American Catholicism: America Magazine ’54 – ’58

This week we take a look at the state of the American Catholic Church as shown by America Magazine between the years of 1954 to 1958.

In the pages of America we find a 1956 missive entitled “Five Live Problems for Catholics” which gives the interested reader a concise initial listing of the main concerns facing Catholics during the Cold Wars years of ’54 to ’58.  We might be helped in our efforts to examine Catholicism as presented in America during this time by using the author’s list a sort of schema.

First we are able to note a genuine desire for social acceptance, a desire well-captured in the virulent rejection of the phrase “Catholic ghetto” – whether it be used to describe the Catholic sociological situation, jobs appropriate for Catholics, or the isolationist quality of much Catholic intellectual work.  Examples of such concern abound in America’s pages during these years.  See for example the continuing, and dominating, worry over Communism.  In a short piece on the visit of Soviet Premier Khrushchev to England we see a glimpse of such a Cold War Catholic mindset.  The editors seem shockingly suspicious, writing that despite Khruschev’s “smiling” face, the Western powers have been “too thoroughly educated in Soviet duplicity” to be anything less than over prepared.  And this preparation, at least in the pages of America, does not limit itself to military might.  Indeed, the true task is to fight the “materialism of the Communist state, which reduces the human being to a numberless tool” by “defending the spiritual worth of the individual.”  Here again we see the holy trinity of mid-century Catholic identity: anti-communism, patriotism and a free society upheld by strict morality.

Luckily such overreaction is not universal.  In 1956 future member of the U.S. House of Representatives Bob Drinan, S.J. wrote a compelling and revelatory piece to commemorate and reflect upon The Compulsory Testimony Act – which Congress enacted in order to more fully pursue Communists who might otherwise hide behind the 5th amendment.  Drinan concludes his practical reflections on a powerfully compassionate note, especially given the climes.  He writes: “In our anxiety to protect ourselves against treason in our midst let us not forget ex-criminals and even ex-traitors have a right to our compassion and love.”  It seems that, while taking the Red Scare seriously, there were some among the Catholic Church who were not swept away by fear.

The second of our five live problems deals with Catholicism and the intellect. Exemplary of this concern is a series of three articles which ran between November and December of 1954.  These show a significant worry over what the perception that Catholic university educations generally lack rigor, or that young Catholics would experience a “subversion of faith by intellectuals” at secular universities.  While the worry over the effect of secular schools on faith is already considered old hat by the editors at America, never the less, the familiar feeling of there being “a concerted campaign of attrition against the faith” of Catholic students is duly noted.  One of the authors, a Newman Center Chaplain named Fr. Maguire, even gives a foreshadowing voice to the cultural changes that we today know were forthcoming when he notes that he is not given the “warm reception” to which is accustomed in Catholic circles, nor the “special deference” which non-academic Protestants usually show.  No, in such intellectual secular climes, he feels that he is “regarded as an intruder” and made to feel “ill at ease.”

Fr. Maguire does, however, give voice to what seems to be an increasingly common Catholic concern, the concern that Catholic thought be taken seriously.  One effort to do so can be seen in a March 1955 article called the “Comradeship of True Learning” which is typical for the glowing terms it uses to describe Catholic participation in conferences of the Northwest Philosophical Association.  While the author’s tone may bring a wistful smile to modern faces (what with references to the “cold-steel of Thomas’ penetrating thought”), the author is careful to note the benefit of mutually sharpened arguments, and, provocatively, friendship between those with differing philosophical positions which result from such cross-system pollination.

The third and fourth of our live problems can be considered together: the friction between Catholic faith and American life, and the tendencies toward social conformity which are beginning to be noted in the breakdown of the Catholic ghetto.  Such concerns about how Catholics are to live within capitalistic America are usually framed as concerns over falling moral standards & the always attendant loss of faith.  We can look to the striking title of the article, “Young Thugs Need God” for evidence of such.  The author sharply criticizes a recent study by the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency which almost completely neglected to mention either religion or God.  While Fr. George does note a number of mitigating factors, such as social conditions which make it difficult to live a Christian life, but returns to his point by quoting Judge Miner of Illinois to the effect that “Irreligion has obviously become the major contributing factor to our national juvenile crisis.”

