Writing a pre-Vatican II or traditionalist Catholic character

If you’re writing historical fiction set before the Second Vatican Council of 1962–65, your characters will pretty much be old-school Catholics by default. My Laura (whom I initially based on a very religious Catholic friend of mine), whose dream is to be the first female Pope and who gets bounced from her church for her radical ideas, is the exception, not the norm.

Contemporary Catholics who don’t accept the liberalizing changes of Vatican II prefer to call themselves simply Catholics, but the term “traditionalist Catholic” is used to distinguish them from Catholics with a more modern outlook.

So what would be going on in such a character’s world?

Latin Mass! This is probably one of the best-known changes of Vatican II. The sermon would’ve been delivered in the vernacular, but the Mass itself was all in Latin.

The priest didn’t face his congregation. Again, he would’ve faced them for the sermon, but during the actual Mass, he faced towards the altar.

Nuns and monks wore full habits. The particulars differed by order, but you wouldn’t have found them going about in street clothes or abbreviated habits. I’ve always loved and admired nuns, and feel kind of sad most no longer wear any sort of habit.

There were junior seminaries for teenagers who wanted to join religious life, and many teens went right from their parents’ homes to the convent or monastery upon high school graduation. As compared to today, it wasn’t uncommon for many nun and priest novices to be all of 18 years old.

Going to Catholic school was much more common. My character Laura and her four siblings are so liberal for their era in large part because their family is too poor to afford Catholic school. In public school, they absorb all kinds of ideas and interact with different types of people, instead of only seeing the world through a very Catholic lens. Some schools didn’t charge tuition for church members, but others did.

The Eucharist was taken with closed eyes, kneeling, and not chewed. The priest would put it in the person’s open mouth, and it would be dissolved. Today, it’s not uncommon for people to stand up, keep their eyes open, take it with their hands, and chew it.

Much larger families! I don’t think I need to explain the traditional Catholic prohibition against any sort of birth control. Unless there were fertility issues, or a priest approved a hysterectomy for something like very aggressive cancer or pelvic TB, a family would have a lot of kids.

Limbo of Infants, while never official Catholic doctrine, was more widely-believed. Some people (both theologians and laypeople) speculated unbaptized babies went to Limbo.

More of an us against them feeling, both in regards to other faiths and the world at large. Obviously, this sentiment wasn’t unique to Catholics, as interfaith relations 50+ years ago weren’t exactly what they are today.

Not eating meat on Fridays, except for feast days like Christmas and Easter. Today, it’s more common to only abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent.

Women and girls covered their heads in church, with either hats or beautiful lace veils.

Going to Confession more frequently.

Fasting for at least three hours before taking Communion.

As for the Greek Catholic churches, there’s been much less resistance to the Vatican II changes. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has had the most problems with the changes.

Taking everything in the Bible literally.

Ascribing much more to Papal infallibility, with much less personal dissent on issues like birth control, abortion, euthanasia, premarital sex, and divorce.

Mass took place on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. Since Vatican II, many churches have begun holding Mass on Saturday evenings and the evening before a Holy Day of Obligation. However, Mass still isn’t celebrated on Good Friday (though pre-blessed Communion is available).

Let me know if I missed anything important! If you’re Catholic, are you a traditionalist or more liberal? Have you ever written any Catholic characters?


3 thoughts on “Writing a pre-Vatican II or traditionalist Catholic character

  1. I remember when on Fridays our school lunch was always fish.
    Once in San Diego when Regis Philbin still had a local TV talk show, he was emceeing a show where my family was performing our juggling act and in reference to my parents’ five kids he introduced our act as a “good Catholic family.” We weren’t Catholic, but it made for a funny line of introduction.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out


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