In the 1960’s America was turned upside down. A similar revolution took place within the American Catholic Church which has been practically ignored and often misunderstood. Mark Massa’s book (2010), The America Catholic Revolution: How the Sixties Changed the Church Forever, intends to correct this oversight and shed light on what really happened in the Church.
The American Catholic revolution started with the signing of the Sacrosanctum Concilium in 1962 by over two thousand bishops. The irreversible decree from Vatican II changed the celebration of the Church’s liturgy, set off the “wars over the mass,” the “wars over the Church,” and let loose the typhoon of historical consciousness among unsuspecting believers.” The bishops’ instruction changed the arcane language of theology so that it would be understood by parishners; the readings from scripture, the Gloria, and the Lord’s Prayer, were to be read by lay people and recited by the congregation in their own language; and people were expected to respond to the prayers of the priest. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentuim) posited that the Church was the “people of God” who were a “people on pilgrimage,” and that “Among all nations there is but one people of God, which takes its citizens from every race, making them citizens of a kingdom which is of a heavenly and not earthly nature.” The revolution witnessed on the first Sunday of Advent in 1964 was already on the making, but it had taking centuries to arrive at the pulpit at the American Catholic Church.
Soon, however, most Catholic embraced, often with minimum preparation, the new order of things, particularly the new liturgy versus the sixteenth century old Missale Romanum. Frederick McManus played a key role in mediating the positive reception of the new mass. He presented the Second Vatican Council mandates in a living work format that pastors could understand and present to the different parish groups. But, the changes were not welcomed by everyone. Some were confused and a few were angered by the reform as was the case of Father Gommar De Pauw in Baltimore who felt that the new liturgy was a betrayal to the history of worship in the Western Church. Others were afraid that the Church was undermining its own teaching, and institutional structures. For example, parishners were now asked to participate in sacred actions such as the “bread of celebration;” a totally new theological approach. The type of mass service offered was now filled with guitar sounds and other instruments, and regular congregational hymns. There were banners on the altar alluding to the Word of the Lord, prayers, and other concerns. The pastor would made decisions as to how the liturgy and the Word would be presented to the congregation. The priests would now face the congregation and not give their backs to the parishioners when conducting services; a returned to an old practice in the early Church. The idea was for “everyone to participate fully and prayerfully.” This process started a transition to a historical consciousness which paradoxically positioned the American Catholic Church between aggiornamento- looking forward and resourcement-looking back. Terms such as “liberal,” “conservative,” “traditionally,” and “progressive” were utilized to describe people in relation to the new revolutionary position of the Church.
Four years after Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae (“On Human Life”), a letter on God’s eternal natural law. It was the Church’s new encyclical position on human sexuality and birth control. The letter explained that modern science “gives rise to new questions,” but that Catholics were required to enter into a “new and deeper reflection upon the principles of the moral teaching on marriage” because the Church had the responsibility, given by Christ, to “the entire moral law—not only the law of the Gospel, but also the natural law, which are both the expression of God’s will for man’s moral life.” It was based on the teaching of Gaudium et Spes (the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World); it discussed issues of duties, responsible parenthood, and responsibility towards God, oneself, family, and society in a correct hierarchy of values.
The Pope stood with past Church’s teaching on the transmission of life against contraception practices, only permitting the rhythm method. The encyclical prompted “dissenting” theologians to question the condemnation of the use of contraceptives, and the Pope was accused of not being in tune with times by the America magazine. The “Decree on the Appropriate Renewal of Religious Life,” the Council’s call for reform in the work and lifestyle of religious women, would also create uproar among some American Catholics. The orders became “more opened to the world…, and more responsive.” The decree advocated quality education; modification of the dress code; adjustment of life style; and free choice about the type of government they wanted. All these changes were very revolutionary and the sisters became a threat to some bishops and priests. Then, in 1968, a group of nine Catholic activists, including a priest, raided the Selective Service Board 33 office and burned records in protest against the Vietnam War. This action which was against what Catholics have been taught, namely being law-abiding citizens, captured the attention of Catholics and the country as a whole. Father Avery Dulles, an influential voice, headed a renewed orthodoxy in the American Catholic Church which attempted to “hold things together.”
The last chapter of The American Catholic Revolution addresses Pope’s Benedict XVI declaration (2005) that Vatican II did not represent a “rupture” and that the Church cannot change. However, many Catholics, U. S. Latino immigrants in particular, would agree with Massa that Vatican II has propelled in the U.S. a true Catholic revolution.