Abortion, the Crisis in the Church, and the Power of the Past

By Dr Joseph Shaw

The Abortion Act of 1967 was a critical moment for the cause of life in Britain. It is not a coincidence that this Act was passed in the context of the sexual revolution, and was accompanied and followed by various revolts against authority world-wide, by university students and others, in 1968. It is also not surprising that the historic pressures which led to all these events also had their effect on the Catholic Church. The loss of self-confidence which the Church was experiencing in the years leading up to 1967, and which continued thereafter, decisively weakened the Church’s response to the proposed legislation, and has undermined her support for the pro-life cause ever since. It is this loss of self-confidence which I want to examine in this article.

The Second Vatican Council was announced in 1959 and ran from 1962 to 1965. It was not called to combat a specific heresy, as Councils often have been, but addressed itself instead to a wide range of topics. As has been noted in Calx Mariae before (see issue no 12)*, all but one of the “schemata” approved by Pope John XXIII as the basis for discussion were rejected, and new ones created. The result was a very open-ended discussion, in which everything seemed to be up for debate: or at least, those things which the well-organised liberal party at the Council wished to put forward. After the Council ended, it was widely said that many changes which the official documents had resisted were nevertheless implied by the “spirit” of the Council, and would come sooner or later, and indeed in many cases they did. The first act of the Council (in December 1963), Sacrosantum Concilium, its conclusions about the liturgy, set in train a complete revision of the Mass, which culminated in the 1970 Missal. A thorough revision of Canon Law was also mandated by the Council; the new Code finally appeared in 1983. While these vast projects were still underway, it was argued, by those who found such arguments convenient, that the existing rules did not reflect the will of the Council, and accordingly should be ignored. In the case of the liturgy, starting in 1964 a series of intermediate guidelines were issued, and “experimentation” positively encouraged. 

In short, the febrile atmosphere of expectation and debate before the Council gave way, before the end of 1962, to a period of intensifying chaos.

The chaos went beyond the liturgy and canon law. Pope Paul VI felt it necessary to reiterate many basic truths of the Faith, notably in his documents Mysterium Fidei (1965) and the Credo of the People of God (1968), as well as Humanae Vitae (1968). One can see much of Pope John Paul II’s later, prodigious, output in the same light: attempts to shore up, in one area of faith after another, the fundamental doctrines of the Church. 

This effort had the unfortunate effect of reinforcing the idea that the perennial teaching of the Church could not be taken for granted on the basis of documents promulgated before the Council. Until a doctrine had been restated, perhaps in a modified form, for the Catholics of today, it seemed to be open to question. Even when this had happened, people could hope for further alterations: if it has changed a bit, can’t it change some more? The documents of the Council and of the Popes after it tended to confirm this attitude, again, by their reluctance to refer to pre-Conciliar documents. Sacrosanctum Concilium was deliberately stripped of scores of references to the previous Papal Magisterium immediately before it was approved by the Pope. Someone in the Council’s secretariat did not wish to place the document into the context of the teaching and practice of many centuries: it was to be a fresh start, year zero.

Indeed, as the reform unfolded the Church’s liturgy was not so much adapted as replaced, and when people asked for the older version, they frequently met with a very hostile response. Polemical attacks on the ancient liturgy, developed by extremists before the Council, gained wider and wider currency during and after it: it excluded the people, the order of texts was irrational, its prayers showed a defective theology, it was not suitable for “adult Christians”, the Mass-goers of the past were like “dumb spectators”, it was incompatible with “active participation”, it stifled creativity and inculturation, and so on. 

Mockery of the older liturgy was often accompanied by liturgical abuses. In part this was a matter of pushing the boundaries of the rules, which kept changing to allow more of the things liturgical radicals wanted: though never enough. But the abuses went further than this. They sought, like the polemic, to undermine the prestige of the old liturgy. They held up sacred things to ridicule, profanation, and destruction. Near me in Oxford historic vestments were sold to a group of actors, and relics burnt in a crematorium. There was an epidemic of altars being destroyed. 

