A Discalced Laity

August 17, 2021
Defense of Vatican II
“We can only do it for moments at first. But from those moments the new sort of life will be spreading through our system: because now we are letting Him work at the right part of us. It is the difference between paint, which is merely laid on the surface, and a dye or stain which soaks right through. He never talked vague, idealistic gas. When he said, “Be perfect,” He meant it. He meant that we must go in for the full treatment. It is hard; but the sort of compromise we are all hankering after is harder—in fact, it is impossible. It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.”
C.S. Lewis
Mere Christianity

By Dr. Larry Chapp

Vatican II was a missionary Council. It was not a “modernizing” or “liberalizing” Council as the popular media, both then and now, would have us believe. Hans Kung had that wonderful hair, a fancy car, and was the darling, Swiss, wunderkind ever-ready to pronounce to a breathless and gullible media that the Catholic Church was, in essence, dissolving itself.  But his was not the voice of the Council as such.  Nor, in the other direction, was the Council inclined to engage in a pro forma reiteration of the categories of neo-scholastic “fortress Catholicism” with its security blanket syllogisms and woefully inadequate caricatures of modern philosophy.   Pope John XXIII thought the Council would last three months and be over by the end of the summer. All the schemata had been drawn up and the hope was the bishops would give it all a thumbs up and then dash off to Piazza della Rotonda for dinner and wine.  But this too was not the will of the Council.  

The Council’s vision was sweeping and broad. Its goal was to re-evangelize the world through a missionary effort that would take the Church’s vast spiritual riches and place them in the modern public square as genuine interlocutors with a world made weary by the genocidal wars of recent memory and the emerging threat of nuclear apocalypse.  But in order to do this the Council fathers knew that a purely clerical effort would not do and that the time was now for a lay revolution in the Church.  Very often in the history of the Church great spiritual leaders arose to reform their religious orders which often ended in them breaking away from the main body in order to found a more rigorous, “discalced” movement of radical Catholicism.  Therefore, I like to say that in its universal call to holiness the Council was calling for a discalced laity shorn of the purely contractual Catholicism so prevalent in the pre-conciliar Church.  They sought a more evangelical laity who would rise to the challenge of modernity and bring the Gospel into the world in a radical way, but also in a way appropriate to the laity who must after all, live in the world and provide for their families.  

This effort failed.  It failed because the Council did not follow up on this call to holiness with concrete directives and pastoral proposals.  It all remained vague and open-ended which allowed the progressive faction of the Church, making free use of the media, to pitch the Council as a “modernization” that sought to conform the Church to the world rather than the world to the Church.  Ironically, the Council’s desire for a more evangelical laity worked right into the hands of the progressives since the Council, in its desire to get beyond forensic and contractual forms of Christian living, had eliminated certain traditional mandatory disciplines such as meatless Fridays and recommended a more personalized choice of voluntary penances.  The “spirit” of this counsel was ignored and instead of a reinvigorated laity of evangelical faith, we got “Catholicism lite” and a reformed liturgy – – a reform in my view that was needed and necessary – – that looked very much like a “liturgy lite” suitable for the beige Catholicism of the era.  We also got “catechism lite,” “lent lite,” “liturgical calendar lite” with Holy days moved to Sundays lest folks be inconvenienced by the annoyance of mid-week Mass attendance. I lived through this insanity of ecclesial divestment and because I was not a particularly “religious” young man found this new felt-banner, tambourine Catholicism to be just so much kitsch.  And when I rediscovered my faith in my late teens (from reading Lewis and Newman) I assumed a theological posture of resolute resistance to this weak soup of worldly, horizonatalist, Catholicism.

The Council therefore, like all Councils, had its imperfections which were all rooted, as I have said before, in a double naivete.  Namely, a naivete with regard to the strength of the Church’s faith life, and a naivete about the alleged good-will of secular culture to engage the Church in dialogue.  Furthermore, the ressourcement theology that animated the Council failed to articulate, as Lewis Ayres and Rusty Reno point out, a rigorous theological method that could be deployed effectively as an ongoing project of hermeneutical retrieval.  John Paul tried to articulate such a vision, but failed to develop a systematic ressourcement method, and so his papal efforts at hermeneutical retrieval were resisted at every turn by a theological guild that had rejected the ressourcement approach as “yesterday’s news” and forged ahead with the progressive agenda. The “Communio” theologians mounted a valiant counterattack, and I am happy to count myself among them, but it was too little, too late, and too isolated in the theological guild to have much effect.  

