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No. 27 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program January 1990

Anne Roche Muggeridge, The Desolate City: Revolution in the Catholic Church

(Harper and Row: San Francisco, 1986)

reviewed by John F. McCarthy

        In The Desolate City, Anne Muggeridge undertakes to show that an anti-Catholic revolution has taken place in the Church and that since 1968 various local and national sectors of the Church have fallen de facto into the hands of revolutionaries (92).


        To describe the unfolding of the revolution, Mrs. Muggeridge makes use of a technical framework and a vast repertoire of documentary evidence. The technical framework regards "certain features common to revolutions," and they are, she says: "an aggrieved class, a climate conducive to radical change, a weakened government, a triggering incident, a moderate phase stressing continuity with the old order, a radical phase proclaiming a new order, consolidation and institutionalization or counter-revolution" (49).

        The aggrieved class was "that large group of Catholic theologians and university professors, for the most part priests and religious, to whom the Church delegated its task of instruction in the faith" (50). A climate of discontent was there, which should not be exaggerated, but which, among people who "are unable to sustain by prayer the effort of remembering that they are really working for Christ, provides fertile ground for recruits when genuine revolutionary discontent surfaces" (51).

        Muggeridge points out that there was no general climate of change in the Church when Vatican II began. In fact, orthodox Catholics were dismayed by the changes that came after the Second Vatican Council and tended to see the Council as having "served the sole purpose of kicking over a flourishing and expanding religious community" (54). The Council was not in itself a revolutionary event; "it was accompanied by a revolution not of its own making, a revolution imported into it by a disaffected group of clerical intellectuals," influenced by the ideology of neo-modernism (55). The Council called these disaffected intellectuals into consultation on the nature and the future of the Church, and, in doing so, "it unwittingly acted for the revolution as did King Louis XVI when he called the Estates General into session at the beginning of the French Revolution" (56).

        The idea that the Second Vatican Council was a 'pastoral' council not aimed at dogmatic precision enabled the innovators "to obtain the passage of certain formulations with a modern tendency," as Edward Schillebeeckx, among others, has pointed out. This gap in thinking between 'doctrinal' and 'pastoral' cast a shadow over the Council debates which traditional thinkers have never been able to accept (56). History often turns out to be the propaganda of the victors, and, unfortunately, "the media perception of what happened at the Council has become post-Conciliar truth" (59). At the early stage of the Council, few of the Council fathers were sufficiently aware of the facts to be able to take seriously Cardinal Ottaviani's warning that a revolution was being unleashed. "By the end of the Council, their innocence lost," the bishops could at least have insisted on safeguards, but they did not (61). The truly revolutionary proposals were rejected by the Council, but innovators on the drafting commissions had couched passages in deliberately ambiguous language, in order to win wide Conciliar support, and the disaffected intellectuals used these ambiguous expressions to promote the revolution after the decrees had been passed (63).

        Muggeridge's account is replete with names and instances throughout. She feels, with Ralph Wiltgen (The Rhine Flows into the Tiber, 80), that the most ominous and influential theological mind present at the Council was that of Karl Rahner, whom Cardinal Frings called "the greatest theologian of the century." Cardinal Siri (Gethsemane, 274) accused Rahner of destroying "by a large number of propositions learnedly entangled the whole truth of the doctrine of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ." The radical theologians wanted to break completely the hold of the central authority of the Church, and they used to this purpose the naive sympathies that many bishops had for a greater emphasis upon collegiality. A prime example of this interaction is the Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, in which "startling new powers to override the central authority are granted to the local and national hierarchies." Seemingly retained traditional elements of the liturgy are time and time again, "by an almost off-hand proviso," made subject to the judgment of "the competent territorial authority." Muggeridge claims that "this provision for liturgical pluralism was a radical departure from the modern tradition," because from the time of the Protestant revolution the introduction of changes has been a vehicle for the introduction of heretical ideas into the liturgy (66-67).