As for the problem of conformity we might see, for example, an issue dating from April of 1956, the cover story of which reads: “So You’re Moving to Suburbia.”  The author confronts succinctly the questions of what the flight from the inner-city means for Catholic parishes, although the first paragraphs, oddly enough, don’t initially confront what we might expect (i.e., loss of community or identity), but with overcrowding.  That is, the suburban parish priest is depicted as having too many students to deal with, too many Masses to say, too many baptisms to do.  The suburban Church: packed, affluent and thriving.  The authors, while briefly wondering after the consequence of decreased ethnic unity, largely see opportunity on the horizon, especially in the areas of political involvement and a redefinition of the relationship between priest and parishioner.  America astutely uses the sociological distinction between ascribed and achieved status as a predictor for the changing authority relations between the laity and clerics.  Lastly, the creation of new suburban parishes is named as an opportunity for increased “understanding of and enthusiasm for” the liturgy – especially when a new parish doesn’t have to face those perennial words of complaint: “for fifty years we’ve never done that!”

Our last area of conflict is that of authority, especially the fear of its decline.  While the pages of America note facts such as that “the patriarchal pastor is no longer much in evidence today” we also see a number of articles such as one version of the regular “Feature X.”  In this essay a writer going by the pseudonym Anne Becker suggests that recent discussions of loyalty tests which might be administered to government officials might be helpful for Catholics.  Spelling out the kind of disloyalty such tests might reveal, she is especially concerned with criticizing the Church in front of non-Catholics.  The phrases “the priest talks money too much,” or “I’m a Catholic, but” are entirely unacceptable.  To her leading question “I wonder how many Catholics could pass a test given to determine their loyalty to their Church?” there is little doubt that she would answer: few.

It seems that all through the pages of these years a small, slight shift is occurring underneath the surface.  It shows up especially in the almost-strident efforts to depict and maintain this unity.  Such effort bespeaks a fear of fissure, a fissure which seems to be brewing before the Council was even a glimmer in Pope John’s eye.  Indeed, John XXIII was, by the end of 1958, still only known as Cardinal Roncalli.

PG, SJ

3 Responses to American Catholicism: America Magazine ’54 – ’58

  1. Qualis Rex says:

    Hello Paddy, VERY interesting article and insights. The grumblings about loyalty to the church and hiearchy were right on the money in hindsight. Although the lithmus test (i.e. that Fr talks too much about money) seem so innocent and almost laughible compared to the issues we face today. Did “Anne Becker” have even the most remote of fears that we would end up with the likes of “Father Feely” who lives an openly gay lifestyle, bastardizes the liturgy to the point of being unrecognizable and does not believe or teach any dogma to speak of? Or “Sister Mandetester” who neither participates nor associates with anything Catholic, but uses her title to publicly raly and rebel against anything patriarchal, while enjoying a very comfortable stipend from exhausting the donations accumulated by her order from the faithful over the last 3 centuries? Or “Lisa & Luke Warm”, Catholics in name only who support abortion, don’t practice their religion but use the title when it suits them in an argument begining with “as an ardent Catholic…”? O tempora! O mores!

    On a separate note, one thing the article alluded to, but didn’t necessarily spell-out was the solidarity of the Catholic church in America with the rest of the world, specifically living under the communist bloc. Although I didn’t live during the time, I can say from the vast quantity of writings and sermons produced (Don Camilo, The Deliverance of Sr Cecila, Cardinal Kung etc) that the church was definitely at the forefront of providing news, help and empathy to Americans for Catholics around the world, specifically in places of suffering. I found it amazing during the invasion of Iraq how many American priests had no idea there were Christians living in Iraq, or even cared about their fate. The Americath church has definitely become a breed apart.

    And once again, may God have mercy on our souls.

  2. As I graduated from my Catholic high school in 1956, we were warned not to attend the local public university. We were also warned that we would be in danger of losing our faith if we took philosophy courses at the local public university. I went to the local public university and took philosophy courses anyway and am still Catholic.

  3. I suspect Paddy Gilger wrote this. But why do I have to guess? Please, you guys, sign your pieces? Kaiser

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