September 2010 Print

The "Spirit of Vatican II": Brian Moore's Catholics

Dr. James Cantrell

Brian Moore’s Catholics reads nowadays like a parable on the “spirit of Vatican II.”

The plot: The monks at Muck Abbey, on a windswept island off the west coast of Ireland, maintain one of the last remaining centers of the traditional Catholic faith. They remain deeply attached to the rosary, private confession, the Real Presence, and other practices that the Church considers outmoded. Pilgrims from around the world flock to the abbey to attend the Latin Mass and receive the old sacraments. This worries and embarrasses Church authorities, so they dispatch an American priest named James Kinsella to the island to shut down this scandalous anachronism.

Though it was published in 1972, Catholics articulates debates and anxieties that have agitated the Catholic Church since Vatican II ended in 1965.

When I read Hans Küng’s “Open Letter to All Catholic Bishops,” I had to get only to the second paragraph to find the key: Küng is disappointed, angry, that Pope Benedict XVI has not acted “to promote an ongoing renewal of the church and an ecumenical rapprochement in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council.” Indeed, that is central to all that Küng has to say:

Missed is the opportunity to make the spirit of the Second Vatican Council the compass for the whole Catholic Church, including the Vatican itself, and thus to promote the needed reforms in the church.
This last point, respected bishops, is the most serious of all. Time and again, this pope has added qualifications to the conciliar texts and interpreted them against the spirit of the council fathers.

The spirit of Vatican II, not the Magisterium, is to Küng and those of his ilk the final arbiter. Everything is, they shout, to be interpreted and adjudicated according to the never precisely defined spirit of Vatican II. The alleged spirit of the Vatican II council fathers takes precedence over all else. Rather than Vatican II being interpreted in the light of tradition, all tradition is to be interpreted in the light of the nebulous spirit of Vatican II, which always seems to find new ground to stake outside the parameters of what the age feels is barely orthodox. Vatican II is thus seen as a Gnostic re-birth: not a molting, but a metamorphosis, a shucking aside of that which came before it as at best worthless—and often as evil and oppressive–in light of the new Eden with its endless new possibilities for perfect peace and synthesis.

George Weigel, no great friend of the Tridentine Mass nor of any perceived Catholic ‘conservatism’ that is not in step with American Republican Party politics, understands that and so charges Küng:

What has happened, I suggest, is that you have lost the argument over the meaning and the proper hermeneutics of Vatican II. That explains why you relentlessly pursue your 50-year quest for a liberal Protestant Catholicism, at precisely the moment when the liberal Protestant project is collapsing from its inherent theological incoherence.

Naturally, as one with too many degrees in literary study, I read such open letters and think of fiction. The best fiction, or perhaps I should say the most important fiction, can, and will, address such matters, framing issues so that readers drawn to the story who fail to discern what is at stake from debates and analyses in various other formats will know the basic conflicts and see the results that reasonably can be expected. Plato’s dialogues, we should recall, are works of fiction in which all action is intense discussion, leading readers to perceive eternal verities, as well as to face a fact most of us instinctively prefer to ignore: that all ideas, all reforms, all revolutions, all cultures have a telos: an ultimate end that is inherent.

The work of fiction that best captures the telos of the spirit of Vatican II is the 1972 novella Catholics.1 Its author, Brian Moore, was born in Belfast, Ireland, in 1921, the year when British politicians were finalizing the partition of Ireland, which wounds remain bloody and sore to this day. In literary terms, Moore was born a half year before the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Moore was a son of Joyce in that he chose exile from family, nation, and religion as necessary to his writing. Moore’s corpus is rather clearly anti-clerical, with Catholicism presented as stifling and worse and thus something from which to escape. Priests lacking faith is a recurring motif. It is, therefore, no surprise that Moore would have followed with interest the events of Vatican II, the rise of Liberation Theology, the rebellion against Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, and the implementation of the Novus Ordo in 1970 and produced in short order a short novel in which he displayed clearly where the spirit of Vatican II would march inexorably if it were not corralled and then cast aside.

