We spend so much time talking about the “Conciliar Church” that we often forget what the “pre-Conciliar Church” was. Indeed, the Catholic Church has been the “Conciliar Church” since the Council of Jerusalem recounted in the Acts of the Apostles or, at least, since the Nicene Council convoked by Emperor Constantine in 325. The Second Vatican Council was the latest council in the long history of the Church, but not the only. For all intents and purposes, it is the only Council that matters to most modern Latin Churchmen. They, wrongly, see it as the birth of their own incarnation of Catholicism. In this they are wrong. Their variation of Catholicism was born long before the Second Vatican Council and only was brought to full maturity during the 1950s and 1960s. The grapes had long been crushed, the juice bottled, and the product fermented. The Council only opened the cork. What was that process?
Such a question is too intimidating to answer, but hopefully we can get a head start here. It all began, of course, with the Reformation and, later, the French Revolution. We often think of these twin revolts as revolts first against the Church and then against God Himself. The Reformation and French Revolution were these things, but they were also so much more. From the Edict of Milan until 1517, the Church built a distinctly Catholic culture in Europe on the ashes of the Roman legal system and Greek philosophy, baptizing them into herself and allowing them to flourish in a renewed set of political structures. The emergent Catholic Europe was multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-governmental, but united by the faith, a remarkable feature the Greek and various Oriental Churches did not enjoy.
After the Reformation, and especially the French Revolution, there was no longer a Catholic Europe, only a Europe in which the majority of inhabitants were Catholics. The faith was undermined for political reasons. Few large blocks of territory signed onto the Augsburg Confession for reasons of belief. In the various north German states as in Henry VIII’s England, Protestantism offered a chance to break away from the Pope, the Holy Roman Emperor, and Spanish politics. In the case of England, the “stripping of the altars” was not so easy and required considerable bloodshed to eventuate. Catholic culture died a heroic death, but it died nonetheless.
A new Catholic culture emerged which separated itself from secular society. This was a culture to which one could belong if one was a Catholic, not necessarily if one were only European. European intellectual thought, particularly in Germanic states and France, began with anti-clerical cynicism, but Spinoza and Voltaire it radicalized into open anti-clericalism, anti-popery, and anti-monarchism. Lockean concepts about freedom, the blank slate man receives at birth, and economics insinuated academia everywhere. America’s revolution encouraged the seeds of France’s revolution. Everywhere the former conduits of Catholic education and intellectual thought were undermined and replaced by the Enlightened. More and more Catholics began to emphasize the Church as a “perfect society,” something akin to St. Augustine’s City of God, which exists on earth, but is beyond earthly criticism. The “perfect society” nearly received explicit expression in the First Vatican Council in the documents Tametsi Deus and Supremi Pastoris. This “perfect society” was not celestial as was St. Augustine’s. It was a society parallel to the secular one, running on even plane with it, never touching it. This perfect society, bereft now of major universities and academic credibility, but still enjoying a place in most royal courts, took the apologetics and theology of the baroque doctors as well as the art of that period and called them its own. This 16th to early 20th century synthesis of the baroque political establishment with the privatized Catholic faith would be the irreproachable idea of the Catholic faith that survived until World War I. The perfect society could never question itself, nor its head, the Pope. This escapism was fine while popular, but when it declined, many lapsed. Novelist Umberto Eco lost his faith during university when he discovered, to his shock, that the Church had done wrong during the Spanish Inquisition—semantics about the true nature of the Inquisition aside.
The French Revolution ended a few years and untold thousands of deaths after it had begun, yet its spirit did not subside. Despite the ascendance of the diminutive despot Napoleon, the Revolution would continue to spread. Napoleon himself spread it. He had no interest in the “rights of man” or public use of the guillotine, but he did promote liberation from ancient governments, demonstrated that one could oppose the Church publicly, and inculcated French intellectual culture wherever he held influence in Europe. The 1815 Peace of Paris nominally restored the ancient order after Bonaparte’s defeat at Waterloo, but the damage had been done over the preceding decades. The revolutionary spirit was there to stay.
The perfect society proved ill-equipped to deal with Bonaparte, the revolutionary culture he created, or with shifts in 19th century academia. A revival in Biblical scholarship in Germany fell early to protestants and disbelievers with linguistic talents who taught that the Gospels were, at best, penned a century or so after Christ. Educated people could no longer take the Scriptures seriously despite complaints from clergy that the first century origin of the Gospels was the Church’s teaching. The beliefs of the perfect society were self-evidently true to believers and required no explanation, only instruction. To those outside the Church, the teachings looked like circular logic.
Another shock to the system was Charles Darwin’s publication of Origin of Species, in which he, perhaps with borrowed material, sought to explain variations in bird beaks in the Galapagos through evolution of creatures. "Mutability" replaced "cause" as the truth of the learned.
