Liturgical squabbles, doctrinal rows, vicious public spats: the Church is once again gripped by a 1970s-style factionalism

My first parish priest was a little old man with pebble spectacles who looked like a gorgeously coloured beetle as he bent over the altar in his Roman chasuble. His name was Fr Albert Tomei; my family went to his tiny church – St Margaret’s, Carshalton Beeches, Surrey – on most Sundays between 1966 and 1972.

Those were the years of the great liturgical upheaval after Vatican II, but I can’t say that I noticed many changes at St Margaret’s. Admittedly, I wasn’t paying attention – but, even if I had been, there wasn’t much to see. Fr Tomei did not suddenly turn round to face the people: he flatly refused to install what he called a “kitchen table” in the sanctuary.

He celebrated the New Mass, but usually in Latin. I didn’t listen to his sermons, but I gathered from things my father said on the drive back home that he never missed an opportunity to rail against the new services. My father thought this was bad form, even though he liked Fr Tomei, and from time to time we would escape to a more mainstream parish in Sutton, Wallington or Wimbledon.

When we moved from our Surrey suburb – so leafy that walking along the pavement was like hacking through the jungle – to grim Reading, we were faced with a similar situation. Fr Michael Nugent ran the parish of Christ the King as a benevolent dictatorship. He was almost a caricature of an old Irish PP, with a red face and a booming laugh; his improvised sermons weren’t very tautly constructed, to put it politely. (Not that many of the men in the congregation cared: they were outside having a smoke.)

His conservatism was not consistent, liturgically or politically: when Margaret Thatcher was elected leader of the Conservative Party, I remember him saying he could never vote for “that adulteress” (a reference to the fact that Denis Thatcher had briefly been married before). Five years later, “that wonderful woman” could do no wrong.

Fr Nugent celebrated Mass with visible joy: at the elevation his face shone and he blinked, as if the Host was illuminated. But there was a lot he didn’t like about the revised liturgy, and there was a distressing scene when someone tried to receive Communion in the hand. He would celebrate in Latin from time to time, but by the mid 1970s that was a rebellious thing to do. It didn’t help that the local bishop was the icily progressive Derek Worlock, who tried to force Fr Nugent into a brutal reordering of the sanctuary. (He failed, but of course it happened in the end.)

Again, our family would sometimes shop around. There was a modern, thickly carpeted church a few miles away where the Mass was uninspiring but the sermons mercifully short. The parish next to that was full-on 1970s trendy, with a game-show pastor and unctuous pastoral assistants; one visit was enough to send us back to Fr Nugent.

Catholics in this country really were a divided community during those years; one priest in the diocese used to amend pastoral letters so that they ended with the words “Derek, by the grace of God and his own cunning, Bishop of Portsmouth”. Even at my school, the Irish Brothers ranged from virtually Lefebvrist (Brother Fidelis) to virtually Methodist (Brother Joseph).

Yet there was no hint of civil war, because after the Council the conservatives were marginalised with incredible speed; I grew up assuming that I’d never attend a Tridentine Mass but that I would live to see women priests. Fr Tomei, Fr Nugent and Brother Fidelis were not only on the wrong side of history but also on the wrong side of modernist Church bureaucrats, who were determined to see them squashed by the Holy Spirit. Traditionalists in particular were in no position to fight back, though they missed no opportunity to air their grievances. The bitterness of the Latin Mass brigade in those years, though understandable, did so much to damage their cause as any episcopal edict.

Then, thank God, the temperature lowered. Westminster went to the holy but crafty Basil Hume instead of the culture warrior Worlock. In 1978, John Paul II became pope and turned the blowtorch of his charisma on destructive factions in the Church. The Old Mass was gradually rehabilitated. John Paul declared that the Church had no power to ordain women priests: an irreversible ruling that, I believe, has spared Catholics much pointless distress for centuries to come.