In the celebration of the liturgy itself, some priests deliberately ridiculed holy things. To give just one example, in his book Goodbye Good Men Michael Rose describes a priest celebrating Mass in a seminary taking the Communion plate, with crumbs of the Blessed Sacrament upon it after Communion, and instead of putting the particles into the chalice to be consumed, in front of everyone he blew them onto the floor.

The motives for liturgical abuses are many, including ignorance and convenience, and at the far end of the scale, a demonic desire to desecrate. Rose’s case shows how desecration can be given a putative justification in terms of the good of souls. For I fancy the priest involved would have defended himself by saying that he wanted to combat exaggerated and erroneous eucharistic piety among the seminarians. Many priests thought of themselves as mandated by the Council, indeed by the Holy Spirit, to uproot the false piety of the people, so that something better could replace it. The destructive phase was more successful than the constructive one. 

The liturgy is the holiest possession of the Church: it contains God’s very presence, and those things most intimately associated with that. It is the frame for the familiar ways we engage with that presence, in the intimacy of our souls. What progressives were claiming, and continue to claim, is that the Church had got the liturgy seriously wrong, and had done so for more than a thousand years.

This message destroyed the faith of many Catholics, including many priests and religious. It was resisted by others, and this created a bitter internal conflict in the Church which is still continuing. For many Catholics who were not especially well-informed or ideologically committed, it simply caused confusion. Above all, for those inside and outside the Church, it did the opposite of what the Vatican II reforms were supposed to do. Instead of sending the Church on a renewed mission with greater confidence, it filled her children with self-doubt and made the Church look, to outsiders, disunited and unsure of herself. As Pope Paul VI is reported as preaching in 1972:

“Referring to the situation of the Church today, the Holy Father affirms that he has a sense that ‘from some fissure the smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God.’  There is doubt, incertitude, problematic, disquiet, dissatisfaction, confrontation.  There is no longer trust of the Church; … And we are not alert to the fact that we are already the owners and masters of the formula of true life.  Doubt has entered our consciences, and it entered by windows that should have been open to the light.” 1

The deliberate undermining of the prestige of the Church’s past is described by Anne Roche Muggeridge, in her book Revolution in the City of God, as a stage other revolutions have also passed through. The symbols of the old regime must be stripped of their power to command awe and allegiance, by mockery. This process cannot affect one part of the Church’s life and leave the rest intact: if the Church was wrong about the liturgy, she could be wrong about anything, and indeed many liturgical progressives wanted precisely to make this parallel. For them, the undermining of the Church’s tradition of opposition to abortion and contraception was, indeed, the ultimate object of the exercise.

To say that the Church was not well-placed to oppose the sexual revolution and the imposition of legal abortion in the 1960s and thereafter would be an understatement. The response incumbent upon us today is a complex one, certainly, but I leave readers with a simple point. Many Catholics wish to make use of the authority of the Church as a teacher, an expert on human nature, and as a spiritual power, over so many centuries, in combatting the culture of death. They are right to do so. But if we are to do this, we cannot at the same time say that the Church got spirituality and liturgy spectacularly wrong from some distant era such as the fourth century until the late twentieth. Somehow, the overall credibility and prestige of the Church, taken as a divine institution operating over the millennia, must be vindicated. The issue of the liturgy is for this reason alone unavoidable for Catholics who take seriously the Church’s teaching on the sacredness of human life. 

This article was first published in Calx Mariae no. 13. Click here to order a copy or to subscribe!

Dr Joseph Shaw teaches Philosophy in Oxford University. He has published on Ethics and Philosophy of Religion and has edited a book on the liturgy: The Case for Liturgical Restoration: Una Voce Position Papers on the Extraordinary Form (Angelico Press). He is the Chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales and Secretary of Una Voce International.

* Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Voice of the Family’s magazine, Calx Mariae no 13. The author is referring to an article which appeared in Calx Mariae no 12, “Vatican II Draft Dogmatic Constitution on Chastity, Marriage, the Family and Virginity – a schema that should have never been rejected” by Maria Madise.

  1. Paul VI, Sermon on the Feast SS Peter and Paul, 1972 (the ninth anniversary of his Papal Coronation; Italian text: http://www.vatican.va/content/paul-vi/it/homilies/1972/documents/hf_p-vi_hom_19720629.html