        There was "no weakness or tremor in Pius XII's strong papacy," and yet by the end of it "all the great reconstructive and explanatory liturgical work had been completed." Hence, "the repudiation of his reform by the post-Conciliar commissions and the embracing instead of every trend he had warned against in Mediator Dei must be considered an enormous religious and cultural tragedy" (70-71). But a weakened government came, first under John XXIII and then under Paul VI. "Orthodox in doctrine, liberal in inclination, indecisive by temperament, (Paul VI) was the weakest Pope" in a century (72).

        The triggering incident came in the debate over contraception. Bernard Hãring and others persuaded the majority of the special study commission to drop the whole argument from natural law underpinning the Church's teaching about marital acts (79). The final vote of the commission was 64 to 4 in favor of removing the ban on artificial contraception (83). In spite of this crushing defeat of traditional morality in a commission appointed by the Popes themselves, Paul VI went ahead and published Humanae Vitae in July 1968, wherein he stated: "No believer will wish to deny that the teaching authority of the Church is competent to interpret even the natural moral law. It is, in fact, indisputable" (104). But by 1968 Paul VI's definition of 'believer' "no longer applied to many of those who still called themselves 'Catholics,'" and that massive loss of belief "was a direct consequence of the way the revolution used the issue of contraception to reintroduce the Protestant principle of authority into the Church" (105).

        During the Council, Paul VI had settled for ambiguous wording on the purposes of marriage in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes, 50), and after the Council radical theologians proceeded to interpret these words to mean the downgrading of procreation to a position of equality with the non-procreative values of marriage (81). They declared even at the very press conference officially announcing the publication of Humanae Vitae that the decision in the encyclical was not to be considered infallible (84). Charles Curran, within twenty-four hours, had gained the approval of many (ultimately over six hundred) self-styled 'theologians' in public dissent to the teaching of Humanae Vitae, and he went on to declare: "Our quick, forceful response supported by so many theologians accomplished its purpose. The day after the encyclical was promulgated American Catholics could read in their morning papers about their right to dissent and the fact that Catholics could in theory and practice disagree with the papal teaching and still be loyal Roman Catholics" (90). This "quick, well-organized, collegial effort" was, in fact, a transition from the collegiality of the bishops to the collegiality of the dissenting theologians and "has since its anti-Humanae Vitae coup been the de facto if not yet de iure government of the Church on the local and national levels. For, having divided the bishops from Rome, the revolution proceeded with contemptuous ease to conquer them" (92).

        On November 10, 1968, four thousand revolutionary 'theologians' gathered in Washington, D.C., to affirm what Richard McCormick calls "the second magisterium," and the 'experts' settled down to begin running the Church as a kind of 'parallel hierarchy' (94). "In Canada the hierarchical magisterium officially surrendered. It established [by the Winnipeg Statement] the Protestant principle as the norm that Canadian Catholics might follow in their practice of sexual ethics" (95).

        Anne Muggeridge believes that the end of the moderate phase of the revolution coincided with the end of the Council in 1965 (114). From then on it became more and more the role of the radical theologians "to precede and prepare the opinions of the magisterium" (106, quoting Richard McCormick). Especially since the 'July Revolution' of 1968 a revolutionary ideology has the upper hand, "for although the magisterium continues to hold and repeat its moral teaching, it sees it everywhere repudiated, and lacks or feels it lacks the support necessary for a counteroffensive" (107). For instance, in the United States according to Andrew Greeley, by l979 only ten percent of those under the age of thirty agreed that the Pope is infallible in matters of faith and morals (108). As in other true revolutions, in 1968 the empowering symbols of the existing order of Catholic ecclesiastical authority were "dragged from their usual integrated subliminal existence into the raucous ideological public square" (110).

