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 from Rome to shut down the Latin mass in a corner of Ireland). And the radicals wade out bravely for unseen shores, defining themselves by action—fine while the action lasts: after Vietnam, we shall see.
One would expect from such a cataclysm a bristling literature of witness, with survivors rushing conflicting versions into print. But after the first burst, by ex-priests lashing at their past lives with the dull intolerance of outsiders—humility and arrogance snarled like wire wool in their prose—matters seem to have slowed to a trickle of bitter or facetious memoirs about addled sex instruction for boys and ridiculous sex instruction for girls. For instance, Aphrodite in Mid-Century by Caryl Rivers emphasizes that the Church did not prepare one for Mickey Spillane: Miss Rivers approaches this author as it were Voltaire, a yawning trap for the faithful—but of course, it’s all a joke. In the case of John R. Powers’s The Last Catholic in America, the gag is a book called Sandra the Sex Kitten, Hot from. Cincinnati, which young Powers angled laboriously to obtain from the local drugstore, in the manner of a wheezing Woody Allen. For this one needed a Church?
The accuracy of these and similar versions is not in question—scores of parochial school victims can confirm them. What is surprising, coming from the Whore of Rome, is their thinness. The messrs Rivers and Powers write with the resolute brightness of Hollywood or Catholic Digest clergy—or of such real-life celibates as like to be up and doing. By contrast Alexander Portnoy has a sonorous intensity; and the masturbating Irish hero of John McGahern’s The Dark has real tragic force.
The prepubescent jollity of so many American Catholics says something about their obsessions. The problem was sex and the solution was to remain too young for it (viz. the faces of so many elder clergy). A neutral reader confronted with such panicky stratagems might conclude that this was a singularly godless (to borrow its own phrase about communism) or nontheocentric religion in its last days. Sex was at the center, with everyone fleeing outward. The particular contract between God and man that had made this Church either one of man’s screwier pretensions or else, Pascal’s long shot, the actual incarnation of God’s Word—in any event a gaudy thing to have around—had been lost under a slag heap of forbidden movies and atrocious advice about masturbation; it may be written that the rock of ages devoted its last years to keeping its skirts down.
Certainly sex was never the battleground the professional theologians would have chosen. The New Testament is strikingly unsexy, for a religious source, and the fights that fashioned the early Church were over the nature of God, not the availability of condoms in Connecticut. So the Church’s best and brightest weren’t even interested in the only question much of the faithful wanted to hear about. The theologians were off talking of other matters when the roof fell in.
Birth control, a subject of virtually no theological interest, was the agent. Aesthetically it was right that a church that made such extravagant claims should gamble everything on a hopelessly unpopular position: this was precisely the supernatural element, the funky audacity Protestantism lacked. But in this case, the Church’s mind wasn’t even on the subject; the best theologians, like Hans Küng and Karl Rahner and Edward Schillebeeckx, who glittered in the conciliar period, were bored or embarrassed by it. (One of these, whom I knew personally, actually blushed and changed the subject when I brought up the Natural Law argument on birth control.) And one had the sickly suspicion that the official Church was simply saving face, à la Vietnam. The Church of England had reversed itself on birth control: but then smaller powers can give up their colonies and feel all the better for it. “Birth control is not the point,” the dying theologian cried. But it was the point, because sex had long since become more interesting than God, at least to parochial school victims (i.e., just about everybody).
About time, a secular reader might suppose. St. Paul’s central proposition, that he had seen something more interesting than sex, was bound to wear thin after 2,000 years of secondhand repetition. Still, there was much specifically religious experience to be had right to the end, and its sudden disappearance, as if it had never been there, may have social consequences that haven’t been examined yet. One obvious one is that it has left many Catholics with a hole in their personalities that they are trying frenziedly to fill (note the manic activity of ex-Catholics in so many fields from the peace movement to sex itself). It has unleashed a group of people with the highest metaphysical expectations, people bored and frustrated with lesser utopias or even ordinary human happiness. We were promised the sight of God face to face, and now you say it’s a metaphor but come to church anyway.
Well to hell with that. We laughed at the Protestants for that very thing, the noxious quality of religiousness for its own sake, symbolized by the gray suit and the apologetic manner. (And the more you reduce religious content, the more this quality obtrudes.) We, contrariwise, were raised on extremes, real flesh in the host and a real God in heaven; we had beliefs and not opinions. People might laugh at parsons, but they hated priests. Great Protestants were respectable and sensible: we were outrageous, sons of the scarlet woman. (Catholics of this persuasion agonized more over their own bourgeoisification than over any outside danger.) Bear in mind also that we were chronically overtrained for the little we were asked to do—after strict chastity and fasting worthy of guerrilla warriors, we were told to be good examples—and we brought much animal exuberance to the simple fact of being Catholic. This is an element I find missing in post-Vatican ruminations, which tend to be hangdog: one would expect even a false religious experience to have more guts than that.
One reason we may never get this historically valuable testimony is that American Catholics have more than usual difficulty with the first person, using it flippantly or defiantly or not at all. Humility was dumped over us like water on a hysteric, leaving us soggy and irritable, or passive, as the case might be. The sense of the word humility was that, although you were infinitely valuable in the eye of God, this was more to His credit than yours: it proved one more time that He could do anything, and your greatest value might be as a witness to that.
This feeling still makes Catholics uneasy with the school of religious autobiography, religion as autobiography, recently promulgated by Harvey Cox. Seduction of the Spirit is the ultimate in private judgment or black Protestant pride. A Coxite samples all the religion going until his palate is finely turned enough to know a vintage encounter group from a presumptuous High Mass. The book has been derisively called “Playboy’s Guide to Religion in the Seventies” yet I believe Cox would half-seriously defend this title: why shouldn’t the sensuous man add religion to his repertoire?
Catholics might agree to the theoretical worth of such writing, but it has always seemed flashy in the particular, unless the author heavily stressed his passivity to the will of God. And even this was usually best left to converts. Born Catholics wrote their confessional books on the way out, a last fingerwave at humility, and usually very messy (lack of practice, no doubt).
Thus Garry Wills’s Bare Ruined Choirs, which starts out to be definitive and then changes its mind, edges steadily away from the personal. Wills growing up Catholic is “we”; Wills grown up talks about “they”—liberal Catholics for the most part—and modestly disappears altogether. Well since we were “we” to some extent and Wills describes that “we” beautifully, there’s no point complaining about the missing self. But for the purposes of religious rhetoric (and most of Wills’s book is written in rhetoric) a “they” requires an “I”: as in, who’s calling whom a heretic?
Liberal Catholic is a hopelessly untechnical term, like liberal anything else. In a sense, a traditionalist like John Henry Newman was a liberal because he believed in the growth and development of doctrine, while the reformer Hans Küng is a conservative because he wants to return holus bolus to the practices of the early Church. So too, in politics, Barry Goldwater can accept the twentieth century more easily than Eugene McCarthy. Here I use the words simply as indexes of temperament: the liberal emphasizing the living (thus changing) Church, the conservative stressing Peter's Rock—without whose solidity he finds life and change random and meaningless.↩
Liberal Catholic is a hopelessly untechnical term, like liberal anything else. In a sense, a traditionalist like John Henry Newman was a liberal because he believed in the growth and development of doctrine, while the reformer Hans Küng is a conservative because he wants to return holus bolus to the practices of the early Church. So too, in politics, Barry Goldwater can accept the twentieth century more easily than Eugene McCarthy. Here I use the words simply as indexes of temperament: the liberal emphasizing the living (thus changing) Church, the conservative stressing Peter’s Rock—without whose solidity he finds life and change random and meaningless.↩