Luca Fumagalli

During the 1950s and 1960s, many of Britain’s best-known Catholic intellectuals opposed the reforms promoted by the Second Vatican Council.

Archbishop Ronald Knox, who passed away in 1957, was unable to witness the changes. However, he lived long enough to note with bitterness the relaxation of the Eucharistic fast and the growing participation of the laity in the liturgy.

Though Knox departed this life before the liturgical revolution of the 1960s, not so his official biographer, Evelyn Waugh, who was one of the most ardent opponents of the Second Vatican Council (in his opinion, John XXIII had no idea of ​​the Pandora’s box that was opening). It was a stroke of good fortune for himself – as his daughter Margaret wrote to Lady Diana Cooper in a letter – that Waugh died suddenly in 1966, before the hated Novus Ordo definitively supplanted the traditional one.

Historian Christopher Dawson also regarded the innovations with suspicion and always defended Counter-Reformation Catholicism from attacks by modernist scholars.

Edward Ingram Watkin, on the other hand, had a far more favourable opinion on the ongoing renovation. His optimism, however, was shared by very few in England. The poet and artist David Jones, as well as the writer Antonia White, expressed more than one doubt about the new rite of the mass.

Even Graham Greene, who enthusiastically greeted the aggiornamento promoted by the Council, did not fail to express his disappointment with the Novus Ordo. It is not surprising, therefore, to discover the name of Greene among those of the signatories of the appeal which, in 1971, led to the so-called “Agatha Christie Indult”.

Of the same opinion were the actor Alec Guinness and the essayist Robert Speaight. In the latter’s autobiography, The Property Basket (1970), he did not hide his indignation towards the Second Vatican Council.

Apart from Waugh, the most vehement of those who were hostile to the reforms of the 1950s and 1960s was probably Hugh Ross Williamson. Between 1969 and 1970 Williamson published two pamphlets, The Modern Mass and The Great Betrayal, in which were contested all the changes that had led to the replacement of the Tridentine Mass. The two writings were not just a protest, but were indeed a real attack on the hierarchy, almost a declaration of war.

In Britain there were therefore many opponents of the Second Vatican Council. Beyond the particular viewpoints of the various individuals, what united the English critics was a sincere love for the Tridentine liturgy, for the Mass that their ancestors had defended at the cost of martyrdom and which the ecclesiastical hierarchy had culpably suppressed. Only those who, like them, had lived side by side with Protestants for a long time, could truly understand the gravity of the revolution that was taking place in the Church.

Sources: R. GRIFFITHS, The Pen and the Cross, Continuum, London, 2010; J. PEARCE, Catholic Literary Giants, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2014; J. PEARCE, Literary Converts, Harper Collins, London, 2000.