American Catholicism: The Commonweal ’64 – ’65

Not really from our time period, but it was the best I could do...

On the 8th of January 1965, on page four hundred and ninety five of The Commonweal, on the right hand side of the page, we find an advertisement.  It depicts the profile of a man in a tie placing a cigarette to his lips.  The matching tagline reads: “Can a priest be a modern man?”  The copy below clarifies that Priests can be men of “this age, cognizant of the needs of modern men.”  Free from formalism, the priest is a pioneer, a missionary to his own people, utilizing his individual talents and modern technology to preach the word of God.  A clearer image of the changing demographics and temperament of the American Catholic Church (as painted by Commonweal during this time) is difficult to find.

With these issues we step not only into the middle ‘60s, but into a world and Church beginning to look like those with which I am familiar.  In September of ’64 we see not only the third session of the Council opening, but also the incipient Free Speech Movement in Berkeley.  November brings the victory of Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater, and the initiation of English into the liturgy.  1965 sees the assassination of Malcolm X and the signing of the Civil Rights Act, the Watts riots in Los Angeles, and anti-war protests springing up across the country.  Commonweal keeps pace with such modern events.  In its pages we begin to see Church conflicts framed along a progressive/conservative divide and phrases such as the “post-Christian West” and the “re-conversion of Europe.”  Commonweal even describes its mission as one that meshes perfectly with the signs of the times, writing in an self-advertisement: “Now, in the new climate engendered by Popes John and Paul, this widely quoted, lay-edited journal of opinion has more to contribute that in the years before.”  And contribute it does, the questions are: what does it contribute?  Why?  And to what end?

As for what Commonweal contributes during these years the short answer is: critical reflection on the Church and the world from the perspective of the educated layperson.  Topics such as the following stand out: the conflict in Vietnam, the mission of the Peace Corps, ecumenism, the English liturgy, civil rights, the arts, the role of women, birth control, and the Vatican Council, notably how it is shaping the role of the laity in the Church.

On the social front we see an editorial entitled “Church Burning”, which sounds a clear call for a more complete realization of civil rights.  “Compare the Mississippi Negro’s situation with that of, say, the Roman Catholic… in New York State” they write, “were twenty-four Catholic churches to be set afire within a period of months, the reaction would be overwhelming. The pressure on… politicians would be unbearable.” Birth control also forms a significant topic, especially the novella length Contraception and Catholicism by Dr. Louis Dupre, which Commonweal praises both for its use of natural rights language and its stance that birth control can be acceptable.

Commonweal also reads Catholics as entering the mainstream of American culture economically, politically and even intellectually.  The last of these is argued for in an article by Fr. Andrew Greeley on the state of the Catholic intellectual life. “American Catholics have now pulled abreast of the rest of the population economically and socially and are in the process of doing so intellectually,” he contends.  “My argument, then, is that there is developing a younger Catholic intelligentsia, loyal to the Church in its own way, and not very different from the non-Catholic intelligentsia – save in its going to Church.”  Book reviews of related topics, such as John D. Donovan’s A Basic Ambiguity (a sociological study of the tensions of faculty at Catholic universities) are set next to reviews of popular works such as The Mafia by Norman Lewis.  Indeed, notable by its lack in the latter article is any mention of Catholicism.

Two final points worth brief notes are ecumenism and the English liturgy.  Evidence for the influence of the prior can be seen in the first article I have yet seen in this historical overview that brings up Mary in anything but reverent tones.  This is not to say that the author was defamatory, but that any movement towards limiting discussion of Mary (here in her role as Mediatrix) because it may cause conflict in ecumenical circles strikes the reader as wildly novel.   Regarding the latter topic of vernacular liturgy, we see in Commonweal advertisements for English translations of the Divine Office, and even an extensive article berating the great novelist Evelyn Waugh for his opposition.

It's the Kindle edition!

But the central topic of Commonweal during this “age of the laity” as it is once called, is more certainly the changing role of lay persons within the Church.  We can see this, from the side of the clergy, simply by remembering the advertisement for modern clergy mentioned above.  But further evidence is found in an advertisement located on the back page of the October 9, 1964 issue.  It lays out the aims and founding ideal of the then-brand-new National Catholic Reporter.  Noting that “a religious paper often finds it easier to substitute edification for information,” the NCR’s founding advertisement describes itself as “strongly (and loudly)” placing “the reporting function” before anything else.  This is the Church of God, the ad proclaims, in newsprint.

