would have happened none the less and probably over the decades picked up even more speed than it has.   Those families and individuals who remained practicing Catholics would have a stronger sense of Catholic identity simply because they would be so clearly differentiated from mainstream American families. While I think we would still have our automobiles and even our televisions (for select programming) Catholics would be a lot like the Amish in terms of a closed community.  Such Catholic families would still be happy to see a son or a daughter give themselves to the Church in a vocation and the number might be there to serve those remaining active in the practice of the faith but as the community of the active faithful would be so much smaller, I think too the number of priests and sisters would never reach the numbers of the early 1960’s. 
Without the Council and its program of adapting the liturgy and the catechesis of the faith to local cultures the missionary activity of Asia and especially of Africa would probably not have been nearly as successful as it is. The revitalization of the Church in Latin America would probably not have happened either.  Remaining a European Church culturally would mean that the majority of Catholics would still be in the Northern hemisphere.  It would be a much smaller Church but a more distinct and even, perhaps, a more energetic church internally.  It influence on the world outside its own isolation, however, would be negligible.  The Pope would probably be a sort of Christian Dalai Lama, admired for his compassion and piety—even, perhaps with a good pope, for his wisdom—but with little or no impact on the world and its challenges.  


  1. I'm really glad that you pointed out that the liturgy had been changing before Vatican II happened.

    I think, looking at the Traditional Catholic movement, you might be right about Catholics becoming like the Amish. That seems to be the path they are taking.

  2. This is, of course, ex post facto speculation. I quite agree the liturgical reform would have continued apace, but applied unevenly. The lackluster and sluggard bishops of the United States would have predictably had to play catch-up with their European counterparts. In some respects, this may not have been a bad thing. I have always thought the interim Missal published with Kitty Spellman's imprimatur in 1965 should have been in force for at least a decade. We might have been spared some of the excesses of liturgical experimentation. We might also have been spared the revenge of the Krazies as they would have less about which to be enraged and needing to "restore."

    I also believe the exodus of priests and nuns would have been at least as numerous with or without the Council. The seemingly solid edifice of the pre-conciliar church was a mirage in many ways, to wit the rapidity with which staunch Catholic strongholds like Quebec secularized practically overnight. That it took considerably longer for Ireland to fold, and now Poland, attests to the role sociological factors play in what accelerates or retards massive defections but the eventual outcome is the same.

    It is likely that we would have had a different set of popes following John XXIII. The absence of the hardened edges and polarization that followed the Council might well have led the several conclaves to look for other types than what Milan, Venice, Krakow, the CDF and Buenos Aires had on tap. The theological ferment of resourcement would, however, have continued to percolate throughout the church -- unevenly here as well -- given John's intention to rehabilitate previously censured scholars. Even the usually cautious seminaries would not have been immune from the intellectual currents flowing in and around the Rhine.

    I doubt the seminaries and novitiates would have been any more or less full than they have been since the Council. Sociological and cultural factors would still have made such vocational options as unattractive as they have been for the last half century. I do not buy the right-wing line that priestly identity was eroded because of a new-found ecclesial sense of the laity and that this is the main reason for the fall-off in the number of seminarians. (The renewed valorization of the laity might not, however, have transpired without the Council).

    As for the religious life, with or without the habit, it was -- and remains -- moribund in the forms known since the Council of Trent. These old-fangled tridentine groups are a flash in the pan whose members will defect sooner than later once they get tired of dressing up or they are driven out on a rail by fed-up parishioners. And once normal men see what the seminary is cranking out these days, they too will continue to flee in the opposite direction.

    Some of the ecumenical logjams might have broken up without the Council. Athenagoras of Constantinople, for example, was not a product of Vatican II but rather a man of his times, times that called for detente between the churches who could not really afford any longer to live in isolation from one another. The times they were a changin' whether Rome continued to claim with Ottaviani that it was "semper idem" or not. The jig was, and remains, up.

    Enough for now.