The Liturgical Reform and the ‘Political’ Message of Vatican II in the Age of a Privatized and Libertarian Culture

Editors note: This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of Worship. Reprinted with the permission of the author and Liturgical Press

by Massimo Faggioli 

What happened in these last few years in the Catholic Church—especially with the new translation of the Missal, a “Latinized” English version that, in 2011, was imposed on English-speaking Catholics—told us very clearly that the meaning of the liturgical reform for Vatican II and for modern Catholicism goes well beyond the technical revision of the liturgical books and rituals. It is fair to say that the challenges to the liturgical reform in these last few years forced Catholic theologians to rediscover the key role of the liturgical constitution in the history and theology of Vatican II and for the history of post–Vatican II Catholicism. The liturgical unity of the Catholic Church has been damaged, but now, as a church, we have a clearer sense of the importance of the liturgical reform for the catholicity of the church.

It had been almost forgotten that the liturgical reform of Vatican II is one of the most important—if not the most important—reform in the history of modern Catholicism. Now, fifty years after Vatican II, we are at the beginning of the rediscovery of the theological meaning of this reform and of its potential for the future of the Catholic Church. For Catholics who still had doubts about this, Pope Francis made very clear in his interview with the Jesuit magazines (published in English by America on September 19, 2013) how he sees the liturgical reform: “Vatican II produced a renewal movement that simply comes from the same Gospel. Its fruits are enormous. Just recall the liturgy.

The work of liturgical reform has been a service to the people as a re-reading of the Gospel from a concrete historical situation.”(1)

Pope Francis’ words signaled a shift in, among other things, the Vatican’s liturgical policy in comparison with the decisions of his predecessor. In light of this changed situation, it is necessary to focus once again on the liturgical reform, but with a less defensive approach and a more future-oriented view. The focus of this essay is the relationship between the liturgical reform of Vatican II, its core theological ideas, and the idea of the “common good” in the contemporary Catholic Church. To set out this relationship, I will address, first, the relationship between Vatican II and the liturgical reform; second, the “political culture” expressed by Vatican II concerning the idea of “common good”; and, last, the connections between the ecclesiology of the liturgical reform and the idea of “common good.”


Theologians and historians have taken for granted a few elements of the liturgical reform:

  • the long history of the liturgical movement before Vatican II;
  • the fact that Vatican II was the first council in church history to approve a doctrinal document on liturgy;
  • the undeniable truth that “something happened” for liturgy at Vatican II;
  • the connections between the liturgical reform and the ecclesiological issue;
  • the patent fact that the liturgical reform of Vatican II is the last vast reform within the post-Tridentine Catholic Church after the reform of church discipline between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Both historians and theologians have been inclined for a long time to forget the tight associations between the liturgical debate at Vatican II, the reform of the liturgy, the striving for aggiornamento, and the updating and reform of the Catholic Church. But most of all, in some interpretations of the documents of Vatican II, the fact that Vatican II has a deep, internal coherence, as John O’Malley has stressed,(2) seems at times to be lost. The sometimes self-referential debate about Vatican II sidestepped and obscured the profound significance of Sacrosanctum Concilium. The connections between liturgy and Vatican II, understood not as a collection of documents but as a coherent reality, must emerge if we want to understand the council’s impact on global Catholicism.(3)

Therefore it is clear that the reception of the liturgical reform is an eminently important test for the reception of Vatican II and, especially, of its ecclesiology. The reception of Sacrosanctum Concilium includes reception of the ecclesiology of the liturgical constitution and its ecclesiological consequences; vice versa, the rejection of Sacrosanctum Concilium is a rejection of both the liturgical constitution and its ecclesiological consequences. Regarding this, the case of the Lefebvrists is particularly significant. The Society of St. Pius X has always looked—from their perspective, coherently—at the liturgical reform not as a problem as such but as the gateway for Vatican II and the “discontinuities” that the ultra-traditionalist schismatic community has always rejected: the vision of the Church and in particular the Church and ecumenism, the Church and the Jews, and interreligious dialogue.

Now, it is clear to everyone that dividing the Catholic Church into “conservatives” and “liberals” is a nonscholarly way of understanding the ecclesial situation: these labels, which come from the tradition of political language, have lost some of their meaning even in politics. But there is no doubt that, as divisions based in ecclesiology, the divisions that have coalesced around the liturgical reform derive from different “cultures” in the Catholic Church that are also related to the “political views”—broadly speaking—of some Catholic groups. The liturgical reform addresses issues in the life of the Church that have institutional and political elements, such as the issue of centralization and decentralization of and in the Church, the role of the clergy and of the hierarchy, the relationship between the Church and the world, and the understanding of history and its relationship with theology.


