The Smoke of Satan: Conservative and Traditionalist Dissent in Contemporary American Catholicismby Michael W. Cuneo
At the site of the Vatican Pavilion at the old World's Fair grounds in Queens, New York, where the late Veronica Lueken for years came to receive messages from the Blessed Virgin Mary, her followers still gather with apocalyptic expectancy before a portable statue of the Virgin. They are convinced that virtually the entire world, including the great majority of Catholics, will soon perish in a horrible chastisement, and that they alone will be saved. In the theological underground of American Catholicism, mostly hidden from public view, the followers of Veronica are just a few among the many who regard both the broader society and the broader church as irredeemably corrupt. Now, Michael Cuneo's The Smoke of Satan brings these groups vividly to life, shedding valuable light on the current state of Catholicism in North America--and, more generally, on religion in our society.
The sweeping changes instituted by the Church in the 1960s were not greeted with equal enthusiasm by all American Catholics: A small but highly vocal minority felt the Church had impulsively abandoned its defining precepts. Cuneo (Sociology and Anthropology/Fordham Univ.) examines several distinct groups that have emerged from the "crisis of identity" caused by change: moral conservatives, including the militant late-20th-century crusaders against abortion; Catholic separatists, who have withdrawn from the Church and created their own isolationist communities; and Marianists, who seek guidance from the apocalyptic messages of the Blessed Virgin's miraculous appearances. Of these, the last two are perhaps the least understood. The conspiracy theories of separatistswho believe that John Paul II is a false pope, selected by communist forces intent on infiltrationare fodder for ridicule, but Cuneo never mocks his subjects. Rather, he seeks to understand separatism's origins in the seeming vacuum of authority created by Vatican II, which liberalized the priesthood, granted power to the laity, and acknowledged nonpapal sources of truth. Similarly, the author places the Marianists in a context of the demythologization of Catholicism after the Council. Marianism explicitly rejects the deep-sixing of miracles, affirming a divine control of human history.
In neglecting to note that many mainstream Catholics have also rejected some of Vatican II's sweeping reforms, albeit in smaller ways, Cuneo runs the risk of missing the larger picture of Catholics' ongoing negotiations with the legacy of Vatican II. Still, this is a winning ethnography of some unusual religious sects.
- Oxford University Press, USA
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.38(w) x 9.50(h) x 0.84(d)
Read an Excerpt
OUT OF THE GHETTO
IN 1899, Pope Leo XIII issued a letter of condemnation against an intellectual movement that he identified, quite simply, as Americanism. As noted by Dennis McCann in his provocative book on the topic, the encyclical letter Testem benevolentiae took direct aim at the innovative views of Isaac Thomas Hecker, an American Catholic convert and founder of the Paulist fathers. At a time when the Vatican was still implacably opposed to the twin principles of democracy and religious freedom, Hecker had argued that in their American context these principles had actually proven beneficial to the Catholic faith. Not only had the church in the United States enjoyed impressive institutional growth despite holding neither religious monopoly nor legal privilege, according to Hecker, but it had also been enriched spiritually through prolonged exposure to the American democratic ethos, with its tolerance for diversity and its characteristically experimental approach to truth. As a consequence, Hecker had argued, there was emerging within the American church of the late nineteenth century an unprecedented respect for religious liberty and a corresponding confidence in the capacity of a laity nurtured in democracy to find its own way to Christian virtue. Indeed, it was Hecker's view that American Catholics, sustained by the presence of the Holy Spirit within their community, were authors of an entirely new chapter in Catholic ecclesiology.