To make matters worse, we now have a Pope who seems to want to return us to 1970. He himself seems fairly “conservative” in an inchoate and somewhat confused way and I reject the charge made by many traditionalists that he is a heretic.  Nevertheless, personnel is policy and Pope Francis, through his various appointments, has re-empowered the progressive wing of the Church. He turns a relatively benign eye towards the liberal wing of the Church (e.g. the Germans) despite a few toothless warnings from the CDF, all the while using all of his teeth to bite down hard on those of a more traditionalist persuasion.  Sadly, this has only radicalized the traditionalist movement, marginalized the Communio theologians even further (e.g. effectively dismantling the JPII Institute in Rome), and reignited the post-conciliar fires of division and discord.  I am not an “opponent” of Pope Francis as many rad trads are, and I pray for him every day. He is the Pope and he is owed our respect.  Nevertheless, I cannot at the same time ignore aspects of his papacy that I think are returning us to a destructive polarization in the Church. A polarization I have lived through before and hoped to never revisit.  

And with the latest motu proprio we see the return of the liturgy wars in full force. However, in my view, these wars are merely a penultimate issue which cannot be resolved until the ultimate issue of the proper reception of Vatican II is resolved.  Therefore, the current debate is merely yet another symptom of a much deeper rot that has been slowly consuming the Church from within, like a 200 year old wooden house sitting atop a perpetual Termite Sturgis, while the owners of the house keep arguing with each other about what kind of paint will solve the structural problems.  The rot is the consumptive god of bourgeois worldliness and it will not be halted by a strong and robust return of the TLM, however desirable that might be or helpful on a small scale. It might shore-up the base and reenergize devout Catholics of a certain persuasion, but in my view it will not stop the rot.  It didn’t stop the rot which had already begun before the Council, as Ratzinger noted in 1958, and it won’t stop it now.  The liturgical debates are indeed important, and I do not mean to imply otherwise, since the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Church’s spiritual life.  I also think the Novus Ordo needs a serious upgrade.  But when the broader non-Catholic culture looks through our windows and sees us hurling furniture at each other over whether or not the priest should face the people or the tabernacle during Mass, or if we should pray in Latin or the vernacular, the response has got to be some version of, “You are kidding me right? You do realize of course that the world is burning down around you? Some of us look to the Church for hope. Is this the best you can do??”  

The culture of the West is in its death throes as the last vestiges of the Christian patrimony disappears, taking with it, in an act of metaphysical vengeance, the last vestiges of our cultural sanity as well.  When the hottest cultural issue of the day is the “horrific” bigotry of thinking men can’t get pregnant and women do not have penises, or that a professor wearing a tie is a triggering microaggression owing to its clear phallic connotations, then you know that a level of equine bloat has been reached that really cannot be reversed because all of the normal and healthy pathways whereby insanity is digested and expelled have been ideologically blocked by our betters.  Nor is the rot confined to hot button culture issues.  As I write these words America is fleeing in humiliation from Vietnam … oops … Afghanistan, after the failure of a futile 20 year war that cost trillions of dollars and thousands of lives. What it exposes is the deep fallacy of our ongoing militarism and its connection to our entrenched corporatism.  Ours is a culture with a purely stipulative morality rooted in the vagaries of whatever mood the social contract is in, which is why we are at once sentimentalist and sadistic, puritanical and pornified, peace loving and war mongering.  Therefore, with no higher allegiance to a liberating Transcendence, Western culture is captive to the arbitrary vacillations amongst the strong gods of blood and soil. We have, in other words, lost the liberation that Christ brings and returned to an addictive slavery to the principalities and powers of this world.  And it is not going to end well for us.