Both in its documents and in the event, Vatican II is the expression of a set of “ideas” and of “cultures” of Catholicism in a given moment in church history—including political ideas and cultures. Vatican II did not send a politically partisan message; that would have been impossible in an assembly of more than 2,500 bishops from the five continents. Nevertheless, there are ideas typical of the culture of Vatican II that say something about how the ecumenical council sees the world, society, and the role of politics.(4)

The Second Vatican Council took place after World War II. The discontinuities of the council—in the Church’s relationship to democratic culture, in the appreciation of the modern liberties rejected by Pius IX’s Syllabus in 1864, in collegiality and co-responsibility, in the commitment to ecumenism and to interreligious dialogue, and so forth—have had a political impact. At the same time, these discontinuities underscore the “constitutional core” within the council.(5) It is thus evident that the epoch-making changes wrought by Vatican II have had an impact far beyond the Church’s inner life. They established the Catholic Church as a community in the modern world, where it is also recognized as a political-cultural agent, considered integral to her very identity.

At the dawning of a globalized world, the Second Vatican Council made of the Catholic Church a global citizen that perceives the world and modernity differently: the Church no longer intended to dominate the world but rather wishes to serve it. Vatican II is something like a “guarantee of citizenship” for the Catholic Church in today’s global world. Public opinion has identified this “guarantee” with the definitive rejection of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism as elements of a premodern and antidemocratic political culture, and with other specific elements of the council’s break with the Catholic Church of the “long nineteenth century”: religious freedom and freedom of conscience, ecumenism, interreligious dialogue, collegiality and co-responsibility in church government. It is no coincidence that these core elements in the “political reception” of the council are exactly the ones that the Lefebvrites rejected as the heresies of the council—a council whose gateway is the liturgical reform.

These changes in the Church’s position in the globalized world have a lot to do with the Catholic understanding of the “common good.” For a long time, especially during what John O’Malley called the “long nineteenth century,”(6) Catholic Magisterium saw only the Catholic Church and particularly the Magisterium as able to define, superintend, and direct the common good.

It substantiated this claim by directly accusing “politics” of being the Church’s illegitimate successor in taking care of the common good.(7)

Until the twentieth century, in the vast world outside of the United States of America, there was a long history of the relationship between Catholic Magisterium and the “political issue.” After the shock of the revolutions of the late eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, politics was regarded as the fruit of the separation of the modern world from the moral guidance of the only true church. Catholic politicians were allowed to entertain commerce with the modern world only as a practical necessity, because the hierarchy was too embarrassed to be involved directly with a political realm whose legitimacy they did not acknowledge. Only during Vatican II do we see this scenario change with the acknowledgment that modernity “exists” and that Catholics live both in the Church and in society, in a political community that had recently become democratic—one of the “signs of the times” that the Church had to confront. A fundamental call to unity—ecumenical and interreligious unity—inspired Vatican II, and its fathers and theologians saw in modernity a moment of advancement toward unity and saw the Catholic Church as one of the promotors of this unity: “The Church recognizes that worthy elements are found in today’s social movements, especially an evolution toward unity, a process of wholesome socialization and of association in civic and economic realms. The promotion of unity belongs to the innermost nature of the Church” (Gaudium et Spes 42).(8)

The shift was not just from rejection to recognition of the legitimacy of the secular realm; it was also a shift to including new values and ideas as part of Catholic tradition. One of the elements of the importance of Vatican II most forgotten or sometimes taken for granted —especially in this Zeitgeist—is that at the Second Vatican Council the Catholic Church elaborated a set of principles that Catholics must represent in the public arena—a public arena that can be called a “social democracy”: a democracy whose goal is not procedural but must be measured by its ability to meet the demands of the human dignity that the Church proclaims as closely connected to the “social nature” of the human person (Dignitatis Humanae 3).

Vatican II’s perspective on the Catholic understanding of the relationship between the individual human person and social-political reality, that is, the “political culture of Vatican II,” draws not only on the recent experience of the Christian-Democratic parties in post–World War II Europe and the Catholic Church’s social doctrine but also on the thinking of early canon lawyers from the beginning of the second millennium.(9)

That the tradition of the Church’s social doctrine was a changing tradition becomes clear if we remember that Vatican II’s social and political message to the world is contained between its first and last documents. John XXIII’s opening speech, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia (October 11, 1962), and the “Message to the World” approved by the council fathers (October 20, 1962) spoke of two urgent issues facing the world to which the Church was particularly attentive: peace and social justice.(10) As the council drew to a close, the last document it approved, the pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes (December 7, 1965), employs the expression “common good” thirty times. Of these, eighteen are found in chapter 4 on the life of the political community and chapter 5 on the community of nations.


An analysis of the roots of the idea of “social justice” and “common good” in the documents of Vatican II would require another essay. But it is clear from the outset that the documents of Vatican II make no direct and explicit connection between the liturgical reform and the social message of the council: there is no link between the first document of Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium, and the last document, Gaudium et Spes, nor with other documents (for example, the declaration on religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae) that represent a perceptible shift in Catholic social teaching. In other words, it seems that the liturgical debate at Vatican II took place too early (1962–1963), before the council turned its attention to the ad extra issues (1964–1965), and that the debates on the floor and in the commissions at Vatican II between 1964 and 1965 never really tried to incorporate the liturgical reform into the picture of the new stance of the Catholic Church on social and political issues.