It was scandal enough to the Vatican that Hecker and his supporters would so avidly endorse a political arrangement in which Catholicism was denied favored status. In anearlier encyclical, Immortale Dei (1885), Leo XIII had declared it essential not only that the modern state be professedly Christian but also that within its boundaries Catholicism be accorded preeminent legal standing. But even more vexing was the theological creativeness that the so-called Americanists seemed to claim for their national church. Taking their lead from Hecker, a number of influential prelates within the American hierarchy, most notably John Ireland and Cardinal Gibbons, had proposed that by virtue of their openness to the Holy Spirit and their experience of democracy, Catholics in the United States were in process of developing a spirituality dynamically in tune with the cultural conditions of the modern world. While the Americanists said nothing explicitly at variance with Catholic dogma, and it was clearly not their intention to challenge the authority of Rome, the progressive role they envisioned for the American church, coupled with their positive assessment of individual spiritual experience and democracy, seemed to the Vatican dangerously presumptuous. Moreover, the enthusiasm with which Hecker's ideas had been received among Catholic liberals in France served to increase Leo XIII's suspicion that Americanism was yet another attempt, not so very different from the Gallicanisms of the past, to assert the independence of a national church from Rome. It was with concerns such as these in mind that the pope in Testem benevolentiae decried the efforts of Hecker and others to reconcile the American church with its political and cultural environment.
But in the matter of which we are now speaking, Beloved Son, the project involves a greater danger and is more hostile to Catholic doctrine and discipline, inasmuch as the followers of these novelties judge that a certain liberty ought to be introduced into the Church, so that, limiting the exercise and vigilance of its powers, each one of the faithful may act more freely in pursuance of his own natural bent and capacity. They affirm, namely, that this is called for in order to imitate that liberty which, though quite recently introduced, is now the law and the foundation of almost every civil community.
There seems little doubt that Testem benevolentiae had substantial impact upon the evolving self-identity of American Catholicism. As if repentant for the theological deviations denounced in the encyclical, the American church retreated in the years following its release into a cultural ghetto, effectively shutting itself off from the ideological enticements of the broader society. And within this enclosure was fostered a piety that left Catholics palpably different from their fellow Americans, a piety undergirded, in the words of Dennis McCann, by "unquestioning loyalty to Rome, a veneration of the Blessed Virgin and the saints that at least bordered on the superstitious, clerical authoritarianism, and a consciousness of sin that made all these other differences seem not just plausible but indispensable." There seemed little point in venturing beyond the ghetto in pursuit of truth, it came to be assumed, when all the truth that really mattered was already there, certified by Rome and available for instant consumption.
Within this all-embracing Catholic subculture, there was no structure more prominent, or more a symbol of intellectual confinement, than the parochial school. Since the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884, when it was mandated that every Catholic child should receive a Catholic education, the building of schools had been a priority of the highest order for the American church. So important was the parochial school to American Catholics that in many communities its construction preceded by several years that of the actual parish church. Staffed mainly by nuns recruited and trained expressly for a teaching role, these educational bastions of the Catholic ghetto instilled in the children of poor immigrants a dual loyalty to church and country, and in all of their students a basic literacy in Catholic dogma.
Considering the immense financial sacrifice that went into its creation, and also the sense of fortified unity it provided their ethnically diverse church, the ghetto infrastructure of school, convent, and rectoryespecially during the decades preceding the Second World Warwas understandably an achievement of considerable pride for American Catholics. During the 1950s, however, as Catholics began their steady ascent into the occupational mainstream of American society, this infrastructure increasingly came to be seen as something of a mixed blessingas tangible proof on the one hand of the dedication and resourcefulness of the church, and yet also a constant reminder of unfulfilled promise and spiritual vacuity. Particularly during this period for Catholics who had tasted secular success, the ghetto had become claustrophobic, its schools cramped and abandoned to mediocrity, its rituals meretricious, and its theology vacant and aloof. Even though dissatisfaction of this sort was not universally felt, it nonetheless reflected a certain restlessness within the American church on the eve of the Second Vatican Council.
When painting with such broad historical strokes, we run a clear risk of oversimplification. While true that the American church of the pre-conciliar era was often seen (and sometimes also experienced) as a ghetto of oppressive sameness, it wasn't entirely devoid of excitement. In the political realm, for example, there were efforts by such coolly pragmatic priests as John Ryan, George Higgins, and Jack Egan to reform American society according to Catholic ideals of social justice. In the arena of social activism there was Dorothy Day and her Catholic Worker movement, with its anarcho-syndicalist vision for a transformed social order. In spirituality there was Thomas Merton, whose writings awakened a generation of Catholics to the mysteries of monasticism. And in theology there was, above all, John Courtney Murray, who spent decades dodging ecclesiastical censure while defending both religious liberty and the American constitutional principle of separation of church and state.