Within this ultimately nihilistic matrix, otherwise good and decent people are turned toward evil and indecency through a falsification of the good in a grand reversal of values.  But for most people this reversal does not run deep and does not sit well since they know in their hearts that something is deeply “off” with it.  And they still thirst after God since this is a constitutive and aboriginal need of our nature that cannot be eradicated from our souls even by Disney or CNN. But when they turn to the Church like a ship in a storm desperately seeking out that old lighthouse that has saved so many before, what they find is that the lighthouse has gone dark since its caretakers are in jail for pederasty or over at the corner bar arguing about altar rails and the parsing of the term “subsists in” in a document with a Latin title that nobody reads. The “in house” nature of our degraded discourse is a failure of our missionary vocation no matter how important such debates are in an absolute sense. But that analysis is also an abstraction.  In reality it is a failure of charity as we focus on our own ecclesial navels while Rome burns and we stand idly by, incense and lawyers in hand, and watch our torched neighbors begging us for the water of life. They are seeking the lifeline of the Gospel, whether they know it or not, and instead of the lifeline of evangelical faith we toss them position papers on global warming or immigration, and lectures on the glories of ad orientem worship.

Nemo dat quod non habet.  “You cannot give away what you do not possess.”  The rot that we see, in both the clergy and the laity (myself included), has robbed us of the joy of the Gospel and thus doused the flames of our passion to share it.  We can say that the liturgical debates really are about the best way to spread that joy, but if that is so, then why are the debaters on both sides so joyless in their denunciations? Therefore, in my view the debates over liturgy are no longer a sign of a healthy Church concerned over matters relating to its core, but are rather an eruption into full view of the kind of ideological political maneuverings that are the inevitable byproduct of a lack of a broader evangelical vision.  Where a living and vibrant faith is absent the sacraments lose the fire in their equations and degenerate quickly into ritualized enactments of entrenched political enchantments.  There is such a thing as “good” liturgy and “bad” liturgy objectively speaking, but any liturgy that is sought after for its political utility as a talisman of support for, or opposition to, Vatican II, is a liturgy interrupted. There can be valid sacraments of course absent faith (thank God), but a Church that is deeply sacramental in its essence, but lacks faith, falls under not a few Dominical denunciations.  It becomes a Church of lies and secrets, on both sides of the ecclesial political divide, and no amount of “fine liturgy” can change that, no matter the language, be it Latin, or English or some kind of click dialect.  Lace surplices under Fiddleback can hide things just as well as denim Disney vestments over your Nehru jacket.  

[side note: I am sure I will now get voluminous emails accusing me of being too hard on the traditionalists and that I am attacking a straw man. But I also get a lot of email from folks who say that their experience of TLM parishes left them cold and that they really are seed beds of quasi schismatic grumblings and cracker barrel theologizing. Who to believe?  I think I believe the latter since that has been my experience as well in my interactions with traditionalists.  I am told that I should not take the social media ramblings of a few provocateurs as representative of the whole. But when EVERY SINGLE time I post on Facebook something critical of traditionalism I get 300 posts denouncing my loyalty to Vatican II, the Novus Ordo, and the modern papacy, you begin to suspect that the so-called straw man is no straw man at all, but very real indeed. Because if there are more loyal traditionalists out there am I to believe that none of them ever post on Facebook, but only the bad ones do?]

Now, back to my main point. If we look at the early Church as a model for evangelization we see that the catechumens were not even allowed into the Eucharistic liturgy until after their baptism.  Evangelization therefore was in a sense “pre liturgical” and focused on the power of Christ’s new regime of grace to liberate the pagan world from the domination of the principalities and powers of this world.  And that liberation wasn’t just from the capricious and arbitrary world of the gods but also from the hegemonic worldly power of Imperial domination.  The prayer, “Jesus is Lord,” was a dangerous and subversive way of saying, “And Caesar isn’t.”  People were drawn to the new faith of the Christians because they not only preached a message of liberation but also lived it in a manner characterized by the deep holiness of a charity that was concretely manifested.  The book of Acts shows us an early Christian community that shared all goods in common, placing the needs of the whole over the pecuniary largesse of the few.  It is probably an idealized portrayal that glosses over exceptions, but it is a scriptural witness to a form of life that must have been common and held in high esteem. And if they spent a lot of time arguing over whether the liturgy should be in Aramaic, Greek, Hebrew, or Latin, the scriptures remain happily silent on the matter.

