The Brandsma Review

Pro Vita, pro Ecclesia Dei et pro Hibernia – A journal of conservative Catholic opinion from Ireland

Issue 121, July-August 2012


OCTOBER 11 of this year will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, an episode in the life of the Church
that is still fraught with controversy.

To many observers, Vatican II was a defining event—a council that was different from all previous Church councils and that mapped out a completely new path for the Church. The only criticisms of the council that such observers are wont to make is that the changes that actually took place following the council were neither great enough nor continued long enough. The essays contained in a recent book by  three faculty members of the Millltown Institute are cases in point (Mulligan, ed., 2012).

Pope Benedict XVI has dubbed this view “the hermeneutic of rupture”. He contrasts it with a view of the council that sees it as part of the Church’s tradition—one council among many—and that interprets its recommendations in light of that tradition. Pope Benedict has called this “the hermeneutic of renewal in continuity,” or “hermeneutic of continuity” for short. He has gone on to suggest that it is only now that Vatican II is beginning to be understood. That prior to this the “noise”, if you want, has  drowned out the “signal”.

Pope Benedict’s juxtaposition of the two ways of viewing the council is not simply an academic exercise. In his writings both prior to and after being elected pope he has been highly critical of many of the developments that actually took place following the council. This is particularly so in the case of the liturgy. In his autobiography Milestones (1998, pp. 148) he wrote:

I am convinced that the ecclesial crisis in which we find ourselves today depends in great part upon the collapse of the liturgy, which at times is actually being conceived of etsi Deus non daretur: as though in the liturgy it did not matter any more whether God exists and whether He speaks to us and hears us.

He went on to say:

But when the community of faith, the world-wide unity of the Church and her history, and the mystery of the living Christ are no longer visible in the liturgy, where else, then, is the Church to become visible in her spiritual essence? Then the community is celebrating only itself, an activity that is utterly fruitless.  And, because the ecclesial community cannot have its origin from itself but emerges as a unity only from the Lord, through faith, such circumstances will inexorably result in a disintegration into sectarian parties of all kinds—partisan opposition within a Church tearing herself apart. This is why we need a new Liturgical Movement, which will call to life the real heritage of the Second Vatican Council.

Those who view Vatican II as the beginning of something new generally have a totally opposite take on the liturgical changes. Typical of this view is the  claim by John Baldovin, SJ, a professor at Boston College (2001, p. 52), that “[s]ignificant improvement in every area of Catholic liturgy has resulted from the reform initiated by the Second Vatican Council.” Baldovin in the same article later alludes to “the remarkable gains that the past thirty-five years have brought to Catholic liturgy”.

Another author claims, “According to the best data at our disposal, within five years of the closing of the council, between 85 and 87% of practicing Catholics in the United States said that they preferred the new Mass to that celebrated according to the sixteenth century Missale Romanum.”(Massa, 2010, p. 15).

Mass attendance plummeted

This is a curious claim since the data on U.S. Mass attendance that I have assembled for the period 1939- 2010 never show greater than 65% weekly Mass attendance on the part of U.S. Catholics. Perhaps, however, this assertion hinges on the word “practicing”.  If so, then that lets the cat out of the bag, since Mass attendance in the United States plummeted in the wake of the post-Vatican II liturgical changes.

I turn to these and other related data immediately below. The picture that they paint is universally distressing.  How anyone can maintain that Vatican II has been a success for the Church to date or that more of the same will make it even more so is mystifying. Five years ago in this Review, I presented the results of a study of Mass attendance in nine highly developed countries (Lothian. 2007). These figures were for weekly Mass attendance of Catholics as a percentage of the Catholic population. At their longest, which was for the United States, the data spanned the 67 years from 1939 to 2005. The nine countries covered were Australia, Belgium, Canada, England and Wales, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Scotland and the United States. The frequency of observation differed by country and was dictated by data availability. For the United States, I adjusted the data to reflect differences between the Gallup Poll survey figures and more accurate recent head-count figures.

Here I extend that data set to include two additional countries, France and Germany, and where possible the additional years up until 2010. Figures 1a through 1c contain plots of these data. Table 1 summarises the movements in the data over the two decades 1964-1984 for the nine countries for which pre- and post-Vatican II observations are available.  The object here was to try to isolate the effects of the liturgical changes from other factors.

In my earlier study I concluded that there was “not the slightest trace in any of [the] data of the increased appreciation for the Mass that the liturgical changes have been widely described as effecting. Indeed, the timing of the declines in Mass attendance suggests that those changes had a negative, rather than positive effect.” This is equally true of the extended data on Mass attendance presented here, as the three charts clearly show. Table 1 suggests, moreover, that the changed liturgy, and not simply broader developments in the Church and society, have been a major culprit. In the ten-year period 1964 to 1974 surrounding the liturgical changes, Mass attendance showed an average decline of 29%. It would be fortuitous indeed if other, idiosyncratic factors dominated and produced similar declines in all of the countries. For the twenty-year period 1964 to 1984 Mass attendance showed an average decline of close to 50%.

The other data are no less comforting with regard to the success of the various post-Vatican II initiatives.  We can see this in Tables 2 and 3 and Figure 2. Table 2 and Figure 2 pertain to vocations. Table 3 contains a broader set of indicators of the health of the Church in the United States.

Tables 2 and Figure 2 show catastrophic declines in the numbers of priests, brothers and especially nuns post-1965. Table 3 paints a completely similar picture with regard to the other indicators—across the board declines in almost all the series with the exception of the number of parishes without a resident priest, which has risen substantially, and the two measures of the number of U.S. Catholics. Table 3 also provides a breakdown of the total number of priests between secular priests and members of religious orders. Consistent with the dramatic declines in the number of brothers and nuns, the latter account for most of the decline in the total.