The “sub” of the subtext of such conflict between clergy and laity found in such an ad is cleanly removed by James O’Gara, regular editor of Commonweal during these years, in his dispute with one Fr. William J. Smith, S.J. on the utility of criticism of the hierarchy by the laity as an instrument of reform.  O’Gara frames his argument by quoting Fr. Smith’s, who wrote: “some of the intellectuals amongst the laity seem to be laboring under the delusion that the renewal and reform of the Church promised by the Vatican Council will come about more quickly through criticism of the hierarchy by the laity.”  To this accusation O’Gara responds pointedly and decisively: “If this is delusion, I plead guilty.”  But he goes further in supporting criticism – public criticism it seems – as a valid tool for reform and renewal of the Church, something that would have been nigh on unthinkable not even a decade previously.  “Criticism still has a large part to play in reform and renewal – even criticism of the hierarchy,” he rebuts.  While we can still see vestiges of hierarchical status in O’Gara’s use of “even”, still the tone of O’Gara’s rebuff is vehement and strong.  All this is not, however, to say that O’Gara is wrong.  He quotes a friend of his to clarify the origins of his point: “The lay person,” says his friend, “either man or woman, wishes to be considered a first-class creature of God.” Indeed, O’Gara clarifies that his reason for offering such criticism is not strictly not anti-clericalism, but “love of the Church and a desire to make its work more effective in the modern world.”  This argument in tone and substance feels alive to the contemporary reader.  I have little doubt that this very argument could be cut out of whole cloth and reprinted today and few readers would bat an eye.

Before moving on it may be helpful to bring to the fore the logic beneath an argument such as O’Gara’s. This is because O’Gara looks for the force of his arguments to efficacy, to that great American doctrine: pragmatism.  He reads the signs of the times as he sees them and adapts an answer in light of his desire to see the Church grow in its efficacy.  “The point is this” he says, “the Church is not an anachronism, she is relevant for our time…

Priest, Prophet and King, baby

As much as possible, we should bear witness to this fact, not obscure it.”  Perhaps there is something to lament in this conflict between clergy and laity, but I find nothing to mourn either in O’Gara’s tone or his genuine love of the Church.  Indeed, I find much of myself in him: a man struggling to live out his Baptismal call in a conflictual world.

It seems that in all of the above we can see Catholic identity beginning to demand that it be positively established.  That is, Catholic identity is becoming what it is today, an achieved rather than ascribed identity for individuals and for the Church as a whole.  We might look for support of this concluding point to Catholic political identity, namely the evolution of Catholic political identity beyond anti-communism.  An example of such can be seen in an article on Christian Democracy by Eduardo Frei, the then recently elected President of Chile.  He describes Christian Democracy in terms that might be descriptive of an aggiornamento Catholic Church, saying that it has its strength in “its positive character, and not a negative or anti-communist position.  Many people take a negative position, and their first question is always whether we are anti something.  Christian Democracy is founded on faith.”  If we listen closely here, it may seem that we can hear in such words echoes of Pope John XXIII’s opening allocution to the Fathers at Vatican II where he charged his fellow Bishops not to be “prophets of gloom,” but to show the Church as “the loving mother of all.”


One Response to American Catholicism: The Commonweal ’64 – ’65

  1. Qualis Rex says:

    Hello Paddy, great follow-up to your last article. 2 things stuck me: 1) can priests be “modern” and not simply victims of their era any more than any other human walking the earth? I have come across so many parishes in my adult life that seem to be pertetually locked in a time-capsule circa 1978; music, burlap/felt and rainbow stole over darshiki-esque vestments on a very anachronistic priest. I think priests, like any individual, can fall into the trap of viewing the world in terms of their “glory days”, and risk not being a part of the modern world.

    2) I absolutely believe there is a place for Catholicism in politics as a positive force (not just “anti-communism” as a ralying cry). In fact, I strongly believe America would be very much better off with a 3rd party based on pro-life/social issues, instead of the 2 options of (in)convienience we have now.

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