But endeavors such as these were rare shafts of light upon an otherwise bleak intellectual landscape. Throughout most of the 1950s, American Catholic theology was an almost entirely endogamous affair, cut off from the wider society and also from much of the intellectual life of the church's past. Seminary instruction, based as it was upon neo-scholastic manuals produced in Europe, left students mostly unacquainted with the history of Christian thought; when priests thusly instructed took to the pulpit, the results were rarely edifying. The state of Catholic colleges and universities prior to the council wasn't much better. In a sobering assessment published in the mid-fifties, the historian John Tracy Ellis observed that Catholic higher education of the day was distinguished by formalism, moralism, and authoritarianismqualities hardly conducive to the pursuit of academic excellence. Even with a vastly improved economic standing, according to Ellis, American Catholics in the 1950s still remained intellectually very much second-class citizens.
Nevertheless, even among its detractors it is sometimes conceded that the church of the 1950s could be a place of considerable enchantment. Writing in the early seventies, for example, Garry Wills confesses an abiding affection for the Catholicism of his childhood:
We "born Catholics," even when we leave or lose our own church, rarely feel at home in any other. The habits of childhood are tenacious, and Catholicism was first experienced by us as a vast set of intermeshed childhood habitsprayers offered, heads ducked in unison, crossings, chants, christenings, grace at meals; beads, altar, incense, candles; nuns in the classroom alternately too sweet and too severe, priests garbed black on the street and brilliant at the altar; churches lit and darkened, clothed and stripped, to the rhythm of liturgical recurrences; the crib in winter, purple Februaries, and lilies in the spring; confession as intimidation and comfort (comfort, if nothing else, that the intimidation was survived), communion as revery and discomfort; faith as a creed, and the creed as catechism, Latin responses, salvation by rote, all things going to a rhythm, memorized, old things always returning, eternal in that sense, no matter how transitory.
Grateful as he is for such cozy memories, however, Wills doesn't much regret that this "total weave of Catholic life" rapidly unraveled after the Second Vatican Council. For far too long, in his view, American Catholics had been prevented by the suffocating closeness of ghetto culture from realizing their true potential.
It's certainly possible that the unitary Catholic subculture depicted by Garry Wills might have come undone even had the Second Vatican Council not occurred. Or, as Andrew Greeley has suggested, perhaps the council merely hastened what was already an inevitable outcome. Cracks in the ghetto wall, after all, had already developed a decade or so prior to the council, as Catholics increasingly reached beyond their immigrant roots toward full integration into the American cultural mainstream. Still, there seems little question that the council, in its own right, was a major influence behind the total overhaul of American Catholic life that would take place during the sixties and seventies.
THE SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL
Thirty years after its third and final session was brought to a close in 1965, it can be said without exaggeration that the Second Vatican Council was an event of epochal significance for Catholicism worldwide. When Pope John XXIII announced his plans for the council in 1959, three years before it would formally convene, he envisioned it as a vehicle for renewing the church in terms relevant to the modern world. After generations of defiant insularity, Pope John observed, the church at mid-century was lethargic, self-absorbed, and without relevance to the world beyond its boundaries. It would not serve the purposes of evangelization, he was convinced, to repeat the condemnations of secularism and liberalism made famous by several of his pontifical predecessors. Rather, the moment had arrived for church and world to engage in mutually constructive dialogue. And in order that such dialogue might proceed fruitfully, Catholic teaching would have to be expressed in a manner more suitable to the cultural circumstances of the contemporary age. Thus, in his opening address at the council, Pope John advised the assembled bishops that their task was to reformulate Catholic doctrine "in such a way that it is adapted to our own times."
For the substance of the deposit of faith or body of truths which are contained in our revered doctrine is not identical with the manner in which these truths are expressed, though the same sense and the same meaning must be preserved.
If Pope John sought through the council to set the church on a course of renewal and modernization, he could not reasonably have anticipated just how dramatically change would occur. In the most perceptive account of Vatican II yet written by a sociologist, Bill McSweeney indicates the main directions that the council took in bringing about, almost overnight, a fundamental transformation of Catholicism.