Fuddy duddy or anti-intellectual

In summer 1965, I travelled to Europe and went to Rome for the first time. I stayed in a youth hostel not too far from the Vatican. In the morning, on my way to see the sights, I often stopped at St Peters. Priests would be coming out of the sacristy to say Mass in the altars in the crypt. There were no security concerns in those days, so I would just walk in and find a Mass to serve. Doing so, I had the sense that there was indeed unum sanctam catholicam et apostolicam Eccelsiam—one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. When I returned to university that autumn, the situation already was beginning to change and in the next two years it did so dramatically. Four years later one no longer heard those or any other words of the Mass in Latin. Anyone who desired to do so was hectored as an old fuddy duddy or worse still antiintellectual.

Being a recently married 24-year-old graduate student at the University of Chicago with an infant child at the time, I found that amusing in a dark sort of way. But it was more than that. In a letter I wrote to the pastor of the local parish, St Thomas the Apostle, I likened the ham-fisted attempts at liturgical re-education from the pulpit to the Stalinist versions portrayed in Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon.

Many years later when I read Cardinal Ratzinger’s Salt of the Earth I was gladdened to see that someone of his stature had had a similar reaction and was bold enough to put it in print. As Ratzinger put it,

I am of the opinion, to be sure, that the old rite should be granted much more generously to all those who desire it. It’s impossible to see what could be dangerous or unacceptable about that. A community is calling its very being into question when it suddenly declares that what until now was its holiest and highest possession is strictly forbidden and when it makes the longing for it seem downright indecent.” (Ratzinger, 1997 p. 170).

Catholic indicators in the US

Catholic indicators in the US

Comparative Mass attendance statistics in several western countries since the Council.

Comparative Mass attendance statistics in several western countries since the Council.

In an article entitled Reconsidering Vatican II, Michael Novak, summarised some of the developments that took place at that time (Novak, 2001).
Novak wrote:

A spirit of radical individualism and hatred for the way things had been swept through religious community after religious community, through colleges and universities, through the ranks of priests (and even some bishops, although the latter were more constrained by their close ties to Rome), and eventually through the educated laity. Thus “Vatican II Catholicism” was born. It has not yet been dispassionately evaluated, and its colossal failures have not been weighed against its much-praised successes.

That evaluation needs to take place and it certainly does need to be done dispassionately. The historiography of Vatican II to date has been extremely inadequate. Most of it has been cheerleading of the kind one sees in popular histories of nations. Very little of it has come to grips with either the hard data of what happened in the Church post-Vatican II or the intellectual turn that the Church took.

Despite all that has gone on these last 50 years, there are, I believe, a number of very hopeful signs. One is the set of initiatives that Pope Benedict XVI has taken over the past five years—the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum freeing up the celebration of the traditional Mass, the apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus and the continuing doctrinal conversation with the Society of St Pius X. A second is the positive response to Summorum Pontificum on the part of many members of the hierarchy. A third is the increase in vocations to the priesthood and religious life among more orthodox Catholics. A recent article in the New York Times is quite instructive in this regard (Goodstein, 2009):

We’ve heard anecdotally that the youngest people coming to religious life are distinctive, and they really are, said Sister Mary Bendyna, executive director of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. They’re more attracted to a traditional style of religious life, where there is community living, common prayer, having Mass together, praying the Liturgy of the Hours together. They are much more likely to say fidelity to the church is important to them. And they really are looking for communities where members wear habits.

Of the new priests and nuns who recently joined religious orders, two-thirds chose orders that wear a habit all the time or regularly during prayer or ministry, the study found. My own observation garnered both from lecturing Jesuit scholastics and from other reports in the media
is similar.

James R. Lothian is Distinguished Professor of Finance and Toppeta Family Chair in Global Financial Markets, Fordham University, 113 West 60th Street, New York, NY 10023, USA. Tel. 1 212 636-6147; email


Baldovin, John, S.J. “Where Is Catholic Liturgy Going?” The Way Supplement, 2001 pp. 52-62.

Goodstein, Laurie. “New Nuns and Priests Seen Opting for Tradition”, New York Times August 11, 2009

Lothian, James R.“Who’s Got it Right – Pope or Bishops? The Brandsma Review, Issue 92, Vol. 16, No.5, September-October 2007, pp. 7-13.

Massa, Mark S. The American Catholic Revolution: How the Sixties Changed the Church Forever, New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Mulligan, Suzanne (Ed.) Reaping the Harvest: Fifty Years after Vatican II, Dublin: Columba Press, 2012.

Novak, Michael. “Reconsidering Vatican II” Crisis Magazine October 20, 2001

Ratzinger, Joseph, Salt of the Earth, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997.

Ratzinger, Joseph, Milestones, Memoirs 1927–1977, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998.

Ratzinger, Joseph. The Spirit of the Liturgy, San Francisco: Ignatius Press: 2000.

In the same issue:


Blessed John XXIII and Ancient Wisdom

Dr Éanna Johnson

Professor James R. Lothian

Nick Lowry

Peadar Laighléis

Joe Aston

David Manly

(Part I)

Hurling Shots from the Ditch includes Phoenix Flatters Nuncio, and Minister and the ‘Seal’; Letter from Eric Conway; Straws from the Camel’s Back includes ‘A First for the Brandsma?’, ‘A Nutty Professor’, ‘Not So Extraordinary’, ‘Is His Grace Serious?’and ‘Infamous One-Child Policy’; and another list from Francis Book Sales.


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