In my book True Reform, I focused on both the reception and the lack of reception of the liturgical constitution by the rest of Vatican II: this is clearly one of the council’s limitations, which derives from Vatican II’s periodization (the Vatican II of 1963 being somewhat different from the Vatican II of 1965).(11) But the council’s silence on the connection between liturgy and Catholic social doctrine is perhaps due not only to a lack of or premature understanding of the issue but also to the awareness of the problematic and sometimes controversial nature of the relationship between the liturgical movement and the social and political culture of the Catholic Church before the time of Vatican II. The history of the liturgical movement in the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century often showed the features of a Catholicism whose goal was to rebuild a “Catholic society” shaped by intransigent and antimodern social and political cultures as well as the “politicization of Catholic worship” vis-à-vis the “political religions” of the period between World War I and World War II.(12)

By the time of Vatican II, it had become impossible to use some of the elements of the liturgical movement of the preconciliar era. It had not been forgotten that in Germany of the 1930s, for example, the liturgical movement had become part of the call for a renewed national community (Volksgemeinschaft) that also spoke powerfully to Catholics and became part of the appeal of Nazi totalitarianism.(13)

Retrieving this history helps us defragment the narrative about Vatican II as the captive of a clash between conservatives (opposed to the liturgical reform and to political liberalism) versus liberal-progressive Catholics (who found in the liturgical reform an expression of their views both theological and political). History paints a complicated picture of the fault lines that liturgical reformism and political ideologies created within twentieth-century Catholicism. Since Vatican II, many Catholics, especially in the United States, have been accustomed to think of reform as signifying a renewed awareness of the social dimension of the faith and to assume that this awareness would naturally have “progressive” political consequences. That is not necessarily the case. Abbot Hildefons Herwegen at Maria Laach was a patron of reactionary Catholicism. Maria Laach, a center for the liturgical movement ever since Abbot Herwegen had invited it to make the abbey its home, was capable of more disquieting political expressions. In his welcoming address to the attendees at a special conference of the Catholic Scholars Association convened at Maria Laach the day after the signing of the Concordat of 1933, Abbot Herwegen delivered his oft-quoted statement, “In the religious sphere, for the past twenty years it has been the so-called liturgical movement that acted as a counterweight against an ever more unrestrained and lunatic individualism; [now] in the political sphere it is Fascism.”(14) There was a direct parallel between the pre–World War II liturgical movement in Europe and Fascist political culture, since one of the central goals of the liturgical movement was a restored communal and corporate sense of the Catholic Church as the Body of Christ. For the liturgical movement, already almost a generation old in Germany in the 1930s, this meant a special relationship with the Nazi regime.

On the other hand, the cases of Dom Lambert Beauduin and Virgil Michel are quite different. For Dom Lambert Beauduin, an ecumenical theology was an integral part of his ecumenical movement from the beginning, different from the calls for the “return” of non-Catholics to Rome, even though that ecumenical aspiration was still encompassed by an ecclesiology of the “mystical body.”(15) Virgil Michel’s work in the liturgical movement became part of his ecumenical engagement, especially during the final years of his life, between 1936 and 1938.(16)

This indicates that the relationship between the liturgical movement and political cultures is far from simple. Sometimes incorrect assumptions about the obvious and natural “progressive” or “liberal” character of some theological ideas still obfuscates it. A second fact to remember is that at the Second Vatican Council the liturgical movement became something different from that of previous generations. Why? Because it was in touch with Vatican II both as ideas expressed in documents and as an event, and it followed World War II and the new awareness of the limitations and consequences of Catholic social doctrine focused on Pius XI’s idea of the “social reign of Christ.”

In other words, it seems to me that if we want to understand the “social message” of the conciliar liturgical reform, we must pay attention to the differences between the various periods of the liturgical movement in the twentieth century, and especially to the differences between the ideas of the liturgical movement before Vatican II and the ideas expressed by the liturgical reform of Vatican II—which to date have been seen too frequently as inseparable.

The liturgical constitution of Vatican II contains elements from the preconciliar and pre–World War II ideas of the liturgical movement. For example, the statement in the introduction to Sacrosanctum Concilium that the Church is a “sign lifted up among the nations” (SC 2) shows its awareness of the “public- political” character of the liturgy. Although the constitution does not mention the council’s “political culture,” it develops a discourse on the Eucharist for the Church that lives on earth. Politically “militant” language is absent from Sacrosanctum Concilium mainly because “the liturgy constitution proceeds from a society that is strongly marked by an ecclesiastical and Christian culture.”(17) This Kulturoptimismus of the early phase of Vatican II, which included the liturgical constitution preparing the liturgical reform, is an essential element that must be considered if we want to frame the debate about liturgy, Vatican II, and its political culture correctly.