Above all else, according to McSweeney, the council was remarkably successful in breaking the long-standing monopoly of scholasticism over Catholic theology. Scholasticism, with its characteristic emphasis upon doctrinal clarity and conceptual precision, and its tendency to reduce faith to the passive reception of a body of exquisitely defined and immutable truths, was regarded by many council participants as a theological liability the church could no longer afford. What was required instead, it was claimed, was a radically new approach to Catholic theology, one better attuned to the dynamics of history and to the aspirations and experiences of women and men in a rapidly changing world. Moreover, advocates of such a new or progressive theology could claim support for their position by invoking the distinction, articulated by Pope John at the outset of the council, between the content of faith and its mode of expression. While the truths of revelation enjoy an infallible status, the pope had asserted, the language employed to communicate them must stand the test of cultural relevance. And it was precisely this test, contended the council's progressive faction, that the older theological language of the church had badly failed.
It is true, of course, that the older theology did not suffer total defeat at the council. It surfaces here and there in the council documents, in curious juxtaposition to the progressive theology by which it was otherwise replaced. The very fact, however, that the language of faith was so openly contested at Vatican II, under the scrutiny of the international media, signified the emergence of a new era of almost unlimited pluralism within the intellectual life of the church. While scholasticism survived, it did so now as but one theological voice among others of equal (and perhaps greater) claim to legitimacy.
Even more important than the decline of scholasticism at the council was the revolutionary potential of the new theology, or intellectual style, that came to ascendancy in its place. Indeed, there is considerable merit to Bill McSweeney's contention that the council implicitly endorsed several theological principles that the church previously had steadfastly opposed. Chief among these is the principle of the relativity of faith, by which is meant, in McSweeney's words, "that the meaning of any statement of doctrine is always open to interpretation, never finally captured in any particular form of expression for all times and for all cultures." To a degree perhaps far exceeding what many of its participants intended, in other words, the council accorded legitimacy to the subjective interpretation of religious truth. Thus, for example, in a section dealing with the development of the church's tradition, the council's Constitution on Revelation states:
This tradition which comes from the apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts, through the intimate understanding of spiritual things they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth.
It is nothing less than remarkable that the council in this passage should so frankly acknowledge the important role of subjective experience in the apprehension of religious truth. For a full century prior to the council, after all, the Roman hierarchy had consistently rejected any such role for subjective experience, on the ground that it threatened relativizing consequences for the faith. There could be no assurance that truths arrived at experientially or intuitively would correspond with the official teaching of the church. Now, it's true that the foregoing passage, by seeming to grant final say on matters of faith to the episcopacy, stops short of endorsing a full-fledged subjectivism. But even so, here as elsewhere in the council documents, an impression of tolerance is conveyed toward theological approaches that previously were strictly prohibited.
Consider also what the council, in a related passage, taught regarding the inerrancy of scripture.
Since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching firmly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation.
Ar first glance, this seems entirely unremarkablenot much more than a bland summation of traditional Catholic teaching. If we look again, however, a more complex scenario comes into view. The bible apparently teaches "without error," but only does so compellingly when dealing with matters vital to salvation. But which parts of the bible are invested with salvific truth, and which others deserve to be taken less seriously (or less literally)? Or, more simply, who is to decide (and by what criteria) what is essential for salvation? The practical effect of this passage, and others of similar inflexion, would be to provide Catholic theologians with an interpretive power over scriptural texts comparable to that already enjoyed by their Protestant counterparts.
Additional evidence of such ambiguity within the council documents could be adduced without difficulty, but it seems needless to belabor the point. While the council saluted traditional theological positions, it also suggested rich possibilities for theological innovation. This apparent split-mindedness undoubtedly owed much to the divergent perspectives of the council participants: on the one hand, Roman prelates and their supporters who sought to preserve as much as possible of the older order, and on the other hand, bishops and theologians from Europe and North America who saw Vatican II as the church's passport to the modern world.