It was the liberation from worldly powers that drew people into the faith and only then into the liturgy. And this should be our approach today as well.  I am not arguing for an insouciant attitude toward reverent liturgy, but I am arguing for a better accounting of where it falls into the evangelizing enterprise.  For no matter if the Mass is in Latin or the vernacular, it is a lived and vibrant faith – – a faith that liberates from sin and addiction – – that will have the power to “infect” the world with its contagion.  Therefore, it is simply not true that the Novus Ordo, when celebrated by a community of a deep and lived evangelical faith, cannot sustain in a vibrant way the path of conversion and spiritual growth.  There are so many examples to the contrary that any assertion that the Novus Ordo cannot do this is false on its face and mere propaganda for a retrograde ecclesial ideology.  For example, before heading off to seminary I spent my freshman year in college at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.  I attended a Newman Center that was a place of unbelievable faith. To this day it remains the most astounding community of believers I have ever encountered.  Young people everywhere, by the thousands, lined up for Mass with long lines at the confessional. Frequent Eucharistic adoration and many traditional devotions were popular.  Retreats were packed.  Devotion to the Holy Father and the Church in general was profound.  And the year I entered seminary around 25 men from the tiny diocese of Lincoln joined me, almost all of whom found their vocations at the Newman Center.  And yet, how was this possible given the fact that the Masses there were all Novus Ordo liturgies complete with folk guitar music from the truly hideous  St. Louis Jesuits?  The Masses were orthodox and had no liturgical abuses, but they were not “high Church” by any stretch.  And yet we are told these days by a cranky subsection of the Church that the Novus Ordo is a faith killer that cannot sustain the faith and that young people need the TLM or they will walk away.  Poppycock.  What they need is a community of faith that preaches liberation in Christ with evangelical fervor.  You build that and they will come, even if the Mass is a Novus Ordo liturgy.  

When I was at Fordham getting my doctorate a Baptist classmate of mine invited me to his Church in the Bronx for a Wednesday night prayer meeting.  I had seen such meetings in movies but thought it was mostly Hollywood hype, until I witnessed it in person.  On a hot night with no air conditioning, in a small, storefront church, about 50 people were gathered and were praying and singing raucously, dancing in the aisles, arms extended and waving as they implored the anointing of the Holy Spirit.  There were drums and electric guitars and lots of sweat.  It was all, of course, a horrifyingly awful lowbrow “liturgy” by any objective standard and I was feeling very out of place when a very, very corpulent middle aged woman noticed my discomfort and with a huge smile on her face came bounding down the aisle toward me, her large bazooms threatening to spill out any moment as she came near me, whereupon she grabbed my hand and dragged me to the front of the room where she invited everyone there to come up and lay hands on me and to pray over me.  At that moment I was shamed to my core for being such an elitist twit and I stayed for two hours that night, shared some punch and cookies after it was over, and made many new Christian friends I will never forget. Never once did I stop and say to myself “too bad this wasn’t in Latin.”

Then, as I moved into academic teaching at DeSales University I witnessed hundreds of young, wounded students, many of them wounded in the sexual domain, come to a vibrant faith through the witness of Saint Pope John Paul II and his theology of the body.  In conjunction with my colleague, the maladroit scoundrel Dr. Rodney Howsare, we formed a Communio theology tag team that saw the number of theology majors grow exponentially with our classes always overbooked with long waiting lists.  I am not saying this to toot our horn (ok, maybe a little… we were damn good at what we did) but rather to point out the power of that theology, when taught with evangelical fervor, to appeal to the minds of our very best students.  Even Garrigou Lagrange would have been impressed.  We would hold Communio Study Circles in our homes around three times a semester which were routinely attended by 50 or more students and fellow faculty.  And yet, somehow, strangely, the Novus Ordo Masses on campus also became a focal point of deep devotion and reverence.  Nobody sat around and complained that the liturgy wasn’t “traditional” enough.  In fact, the chapel was an ugly “Church in the round” monstrosity built in the sixties.  And so there we were – – ressourcement theologians on a Novus Ordo campus surrounded by students who were alive for Christ, despite the tremendous handicap of having no TLM. In reality, all we were lacking was that corpulent lady from the Bronx.  