        Muggeridge observes that the 'time-bombs' of ambiguous expressions in the texts of the Council could not have been detonated (for instance, in Canada) "without the empowering sanction of the ruling group of progressive nationalist bishops" (114). From her viewpoint the most unnerving feature of the early years of the revolution after the Council was "the dramatic and seemingly overnight reversal. of confident orthodox positions by the very people who had taught one obedience to these positions" (115). Thomas Sheehan, writing in June 1984 in the New York Review of Books, could claim with justification that "the dismantling of traditional Roman Catholic theology" was by then "a fait accompli," and that "in scarcely two decades" Catholic theologians and exegetes had put the most 'advanced' Scripture scholarship "at the service of a radical rethinking of their faith." On the other hand, he observed, "Scholars who continue to employ the older methods find themselves pushed to the margins of scholarly discourse" (120-121). The result of all this, summarizes Muggeridge, is that "dissent has become orthodoxy," while "the revolution has become the legitimate government at all levels below the papacy," and "the Pope is the leader of a rump Church only" (122).

        This is the radical phase of the revolution, proclaiming a new order in the Church, initially and most graphically through the New Order of the Mass. "In sober truth, by empowering the liturgical radicals to do their worst, Paul VI, wittingly or unwittingly, empowered the revolution" and "the reform we got was not the one actually intended by the Council" (126-127). Muggeridge sees the present public worship of the Latin Church as "an institutionalized ritual of revolution" (132), with its shift of emphasis from the sacred to the secular and its truncated cosmology of the human community alone (127). On the level of personal practice in many instances "a literal self-worship has now replaced the worship of God" (141, quoting James Hitchcock).

        By 1978 Charles Curran and other radical innovators could exclaim: "Although official teaching has not changed, in actuality the church has changed, for many people acting contrary to official teaching fully participate in its life" (101). Since then we have seen "an entrenchment of conservative forces in their shrinking pockets of power; the vigorous advancement of liberal exegesis and theology in scholarly circles, and the equally vigorous pursuit of the social gospel where issues of politics and morality are concerned" (145, quoting Thomas Sheehan). The comportment of many bishops suggests that "they no longer operate from any coherent Catholic world view" (170). Muggeridge concedes that "the revolution has good reason to feel confident" because at this point the 'liberal consensus' is "in unchallenged control on the local and national levels of every aspect of Catholic life" (145).

        The revolution has been an alienating and depressing experience. "I realize with unutterable sadness," she says, "that barring a miracle (and I do not bar one) I will for the rest of my life feel a stranger at the official worship of the Church, and that the Catholic world to which I belong is dead" (176). For the proximate future she envisages at best "a counter-revolution, resulting in a much shrunken Catholic Church" (182).

        Muggeridge thinks that Pope John Paul II, "by his worldwide missionary enthusiasm for the cornerstone teaching on sexual morality," has officially begun the counter-revolution (102). So also the pronouncements of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith regarding liberation theology (160). She believes that the Roman Magisterium "has begun the process of identification, isolation, and expulsion by which modernism was controlled at the end of the nineteenth century" (162). She calls for the reaffirmation by all the bishops of "the whole of the Church's teaching on the transmission of human life" (l73). But she is still awaiting "some dramatic symbolic move from Rome against the heart of the revolution" (175). The Canadian Oratory has done much to reconcile orthodox Catholics to the new Mass, especially to the new Mass in the vernacular. "Their one Latin Sunday Mass and their regular English Mass and Vespers prove that the new liturgy, when the letter of the Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy is followed, can be acceptable" (186).

        In the final analysis, concludes the author, modernism has not worked. It has not renewed the Church or made the Gospel more reasonable to modern man. Rather, it has undermined the faith of millions, it has emptied the churches, it has "legitimized within the Church that relapse into pagan sexual behaviour that is occurring in secular society" (189). The counter-revolution has begun, but "those 'who hold and teach the Catholic faith that comes to us from the Apostles' are already a remnant." The outlook thus remains bleak. "The only kind thing about the future is that not one moment of it is foreseeable" (193).