In addition to shaking its theological foundations, the council went a long way toward realigning the church's relationship with the external world. Most striking in this regard was the conciliatory approach taken by the council toward groups, not to mention also entire historical developments, that the church had formerly treated with imperial disdain. Thus, for example, the council promoted greater ecumenical openness toward Protestants and Jews, and it also affirmed the intrinsic merit of non-Catholic religions generally throughout the world. Moreover, it defended religious liberty and other civil rights, and spoke approvingly of the pluralistic ideals of modern Western society. And in a quite remarkable declaration of support for what it termed the "new humanism," the council affirmed as well that men and women are defined foremost today by their shared responsibility for history and for one another. At virtually every turn, in fact, the council avoided negative judgment and opted instead to promote partnership between the church and the world beyond its boundaries.
The transformative effects of Vatican II were felt in other areas as well. Perhaps most controversially, the council reformed the Massthe centerpiece of Catholic worshipalong more open and communal lines, and restricted the availability of subsidiary devotional practices. As for the ethical dimension of Christian life, the council affirmed the inherent dignity of men and women and highlighted the importance of conscience in moral decision-making. Still further, it fostered a spirituality of corporate responsibility in place of the traditional Catholic preoccupation with private piety and personal salvation. On a related front, the council dissolved, or at least softened, the age-long Catholic distinction between grace and nature, and emphasized instead the unity of the natural and supernatural orders, the goodness of creation, and the integrity of explicitly secular pursuits. Somewhat more tentatively, it imparted legitimacy to a more democratic or collegial form of church governance, and thus reopened the debate on papal infallibility which Pope Pius IX had attempted definitively to resolve a century earlier at the First Vatican Council. And in a similar vein, it reduced the distance in status between priests and laypersons and called upon all Catholics to participate in the essential functions of the church.
Clearly, much more could be said about the specific contents of Vatican II, and there shall be opportunity in subsequent chapters for additional commentary. In any event, the revolutionary significance of the council owes more to the cumulative impact of its various decrees than to any one or another of them taken separately. In its entirety, and notwithstanding its occasionally vacillating tone, the council seemed to promise a new era of almost unlimited creativity for the church. The traditional postulates of the faith had been exposed as transitory and dispensable, and hence the future of Catholicism seemed to depend very much upon what Catholics themselves would make of it.
VATICAN II AND AMERICAN CATHOLICISM
Clifford Geertz once remarked that nothing alters quite like the unalterable, and the suddenness with which Roman Catholicism in the United States was transformed in the wake of the Second Vatican Council is a dramatic case in point. For several generations prior to the council, it will be recalled, American Catholics inhabited a tightly cohesive subculture that must have conveyed at least an impression of unalterability. By the late 1960s, however, it was apparent that American Catholicism was not nearly what it once was, and there was no telling what it would become. Traditional symbols of Catholic self-identity were discarded, almost without warning, as the church seemed determined to atone all at once for generations of cultural exclusivity. Nuns and priests abandoned the identifying attire of the religious vocation and frequently also the vocation itself, experimental liturgies celebrated more the possibility of cultural advancement than that of eternal life, and popular Marian devotions fell into desuetude. No longer content merely that their church possess supernatural truth, American Catholics in the aftermath of the council demanded as well that it be more accessible and more meaningful to the secular world.
Probably no aspect of the church's life has been more visibly altered since the council than its priesthood. Although numbers alone don't tell the whole story, they leave little doubt that the Catholic priesthood in the United States is an institution in steep decline. Not only have the ranks of the diocesan clergy been severely depleted in the thirty years since Vatican II, but the prospects for the future seem uniformly grim. Ordinations have plummeted in number to virtually half what they were in the mid-sixties, and efforts to arrest this decline in recruitment have been notably ineffective. The replacement rate for priests who leave the active ministry by retirement, resignation, or death averages only about 60 percent; and sociologist Richard Schoenherr projects that by the turn of the century, or shortly thereafter, almost half of all active priests will be age fifty-five or older, and only 10 percent or so will be age thirty-five or younger. Difficulties of this sort would be greatly alleviated, Dean Hoge and other sociologists have observed, if Rome were to authorize the ordination of women and married men. But this seems a remote possibility at best, and thus the American church will likely have to contend over the next several decades with a steady increase in priestless parishes.
