Ross Douthat of The New York Times has taken aim at Vatican II — again — with some followup ideas to a column published last month. (This time, he writes in his newsletter, available only to Times subscribers.)
He begins by describing an encounter with a Catholic at a cocktail party, which led to a discussion about the difficulties of getting to Mass and making the Sunday obligation, leading to this moment:
He looked at me with a friendly sort of mystification. “Oh,” he said, “but you know the church got rid of that after Vatican II?”
Too many Catholics just don’t know what they don’t know.
Douthat went on to talk about the point he was trying to make in his colum:
What I tried to emphasize, with some nods to the work of the French historian Guillaume Cuchet, was that the problem with Vatican II probably wasn’t any given change, any specific controversy that followed — whether over religious liberty or the use of the vernacular in the liturgy or the moral status of artificial birth control. It was instead the sheer scale of the changes, the evisceration of a whole “culture of obligatory practice” (Cuchet’s phrase), which severed various threads binding people to the faith, undermined confidence that the church really knew what it was doing and made people more dismissive of the obligations that officially remained.
The question of Sunday Mass-going is a good example. Technically, the church never said what my friendly interlocutor believed, never lifted the weekly obligation. But when an array of customs that reinforced that obligation were relaxed, from the requirement to fast before Mass to the emphasis on regular confession, the tacit message was the one he received — that the time of stringent rules was over, that henceforth the church would be defined by a more, well, American sort of flexibility.
The idea was not simply to make Catholicism easier, of course; the hope was that a truer Christianity would flourish once rote obedience diminished. But the policy and the results, not the hopes, are what we should be interested in three generations later. And in and of itself, a policy of easing burdens was hardly a crazy idea of how the church might adapt to modernity and keep Catholics in the pews. Spiritual issues aside, from an institutional perspective, you can see the logic of saying, the world is making it harder to be a Catholic, so let’s make it easier to practice the faith.
Indeed, I will say that the relaxed style of the contemporary church offers useful concessions to my own situation as a busy professional juggling an assortment of secular obligations for myself and my family, and operating in numerous environments — familial, social and professional — where many people aren’t Catholics.
… A key obstacle to getting modern Catholics to actually practice their inherited Catholicism isn’t whether they disagree with church teachings or feel adequately welcomed (as much as those issues matter). It’s that the church is in competition with a million other urgent-seeming things, and in its post-Vatican II form it has often failed to establish the importance of its own rituals and obligations.
For example, my guess would be that more American Catholics skip Mass because of the demands of youth sports, the felt need for a more relaxed “family time” or the competing pulls of work and entertainment than because of any theological or moral issue. And over time, this pattern compounds: The children of those families become couples who don’t bother to marry in the church and parents who don’t baptize their kids, and so decline continues because of cultural priorities rather than beliefs.
Read more. There’s a lot to chew on. I “gifted” the link, so anyone should be able to read it.