Who Are the People?

I have been reading Pope John’s Council, the second book in Michael Davies’ trilogy on what happened to the Catholic liturgy before, during, and after the Second Vatican Council.  Davies wrote it more than forty years ago, but he could have written it yesterday.

A few changes here and there would have sufficed.  He might have omitted the reference to “nude altar boys” en passant in a list of liturgical abuses.  He might have replaced it with a chapter on what was done to the boys in the vestry instead.

He might have made more current his statistics on the collapse, in Europe and North America, of the liberal Protestant denominations.  They are now at what I’ll call the Quaker Line, the line at which further fall must be negligible, because the denomination continues only as a spiritual hobby.

The periti at the Council, most of them liberal theologians, claimed to speak for “the people,” as did the journalists who covered the events.  It was a nice circle, with journalists interpreting the Council according to what the theologians said about it, and the theologians interpreting the will of Catholic people according to what the journalists said about it.

The much-adored “spirit” of Vatican II, as far as I can capture it in my Leyden jar, was but the back-room maneuvering of a political convention, or a faculty senate, or something similarly indirect, bureaucratic, disingenuous, and vicious.  If the spirit had a name, it would be Nick, as in Machiavelli.

The spirit or specter is one thing, of course, and the documents, all of them orthodox though sometimes ambiguous and unhelpful, are another.  In the name of the specter, all kinds of bad things were done, and continue to be done.  But since the specter purports to be a democratic one, as if that were a good thing in any case, we hear now as we heard then about the will of the Catholic people.

Vox populi, vox Dei was never a Catholic doctrine.  The first cry of the people recorded in the New Testament was “Crucify him!”  I expect it will be the world’s last cry too.

But who are “the people,” anyway?  Who were they then?  Who are they now?  Someone who says he speaks for the people ought to tell us where we can find them, and why we should care what they think.

Some are Catholics secundum mundum.  Or rather all of us are that, to a certain extent, because we take our direction from the world around us, and not from Christ who came to overcome the world.  It is as inevitable in us as breathing.


Do not conform yourselves to the world, says Saint Paul, but be transformed according to the renewal of your minds.  In our time the world is all agog about sex, but it needn’t be that.  It might be money or power or ambition or national pride or comfort or something.  Barabbas is the patron of the world.

Yet some people really are secundum mundum strictly speaking.  They believe that the world has much to teach the Church about good and evil, God and man, man and woman and child, the home and the marketplace, the church and the state.  Some of these are theoretical about it, like intelligent worms in a brain.  Others are stolid.

If the Church fits their taste, which they derive from a combination of advertising, mass schooling, and social fads, like plaid slacks, then three cheers for the Church, but if not, then the Church will catch up eventually.  I can’t find a patron for these, unless it is some Meshuggene who said to Aaron, “Go ahead, make the golden calf.  It’s the thing, you see.”

Some are Catholics secundum se.  They subject the teachings of the Church to their own independent reason, which sheds, to use Spenser’s fine words, “a little glooming light, much like a shade.”

The psalmist meditates lovingly and gratefully upon the law of God, and it makes him wiser than his teachers.  Jesus says that if we love him we will keep his commandments, and the Father will give us light.  He does not say that we should wait until we understand them.

Obedience to God enlightens.  The good son obeys his father and thereby comes to dwell in his father’s wisdom.  But the Catholic secundum se places himself in a fundamental attitude of disobedience.  He may try to wait out the Church by complying, for a time, or minimally; he seeks the least he can do to stay within the law.

Thus does he combine the vice of the Pharisee with the vice of the licentious.  “I am not like other men,” he says, “who obey blindly.  I will go only where my mind takes me.”  His mind usually takes him exactly where some less noble organ of his spiritual or corporal constitution wants to go.  His patron is Pilate, the intellectual.

Some are Catholics secundum ignorantiam.  We have had four or five decades of bad preaching, bad liturgy, bad instruction, and bad schools or none at all.  Many Catholics do want to obey, but do not know what they are doing.  They mess up the Mass with the most innocent will in the world.  They char their loved ones to powder and do not think of the resurrection of the flesh.  If it isn’t obviously cruel, they believe that it must be all right.  Their patron is the woman at the well.

Some are Catholics ex officio.  Try to pry your church’s music from the cold talons of the director.  Try to reform your parish school’s curriculum, and see how far you get with the principal, or with the diocesan superintendent.  Occasionally a Catholic ex officio will lose his faith; he will never lose his job.  His patron is Caiaphas.

So to whom do we listen?  Who are the people?  The telltale is obedience, and that alone.


*Image: Caiaphas and Annas by J.J. Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.