It is often said that traditional Catholics misinterpret the statistics, blaming the priest shortage, demise of religious orders and poor Mass attendance on the post-VCII “reforms”. The real culprit, it is often argued, isn’t the post-VCII reforms, but the modern world that is drawing Catholics away from the Church despite the noble efforts of the Church to modernize. While the traditional Catholic critique blames the reforms, the counter argument points to the crisis in the Church as a “sign of the times”, a reasonable, understandable occurrence given the current state of modern society.
This false line of reasoning is common in the modern Church. In 2002 conservative Catholic commentators and apologists, bishops and a fair number of Catholics in the pews used a similar “sign of the times” argument to explain away the priest-sex-abuse scandal. This familiar argument starts with a bemoaning of the demise of sexual mores in our modern society, and then quickly moves to pointing out that in comparison a very small percentage of Catholic priests were indulging in illicit and illegal sexual activities in comparison to the general public. The argument usually ended with accusing the media of sensationalizing a relatively minor problem, and by pointing child molestation and abuse in different institutions, such as the public school system, or even other religions.
This argument with all of its puerile equivocations and excuse making simply ignores the problem and shifts responsibility from those responsible to some amorphous societal disease. It attempts to exonerate the responsible organs of the Church, namely priests, bishops, seminary faculty and staff, and vocation directors. I’m sickened to hear Catholics lamenting multi-million dollar law suits and even going so far as to accuse victims of child sexual abuse of attacking the Church. Bad people in the Church, bad people who are priests, bishops, seminary staff and faculty, and vocations directors did very bad things, victimized thousands, and it had nothing to do with “society.” It had everything to do with mentally and morally sick men and their mentally and morally sick ideologies.
In the same way the shifting of the blame for the disastrous lack of vocations to the priesthood and religious life from the responsible organs of the Church to some amorphous societal disease is nothing more than puerile equivocation and excuse making. Human society has always been morally sick and disease ridden, as St. Augustine so well pointed out in his City of God. Historically the Church has never suffered due to the sickness of society, but she only suffers when there is dissent and corruption in her own ranks, most notably in her magisterial organ.
The history of the Church bears this out. The Church grew and prospered despite the fact that the first Christians were placed by God in the middle of a society dominated by a pagan empire, among licentious and perverse pagan religions, a system of thought opposed to the Incarnation, mass public immorality at the coliseums and theaters, and child abuse, abortion and infanticide. Within the span of 350 years the Christian Church had so transformed this society that Christianity displaced paganism and became the predominate religion of the empire. The Church formed the highly civilized society of the medieval period, which ended only when the influence of the Church was severely limited by her enemies. Only when the Church was infested by dissent and corruption has there been internal decay and theological and liturgical confusion, such as during the Arian heresy and the time of the Great Western Schism. From the Protestant revolt, down to our own times public morality has steadily declined as society moved further away from the Catholic Church. However, despite the rebellions of godless men and social tragedies, the Church has always rebounded with the resurgence of devotion and fervent vitality. One such era was that of Pope Gregory the Great and his liturgical reforms, and the period after the crumbling of the Roman Empire when the monks of the Catholic Church preserved the intellectual wealth of the classical world. Another was the Clunaic reform of the 10th and 11th centuries, and the Tridentine Reformation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries after the Protestant revolt. Amongst the ravages of rationalism and the emergence of a brutal humanism that ultimately led to Hitler and Stalin, the Church emerged as a rock of stability in the years following the first Vatican Council. Was there ever a time when the Church could boast such hero popes as Leo XIII, St. Pius X, Pius XI, Benedict the XV, Pius XII? This, despite a world veering out of control into the most bloody century of human history.
What are we then to make of the current crisis in the Church? Can we honestly point the finger to some boogieman we call “society”? Can such an argument be taken seriously given what we know about the Church’s history? There’s no way that a negative 1.3% growth rate in the American priesthood can be blamed on a sudden shift in social mores that occurred in the late 60s and early 70s. There’s no doubt that there was social pressure acting against the Church, as there always has been. Never has the Church been without her enemies. However, it is only when her members, specifically her bishops and priests, give up the battle and adopt the wayward ways of the City of Man that the Church suffers decay and corruption within. The post-VC II reforms amount to just that, and this is the only reasonable conclusion for one who is honest.
The fact that traditional Catholics are spot on in blaming the crisis in the Church on the post-Vatican II reforms are articles such as this: New Nuns and Priests Seen Opting for Tradition. Wherever there is tradition and a strong Catholic identity, there’s an abundance of vocations. Wherever there is a rejection of the post-VC II mentality, there’s an abundance of vocations. The New York Times, and thankfully a growing number of Catholics, are no longer ignoring the 800 pound gorilla in the living room.
There is now a new and legitimate reform beginning in the ashes of the illegitimate post-VCII reform. The new reform is much more akin to the Tridentine Reform of the 16th century, and it is gaining momentum. Traditional Catholic communities are popping up everywhere. In Cleveland, Ohio there will soon be four different Traditional Latin Masses offered on Sundays (five if you include Akron), each offered by diocesan priests. This is just one city in the United States. Traditional Catholics have an abundance of priestly and religious vocations. In just one generation the Traditional Latin Mass Community in Fort Wayne, Indiana has had three vocations, their current chaplain being one of them. Only one year after the St. Mother Theodore Geurin Traditional Latin Mass Community was established in South Bend, Indiana there are now two prospective priestly vocations. The Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter has enjoyed an incredible 86.25% annual growth rate in its first twenty years of existence. If the decline of mainstream Catholicism continues apace with the growth of traditional Catholic vocations and Traditional Latin Mass Communities, it will be the Extraordinary Form, and not the Ordinary Form, we will see offered in the average Catholic parish. At this pace in just twenty years the sickly novus ordo Mass will be all but gone except in a few marginalized corners of the Church.
If the only statistics we were looking at were the declining vocations and Mass attendance, and the mass exodus of "fallen-away" Catholics plaguing the mainstream Church, there might be some teeth in the argument against the traditional Catholic critique. However, comparing these dismal numbers to the numbers that indicate the staggering growth of traditional Catholicism, we are forced to admit that the emperor is, indeed, naked.