What We Mean When We Talk About the Pre-Vatican II Era

The Second Vatican Council began in 1962 and officially ended in 1965, and for many Catholics, church history is completely defined by this event, regardless of their political or liturgical orientation. There is the pre-Vatican II era, and everything that came after it. For conservotrads and traditionalists, the pre-Vatican II era was when everything was swell, and then everything went to hell in a handbasket after Vatican II. For progressives, the spirit and promises of Vatican II liberated Catholics from a rigid, oppressive, and narrow-minded obscurantism. However, the pre-Vatican II era, strictly speaking, covered almost 1,900 years of history in a variety of different cultures. When American Catholics in 2015 discuss the pre-Vatican II era, they probably aren’t talking about the devotional practices of ninth century Anglo-Saxons. So what does the phrase “pre-Vatican II church” mean in current Catholic discourse?

As far as I can tell, when American Catholics, whether conservotrad, traditionalist, or progressive, are talking about the pre-Vatican II era, what they actually mean is middle class white America, circa 1952. That there were non-white Catholics in America during this period is irrelevant in the minds of opinion-makers in the Catholic media. The years Vatican II was in session (1962-1965) coincide with a period of great social and political upheaval in the United States, which lends further credence to the conservotrad and traditionalist notion that everything, whether religious or secular, was swell before Vatican II and crap afterwards.

However, many aspects of white Catholic life in 1950s America were of relatively recent vintage. For example, the women’s active orders who staffed Catholic schools and hospitals were only about 100-150 years old, practically a drop in the bucket in Catholic history. The various branches of the Sisters of Charity were only founded in the 1810s, the American branch of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart in 1924, and the School Sisters of Notre Dame in 1833. First confession and communion at the age of seven didn’t become a thing until Pius X changed it in 1910 (prior to that, first communion and confession was done between twelve and fourteen). Many people forget that Pius X and Pius XII both issued pretty extensive changes not only to the liturgy, but to the liturgical calendar. In fact, it was Pius XII who first demanded renewal of religious order in late 1950. Even having a parish priest who was literate in the vernacular, much less Latin, is a relatively new concept in the history of the Catholic church.

It’s a bit different when the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) talks about the pre-Vatican II era, because the group’s point of reference is actually ancien rĂ©gime France, when the Catholic church was the most privileged institution in the country. The subsequent loss of these privileges during the French Revolution and during various anticlerical governments has created a small subgroup of French traditionalists dreaming about the restoration of throne and altar that’s never going to happen. Consequently, American traditionalists who support the SSPX or are friendly to its ideas often end up adopting the same pro-royalist/anti-democracy attitudes as their French co-religionists, claiming that the American Revolution was “Masonic” and ungodly, among other things. While traditionalists may rail about everything going to hell in the 1960s, they have definitely benefited from the greater tolerance for counter-culture lifestyles that occurred during this period. Before Vatican II, an American Catholic never would have said they thought the American Revolution was ungodly, because that would have been playing into anti-Catholic stereotypes that claimed that Catholics were inherently illiberal and unable to be good American citizens. That traditionalists can say that kind of thing and just be considered fringe eccentrics rather than dangerous subversives could have only happened in an increasing environment of “live and let live.” However, I’ve always found it odd to hear traditionalists ranting about how liberal democracy is anti-Catholic and how absolute monarchy is the best form of government, but then have Ron Paul bumper stickers on their car.

We are told by conservotrads and traditionalists that Thomas Aquinas wouldn’t recognize the post-Vatican II Catholic church, but I maintain that he wouldn’t understand much of the pre-Vatican II Catholic church either. While Aquinas was surprisingly well traveled for a medieval person, he only went to those places where he would be surrounded by a type of scholastic Catholicism that would have been understood by relatively few people in the world of Christendom at the time. If he could see the folk Catholicism practiced by, say, Norwegian peasants, I doubt that Aquinas would have understood what he was seeing. Like all of us, Aquinas was a product of a specific place and a specific time, and he would no doubt be shocked by the practice of seven year olds having first communion and confession just as much as he’d be shocked by mass in the vernacular. Far from being a liturgical and cultural monolith, the pre-Vatican II church was extremely varied, depending on the culture, time, and place in question. Assuming that the experiences of a relatively small group of people of whites in the mid-century United States was the universal experience of billions of people over 1,900 years of history is a kind of American exceptionalism we can all do without.

One thought on “What We Mean When We Talk About the Pre-Vatican II Era

  1. I never got into religion until i did a course at uni on the Catholic church. People dont realise that the church is constantly changing. Theologians constantly debate and re-write the bible to adjust to a changing society and Popes and high Catholic leaders as Cardinals are always writing articles in which they out lay their thoughts and feelings about matters. I read Pope John Paul II’s Faith and Reason which is a great read and really revolutionary for what it saying.


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