If anything, religious orders of women have been struck even harder by recruitment woes since the council than their male counterparts. Sociologist Marie Augusta Neal reports that the current population of nuns in the United States "is 60 percent of what it was in 1967 and the rate of entrance to religious communities as of 1984 was 15 percent of what it was in 1966." With so few young women having entered religious life since the council, Neal notes, the age distribution of American nuns has shifted alarmingly. "Whereas 22 percent of sisters were under thirty in 1967, only 1 percent are now. Fifty-one percent are over sixty now while only 20 percent were that old in 1967." Indeed, so diminished are they in size and vitality that orders of sisters have been forced to relinquish control of hospitals and schools and sometimes also to seek external funding for the care of aged members.
In addition to their sorry record of recruitment, religious orders of both men and women have been decimated by defections since the council. Indeed, there have been few sights more disquieting to ordinary Catholics over the past thirty years than priests and nuns by the thousand rushing for the exits. Personal reasons, such as an expressed unhappiness with the requirements of celibacy and obedience, are part of the story here; but they're clearly not the whole story. That the demands of religious life should so suddenly be found unendurable by so many priests and nuns after the council must surely also have something to do with the council.
Here, again, it's not so much any one of its particular teachings but rather the overall thrust of Vatican II that seems at issue. By according positive religious significance to worldly affairsby sanctifying, in a way, the secular orderthe council implicitly raised doubts concerning the purpose and value of an expressly religious vocation. Nuns and especially priests were previously regarded as chosen elites, spiritual aficionados elevated above the vicissitudes of the marketplace so as to reflect in their own lives, and for the benefit of the Catholic masses, the lights of eternity. So clearly distinct was the role of priest or nun, and so inestimable was its importance, that there existed considerable incentive to attain it. And once having done so, there was also powerful motivation to maintain it. By virtue of being set apart from worldly distractions, the priest or nun was believed capable of realizing a fullness of faith that somehow guaranteed or justified the rather more circumstantial faith of the Catholic laity. The religious vocation was, in other words, as much a community resource, an attestation of divine possibility, as it was an individual possession.
If only indirectly, however, the council removed much of this luster from the religious vocation. If the secular world is alive with redemptive possibility and, as the council also taught, political and scientific activity is a conveyance of faith, what then is the point of subjecting oneself to the rigors of asceticism? The religious vocation seems somehow less obligatory, and its benefits less clear-cut, when the world beyond convent or rectory is also thought to share in the advantage of grace. Even as it thus affirmed the continuing importance of the religious life, the council lowered the incentive to stand apart from the world in fidelity to vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience.
The crisis of identity facing Catholic religious life after the council was further exacerbated by developments within the broader society. As feminism became a potent cultural force during the sixties and seventies, and as traditional authority in virtually every guise came under sustained attack, the rationale for becoming (or remaining) a priest or nun was stretched progressively thinner. The catch phrase of the day was "personal autonomy," and within this broader context the discipline and docility of religious life came to seem positively freakish. Why should priests be expected to submit automatically to the whims of their bishops or religious superiors? Why should nuns be required to prostrate themselves before the church's male-dominated authority structure? Many priests and nuns, of course, decided against any further submitting or prostrating, and left the active ministry altogether. And many of those who stayed were determined that the rules of the game be changed. By the mid-seventies, accordingly, the nonconformity and dissent that figured so prominently in the wider culture had become institutionalized components of religious life itself. Priests could no longer be counted upon to parrot the church's party line on sex or politics or anything else; and nuns were almost as likely to be found leading a workshop on feminist spirituality or attending an abortion-rights rally as to be instructing children in the mysteries of the rosary.
If the priesthood and sisterhood within the American church have fallen on unmistakably shaky times since the council, the situation of the American Catholic laity is decidedly more complicated. On the surface, at least, the vast majority of lay Catholics in the United States seem to have adapted remarkably well to the extraordinary changes that have taken place within their church over the past thirty years. Theological dissent, endless liturgical experimentation, catechetical confusion, ritual iconoclasm: none of this has led to a massive exodus from the church, or to anything approaching a groundswell of opposition.