The point to all of this is not, once again, to disparage the importance of good liturgy.  I love the TLM and attend an Ordinariate parish and love its high liturgy.  Nevertheless, for me the main draw of the Ordinariate parish I attend isn’t so much the beautiful liturgy but the intentional community of deep faith that I have found there.  I also think it is one of the main draws for people who attend TLM parishes.  In reality, I would rather attend a Novus Ordo parish filled with people of faith than a TLM or Ordinariate parish populated by fussy, complaining, liturgophiles.  The takeaway therefore is that what is driving so many people away from our parishes is not the liturgy as such, since they are often celebrated just fine thank you very much, but rather the dreary state of the bourgeois suburban ethos of spiritual mediocrity that hangs over so many of our parishes like a foul miasma.

Our parishes are so often boring because they are expressive of the Church’s decades-long settlement with the culture of boredom.  Nicholas Berdyaev makes the observation that of all the religions of the world, Christianity is the hardest to live out because of its totalizing demands.  The Incarnation of God in Christ signals the transposition of all of creation into the divine life, and with that transposition comes an uncompromising call for a painful and purgative transformation, wherein a thousand small deaths must happen before our true form can appear.  Therefore, that transformation requires an equally uncompromising response to that call. And no half-hearted responses will do, since the Incarnation is not a half-hearted overture in the first place.  This requires brutal honesty about who we really are, fully realizing that it is in our secrets that Satan lurks. The call and its response are similar to the quality of love and courtship when the moment is reached where exclusivity is demanded by the very nature of the love itself, and is experienced as a sweet burden, a joyous bondage, and a liberating slavery. The demands of such love are total, as it now transposes life into an entirely new logic and regime wherein all that is old is new again. And in no way is it experienced as just one “part” of my life among many other parts.  Indeed, it isn’t a “part” at all, but the transposition of all of the parts of life into a newly transformed whole, and any attempt to mute that transformation and exclusivity through compartmentalization and compromise and even, infidelity, is to betray it and eventually kill it off entirely.  So too goes the path of conversion to Christ.  It is not a white-knuckled affair of obedience to a command, but an entry into the way of love.  And the way of love is far more demanding than mere obedience, which after all, knows only limits.  And such limits are boring.  

What is needed therefore is for the lay revolution called for by Vatican II to be taken up anew with powerful leadership from our bishops and priests. The Council failed to achieve its ends, but so did Nicaea initially.  It is not too late to take up the challenge with a renewed sense of crisis and urgency.  We need a reinvigorated “discalced laity” who live the evangelical counsels in a manner appropriate to their station in life, but animated with an intentional faith of deep human awareness and sensitivity.  Will this happen? Probably not in the short term since all indications are in the other direction and our deep culture works against it.  Which is why we need in the interim the pockets of intensity – – think Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” here – – that faith-filled parishes bring no matter the liturgical form.  

And so by all means let us continue in a spirit of Christian amity our discussions concerning the liturgy.  But in order for those discussions to actually “matter” in any meaningful sense, they have to be carried forward by people whose first and deepest love is for Christ and His Church. But it must be a love for the Church as she is, and not the Church of secular, progressive globalism or of traditionalist liturgical pettifoggery. We need the silent minority of discalced laity to step up to the plate and to make some noise.  We need holiness and holy people, in all their ordinariness, to take up the challenge.  Now is the time for courage.  It is the time, as Balthasar would say, of the Ernstfall.  

Along these lines I will end with a line from one of my favorite movies.  Many decades old now (as am I), there was a German movie about a U-boat and its captain called, simply, “Das Boot.” The submarine had been attacked and nearly sunk, and was only saved by the courage and valor of the captain and his crew.  After getting a report from one of his submariners that the boat had been saved the captain says to him in gratitude and with tears of relief in his eyes, “Gute Leute muss man haben. Gute Leute.”  Translation:  “One must have good people. Good people.”


Dorothy Day, pray for us.

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