Catholics is a futuristic novella, set in Ireland at the close of the 20th century, after a Vatican IV, which rather clearly ran according to the spirit of Vatican II. The protagonist is Fr. James Kinsella, an ‘Albanesian’ priest who is a product of Elite American education: he is a Harvard man. The casual or cultural-WASP reader will simply assume that indicates Kinsella is intelligent; the reader possessed of sound Catholic formation will discern that Kinsella’s professed Catholicism snugs perfectly into the anti-Catholic secular ethos of Boston Brahmin pedagogy. Kinsella is being sent by the Father General of his order to Muck Abbey, on Muck Island off the coast of County Kerry, to squelch the last Traditional Latin Masses in the world.

As with most place names in Ireland that seem odd to speakers of English from elsewhere, Muck Abbey probably is an anglicized name from a Gaelic word. Rather than designated for a slimy mixture of manure and dirt, it probably is an example of retention of some aspect of conquered culture that is made to seem absurd in the wake of colonization and forced assimilation—which is very much the situation for Catholicism in the midst of secular cultures birthed by Protestantism. That understanding will lead a reader with knowledge of Gaelic to search for the original of Muck, and as the first possibility that will spring to mind is muc, meaning “pig,” and various words referring to swine are pejorative in the English language, the most probable assessment is that Moore intends for readers to equate the monks with things backward, filthy, unfit for the decency of the parlor. And as the one thing the monks do that is hated and feared and ordered to desist immediately forever is to celebrate the Tridentine Mass, it seems a given that Moore expected his original readers, who presumably would have inclined much more toward John Courtney Murray and Hans Küng than toward Pope Pius XII, to equate the ‘bad,’ ‘intolerant’ pre-Vatican II Catholicism with the 1962 missal, which stands in the way of the spirit of Vatican II even after a Vatican IV.

The Order knows very little about Muck Island, and Kinsella’s scant information is gained from an out-of-print book. The Monastery was built in 1270 and operates a priory on the mainland: “This priory, sacked by Cromwellian troops, was, in Penal times, a site for clandestine Mass, conducted in the open air on a ‘mass rock’ altar” (12). Muck Abbey has witnessed and survived the horrors of English Protestant depredations and persecutions, which means celebrating Mass even when to do so is a capital offense.

When Kinsella arrives, he carries “a paramilitary dispatch case, a musette bag” and wears “grey-green denim fatigues” (16). He is the embodiment of Liberation Theology: contemptuously superior arm-chair warrior synthesizing Marxist Antonio Gramsci and the Gospels, the resulting ideology his faith. Moore uses flashbacks in Kinsella’s mind to mark the state of the Church run according to the spirit of Vatican II for decades, a Church that is tolerant of seemingly everything but historic Christianity, as Kinsella’s mission evidences. His college friend Visher, a standard cynic reformer, is the one who persuaded him that the new order, no matter its rhetoric while striving for power, must be authoritarian in order to maintain the revolution: “ ‘People are sheep... They haven’t changed....Sheep need authoritarian sheepdogs nipping at their heels from birth to funeral. People don’t want truth or social justice, they don’t want this ecumenical tolerance. They want certainties’ ” (17).

Thus the certainty of historic Christianity is replaced by a new certainty, a new authoritarianism of ecumenical egalitarianism that pretends to be anti-authoritarian and open to all forms of expression even as it acts to stamp out all vestiges of historic Christianity in the name of peace between all religions and all cultures. That there can be no accord between those two camps, any more than there could have been accord between Catholics and Gnostics in Antiquity, Moore makes clear to readers: “Their scorn towards him,” Moore writes of the locals and the multitude of pilgrims who come for the Tridentine Mass and of Kinsella, “his own scorn in reverse, met him as he went towards the stairs and the privileged bedroom” (17).