The perfect society, as with any subgroup within a larger society, developed what Richard Hofstadter would call “paranoid style” when describing American politics. “Paranoid style” happens when a large minority, convinced of its own value, resorts to conspiracy theories and accusations of wrong doing to explain its own futility. These theories intermingle with the facts, but do not accurately reflect them. In the 19th century, some Catholics became enamored with what later conspiracy theorists would call the “Judeo-Masonic conspiracy,” which states that the Jews and Freemasons of Europe had united to deceive and destroy the Catholic Church from within; in some variations of this theory, the Freemasons are Satanists who knowingly attempt to invalidate the Sacraments and change fundamental teachings.
As with most examples of Hofstadter’s “paranoid style,” there are facts mixed with fiction. The Jews of Europe did support the various revolutions of 1848, including the revolt against the Pope in Rome. In the next century, Jews would support socialist and communist parties, too. Modern people looking through modern lenses lose sight of why. Prior to Pius IX, Jews were forced to live in a walled ghetto within Rome, a fetid place with limited access to infrastructure and a proclivity to disease. Marriage laws forced more recessive genes which, ironically, raised both the average IQ of European Jews and their susceptibility to certain sicknesses. Jews could hold few good jobs. Among the few lucrative positions Jews could hold was money lending, since Catholics were forbidden to lend money at interest. This had the compounding consequence of making some Jewish families, like the Rothschilds, very wealthy, while making Jewish stereotypes all the more prevalent; no one likes his debt-holder. Jewish people grew tired of their inability to participate in the now-secular society growing throughout Europe. Some progressive politicians, like Pope Pius IX, tried granting rights in moderation and removing the ghetto walls. Pius IX felt betrayed then when the Roman Jews supported the failed revolution and erected a new wall around the Jewish quarter.
Similarly, one faces difficulty in separating Freemasonic facts from Freemasonic fiction. Blaming the Freemasons for what happened in the 1960s, or 1860s, is humanly understandable. How else could the perfect society have collapsed in the years after the Second Vatican Council? A closer look reveals that, from what outsiders can know about them, they may not be all some traditionalists believe them to have been. The Masons are a cellular brotherhood, not a single organization. Fairly independent lodge systems associate with one another, but do not necessarily answer to one overarching figure. This means the Freemasons are united in their vague pseudo-religious beliefs, although not in agenda or organization. The Freemasons in France played a considerable role in the blood bath Revolution. Their evil Italian twins, the Carbonari, aided the revolts of 1820 in Rome, Naples, and Sicily. By contrast, their English and American brethren were quite well behaved. This may have been because England and America were not Catholic countries or because the communitarian character of those joining the lodges in the Anglophonic world differed from the revolutionary character of those joining Continental lodges.
The Freemasons were a force in 18th and 19th century politics, organizing revolts and coups in a grassroots fashion, achieving goals through networking and making the right friends. Their goals could be vaguely characterized as progress, fraternity of man, enlightened thought, and liberty. If understood loosely enough, some progressive Churchmen could join the right lodge in good conscience despite condemnations of the Craft by the Apostolic See. Several people over the years even accused Pius IX himself of having joined a lodge during his liberal years as Msgr. Mastai-Ferretti, delegate to Peru. Some lodges and Mason James Marples support this claim, while others like Jesuit Fr. Herbert Thurston denounce it in great detail. While the idea may seem outlandish—and it certainly is—it is not impossible: Mastai-Ferretti was a liberal, the John Paul II of his day, until the 1848 sent him into exile, an exile form which he returned an archconservative. Regardless, the Freemasons’ goals were to spread their secular-progressive ideas. The method of doing this was left to local discretion. Some aimed at infiltrating the State and Church. Others organized revolts. Others attended town hall meetings. And others yet did nothing other than share ideas and operate fraternal functions. To assume a concentrated effort reveals some ignorance of 19th century European politics and of the Craft itself.
During the latter part of the 19th century and early part of the 20th century, the perfect society of the Church found herself shaken by vitiating movements of liberalism and liturgical reform. The liturgical reform movement, the Liturgical Movement, sought to revitalize Catholic life through the liturgy in places ravaged by the preceding century of revolutions and destruction of culture. It also offered an alternative to the Romantic movement, which rejected the excesses of rationalism, but still replaced Revelation with nature, as is evident in 19th century artwork. This movement was also characterized by an indifference to the clericalism—a reaction to the existing anti-clericalism—of Pius IX’s long reign.
The other movement was the Modernist movement. Modernism was not, contrary to the teaching of Pascendi, the “synthesis of all heresies.” “Modernism” is a term applied too broadly to too many people. Some supposed Modernists, like Adrian Fortescue, were simply good Catholics who did not fit into the perfect society’s mold. Others, like Loisy, were outright apostates. And many others, like Tyrrell and Duchesne, fell somewhere in the murky middle. Pascendi and the anti-Modernist oath given by Papa Sarto forced all non-conformists underground and, effectively, synthesized the various dissidents and disgruntled clerics into one identity, the Modernist. Pascendi was a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Modernists stayed out of the spot-light until the coast was clear after the Second World War, bidding their time by studying seemingly benign subjects such as liturgy and coopting those subjects to their cause.
