American Catholicism: The Commonweal ’64 – ’65

December 6, 2011

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? Read the rest of this entry »


Fish (& chips) on Fridays

May 23, 2011

Fish Fridays are back for the Catholics of England and Wales, or at least they will be come September.  The bishops conference of those countries announced last week that Friday abstinence from meat will once again become obligatory for their flock starting September 16, the first anniversary of Pope Benedict’s visit to the U.K.

Some sociologists have argued that dropping meatless Fridays in the 1960s was a pastoral error on the Church’s part.  Meatless Fridays, so the thinking goes, were a significant marker of Catholic identity, and the rapid disappearance of so many such markers contributed to the disastrous erosion of Catholic life and practice which began in the late 1960s.

Still, even if one accepts that suddenly dropping an ancient practice such as meatless Fridays was a mistake, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the practice should be revived today.  Nonetheless, it seems to me there are significant theological reasons to praise the bishops of England and Wales for their gutsy decision.  Perhaps we might even learn something from them on this side of the pond.

Read the rest of this entry »


Catholics and abortion: A test of faith (Part I)

January 17, 2011

Because of teaching commitments here in Chicago I will not be able to join the growing number of young Jesuits, their students, and colleagues at the annual March for Life this weekend.  I thought I would use the occasion of the March, however, to address a challenge posed to me nearly a year ago in this blog’s discussion of health care reform:  why is it that Catholics—and American Catholics specifically—are so concerned with the issue of abortion?  Haven’t the American Catholic bishops in particular allowed themselves to be hijacked by this one issue?

Commonweal board member George Dennis O’Brien argues essentially this point in a new book titled A Catholic Dissent, the content of which one can surmise from the title.  In a very different way, Joseph Bottum, editor of the journal First Things, also claims that abortion has become a primary marker of the cultural identity of American Catholics.  Even if one agrees with Bottum that the pro-life cause is a significant marker of Catholic identity, it does not follow that it should be so.

The observations of O’Brien and Bottum raise two related questions:  first, should opposition to abortion be treated as constitutive of Catholic identity?  Is it really that central to our faith?  Second, should Catholics make abortion issue number one politically?  Should it be prioritized above other issues?  I’ll look at the first, more theological question, today and the second in two posts to follow. Read the rest of this entry »