Kinsella’s scorn is highlighted by that of the Father General of the order. When Kinsella in another vessel of consciousness flashback–informs him that while at Harvard he had attended the Yeats School in Sligo, the Father General recites the line ‘What rough beast, its hour come round at last’ from Yeats’ “The Second Coming.” He equates the monks who celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass with Yeats’ rough beast and orders: “‘I want you to bury this beast’” (18). The Father General, perhaps another in a long line of sheltered rich kids become revolutionaries, is unaware of what a green grocer is and is not impressed that Tomas O’Malley, the Muck Abbot, is the son of such. He proceeds to belittle both the Abbot’s having been the Latin Prize winner at seminary and the Traditional Latin Mass by lisping “oh, lala” (18, 20) after noting them.

The ‘hero’ who inspired Kinsella to enter the Albanesian order is Gustav Hartmann. He is the epitome of the Gramscian long march through the institutions in order to effect total revolution from within. He “had taken Holy Orders as an Albanesian monk, much as Malraux had become a Minster of State in the Fifth Republic, not for the obvious condition, but as a means towards social action” (24). The old Liberals, like Kinsella’s agnostic mother, saw the Catholic Church as something to be avoided because it was a bulwark against revolutionary secular ideas. But, “the Church, Hartmann taught, despite its history and its dependence on myth and miracle, exists today as the quintessential structure through which social revolution can be brought to certain areas of the globe” (25). Precisely because the Church is hierarchical and predicated upon discipline and obedience to superiors, if the spirit of Vatican II assumes determining power, the Church will serve the essential cause of spiraling revolution. Therefore, Hartmann trained a couple of generations of radical protégés to make the long march through Church institutions in order to remake the Church in the image of the spirit of Vatican II.

Once Kinsella gets to Muck (the boatman sent to pick him up refuses to take him the first time because a priest is to be picked up and Kinsella does not dress as a priest), readers have it driven home that the proponents of the reforms, those spurred by the spirit of Vatican II, care nothing about what works and does not work any more than they care about denial of heritage and even defined doctrines. They are ideological reformers, dead-set on ecumenical unity. Kinsella has seen firsthand the throngs of pilgrims drawn to the Tridentine Masses, and the Abbot informs him that after the BBC exposé the monastery was flooded with enquiries: “ ‘I tell you, I could recruit enough young men now to fill a regiment’” (42). But Kinsella has no more concern for any of that than does the Father General of the Order or, apparently, the Pope. In fact, it is the success that threatens Kinsella and others like him. If what has begun there is allowed to continue, it will spread, and then it will form the vanguard of the Catholic counter-revolution. Kinsella emphasizes exactly that in his reporting to the Abbot about the planned American TV coverage: “ ‘A program in the wrong hands, about this subject, could be made to look like the first stirrings of a Catholic counter-revolution’” (68).

That might startle readers, for how could there be a Catholic counter-revolution against the Catholic Church? That is the gist of the tale. As a result of the spirit of Vatican II leading to Vaticans III and IV, both apparently overflowing with such spirit, the Church in this fiction has become the mushy liberal ‘Protestant’ denomination, just one among endless equal ‘Christian’ denominations and other religions, that George Weigel says Hans Küng demands the Church evolve into. It is no mistake that Küng’s final recommendation to the Bishops of the world is, “Call for a council: Just as the achievement of liturgical reform, religious freedom, ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue required an ecumenical council, so now a council is needed to solve the dramatically escalating problems calling for reform.” Vatican III, it seems, is necessary to keep alive the spirit of Vatican II.

Hartmann had taught his students: “ ‘You must show them that while you are the Revolution and they are Tradition, the Revolution is the established faith and will prevail. Power is the concept they have always understood Use it, and use it from the beginning’” (92). According to Kinsella, Hartmann also believed much more in a welfare type uplifting of the poor, the Social Gospel/Liberation Theology, than in saving souls (44). Hartmann’s teaching has been successful, and as a result the Church has moved toward the telos of the spirit of Vatican II by staking itself to a type of a-doctrinal relativism focused on social welfare. When Kinsella tells the Abbot that he is not there to punish, the Abbot asks if that will be the case if the heresy (of celebrating Traditional Latin Mass) continues. “ ‘This is the end of the 20th century,’ Kinsella responds, ‘not the beginning of the 13th. How can we even define what heresy is today?’” The Abbot understands both the hypocrisy of Kinsella and those that sent him and the spirit of Vatican II: “ ‘Yesterday’ s orthodoxy is today’s heresy’” (63).