But other elements from the theology of Vatican II and various theological movements permeated the ideas at the basis of the liturgical reform. The relationship between revelation, tradition, and history, and the idea of the Catholic Church as communion on the path of ecumenical union with other churches and the human community, has political meaning because it starts from an acceptance of the basic ideas of the biblical, patristic, liturgical, and ecumenical movements that fed into Vatican II and accepts the fact of history as a “theological source” in the idea of liturgy as “source and summit” of the church.(18)

That is, Vatican II provided something new and changed something vis-à-vis the preconciliar liturgical movement: this belongs to the larger picture in the relationship between “organized religion” and politics in the world of these last fifty years. The link between politics as the “idea of the polis,” on one hand, and liturgy as an “action of the people,” on the other, applies not only to theologies of liberation or revolution, and not only to political Islam, but also to Catholicism, which is not a politically neutral form of religion. Vatican II had a “political culture,” a view of the modern world that many documents ad extra (the documents on ecumenism, on religious freedom, on non-Christian religions, and the pastoral constitution) expressed. But ultimately this political culture and its connection to the longing for rapprochement was also expressed by the documents ad intra (on the church, on revelation), and first and foremost by the Constitution on the Liturgy, and first and foremost through its ecclesiology.

Here, already in 1962 and 1963, Vatican II substantially distances itself—though in a nondramatic and understated way—from the previous traditions of “politicization of the liturgical movement.” Vatican II resists the temptation to use Catholicism ideologically as a “civil religion,” that is, a belief that cements the civil and political cohesion of a people around certain beliefs, values, rituals—regardless of the religion professed by individuals and communities.(19) While the weakening of the social fabric of the European Church has led some to see civil religion as the remedy that would hijack Catholicism to the service of identification between nation and religion, the liturgical ecclesiology flowing from the reform launched by Vatican II radically contradicts such a possibility. The idea of civil religion is so far removed from the vision of the liturgy that the Catholic Church set out at Vatican II. The basic ideas of the conciliar liturgical reform are closely linked to the understanding of the Church of Vatican II that Georges Dejaifve summarized in five characteristics: the distinction between Church and kingdom, the idea of communion, the sacramental aspect, catholicity, and its political character.(20) Vatican II ecclesiology is not antipolitical, but it presents the political nature of Catholicism in tension with the value of communion, the distinction between Church and kingdom, and a catholicity that has a deep antinationalist character.

The liturgical reform of Vatican II is based on certain theological and cultural insights that are substantiated in the movement toward a reform of the Catholic Church in the ecumenical sense of rapprochement, made possible by a conversion to ressourcement, the sources of the church and the theological and spiritual reflection of early theologians. John O’Malley’s lesson on the “style of Vatican II” as “expressive value” is of great importance in understanding the relationship between liturgy and politics at the Vatican II.(21)

The beginning of the liturgical constitution establishes in fact the pragmatics of Vatican II, not through a theoretical description of the liturgy, but through a narrative of the relationship between God and his people that offers a distinct flavor of “Catholic” as “universal,” and presents Christ and the Eucharist as the center of gravity in a clear return to the patristic idea of the Eucharist as sacramentum unitatis.(22)

Sacrosanctum Concilium aspires not to a purely aesthetic purification of the liturgy but to a refocusing on the Eucharist and the liturgy within the Catholic Church, with clear implications for the self-understanding of the community praying in space and time. This refocusing on the eucharistic liturgy has consequences for the way Christians look to the polis as a community in which to incarnate the Gospel, proclaim it, and live it well through prayer and liturgy.The liturgy reformed by the council expresses a clear vision of the Church and its worldview: “This sacred Council has several aims in view: it desires to impart an ever increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful; to adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times those institutions which are subject to change; to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ; to strengthen whatever can help to call the whole of mankind into the household of the Church” (SC 1).

It is no coincidence that the liturgical constitution was the first document to be debated and approved at the council, after the “Message to the World,” which expressed the council’s determination to be of comfort to the anxieties that plague humanity in the present tense. The commitment to universal rapprochement envelopes the entire liturgical constitution, so that chapter 5 on the liturgical year encourages the narrative of reconciliation through a universal salvific will of God, without excluding any category of humanity or any part of the world.(23) In this sense, the liturgical constitution constitutes an act of reception of two major ideas in John XXIII’s plan for his pontificate and for the ecumenical council: unity and peace.(24)

The liturgical life of the Catholic Church, therefore, has a “political” side that does not abstract from the polis: “Liturgical services are not private functions, but are celebrations of the Church, which is the ‘sacrament of unity,’ namely, the holy people united and ordered under their bishops. Therefore liturgical services pertain to the whole body of the Church; they manifest it and have effects upon it; but they concern the individual members of the Church in different ways, according to their differing rank, office, and actual participation” (SC 26). The preference for communal celebration (SC 27) is rooted in an understanding of church as communion and as a people of God, which diminishes a purely hierarcological ecclesiology.

