(RNS) For generations, thousands of Catholics—from archbishops to people in the pews—saw the Catholic Church as eternal, timeless, and unmoved by the tides of history.
But the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s unleashed a sea of changes—none more significant than the recognition that Catholicism has, and continues to be, shaped by historical events, argues the Rev. Mark Massa in a new book.

Massa’s intellectual history, “The American Catholic Revolution: How the `60s Changed the Church Forever,” describes how celebrating the Mass in English, butting heads with the pope on birth control, and priests protesting the Vietnam War opened new possibilities—and controversies—in the church.

Massa, dean of Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry, spoke about his book; some answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Why should American Catholics care what happened in the 1960s?

A: Starting with Vatican II, Catholics became aware that the church, its worship, and its beliefs change—that the church develops over history. The current battles between the left and the right are really between those who want to press a historical awareness of change and those who want to view the church as timeless.

Q: Why did the “Catholic Revolution,” as you call it, begin in 1964?

A: The new Mass (which was introduced in America that year) made real, or concrete, the changes that Vatican II made in ways that theology, or other declarations from the council could not.

Q: Why is change—not sex—the church’s dirty little secret?

A: A great majority of Catholics (once) thought of the church as outside of time altogether—that what they did on Sunday is what Jesus did at the Last Supper, and early Christians did in the catacombs. Vatican II attacked this notion of the church as providing a timeless set of answers to life’s questions about meaning.

Q: And that became a personal crisis for Catholics in the 1960s?

A: Catholics, like all believers, want security. The world seems, and can be, a very scary place; and they want their religion to provide them with some form of certainty, security, and peace of mind. But faith is a stance in history; it doesn’t preserve us from messiness, or from change, including to religious institutions.

Q: How much was the “Catholic Revolution” affected by the cultural tumult of the`60s?

A: There was always an international dimension that made the Catholic ‘60s different from the general culture, because of this long devotion to Rome and the primacy of the pope. My sense is that most of the important stuff wasn’t a reaction to events and ideas outside the church but to things happening inside the church itself.

Q: Pope Benedict XVI has been among those arguing that Vatican II was not a disruption in the church’s usual course of business, right?

A: I think, basically, Benedict is a classicist and he thinks that human essence and things like that stay the same.

Q: So, is he trying to put the “change” genie back in the bottle, or does he deny there is any genie to bottle up?

A: I think he knows the genie exists. He’s very smart, a world-class theologian—he knows the stakes. I think he see that the changes made by Vatican II led to fewer priests and fewer (members of religious orders) and so something went really wrong.

Q: As a Jesuit, are you worried about publicly disagreeing with the pope?

A: No. I’m a historian. I’m only laying out the past. The argument stands or falls according to whether it makes the most sense of the most data from the past. I’m not making moral judgments.

Q: How does Benedict’s recent reform of the Mass in English and support for the Latin Mass fit into your theory?
A: It’s partly personal preference. He’s Austrian, and likes looking back to the past. He likes the smells and bells. I do, too. I suspect there’s more to it than that, but I don’t know.

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