        The Desolate City is a penetrating exposition of the anguish that Anne Roche Muggeridge, a Catholic laywoman, has undergone as a result of the changes effected in the Church since the Second Vatican Council. Her experience and documentation regard especially the Church in Canada and the U.S.A. In the framework of the "features common to revolutions" she is able to show convincingly that a revolution of some kind has taken place within the Catholic Church, even though this revolution is not all-embracing and complete. She restricts her analysis to some local and national levels of the Church, emphasizing especially the areas of liturgical practice and doctrinal teaching.

        It would seem that Anne Muggeridge has drawn a strikingly negative picture of the contemporary Church, even if a true one from the experiences that she has undergone. Various local areas of Catholic activity have fallen de facto into the hands of revolutionaries, but the fact remains that other areas have not, and the hierarchy remains, de iure and de facto, for the most part nonrevolutionary. Bishops have been weak and compromising in the face of the revolution, some of them have joined it, but the revolution has not succeeded in taking over the Church.

        The Second Vatican Council did not give to the local and national hierarchies "startling new powers to override the central authority"; the power to confirm or reject was retained by the Holy See. But the Holy See has confirmed a startling number of local initiatives, even though influences deriving from non-Catholic systems of thought were often present at the local level, and many serious problems have arisen from these concessions. Similarly, the bishops have not been "divided from Rome" in a way that is juridically discernible; they have simply been spoiled into an exaggerated idea of their own autonomy. Richard McCormick was speaking with boastful arrogance when he described the theologian's role as "to precede and prepare the opinions of the magisterium." Various bishops have certainly been deceived by false ideas of theologians, but the magisterium as a whole has been only superficially influenced by them. "Dissent has become orthodoxy" in many theological and pastoral circles, but most bishops are not dissenting from the teaching of the Pope and of the Holy See.

        Pope Paul VI did not exactly allow the liturgical radicals to "do their worst"; he prevented Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, his chief liturgical officer, from doing the worst things he had in mind. A study of the memoirs of Archbishop Bugnini (The Liturgical Reform) will reveal that, even during the most headlong and reckless years of the reform, restraints were kept on the innovations of the radicals, and this control is to be attributed to the Holy Spirit, working in the Church. If the results of the reform in their full manifestation can in some ways be viewed as "an institutionalized ritual of revolution," this judgment is true only where the rubrics have been interpreted in a revolutionary sense by individual ministers or by local liturgical committees.

        One could say that among the conservative and moderate members of the hierarchy and in their immediate pastoral surroundings there is no conscious spirit of revolution against the central authority of the Pope or against the essentials of Catholic tradition. What has rather come into effect is a policy of permissiveness whereby on lower levels many in pastoral authority, many in academic authority, many obliged by their state of consecration to give good and edifying example are allowed to engage in revolutionary witness that scandalizes the good, bringing sadness and perplexity upon them. In Anne Muggeridge's experience, such persons are now in the majority. For large areas she is probably right, and in those areas "the revolution has become the legitimate government."

        I was well aware of a certain climate of rebellion against Tradition that already existed in some Catholic academic circles before the Second Vatican Council began. It was most evident among form-critics and among those non-Scholastic theologians who were anxious to bring the "insights of the modern world" into the cloistered atmosphere of the Church. Some had already embraced a radical pluralism of thought whereby their thinking had become only partially Catholic and, in some cases, only residually Catholic, while others were naively disposed to follow along the same road. Their method of thought was a process of "peeling the petals off the rose" in order to get down to the 'essence' of belief and practice, of tradition, and of the purpose of existence. This was the method of existential humanism fully explored in the writings of the apostate Catholic Martin Heidegger and brought to its logical conclusion by the liberal Protestant theologian Rudolf Bultmann.

