Aphrodite in Mid-Century: Growing Up Female and Catholic in Postwar America
The Last Catholic in America
The Seduction of the Spirit: The Use and Misuse of People's Religion
Bare Ruined Choirs: Doubt, Prophecy, and Radical Religion
The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics: Politics and Culture in the Seventies
Fragments of the Century
The New Agenda
The decline of the American Catholic Church in the late Sixties has become a statistician’s plaything, as the empty pew is weighted against the growth of Real Concern. Thus: the sprawling seminaries of the Fifties may be ghost towns—but we are all priests now. Likewise, the swollen churches can’t meet their mortgages—but then, our life is our prayer. That kind of argument. The decline of a state of mind is hard to chart and I leave it to the professionals (anything so unanswerable must have money in it). But for those of us who lived through it, the physical fact itself, and the loss of institutional confidence that went with it, formed a psychic event so unmistakably spectacular that we felt as if our tripes had been removed by sleight-of-hand. The Church was still standing solid as the post office in, say, 1966; the Vatican Council had been weathered—better than weathered. In fact, the first death spasm looked like a little dance step. (The first half hour of freedom is always the best: we would be better Catholics without coercion.) And then it was gone.
That Church, anyway: the Catholic Church of America, walled off from its enemies by airtight womb to tomb education: Alcatraz, the Rock, very hard to leave. The Jesuits had been given boys not just till they were seven but till they were thirty-seven, and had used every minute of it: yet suddenly ex-Jesuits were pouring out in beards and atrocious sports shirts. Can one be un-brainwashed? Or was the brainwashing as superficial as most education?
Even if, as some die-hards maintain, it was only a flight of the liberals,1 who characteristically declared the joint closed the moment they left, it was amazing enough. Habits of a lifetime (and even liberals have habits) fell like dominoes. The fatal glass of beer theory we’d been warned about came true. Prayers, fasts, even Sunday mass itself came off in one piece. And of course it wasn’t just liberals—who after all want to believe so much they’ll do anything to make the Church believable, even deface it if necessary—but the well-drilled mob in the middle. God’s foot soldiers, the middle-aged middle-class parishioners, downed rosaries and defected in thousands to the prevailing life-styles, adopting even this barbarous word. (Modus vivendi isn’t good enough any more.) Deprived of their regular brow-beating, they turned out to be just like Americans.
There is plenty left, as there is after most revolutions: ethnics with a cultural grub stake, persons of an ecclesiastical temperament (the Church was once proud of not relying on these), and the quintessential Catholics who glory in being unfashionable. So too, England after the Reformation. The next generation will be the test. Meanwhile the right clings grimly to driftwood from the old Church and even hopes to put it together again, a possible new heresy in the making if the new Church tells them not to (see Brian Moore’s excellent novella Catholics in which a young inquisitor is sent…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.