American Catholicism: The Catholic Mind ’62 – ’64

Theologian David Tracy distinguishes three publics to whom the theologian addresses him or herself: the Church, the academy, and the general populace.  Spending time paging through issues of The Catholic Mind published between 1962 and ’64, I found myself struck, especially in comparison to its relative infrequency today, by the frequency with which the third of Tracy’s audiences is addressed.  For it is indeed the educated Catholic public that serves as the audience for The Catholic Mind.  The journal is a publication of the Society of Jesus via America magazine, and it gives evidence at being aimed to facilitating the outbreak of this educated Catholic layperson from the ghetto of insular Catholic culture in any form.  That is, in order for the articles selected by the editors for inclusion in this journal to be effective, there must be an attentive, well-versed Catholic audience to receive them.  In other words, there is no need to address with such zeal the integration of the secular and sacred words if these two words were not so strictly separated for the reader in the first place.

With this intent, and aside from short editorial notes and selected original content, much of The Catholic Mind consists of recently published articles from sources as various as the New York Times magazine, the desk of John XXIII, and the pulpit of Cardinal Cushing.  Given this range of Catholic sources from which the editors might to draw, we ought to take note of how the topic and tone of The Catholic Mind is thereby strongly shaped by the agenda of the editors.  Noting this influence it seems that John XXIII himself might well serve as a symbol for the vision of American Catholicism portrayed in the pages of The Catholic Mind.  In September of 1963, as the second session of the Council was beginning, the editors quote extensively from a panegyric of Good Pope John published in the London Herald.  The tone rung out depicts a Church in which ordinary Catholics exhibited an “often unconscious desire for a more active participation in the life of the Church,” in which the “negative, defensive attitude to the faith” is now gone, in which “a new form of movement in the Church, from beneath upwards.”  All of this possible because of Pope John, who will be remembered not for the calling of the Council (momentous as that was), but for “his insistence that Christianity can be relevant today only when it makes possible a direct encounter between religion and secular world.”

Indeed it might rightly be argued that John XXIII’s personality, his openness and joviality and optimism, could be seen in the discussion of the The Catholic Mind’s discussion of the Council itself.  The editors are attentive to tradition, going out of their way to link the events of the council (and indeed John’s own actions) with the past.  But at the same time they are careful to call continually for updating.  This saying, from an editorial, is emblematic: “The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of the faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another.  And it is the latter that must be taken into great consideration, with patience if necessary” at the Second Vatican Council.

Robert Rouquette, SJ, in an article entitled, “A Fresh Orientation in the Church” write with open enthusiasm of the new freedoms he sees emerging (despite the lack of new documents) produced during the first session of the Council.  This is especially seen in the tendency of the Council Fathers to reject a negative, denunciatory attitude which takes “a purely defensive stand against error.”  Instead, “they wish to afford a salutary freedom” to scholars, trusting that their faith will animate their scholarship without threat.  Evidence of such is seen in the Fathers’ repeated rejection of the initial schema’s presented to them, one of which (the schema on the Church) was criticized by Bishop De Smedt of being triumphalistic, clericalistic and legalistic.  The signs of the times as exhibited here point clearly to a seemingly euphoric joy, release, and relief.

This is not to say that The Catholic Mind is a liberal rag, no matter how we might like to take refuge in such sloppy labels as “conservative” or “liberal.”  The editors of The Catholic Mind are loathe let such labels slide by without clarification.  Indeed, in an editorial note in March of ’63 they spend some time discussing their agreement with Edmund Burke’s critique of liberalism: “For Burke, freedom and order were not only complementary and interdependent.  For him, as for all true conservatives, order was primary, and liberty was functional.”  They conclude: “We do not win freedom by denying the needs of the social order, but by deliberately creating an order in which men can be free.”  It is release from constriction while still holding to order, a tensive balance long true of Catholicism, that emanates from these pages.

We can see an example of such an emphasis on order in the editor’s comments on John XIII’s beautiful encyclical Pacem in Terris, which “restates for our day the Church’s age-old conviction that men cannot live in that peace which they so desire unless they create an order of truth, justice and charity.”  They view this as the Holy Father’s effort to chart a course between liberalism (which makes the individual sovereign) and totalitarianism (which imposes order by force).  The human being is held on this course by freedom to “know the truth and… choose to live in accordance with the truth thus known.”  So, while Cardinal Suenen’s presentation of Pacem in Terris to the United Nations in New York is quoted in full, Catholicism is viewed as “a complexio oppositorum: it embraces and reconciles the opposite poles of being.  The Catholic response to sectarianism, therefore, cannot be a mere sectarianism in the opposite direction.”  The prescribed duty given such a careful balance? To “take [the truth] whole.”

While such an overarching perspective of excited openness to the secular world dominates these years of The Catholic Mind, it does so in ways especially relevant to the laity.  This is particularly true in the frequent mention made of the civil rights movement, the responsibility of Catholics to care for the international community, the concern regarding the increased privatization and individuation of “modern” lives, and even an explicit challenge to the vision of masculinity presented in the pages of Playboy.  This last serves to illustrate the shift in mentality between what might have been expected in 1953 and what this article presents in 1963 quite well as the author says: “any theological critique of Playboy that focuses on its ‘lewdness’ will misfire completely.  Playboy… is not a ‘sex magazine’ at all.  It is basically anti-sexual.  …It is precisely because [of this] that it deserves the most searching kind of theological criticism.”  Here we see a theologian doing exactly what Tracy prescribes and addressing an increasing educated, increasingly secularly engaged lay public not with strict authority, but with reason.  That such an author has embodied much of John XXIII’s balanced attitude towards an open and ordered world can be seen in the clarification of his reasoning.  He writes that Playboy wrong not just because it is lewd, but because it “fosters a heretical doctrine of man… in which women are for him [as] his leisure accessories, his playthings.”  Such an engagement with the secular world is already emblematic of what we might call a style embodied in John XXIII and the second Vatican Council.

Such an emphasis is deepened by the attention given by The Catholic Mind to lay vocations within the world.  The rise of the relevance of such vocations can be seen in articles on the common priesthood of the laity, which is emphasized as “a true priesthood, a real share in the one priesthood of Christ, though its share differs from that of ordained priests,” or of the Catholic university student called to appropriate secular knowledge within a Catholic vision, or even (and for the first time that I have noticed) discussion of the vocation of laywomen outside of the descriptors: wife and mother.  This last is given in article entitle “Laywomen in the Overseas Apostolate” in which, although there is much discussion of “homemaking” while overseas, never the less gives the effect elevating and opening-up the vocation of laywomen.  The author, Mary Mondello, expresses the difference it makes that she and the fellow members of her team have come as “fellow Catholics” rather than “Americans.”  Here we start to see the shift in missiology which will be concretized by Vatican II.  She concludes by noting of the role of women in the Church: “never have we had greater opportunities to practice the Martha and Mary roles.”

In all of these examples John XXIII can be seen as exemplar and model.  Indeed, one is not wrong to hear in the eulogy of John XXIII, perhaps in nearly all of that published by The Catholic Mind, echoes of that famous word: aggiornamento.  This well known word can be used not only to describe the work of the Second Vatican Council, but also of the state of mind of Catholics in America.

PG, SJ

One Response to American Catholicism: The Catholic Mind ’62 – ’64

  1. Qualis Rex says:

    Hello Paddy,

    Interesting points here. What strikes me from this article is the erroneous tendency of equating “aggiornamento” with progress or improvement; it just means “update”. To your point, the view or perception of what it meant to “participate” at mass may have shifted, due to Americans having more contact with Protestants. But I would argue that this update was not progress.

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