Papal mitreFirst, though, what was Vatican I?  And why are they so-called?  They are called ‘Vatican’ councils because they meet at the Vatican basilica.  (Lateran Councils meet at the Lateran Basilica, named after St John Lateran.)

Pope Pius IX convened the First Vatican Council in 1868 and adjourned in 1870.  Vatican I was the 20th Ecumenical Council.  Those who went to Catholic school will recall that the main outcome of Vatican I was the pronouncement of papal infallibility.  Papal infallibility means that the Pope does not err when issuing a dogmatic teaching regarding the Sacred Magisterium, which includes ecumenical councils.  (Contrary to popular belief, it does not mean that the Pope never makes a mistake or never sins.)  It means that the Pope must base his teachings on — and not contradict — Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. 

The only way the Pope can contradict a previous papal teaching would be if that teaching itself were infallible, so, predating Vatican I.  This infallibility is deemed to be divinely inspired. Although the Church regards the teachings as infallible, a Pope can declare them as being ex cathedra: ‘from the chair’.  Thus far, it has happened only once when Pius XII declared the Assumption of Mary as an article of faith for all Catholics.

The decision regarding infallibility met with general assent among the universal Church, although a small group of German-speaking Catholics disagreed and formed the Old Catholic Church.

Origins of Vatican II

More than a century ago, Pope Pius X was sensitive to changes occurring in contemporary thought, among them agnosticism which was gaining hold of Western civilisation, including Catholic laity and priests.  He called these errors of thinking ‘Modernism‘ and in 1907 wrote ‘Pascendi Dominici Gregis’, which effectively declared it a heresy.  Faithful Catholics learned about this heresy in church, at home and in school for the first half of the 20th century.  They, like my family, were careful to read only books that the Church had approved, refer to Catholic literature with an imprimatur and see films which the Church had approved and not rated ‘condemned’.  Many in the US were careful to avoid voting for candidates with Socialist leanings, and opinions of radio commentators were closely scrutinised.  (There would be no television for a few decades yet!)  Catholics prayed regularly, even men. This was the period of highest (voluntary!) conversions in recent history.  Vocations were up and Mass attendance was outstanding.  Pius X’s abbreviated yet thorough catechism, which was first published in 1908, continued to be popular and easily understood.  Such was Pius X’s popularity, that he was canonised in 1954, 40 years after his death, the first pope since Pius V in the 16th century.    

Pius X had highlighted the liturgy of the Mass during his time as Pope.  His quotation about the Eucharist was still taught when I was a child: ‘Holy Communion is the shortest and safest way to heaven’.  He also restored Gregorian chant to heighten the mysteries of faith at Mass.  His emphasis on liturgy surprised some clergy.  Father Didier Bonneterre wrote a retrospective study of the Liturgical Movement in 2002 and said, ‘… this great pastor underlined an important aspect of the liturgy: it is educative of the true Christian spirit. But let us stress that this function of the liturgy is only secondary.’  With Pius X, the liturgy assumed primary importance, which is still true today, a century on and post-Vatican II.  This opened the way for silenced Modernists in the clergy to find another outlet for their goals: alter the Mass.  Fr Bonneterre found that they had begun trying to subvert the liturgy from the 1920s onward. 

New era, New Mass

After the Second World War, a few Modernists assumed control of the new Commission for Reform of the Liturgy.  They strongly influenced Pope Pius XII and John XXIII.  The top three in the group were Father Annibale Bugnini (later to become Archbishop, then Cardinal), Cardinal Lercaro and Cardinal Montini, the future Pope Paul VI.  During Paul VI’s time as Pope, Archbishop Bugnini was the chief  architect of the New Mass , or Novus Ordo.  He devised it during Vatican II (1962-1965) and it was made official in 1969.  Archbishop Bugnini described the new liturgy as ‘a major conquest of the Catholic Church’.  And how!  The Novus Ordo is still said today — one cannot escape it.  Fr Bonneterre concludes that Archbishop Bugnini was ‘a revolutionary more clever than the others, he who killed the Catholic liturgy before disappearing from the official scene’.  (Suspecting Bugnini of being a Freemason, Paul VI sent him to a post in Iran, where he died in 1982.)

Lest we think it all ended with Paul VI, it should be noted that three other future Popes also had prominent roles to play in Vatican II: the future John Paul I, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.  Father Joseph Ratzinger, as Pope Benedict was known at the time, was a theological consultant.  He later headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  

Next: Developments of Vatican II