        The mood of many bishops at the Council played into the hands of these revolutionaries. The 'pastoral' character of the Council meant to many bishops that they were not there principally to ponder and to treasure perennial values, but rather, while preserving the 'essence' of these values, to open the door to modern insights and feelings. They did not think that a revolution could be unleashed as long as the 'essentials' were kept; they did not think that ambiguous language could do much harm as long as the true meaning of the words was still present underneath. They really wanted to get something new started, and they were not disposed to worry much about what havoc the new directions might wreak upon tradition - especially upon what was 'essential' in tradition. Theirs was the enthusiasm of a fresh beginning, of an emergence from the ghetto of the past, and they took little time to scrutinize the nature of the door that was being opened or of the road that led beyond it. Throughout the entire course of the Council only a minority of the bishops ever became aware of the method of Heidegger and Bultmann or of its ultimate goals.

        I believe that Anne Muggeridge is basically correct in stating (66) that "the radical theologians wanted to break the hold of the central authority even more than did the bishops, and they collaborated wholeheartedly in the episcopal drive towards collegiality." But I do not think that the bishops had any clear intention of actually "breaking" the authority of the Holy See. It was the ideology of existentialism behind the new theological ideas that aimed to reduce the Pope to a figurehead, while theologians and bishops were only its semi-aware instruments. The ideology was itself a product of minds standing mostly outside the Council, and its deadly influence was diluted in the assembly as a whole. Its effects are seen in the ambiguous language of the decrees and in the failure to place definite limits upon changes affecting doctrine and practice in the Church. It was the desire to weaken the exercise of the Papacy that was widespread among the bishops, and Muggeridge finds that this aim was achieved.

        Mrs. Muggeridge sees the new emphasis upon "liturgical pluralism" as the principal vehicle for introducing heterodoxy into the Church. Ritual does imply uniformity, and there is no doubt that the demands for freedom of choice in the liturgy to the detriment of the millennial formulas had motives going beyond the mere violation of common sense. It was clear to Pope Paul VI that the reform of the Mass of Pope Pius V would have to remain a mere adjustment of a substantially abiding rite. The impression now common among the faithful in many places that celebrations of the new Mass are no longer the same rite as that of Pius V constitutes, for those who realize what is at stake, an occasion of fear that the reform of the Mass has gone beyond its natural limits and may, therefore, not survive over the long term.

        Muggeridge categorically holds the validity of the new liturgy "when it is celebrated according to the mind of the Church," and she herself assists at the new Mass, knowing from experience that "attendance demands a constant struggle to maintain the Catholic world view against the current liturgical expression of it" (135). What she is opposing is the celebration of Mass according to an outlook of existential humanism which she calls "neo-modernism." The Missal of Paul VI of 1970 presents already extensive changes beyond what is envisioned in the Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, but what especially troubles Catholics like Anne Muggeridge is the process of continual ongoing changes that the new Missal suggests, or at least has suggested to those entrusted with its implementation. This process is leading in a direction, and yet the ultimate goal is not defined, nor are any absolute limits established.

        The new Mass remains substantially the same as the old Mass as long as it is celebrated in the same spirit and with the use of traditional options. In Anne Muggeridge's experience not only were the traditional options not used but the very desire of them was viewed by priests as unenlightened and retrograde. They saw the introduction of more and more change as something built into the reform of Paul VI. The wordings and rubrics of his new Missal were not seen as formulations set to stand unchanged for decades and centuries, but rather as the departure point for a new liturgical mentality focused principally upon the innovations already produced and the next ones to be accomplished. Persons like Anne Muggeridge cannot reconcile this new mentality with the older view that the Mass is essentially an unchanging rite. And they have been shocked to encounter an attitude of open hostility towards liturgical and devotional practices that up to a few years ago were universally recognized to be the authentic expressions of Catholic worship. Muggeridge finds this hostility to stem not from the Holy Spirit, but from the spirit of this world, which is essentially anti-Catholic. What has taken the place of the unchanging sacrifice of the Mass in her view is the emerging self-awareness of the praying community that "they are church" in an ever more humanistic and existential way.