Msgr. Umberto Benigni assumed that the Modernists were an organized clan intent on infiltrating the hierarchy. Benigni organized the Sodalitium Pianium to counter the Modernists. The Sodalitium was a loose network of fifty to one hundred people, mostly laymen, who never spoke to each other. They only answered to a single contact in Rome. The agents would spy on potential Modernists by reading their articles or book, sometimes by opening their mail, and even by looking up their receipts in bookstores. Once a potential Modernist had been confirmed, Benigni would either use the pope’s authority against the person or condemn said Modernist in the press. All this kept the perfect society safe from those assaulting it from the outside.
The more liberal Benedict XV succeeded the to-be-canonized Pius X in 1914 and, after the War to End All Wars, dissolved the Sodalitium, an organization which Pietro Gasparri—Pius XII’s mentor and Pius XI’s first Secretary of State—called “occult.” The perfect society was gone. The Church from Benedict XV onward would live in the world and work with the means available to her.
The Church struggled working within secular politics for the coming decades. The Integrist movement and Action Francaise was met with some measure of success in advocating a Church-friendly right-wing agenda that would be the first breath of fresh air for the French Church in nearly a century and a half. The Cristero movement opposed Calles’ openly secular aims and desire to suppress any public expression of religion. The Church, although effectively disestablished, still possessed enough popularity and prestige to wield political power that would ensure her longevity in Europe. “The faith is Europe and Europe is the faith,” Hillaire Belloc wrote. It was not to be. While Pius XI was writing about the “social reign of Christ the King,” his Secretary of State and Under-Secretary were suppressing the Cristeros and the Action Francaise movements. This did not mean the Church was out of politics, only that the Vatican and the “Rampolla clique” were out of right-wing politics. Newspaper editor turned activist Giorgio Montini’s Popular Party, a center-left Christian democrat faction, enjoyed the patronage of Cardinal Gasparri and Eugenio Pacelli. The Vatican often supported or did not obstruct worker organizations or other types of granges formerly associated with working class collectivism. The Vatican was discreetly pandering to yesterday’s liberal causes while the contemporary forces surged faster towards a new wave of revolutions and political disruptions, namely the rise of Nazism, Fascism, and Communism. The Second World War destroyed the first two of these, leaving the third untouched until the joint efforts of Reagan, Thatcher, and John Paul II accelerated the Soviet Union’s internal decay. The Second World War not only destroyed Germany, but also the remaining relics of the perfect society incarnation of the Church. The emerging materialist and existentialist Europe would have little use even for the vestiges of its Catholic heritage.
Pius XII’s papacy marked a transition period between the perfect society and the “Conciliar Church.” The perfect society—entered by Baptism and juridically governed in a visible way by the Roman Pontiff—replaced the temporal Catholicism of pre-Revolutionary Europe. Now the Church of the “Mystical Body” would supplant the perfect society. For several centuries now, Catholics in the Latin Church assumed the Church was a self-contained society with its own intellectual and inerrant theological systems, ruled by the Pope. Then, in 1943, Pius XII wrote that he could find no description of the Church to be “more sublime” than “Mystical Body.” The new paradigm of the Church as a mystical union with the person of the Pope was certainly a shock to theologians and a departure from the spirit of Vatican I—Vatican II was not the first Council with a spirit which departed from the letter. The liturgical revolution was revived in 1948 and began in earnest with the new Holy Saturday in 1951 and a new Holy Week as well as radical changes to the calendar in 1955. Progressives looking to foster good relations with other religions or seeking to create new interpretations of older teachings thrived on the lecture circuit and in conferences. Many conservatives were irate that when the Society of Jesus suppressed Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s works the Vatican seemed indifferent. Above all, the Vatican seemed to share in the United States’s post-War optimism about the future. The perfect society and the Europe of ideology were both dead. A renewal was both necessary and inevitable.
At this point, the familiar story begins. Religious forces long simmering under the lid blew the top off the pot between 1962 and 1965. German theologians and ecumenists used their influence in the schema committees and in parliamentary proceedings to interpolate controversial statements at the choke points of several documents. The justification for the long-planned new liturgy is finally given. While those following the Vatican since Pius XI’s reign were hardly surprised, the faithful still operating on the perfect society model were throw into paralysis and, often, disbelief.
The point of this article is to give readers an understanding of the political and social place of the Roman Church and the forces pushing her in the years prior to the Second Vatican Council, not to summarize the Vatican’s politics or the reform movement itself, a loaded topic for another time. If context is key, we must know why so many reform movements arose and why the Council played out the way it did.
Perhaps the mistakes of the Vatican in politics were a felix culpa? The perfect society was going to collapse eventually. Nothing could survive the Second World War intact, not even, as the bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 proved, the planet itself. The traditionalist movement originates in the French countryside, a place which had enough Gallican common sense to ignore the problems in Rome and to continue what had been done for centuries. The French traditionalist movement was a strange mix of bedfellows: Ultramontane doctrine, Gallican action, and quasi-Jansenistic moral rigidity. This odd blend ensured some semblance of tradition survived for us today in the mainstream. Perhaps one day we will have them to thank within a smaller, more vibrant Church, one dissolved from concerns about the City of Man and focused narrowly on the City of God.