The liturgical reform and the council are inextricably linked, because all the major theological ferments of Vatican II have left traces on the liturgical constitution: the rediscovery of the Word of God, ecclesiology, ecumenism, relations with Jews, the Church and the modern world. Together with the pre-conciliar renewal of pastoral theology, the liturgical movement was able to bring to the council the need to develop new instruments that could show the bonds of earthly realities with liturgical prayer. Consider the retrieval of the prayer of the faithful: “To pray for real needs of the church and the world is to show that one is intimately concerned with political realities, that the word and the sacramental point to the salvation of the world in which we live.”(25)

But if it is clear that genuine inculturation of the liturgy is crucial for reconciliation among all Christians and between Christians and contemporary men and women, the relationship between liturgy and the common good is more problematic. This pertains not just to the effects of the liturgical reform. If it is true that liturgy is a public act by definition, then the liturgical constitution’s “rehabilitation” of the idea of change also has an impact in the polis where liturgy is celebrated. In this sense, the liturgical reform is a concrete phenomenon that deeply influences both society and Christianity.

The transition from early Christianity to the Imperial Church, and from there to the “national Churches” after the Reformation and the Peace of Westfalia in 1648, seemed destined—at least back in the 1960s—to make way for a decidedly post-Constantinian “world-church.” The picture now seems more fragmented: if the council had anticipated the success of a democratic and participatory culture in the world to come,(26) now it seems the culture of antipolitics weakens some aspects of the relationship between liturgy and polis, in a postmodern society where the very idea and experience of “participation” (included liturgical participation) is in deep crisis.(27)

The forms of liturgical celebration are not “indifferent” to the world in which the contemporary Catholic Church lives. As the reactions to the schism of Lefebvre, who refused to recognize Vatican II, show, it is evident that there is a direct link between forms of the liturgy, reference to theological culture, and worldview, even for observers apparently more distant from the world church (non-Catholic churches, Jewish communities, political observers, and public intellectuals).(28) The theological content of the liturgical constitution (especially SC 5, 6, and 8) has intertextual connections with other council documents (Dei Verbum, Nostra Aetate) that are crucial for the overall theological balance of Vatican II.

Thanks to the council, the liturgical celebration gained a new centrality in the proclamation of the Gospel in the world. An undistorted reading of Sacrosanctum Concilium is not only a prerequisite for any discussion of liturgy and politics but also the first vaccine against any temptation to misuse religion as instrumentum regni. This is urgent, especially today, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, when Roman Catholicism seems to be for some an ideological and geopolitical option rather than a witness to the Gospel call to unity among Christians and between Christians and all of humanity.


Almost thirty years ago, the late Kevin Seasoltz, OSB, wrote about the connection between liturgy, justice, and common good:

Any work for the unity of the Church that overlooks the needs of the world is not in the tradition of Jesus. The eucharist is meant to mediate the unity of the Church and the unity of mankind. It builds up the Church but it also gives the Church a missionary task which includes the ethical responsibility of taking liberating actions for justice in the world. The eucharist roots us in the just life of Jesus; it also thrusts us into the future where we will be one not only with him but also with each other.(29)

The political culture of Catholics needs to rediscover this “ethical responsibility of taking liberating actions for justice in the world”; the election of Pope Francis is a sign of this rediscovery. However, the very idea of reform in theology—and especially in theology dealing with social and political issues— can be particularly elusive.(30) The connection between the liturgical reform of Vatican II and the ideas of the council on the common good, society, and politics is relatively unexplored, just as are the differences between the pre–World War II liturgical movement, the liturgical movement at Vatican II, and the social-political culture in which the liturgical reform was received in the post–Vatican II period.(31)

Nevertheless, it seems clear to me that the liturgical reform of Vatican II—and for how it came about in the debates and in the context of the other documents of the council—has a distinctive idea of the “common good” that derives from renewed ideas of the relationship between the Catholic Church and the world—the church in the modern world, as Gaudium et Spes says—which is an ecclesiological idea. It is an idea of the common good that is very different from the dream of restoring a communal and corporate sense of the Church as the Body of Christ. The liturgical reform is part of a Catholic Church that is no longer described by Mystici Corporis, or by Lumen Gentium alone, but also by Gaudium et Spes and by the context of Vatican II as the first council of a truly global Catholic Church. This means that there is a connection between the reception of the liturgical reform and of the “social and political culture” and the idea of “common good” expressed by Vatican II in its ecclesiological documents: the spectrum of oppositions to Vatican II (both schismatic and nonschismatic) is clear evidence of that.

However, we need to take a further step in understanding the relationship between liturgical reform, Vatican II, and the common good. It seems to me that in some cases (that of the Lefebvrites, for instance), the rejection of the “common good” is part of a larger nonreception of Vatican II, but in other cases the rejection (or the radical reshaping) of the idea of a “common good” is leading some quarters of Catholic theology to a quiet and unstated rejection of the social and political message of Vatican II ad extra.(32)

This phenomenon presents one of the critical points for the survival of Vatican II in American Catholicism, that is, in a culture that has witnessed many challenges, among them: (1) the rise of a privatized and libertarian culture (a fruit of the triumph over communism) that is indifferent to the idea of a “common good”; (2) the growing marginalization of larger portions of the population from the political process; (3) the parallel “big sort”—the clustering of like-minded Americans—in American society as well as in American Catholicism (also called by a new term, homophily, “love of the same”); (4) the marginalization of theological studies within American Catholic higher education as the marginalization of an intellectual discipline particularly dedicated to the study of power relations, both power within the Church and social and political power.