The lapsed Catholic Moore was on the side of the reformers, but an Irishman writing about the Irish ultimately cannot resist using Irish history to show how the self-righteous conquerors and reformers invariably flip logic upside down to justify their misuse of power. Kinsella charges the Abbot: “ ‘You decided to say Mass on the Mass rock. According to my reading, the Mass rock, in Penal times, was associated with rebellion. Mass was said there, by outlaw priests, in secret, with some member of the congregation on the lookout in case the English soldiers came’” (66). The orthodox Catholic will recognize great heroism for the faith in that which Kinsella sees only as foreshadowing sign of rebellion against the spirit of Vatican II. Kinsella has placed the new reformers squarely on the same side historically and morally as the most self-righteously murderous English Protestants hopeful of exterminating Catholicism.

Among the great changes to the Catholic Church wrought by the spirit of Vatican II, and its follow up councils, are, in addition to the soon-to-be extermination of the Traditional Latin Mass: there are no private confessions (they seem to be tied inextricably to the Latin Mass); Lourdes is no longer in operation; there is no category of mortal sins; the World Ecumen Council sets standards for all religious bodies; “No one said private grace nowadays. Grace was public and used only in mixed ecumenical groups,” Catholics have been instructed to say the Ecumen grace instead—even monasteries say the Ecumen grace (66-67, 21, 91, 61-62). Kinsella is certain that few Catholics believe there is any real presence in the Mass, for they, like him, see it as merely symbolic (70). The specific reason for the mission to kill the Tridentine Mass is that it is an embarrassment and a possible impediment to the “apertura, possibly the most significant historical event of our century, when interpenetration between Christian and Buddhist faiths is on the verge of reality” (47).

The telos of the spirit of Vatican II is syncretism into utter nothingness.

Kinsella approaches this task preparing to offer bribes. He had learned from Hartmann at Harvard that desire for greater position was an easy way to effect revolution, because the reformers could use men’s desires against tradition (54). But he finds no obvious envy among the monks to use, nor does the Abbot have any desires to be promoted to Rome for going along quietly. Remembering that the Abbot had said he did not think of himself as contradicting Rome, Kinsella realizes: “Obedience: in the end it was the only card. Tu es Petrus ” (76). If the order comes from the top, those who are obedient will obey. This is the end game of the long march through the institutions, and just as it would have been used to browbeat others into accepting the many changes from historic Catholicism noted throughout the novella, it will be used to force these monks to stop celebrating the Traditional Latin Mass. The Abbot, much less the other monks, cannot be bribed, but he will follow orders.

Shortly after his realization, Kinsella hears a monk singing “Faith of Our Fathers” close to his room, and his response, which both ignores St. Augustine’s dictum that martyrdom requires the truth and the Church and highlights Kinsella’s own love of power, is exactly what a person imbued with the spirit of Vatican II would think and feel: “What about the dungeons into which our fathers’ faith put so many poor souls? he wanted to shout. Sing along, you bastard, sing along, it will take more than songs and tricks. I have the power to order, to alter” (77). Brother Matthew, the singer of the hymn, later asks the Abbot: “ ‘Is he the sort of heathen who would be offended by the singing of a Catholic hymn?’” (85). The answer in the reader’s mind ought to be a clear affirmative. Father James Kinsella, who is the Albanesian order’s liaison to the “Ecumenical Center Information Office, Amsterdam,” (97) is precisely that sort of heathen.

And he is an astute one. What is most interesting is that the Abbot will be a particularly easy shove into obeying the Father General’s directive because he is a priest who has lost faith and therefore has nothing left but obedience to those in charge:

Years ago he had felt a certainty about so many things. Aggiornamento, was that when uncertainty had begun? Changes of doctrine. Setting oneself up as ultimate authority. Insubordination. He looked at the tabernacle. Insubordination. The beginning of a breakdown. And, long ago, that righteous prig at Wittenberg nailing his defiance to the church door. (86).