On the other hand, he made no attempt to recreate the pre-conciliar Church, and he established that Catholic orthodoxy can flourish independently of purely Western cultural norms.

Benedict XVI, contrary to expectations, did not try to purge the Church of liberals. His rehabilitation of the Tridentine liturgy was not an attempt to turn back the clock but, rather, to concentrate the minds of all Catholics on the cosmic timelessness of the Mass, irrespective of its transitory forms.

In other words, the years 1978-2013 were a period in which the wounds that were so visible during my childhood slowly healed. So it is disturbing, in 2017, to see them reopening.

I’m not going to blame Pope Francis for this, because in a small way I’ve been responsible for making things worse. At Mass last Sunday, I remembered a recent comment by a Lutheran minister: “That Damian Thompson isn’t necessarily wrong, but he is mean.” Some dreadful mistakes have been made during this pontificate, and perhaps my sardonic articles and tweets have amplified their consequences.

On the other hand, a few years ago I did leave journalism for four years to do a PhD in the sociology of religion, and everything I learned during that time tells me that the Church is in trouble.

Specifically, Catholics in the West – and that includes those in the Vatican – have adopted the liberal-versus-conservative mindset that has fractured non-Catholic denominations. It’s as if Christians are required to choose between two set menus, in which social justice comes with a side salad of transgender blessings – or, alternatively, you can opt for solemn liturgy with free-market seasoning.

I’m exaggerating, but I hope you get my point. Secular culture wars have created a dichotomy that is meaningless to Catholics in Africa and Asia, who are often happy to celebrate Mass with exuberant, made-up rubrics but are at the same time as uncompromising as Cardinal Burke on issues of sexual morality.

I won’t presume to suggest a route out of this mess, but I can think of some necessary-but-not-sufficient steps that the Church should take as an insurance against going down the route of the Anglican Communion.

First, liberal Catholics must accept that they’re not going to get women priests or gay marriage. Ever. The Church’s ruling on these matters is absolutely definitive. Married priests fall into a separate category: I sometimes think that if Francis had pushed through this change, instead of entering the quagmire of divorce and Communion, he might have been surprised by how may orthodox Catholics supported him.

Second, the Tridentine Mass (I can’t bear the term “Extraordinary Form”) must not be banned again. That would be a betrayal of those traditionalist priests and lay people who stayed faithful to papal authority during the decades when they were treated as second-class citizens by their own pastors.

Third, traditionalists must stop fantasising that one day the whole Catholic world will return to the “timeless” Latin rituals of the pre-conciliar Church. It’s the Mass that’s timeless, not a particular cultural expression of it, however numinous. Demand for the 1962 Missal may grow, but it will always be limited because there is almost no one left who grew up with it.

Fourth – and here I can hardly avoid causing offence – reform of the Curia is desperately needed but won’t happen until its culture becomes more international and less Italian. So many of the misfortunes that have befallen both Benedict XVI and Francis are rooted in the Italian way of doing things.

Finally, the Church needs to face up honestly to people’s fundamental objection to the Catholic faith. It has very little to do with sexual scandals or styles of worship. The problem is that doctrines such as transubstantiation and the Virgin Birth are hard to believe. These teachings are not negotiable – but, at the same time, they are less plausible to modern people than they were to our ancestors, whose imaginations were formed by societies that were naturally receptive to miracles and metaphysics.

I’m not going to suggest arguments that will make these teachings accessible, because I struggle with them myself. But the task can’t be accomplished without leaders with a passion for evangelisation and exceptional rhetorical gifts, untainted by factionalism and unconstrained by control-freak bureaucracy.

This is a huge challenge ­– and, sad to say, all the evidence suggests that we shall have to wait until the next pontificate before the Church can rise to it. In the meantime, damage limitation must be the order of the day, before we are all suffocated by the spirit of the 1970s.

Damian Thompson is editorial director of the Catholic Herald and associate editor of The Spectator

This article first appeared in the July 14 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here