It is very necessary to recall the origins of the liturgical movement and the fact that the early advocates of the liturgical renewal in the 1920s and 1930s were also strong advocates of the connection between liturgy and social justice.(33) But we must also be aware of the differences between the pre–World War II liturgical movement and the liturgical movement at Vatican II: the criticism of Sacrosanctum Concilium’s silence about social justice can also be unfair, because the liturgical constitution must be read in the context of the other documents of Vatican II and of what Vatican II was (for example, the “Message to the World” of October 1962 and the “Catacomb Pact” for a poor church made by forty bishops on November 16, 1965, in the Santa Domitilla Catacomb).

From a theological point of view, today it is difficult to utilize the ideas of “society” in the pre–Vatican II liturgical movement because they lack the whole ecclesiological context of Vatican II, which gives the idea of the liturgy and its “social culture” a different flavor. We must restore the link between liturgical reform and social justice,(34) but this is viable only in the context of a theology that does not ignore Vatican II.

If we leave aside Vatican II, one option that results is a restorationist, pre–Vatican II view of the link between liturgical reform and social justice that offers a more communitarian and radical view of Catholicism, embodied, for example, by Dorothy Day and other radical social movements within the Catholic Church.(35) This option would lead Catholicism back into what Garry Wills called recently the “Detachment movement [that] was in Minnesota around World War II” and that had four main strands: neo-Medievalism, ruralism, Catholic Workers, and liturgy.(36)

Another option, however, more in line—I think—with the intention and the mind of the bishops and theologians of Vatican II, is a reading of the liturgical reform and its social message in the context of a “public Catholicism” that does not advocate for a flight from the established forms of presence of the church and of Catholicism in the social and political debate.(37)

In a way, in Catholic theology today (especially in the United States) we are still facing the alternative between “sacramental radicals” on one side, inclined to an alternate culture and a strategy of separation, and on the other side an idea of “Catholic social action” or the social ideas of “New Deal Catholics.”(38)

This issue is at the heart of the future of the public face of Catholicism, with enormous repercussions for the very essence of Catholicism. The recent “liturgy wars”(39) are part of and manifest this dilemma.

Massimo Faggioli is associate professor of theology and director of the Institute for Catholicism and Citizenship at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul (Minnesota). His publications in English include the books True Reform: Liturgy and Ecclesiology in Sacrosanctum Concilium (Liturgical Press, 2012); Sorting Out Catholicism: A Brief History of the New Ecclesial Movements (Liturgical Press, 2014); A Council for the Global Church: Receiving Vatican II in History (Fortress Press, 2015); Pope Francis: Tradition in Transition (Paulist Press, 2015); The Legacy of Vatican II, ed. Massimo Faggioli and Andrea Vicini (Paulist Press, 2015).


1 Pope Francis, A Big Heart Open to God: A Conversation with Pope Francis; Interview by Antonio Spadaro, SJ (New York: HarperOne, 2013), 43.

2 For a thorough appreciation of the intertextual character of the issues at Vatican II, see John O’Malley, What Happened at Vatican II (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), 309–12.

3 See Massimo Faggioli, True Reform: Liturgy and Ecclesiology in Sacrosanctum Concilium (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2012).

4 For a comparison with the Council of Trent, see Il concilio di Trento e il moderno, ed. Paolo Prodi and Wolfgang Reinhard (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1996).

5 For the idea of Vatican II as similar to a constitution, see Peter Hünermann, “Der Text: Werden – Gestalt – Bedeutung. Eine Hermeneutische Reflexion,” in Herders Theologischer Kommentar zum Zweiten Vatikanischen Konzil, ed. Hans Jochen Hilberath and Peter Hünermann, 5 (Freiburg i.B.: Herder, 2004–2005), 5:5–101, esp. 11–17 and 85–87.

6 See O’Malley, What Happened at Vatican II.

7 See here the fruit of the research by Daniele Menozzi, especially Chiesa e diritti umani. Legge naturale e modernità politica dalla Rivoluzione francese ai nostri giorni (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2012).

8 Translations of documents from Vatican II are taken from the Vatican website.

9 See here Brian Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights: Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law, and Church Law, 1150–1625 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997); Kenneth Pennington, The Prince and the Law, 1200–1600: Sovereignity and Rights in the Western Legal Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

10 See Andrea Riccardi, in History of Vatican II, ed. Giuseppe Alberigo, English ed. Joseph Komonchak, vol. 2, The Formation of the Council’s Identity: First Period and Intersession October 1962–October 1965 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997), 53–54.

11 See Faggioli, True Reform.

12 See Maria Paiano, Liturgia e società nel Novecento. Percorsi del movimento liturgico di fronte ai processi di secolarizzazione (Roma: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 2000), 32–147. See also Emilio Gentile, Politics as Religion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univer- sity Press, 2006) and The Sacralization of Politics in Fascist Italy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996).

