Why did things go so badly in North America and England? That's a question and it came up a bit in the comments.
I don't think it is as easy as saying that there were two sides and they both did bad things. That is undoubtedly true but it's always true. Everyone is flawed so both sides of every debate do things they ought not to do. But one side of this debate was much worse than the other and I'm sorry to have to say this but I think the liberal reformers were the side to blow it. As I've said many times before, in theory I ought to be in the liberal camp. It's where I should feel at home and yet I don't.
I think the liberals did two things wrong.
The first big mistake they made was that they allowed themselves to live in a culture of deception.
When it became obvious to the representatives from the English-speaking democracies at Vatican 1 that they were not going to prevail there was bitter disappointment. Liberals in the church in the late 19th century were firmly convinced that history, logic and God was on their side. They were shocked to find out that they were actually the minority.
What was worse for many of them was to come back home and realize that they were a minority among their own people as well. Ordinary English-speaking Catholics in the pews did not much like what the liberals were offering. One of the embarrassing secrets of the first half of the twentieth century for liberals is that the church thrived. It grew everywhere and Catholic intellectual and artists had a significant impact on the larger culture.
In response liberal Catholics (they were all priests and theologians) got in the habit of working by subterfuge. They stayed under the radar, not saying what they really believed because taking a public stand risked official condemnation from Rome and rejection from the pews. The bishops publicly supported church teaching but privately did what they could to undermine the parts they didn't like.
And they never faced up to the fact that what they believe is not and never has been very popular among rank and file Catholics. They convinced themselves that it was only old fuddy duddies in the hierarchy who were scaring people into submission. Like a lot of rebels they imagined that when the revolution started, the people who had lived in fear would rise up and join the fight even though they currently were not showing any enthusiasm. The rebels convinced themselves that the people were on their side but were scared to show it.
Vatican 2, when it came along, it ought to have been their moment but the bad habits liberals had developed in the decades before undid them and undid any good they might have achieved. One of the clearest examples of this is the appalling ICEL translation of the new rite from the early 1970s. The translation is not inaccurate because the people who did it made mistakes. It was inaccurate because the translators deliberately skewed the meaning.
Because the focus was on eliminating what they didn't like about the old regime, a lot of the reform was vindictive in spirit. Thousands of beautiful churches were ruined for no good reason at all by reformers who wanted to make the changes as quickly as possible so that a return would be impossible. Churches that had been the pride of the community were rendered ugly over night. Beautiful altar rails, statuary and altars were torn out to be replaced by ugly paneling, a wooden table and a piece of coloured cardboard with the words "God is love" scrawled in magic marker.
And the liturgy was also made ugly. One regular experience in the 1970s was to sit through masses where the priest largely ignored what was in the NEW liturgy in order to change the order, leave out things they didn't like and make up new prayers of their own—prayers that weren't prayers so much as mini-sermons.
All of this reform was, as I say, done by people who were used to working underground. They didn't really believe in anything new so much as they wanted to destroy the old. It won't come as any surprise then to read that the second thing the reformers did wrong was that they didn't actually offer any real reform. They took away the old structure and put nothing coherent in its place. They took the gospel reading that we should not prepare for our trials but wait for the Holy Spirit to give us the words when needed literally.
The reformers were, and are, a preachy lot incredibly fond of the sound of their own voices and think everyone can benefit from their wisdom. They weren't priests anymore so much as teachers looking for "teachable moments".
There was a great rush to turn the entire mass into one great long sermon. Typically, these priests would deliver a mini sermon at the beginning of the mass, then they might insert a mini sermon before one or more of the readings. Then we'd get the real sermon a great whopper of a thing that could run as much as twenty minutes long, every single word of which was improvised on the spot and rarely made much sense. There would be other improvised introductions to various prayers that were also really sermons and then finally, another mini sermon before the dismissal.
And not one second of silence for people to sit and enjoy the meditative experience of being in church was left us.
At the same time that all this was happening, the actual readings and prayers of the liturgy got short shrift. You'd hear priests stumbling through Gospel readings they had obviously not even looked at before reading them at mass that morning.
And the sermon would typically be based on something in the news or a television program the priest had seen. The increased presence of scripture—otherwise the only genuine Vatican 2 reform to make it into the new English liturgy—was undermined because priests had little or nothing to say about the liturgy read during mass.
What we often got instead was political content inserted into the service. On the rare occasions that scripture was discussed it was because the reading that happened to come up offered a convenient springboard for launching into one of the priest's favourite political causes. If, for example, the gospel reading was the story of the Good Samaritan, the priest might launch into an extended plea for more government programs to combat poverty (which, if you actually read the thing, is not even remotely connected to the actual parable but ...).
Meanwhile the scripture that actually requires explanation—think of the many difficult parts of Saint Paul—would be read out (poorly) and then ignored. Cynics, and I was one of them, began to wonder if this wasn't happening because the priests themselves didn't understand the readings.
Finally, just one horror story. I could write horror stories all day but one I want to highlight is the wackiest Christmas sermon I have ever heard.
After first tearing through Luke's Gospel reading as quickly as possible, so as to make more time for the sermon, the priest began by saying, "I want to tell you a story that illustrates the true meaning of Christmas." The obvious question at this point being what about that story you just finished reading? Do you think maybe it just might have something to do with the true meaning of Christmas?
But, as bad as this might seem, the actual story was worse. Why? Because it didn't exist. The priest had obviously thought that a story about a kid who really wanted one gift and got another was a great idea for a Christmas story but hadn't bothered finding or making up such a story ahead of time. Instead, the priest stood in front of jammed church at midnight mass and tried to make up a story on the spot. It was long, rambling an utterly inane.
Think of the missed opportunity. Midnight mass at Christmas is the largest congregation of the year. Many people who otherwise never darken the door of the church are there. It was an opportunity to reach people who were quite literally like sheep without a shepherd. After mass someone asked me if I thought the priest was drunk. Sadly I had to say no and that this was typical fare.
And that is the deepest problem with the reformers. For all their self-congratulatory rebellion, they are boring. Their reform is boring and their liturgy is boring. They've bored thousands of people of right out the door of thousands of churches and it is going to take several generations to fix the mess they've made.