As the white smoke rises from the Sistine Chapel and Pope Francis emerges into the public gaze, now seems a good time to draw readers’ attention to David Lodge’s How Far Can You Go?, one of the wittiest and most intelligent novels ever written about Catholics and Catholicism. Although published in 1981, it’s set in the 1960’s, when the Church was riven by a simmering dispute between traditionalists and modernisers, with the question of sex at the heart of the crisis. For a while the modernisers seemed to in the ascendant, only to have their hopes dashed. Sounds familiar?
Here’s an excerpt:
In the early nineteen-sixties, however, [the modernisers'] main hope was that the official Church would change its mind on birth control; that they would wake up one morning and read in the papers that the Pope had said it was all right for them to use contraceptives after all. What a rush there would have been to the chemists’ and barbers’ shops, and the Family Planning Clinics! In hindsight it is claer that this was a fairly preposterous expectation, for such a reversal of traditional teaching would have dealt a blow to the credibility of papal authority so shattering that no Pope, not even Pope John, could reasonably have been expected to perpetrate it. Miriam [one of the group of young Catholic friends in the novel] was right: instead of waiting for the Pope to contradict his predecessors, they should have made up their own minds. This in fact they did, in due course, but it took a lot of misery and stress to screw them up to the point of disobedience. In the early nineteen-sixties they were still hoping for a change of heart at the top, at least in favour of the Pill, to which, some progressive theologians claimed, the traditional natural law arguments against artificial contraception did not apply.
In other respects the Church undoubtably was changing. Ope John, against all expectations (CARETAKER PONTIFF ELECTED, Angela and Dennis had read on newspaper placards when they returned from their honeymoon) had electrified the Catholic world by the radical style of his pontificate. “We are going,” he declared, “to shake of the dust that has collected on the throne of St Peter since the time of Constatine and let in some fresh air.” The Second Vatican Council which he convened brought out into the the light a thousand unsuspected shoots of innovation and experiment, in theology, liturgy and pastoral practice, that had been buried for decades out of timidity or misplaced loyalty. In 1962, Pope John actually set up a Pontifical Commission to study problems connected with the Family, Population and Birth Control. This was encouraging news in one sense, since it seemed to admit the possibility of change, but disappointing in that it effectively removed the issue from debate at the Vatican Council, which began its deliberations in the same year. Pope John died in 1963, to be succeeded by Pope Paul VI, who enlarged the Commission and instructed its members specifically to examine the Church’s traditional teaching with particular reference to the progesterone pill. Catholics, especially young married ones, waited impatiently for the result of this inquiry.
Meanwhile, other changes proceeded at a dizzying pace. The mass was revised and translated into the vernacular. The priest now faced the congregation across a plain table-style altar, which made the origins of the Mass in the Last Supper more comprehensible, and allowed more of the laity to see for the first time what the celebrant actually did. All masses were now dialogue masses, the whole congregation joining in the responses. The Eucharistic fast was reduced to a ngligible one hour, before which any kind of food and drink might be consumed, and the laity were urged to receive communion a every mass — a practice previously deemed appropriate only to people of great personal holiness and entailing frequent confession. Typical devotions of Counter-Reformation Catholicism such as Benediction and the Stations of the Cross dwindled in popularity. Rosaries gathered dust at the backs of drawers. The liturgy of Holy Week, previously of a length and tedium only to be bourne by the most devout, was streamlined, reconstructed, vernacularized, and offensive references to the “perfidious Jews” were removed from the prayers on Good Friday. Ecumenism, the active pursuit of Christian Unity through “dialogue” with other Churches, became a recommended activity. The change of posture from the days when the Catholic Church had seen itself as essentially in competition with other, upstart Christian denominations, and set their total sumission to its own authority as the price of unity, was astomishingly swift. Adrian,looking through his combative apologetics textbooks from Catholic Evidence Guild days, before sending them off to a parish jumble sale, could hardly believe how swift it has been. And from the Continent, from Latin America, through the religious press, came rumours of still more startling innovations being mooted — married priests, even women priests, Communion in the hand and under both kinds, inter-communion with other denominations. “Liberation Theology”, and “Catholic Marxism”. A group of young intellectuals of the latter persuasion, based in Cambridge, founded a journal called Slant in which they provocatively identified the Kingdom of God heralded in the New Testament with the Revolution, and charcterized the service of Benediction as a capitalist-imperialist liturgical perversion which turned the shared bread of the authentic Eucharist into a reified commodity.
These developments were not, of course, universally welcomed.