13 See Michael Hollerich, “Catholic Anti-Liberalism in Weimar: Political Theology and Its Critics,” in The Weimar Moment: Liberalism, Political Theology, and Law, ed. Leonard V. Kaplan and Rudy Koschar (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012), 17–46.

14 Cited in Klaus Breuning, Die Vision des Reiches. Deutscher Katholizismus zwischen Demokratie und Diktatur 1919–1934 (Munich: Max Hueber Verlag, 1969), 209. On Herwegen, see Hans Rink, “Ildefons Herwegen,” in Zeitgeschichte in Lebensbildern, ed. Rudolf Morsey (Mainz: Matthias-Grünewald-Verlag, 1975), 2:64–74.

15 See Jacques Mortiau and Raymond Lonbeek, Dom Lambert Beauduin visionnaire et précurseur (1873–1960) (Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 2005), 145–56; for the unabridged version of the book, see Jacques Mortiau and Raymond Lonbeek, Un pionnier. Dom Lambert Beauduin. Liturgie et unité des chrétiens (Louvain-la-Neuve and Chevetogne: Editions de Chevetogne, 2001), 645–712.

16 See Jeremy Hall, The Full Stature of Christ: The Ecclesiology of Virgil Michel, OSB (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1976), 154–64.

17 Benedikt Kranemann, “Liturgie in pluraler Gesellschaft,” Theologie und Glaube 102 (2012): 541 (translation mine).

18 See Andrea Grillo, La nascita della liturgia nel XX secolo (Assisi: Cittadella, 2003), 123–52.

19 See Robert Bellah, “Civil Religion in America,” Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 96 (1967): 1–21.

20 See Georges Dejaifve, “L’ecclesiologia del concilio Vaticano II,” in L’ecclesiologia dal Vaticano I al Vaticano II (Brescia: La Scuola, 1973), 87–98.

21 See O’Malley, What Happened at Vatican II, 305–7.

22 See Daniele Gianotti, I Padri della chiesa al concilio. La teologia patristica nella “Lumen gentium” (Bologna: EDB, 2010), 399.

23 See Giuseppe Dossetti, Per una “chiesa eucaristica.” Rilettura della portata dottrinale della Costituzione liturgica del Vaticano II. Lezioni del 1965 (Società editrice il Mulino, 2002), 49.

24 About this, see Massimo Faggioli, John XXIII: The Medicine of Mercy (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2014), 110–12.

25 Joseph Gelineau, “Celebrating the Paschal Liberation,” in Politics and Liturgy, ed. Herman Schmidt and David Power (New York: Herder and Herder, 1974), 107–19, at 110.

26 For the relationship between Vatican II and democratization in the non-Western world, see Samuel Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991).

27 See Jean Daniélou, L’oraison comme probléme politique (Paris: Fayard, 1965), 23–30.

28 See Massimo Faggioli, “Il Vaticano II come ‘Costituzione’ e la ‘recezione politica’ del Concilio,” Rassegna di Teologia 50 (2009): 107–22.

29 R. Kevin Seasoltz, “Justice and the Eucharist,” Worship 58 (1984): 525.

30 See the analogy with the different cultures of “democratic progressivism”: “strong- state liberalism on the one hand and communitarianism on the other” (Mark Thomas Edwards, The Right of the Protestant Left: God’s Totalitarianism [New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012], 23).

31 About this issue in “North American middle-class society,” see Bruce Morrill, “The Promise and Challenges in the Renewal of the Eucharistic Liturgy,” in Anamnesis as Dangerous Memory: Political and Liturgical Theology in Dialogue (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000), 5–18, at 16.

32 See Massimo Faggioli, “Cardinal Bernardin’s ‘Catholic Common Ground’ Initiative: Can It Survive Current Political Cultures?” (Fourteenth Annual Cardinal Bernardin Lecture, University of South Carolina, October 7, 2013), published as “A View from Abroad: The Shrinking Common Ground in the American Church,” America (February 24, 2014): 20–23.

33 See Rita Ferrone, “Liturgy and Social Justice: Fresh Challenges for Today in Virgil Michel’s Legacy,” lecture at Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville (Minnesota), April 7, 2013.

34 See Margaret M. Kelleher, “Liturgy and Social Transformation: Exploring the Relation- ship,” S. Catholic Historian 16 (October 1998): 58–70.

35 For the “social culture” of pre–Vatican II and pre–World War II liturgical movement (agrarianism, antiecumenism) in the United States, see Virgil Michel, The Social Ques- tion: Essays on Capitalism and Christianity, ed. Robert L. Spaeth (Collegeville, MN: Saint John’s University, 1987).

36 See Garry Wills, “Relicts of a Catholic Renaissance,” New York Review of Books (October 10, 2013): 37–38 (review of Suitable Accommodation: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life; The Letters of J. Powers, 1942–1943, ed. Katherine A. Powers [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013]): the contact with Dom Virgil Michel led Detachers “to a monastic ideal in married life.” Wills emphasizes also the impact of Virgil Michel on Minnesota senator Eugene McCarthy (1916–2005).