        From a progressive point of view, Anne Muggeridge's problem does not objectively exist at all: no revolution has taken place, no alien ideology has come into force, failures and abuses have not been occasioned by the new policies in effect, there is no spiritual decline stemming from the reform, there are no dangers in the next changes that are being contemplated. But the anguish of heart cannot be denied, and the hostility, contempt, or simple amusement with which this anguish is greeted by 'mainstream' ecclesiastics should give them cause to meditate. Why is there so little sympathy for what was specifically Catholic until just a few years ago? Many seek to attribute this hostility to "the spirit of Vatican II," and there was such a spirit present in some outspoken bishops who took part in the Council, but others see it as stemming from an uncontrolled egotism that fell into the trap of existential humanism. The new hostility towards traditional Catholic worship may well be, in the ultimate analysis, an anti-Catholic sentiment.

        The new pluralism has indeed made it seem that many in pastoral authority are no longer operating "from any coherent Catholic world view." Any such coherency is actually put down as "integrism." And thus comes the vigorous advancement of liberal exegesis and theology and the refusal to oppose it out of coherence with Catholic tradition. The most rebellious of anti-Catholic teachers are occasionally disciplined, but the liberal consensus remains in unchallenged control. The defenders of orthodox Catholicism are often tolerated by the hierarchy but seldom helped.

        Anne Muggeridge's hopes of 1986 for "some dramatic move from Rome against the heart of the revolution" do not seem to have been fulfilled, although more recent moves against currents like "liberation theology" have been significant, and the motu proprio Ecclesia Dei of July second, 1988, calling for understanding, especially by bishops, of the "rightful aspirations" of "all those Catholic faithful who feel attached to some previous liturgical and disciplinary forms of the Latin tradition" may truly be described as the magna carta of traditional belief and practice in the Church. This document of Pope John Paul II came at a moment of concern that the schism of Archbishop Lefebvre be not given the conditions in which it could grow, but the tenor of the document is impressive. Many have seen it, however, as applicable only to those who first go into schism and then seek reconciliation with the Church of Rome, and not to those who have patiently resisted the temptation to step outside the visible authority of the Church. I hope and pray that the conditions in which schism could grow will be mitigated by timely pastoral action and that those who have a devotional attachment to the older liturgical and disciplinary forms will accept the cross of remaining obedient to their legitimate shepherds as the Church slowly moves to provide adequate pastoral care for them.

        Anne Muggeridge has borne that cross, and her book is an eloquent expression of a deeply traditional spirituality that will never disappear in the Church. Other books similar to hers have been published in recent decades, chronicling the experiences of traditional Catholics to an extent never before achieved. These Catholics have been finding community among themselves within the limits allowed by law. Their "rightful aspirations" have begun to receive structural as well as cultural recognition from the Holy See and from many local ordinaries, especially in making available celebrations of Mass according to the Missal of 1962. Will further innovations in contemporary liturgical practice widen the gap now existing, or will the use of traditional options tend towards reconciliation with the past? Liberal hands are ready to peel the petal of the all-male altar server from the rose of liturgical practice, on the ground that the exclusion of women is 'nonessential.' Beneath are the petals of the all-male diaconate and the all-male priesthood. Radical theologians have already prepared the opinion that these two petals are only on the surface and do not pertain to the 'essence' of Catholic worship, especially in a Church that is becoming ever more humanly conscious of itself as a worshipping community. Then there are obedient traditional Catholics like Anne Muggeridge, who suffer because they cannot participate in this mentality. Then there are those who do not have the patience and the prudence of Anne Muggeridge.

Link to Amazon Books - Anne Roche Muggeridge, The Desolate City : Revolution in the Catholic Church (Harper and Row: San Francisco, 1986) ISBN 0060660465

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