The passage is a rich one that bears close scrutiny. The Abbot feels his doubts go back to the ‘opening’ to the Modem world of Vatican II, which, regardless of what was intended, allowed the spirit of Vatican II to make a gadarene rush across the world, seeming to change doctrines and definitely altering disciplines, turning many inside out. The Abbot sees that as “setting oneself up as the ultimate authority,” because it is a rejection of Tradition in the name of what is felt to be the spirit of the age. It is therefore insubordination against the Magisterium, which is the beginning of a total breakdown. And it is, then, as divisive and destructive as was Luther’s revolt. The Abbot’s thoughts link to Kinsella’s perverse understanding of the Mass rock: Protestantism and the spirit of Vatican II are on the same page and have the same target. They share the same road, the one George Weigel sees as an attempt to remake the Catholic Church into something largely indistinguishable from liberal Protestant denominations.

It is imperative to emphasize here what at first will seem contradictory: that obedience to superiors is necessary to internal perversion, even destruction, in this case, in which men like Hartmann synthesized Modernism and Marxism, weaving the product into whatever valid faith they might have had, and then marched through the institutions, creating disciples and precedents as they ascended. It is the specter of disobedient Luther that frightens priests and Bishops, including those who have no significant faith doubts, into going along with the spirit of Vatican II, and in so doing they fail to shepherd the flock away from dangers, in fact lead some sheep to embrace everything that the Kinsellas and Hartmanns would want them to embrace. Obedience to the deposit of faith is one thing; obedience to a ‘Father Judas Iscariot’ enamored of endless novelties is something else entirely.

The Abbot knows that he will face withering opposition from the monks. Father Manus has made an eloquent defense of the Mass to Kinsella (49-52) and will no more be pacific in acceptance than will Father Matthew. When the Abbot informs them of the order and their duty to obey it, Father Matthew, “angry as Isaiah,” informs everyone of the admission the Abbot had made to him the previous night: “ ‘You also told me that we are to consider the Mass, from now on, not as a miracle, but as a ‘pious ritual,’ I believe you said.’ ” Then Father Matthew asks the key question: “ ‘How can a thing be a miracle one day and not a miracle the next day?’ ”

The Abbot’s response is one that every person who has questioned the spirit of Vatican II has heard in some form: “ ‘Maybe you are a greater theologian than the Pope or the Vatican Council, Father Matthew, but I am not. I am a monk, and I do as I am bid’ ” (105). Matthew appeals to the monks as he deduces logically: “ ‘You can all see what is being proposed here. It is a denial of everything the Mass stands for’ ” (106).

The novella ends with the Abbot facing the null with bare hope. Father Matthew again emphasizes what the new teachings mean, “ ‘that the sacrifice of the Mass is just ritual, that bread and wine remain bread and wine, that there are no miracles.’ ” In response, the Abbot declares, “ ‘Prayer is the only miracle....If our words become prayer, God will come’ ” (107). His answer, which reflects his painful desire for the certainty of God, is the Catholic version of Pharisees declaring after the destruction of the Temple that prayer would be the new sacrifice. It marks a new religion, concocted by men to fit their age. The spirit of Vatican II has triumphed, the last opposition bowing to its dictates.

Moore and others like him expected such a future to unfold rather quickly, but devout men and women of faith praying and standing firmly eventually will overcome such temporal setbacks. Of course, as Küng’s Open Letter demonstrates, the real life Kinsellas, Hartmanns, and Fathers General will continue to stoke the fires of revolution as long as they draw breath, and the telos of their desire remains ever the same.

1 Brian Moore, Catholics (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1973). Page references are to this edition.


James Cantrell holds a Ph.D. in English and is the author of How Celtic Culture Invented Southern Literature (Pelican Press). Photos taken from The Conflict, a movie adaptation of Brian Moore’s Catholics.