37 See Liturgy and Social Justice, Mark Searle (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1980).

38 See Kelleher, “Liturgy and Social Transformation,” 65.

39 See Kevin Irwin, “Critiquing Recent Liturgical Critics,” Worship 74 (2000): 2–19.



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4 responses to “The Liturgical Reform and the ‘Political’ Message of Vatican II in the Age of a Privatized and Libertarian Culture”

  1. Peter Kwasniewski Avatar
    Peter Kwasniewski

    Fr. Ruff writes:
    “I think Faggioli is connecting the dots rightly. As he points out, for Marcel Lefebvre the issue was not just that he liked the unreformed Tridentine liturgy. His rejection of the liturgical reform was part of a larger (and internally consistent and coherent) rejection of ecumenism, interreligious dialogue, a recalibrated relationship between the church and Jews, and one should especially emphasize, religious liberty. They all go together.”

    I could not agree more wholeheartedly. Catholic traditionalists reject nearly everything that Faggioli praises here. This is why we do not merely disagree about incidentals, about “smells and bells.” One can see the depths of the disagreement in the following post, which takes up precisely the issue Fr. Ruff raises, that of the participation of women in the sanctuary:

  2. Todd Orbitz Avatar
    Todd Orbitz

    Of Course, Pope Francis evidently has recently decided that the Lefebvrists rejection of those things is not an impediment to finding Communion.

    Archbishop Pozzi (Secretary, PCED) went on record just the other day:

    “The difficulties raised by the SSPX regarding Church-State relations and religious freedom,the practice of ecumenism, and the dialogue with non-Christian religions, of certain aspects of the liturgical reform, and of its concrete application, remain the object of discussion and clarification, Abp. Pozzo [of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei] added, but they are not an obstacle for the canonical and legal recognition of the SSPX.”

  3. Todd Flowerday Avatar

    One difference is that for some on the traditionalist side, these peripherals are the essence of Roman Catholicism. There is denial of the clear fruits of conciliar successes and playing up the problems that persist. Or worse, they might tell others, “We are the true Catholics. you are not.”

    Pope Francis seems happy to dialogue with them as they might not do with some of the rest of us.

    I’m putting my chips on Jesus Christ, and on a trust I have in conciliar reform that has given life and energy to the Church–far more than the retrenchment era of 1978-2013. When I became a Catholic in 1970, the organ choir and folk group of my new parish collaborated on an album for the jubilee of a much-loved musical pastor. Our parish had psalmists by 1972 and were singing Mass ordinaries consistently by then. Years later when I read and studied conciliar documents, I saw the connections.

    To me, it seems that a state of Communion is a process, not a reward for good or harmonious behavior. Or a membership badge. The SSPX desires full Communion but wants to keep its cultural bugaboos? Fine. Let’s see how they live God’s mercy however they interpret that, and we can all judge the fruits from there. Not all sin or error prevents Communion.

  4. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
    Karl Liam Saur

    At the risk of bleating: my sense has long been that, even though he didn’t realize it himself, Pope St Pius X’s sacramental revolution (the seeds for which were sown at Trent) carried seeds of what the author watercolors here with it. When the active sacramental life of the faithful is no longer treated as something incidental to the Church’s liturgical life and ecclesial mission and eschatological telos, but bound up together, it’s bound to be transformative. And I think this is where the silo-hunkering reaction is out of step, energetically, from what it imagines it is preserving. (This may be another example of the difference between tradition and traditionalism – the latter is very much a creature of modernity.)

    My earliest memories of the Mass come from the mid-1960s (I was baptized before Vatican II). I very much remember the unfolding of liturgical and ritual change over the course of my childhood. And I also remember the reactions of those around me (not just peers but adults). Fr Gommar DePauw’s small traditional group eventually gathered several miles from where I lived; and that impulse was considered, uniformly, an overreaction. Almost all the negative reaction I heard about the Church in the late 1960s related to the revolution of rising expectations that came to nought in Humanae Vitae (my parents were faithful, non-contracepting folks who had to settle for 6 children instead of the 8 they wanted when a special needs child entered the scene midway through the 1950s…so it wasn’t like it was my parents who schooled me in this … it was not difficult to pick up at the time if you had eyes and ears. The late 1960s were a time when young children saw and heard lots of things – like relatively uncensored war on TV, or police brutality against protesters, et cet….things were far more seriously divided then than is the case now. Vatican II, however, was not a major divider in those days for typical Catholics; the lingering sensibility I retain from that time was…the hope-filled joy. I remember the radiance of it. I try to sustain that and witness to it. It has been the thread that has sustained my faith practice in long (albeit probably more ordinary than most people realize) periods of dryness or darkness. Consequently, I believe it is very much of God. It’s very much a fruit of Vatican II. It’s nothing to do with felt banners, Clown Masses, giant puppets, praise jazz hands or other caricatures of Vatican II any more than pre-Vatican II epiphenomena had to do with Trent.)

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