I've just finished reading Anthony Archer's classic 'The Two Catholic Churches: a study in oppression' (see also my previous post). It is a fascinating book, imperfect in many ways but still containing some precious insights. The main idea is that the working class were betrayed by the changes to the liturgy, spirituality, and what we might call the general orientation of the Church, following the Second Vatican Council. This is such a surprising, and such a closely-argued claim, that it is worth a blog post.
The first point is that, as Archer says, the Catholic Church was the only Christian church to hold the allegiance of significant numbers of the industrial working class in England. This is a fact of great significance and itself demands explanation. The explanation, in a nutshell, is that the Anglican church was so identified with the establishment that when Anglican farm workers moved to the cities to become factory hands, leaving the social structure of village life behind, with its pressures to go to church, they had no interest at all in practicing. The non-conformists were essentially lower-middle class. The Catholic Church of the 19th century had an appeal for the working class, both indiginous and Irish-immigrant, for two immediate reasons. It let everyone in: you didn't need to be wearing a smart suit of clothes. And it had considerable critical distance from the establishment.
It was also appealing to a lot of intellectual converts, and indeed to many aspiring middle-class people. The traditional Mass, as I have quoted Archer as saying, enabled people to engage with it at many different levels. So did the whole structure of Catholic life and thought: from popular devotions right up to neo-Thomism, there was something for everyone.
Archer's critique of the changes after Vatican II is based on the fact that the aspects of the Church which were most appealing to the working class were swept away, and what was brought in was appealing only to the educated and leisured middle class. Out went the Latin Mass in which everyone could engage at their own level; in came an English Mass where your engagement is supposed to be strictly controlled: exactly what the banal phrases mean, what responses to make, when to be friendly to your neighbour, etc.. Out went popular devotions, in came cliquely little groups at house-Masses, charismatic gatherings, or parish councils. Out went the Church as a sign of contradiction, an eccentric, exotic, refuge from society, where truth and authority were alone to be found; in came a Church in which the bishops talked as equals to Anglican bishops, and attended state functions. Out went the spirituality of perseverence in adversity; in came a way of 'finding Jesus' to escape from middle class problems such as lonliness and depression - or just hypochondria. The inspiration for the changes, after all, did not come from any attempt to find out what the bulk of Catholics wanted: it came from theologians, who wanted the respect of their Protestant colleagues.
On the new spirituality of 'meeting Jesus', often in the context of charismatic groups, Archer observes, 'The availability of such groups offered a solution for those who regarded the sacred as mediated through participation rather than ritual efficacy...'
Again, on the working class:
'Theirs was not the world of an intellectual elite and their religious idiom not that of a specially constructed rationality. Since they spent less time alone or in reading and introspection, and found their solidarity in larger numbers, their religious framework did not bear so much on individualistic expectations as on people gnerally. It did not find expression in that form of religion understood as individual conversion. Hency the emphasis on helping rather than harming people and on the dimension of religion that expressed belonging to one's own kind.'
This is, as they say, an interesting angle on 'the changes'. I'll have more to say in a future post about Archer's assessment of the weaknesses of the pre-conciliar Church, and the social changes which undermined it.
Pictures: Latin Mass Society Pilgrimage to Our Lady of Caversham. The shrine, and our Mass there, is a perfect example of the 'restoration model' abandoned after the Council. It is a restored medieval shrine, built as a Norman chapel on a Gothic church. The shrine image is a late-medieval one from Germany. The Mass we celebrated, and the chant we sang, would not have been too startling to medieval pilgrims.