In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, fellow Catholic Ross Douthat criticized one of Pope Francis’ most consequential decisions: the July 16 motu proprio—or order—that reimposes restrictions on the Latin Mass preferred by many right-wing Catholics, thus reversing Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 order.
Douthat is the most prominent American public intellectual critical of Francis’ pontificate but he’s certainly not alone in his criticism of the new restrictions. Still, Douthat’s argument merits a response because it reveals a particular cultural myopia unique to American Catholic conservatism.
Douthat argues that Catholicism has become “ungovernable” due to the swinging of the pendulum between popes of markedly different political persuasions since Vatican II. Douthat advances an interesting comparison between modern political history in the Western hemisphere and the last sixty years of the Catholic Church. He recasts the modern papacy as the political leadership after the end of the Ancien Regime: John Paul II as Napoleon, Benedict XVI as the Restoration, and Francis as “the 1848 revolution of the Catholic Church.” This is a fascinating narrative, which also happens to be deeply inadequate, false, and historically baseless, in at least two ways.
The first is the interpretation of the changes from Vatican II to the post-Vatican II period. Douthat doesn’t declare the deep roots and consequences of his way of representing contemporary, post-Vatican II Catholicism. The key assumption by Douthat, stated at the very opening of the article, is that “the church since the 1960s has been reliving the experience of France after 1789, with the arc of revolution and counterrevolution embodied in each successive pope.” This kind of comparison is very telling, because it repeats almost verbatim the interpretation of Vatican II by Marcel Lefebvre.
Lefebvre was a French archbishop who had served in colonial West Africa. During Vatican II he was one of the leaders of a minority deeply opposed to the reforms. After Vatican II he started a schismatic group, the Society of St. Pius X (sometimes referred to as SSPX). The illegal ordination of bishops by his group gained him excommunication in 1988, and still today the Society of St. Pius X is the most relevant anti-Vatican II group.
In his Open Letter to Confused Catholics (1986), Lefebvre described a chain of events from the Enlightenment to Vatican II: “The parallel I have drawn between the crisis in the Church and the French Revolution is not simply a metaphorical one. The influence of the philosophes of the eighteenth century, and of the upheaval that they produced in the world, has continued down to our times. Those who injected that poison admit it themselves.”