Here, again, numbers provide a useful starting point. During the two-decade span from 1966 to 1986, when other mainline Christian bodies in the United States suffered sharp declines in membership, the total population of American Catholics expanded from 46 million to nearly 55 million. Perhaps more telling, the 15-percent defection rate among Catholics during this same period was not appreciably higher than the rate for the fifties and early sixties. And what's more, on at least several counts (frequency of prayer and reception of Holy Communion, for example) the religious devotion of American Catholics seems actually to have increased throughout these two decades. Catholic church attendance, it's true, declined markedly during the late sixties and early seventies, but since 1975, the percentage of American Catholics attending Sunday Mass has held fast at approximately 50 percent.
If American Catholics remain heavily involved in their church, however, the terms of this involvement have shifted substantially since the council. Of today's regular churchgoers, 80 percent practice what Andrew Greeley has described as a "selective Catholicism," participating in the church's ritual life while ignoring whichever of its moral precepts they happen to disagree with. Forever lost, Greeley observes, are the days when the Catholic leadership could count on the compliance of the ordinary faithful.
As humiliating as it may be to [the American bishops] it would seem that they have influence on their people only when their people decide to permit them to have such influence. The authority of the government apparently rests on the consent of the governed, not only in civil matters of the United States but also in ecclesiastical matters.
The much-publicized controversy over artificial contraception in the immediate aftermath of the council provides perhaps the most definitive evidence of this shift from a comprehensive to a more partial or selective commitment. With the publication in 1968 of the encyclical Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the traditional Catholic position that sexual intercourse should always be open to the possibility of conception. Instead of eliciting widespread assent, however, the encyclical was immediately dismissed by many American Catholics as an unwarranted intrusion into their private affairs. The full significance of this negative reaction to Humanae Vitae would unfold throughout the 1970s. As the survey research of Andrew Greeley and his associates consistently revealed, the sexual ethic of the church had somehow in the wake of the council lost relevance, not to mention legitimacy, for a substantial number of lay Catholics.
The radically altered view of American Catholics toward premarital sex conveys very much the same story. Whereas disapproval of sexual intercourse prior to marriage was almost universal among American Catholics in the early sixties, today almost half the adult Catholic population in the United States thinks that premarital sex is not wrong at all. Among Catholics under the age of thirty especially, such traditional sexual prohibitions are increasingly felt to be anachronistic and personally insignificant. In a variety of other areas as welldivorce and remarriage, abortion, and homosexualitythe attitudes and practices of American Catholics thirty years after the council seem more attuned to prevailing cultural norms than to the teaching of their church.
There seems little question, therefore, that the credibility of the church's sexual teaching has declined enormously among American Catholics since completion of the Second Vatican Council. What is rather less clear is the extent to which the council bears responsibility for this development. There are several factors worth considering here. First, while Vatican II said nothing explicitly at variance with the church's traditional sexual teaching, it did significantly alter the grammar of Catholic ethical discourse. In the tradition of the Catholic manualists prior to the council, morality was conceived in starkly legalistic and individualistic terms, with emphasis upon the objective definition of sins and the formal calculation of sinfulness. Within this all-embracing moral framework, norms of conduct were so precisely calibrated that Catholics knew what was expectedand not expectedof them in virtually every circumstance of daily life. With the Second Vatican Council, however, Catholic moral theology acquired a strikingly different tone. In place of the customary Catholic preoccupation with objective norms and obligations, the council affirmed the fundamental freedom of men and women and, accordingly, the primacy of conscience in processes of moral decision-making. And by conferring as such a certain presidency within the ethical realm to the role of conscience, the council implicitly gave legitimacy to a degree of dissent from the moral strictures, sexual or otherwise, publicly proclaimed by the church. Again, the point here isn't that the council in any way endorsed a turn to sexual permissiveness, but rather that in altering the terms of Catholic discourse about morality, it indirectly made such a turn easier to take.
That this was the turn largely taken by American Catholics after Vatican II owes much also to factors beyond the council's control. As Andrew Greeley has tirelessly pointed out, the traditional pattern of Catholic life in the United Stateswherein the laity obeyed (or, at least, pretended not to disobey) what their church taughtwould not likely have survived the 1970s and eighties even had Vatican II not occurred. For it was during these two decades that American Catholics (not all of them, of course, but a great many nonetheless) emerged fully from the shadow of their immigrant pasts and attained a level of educational and occupational success the equal of virtually any other group in American society. And with upward mobility, or suburbanization, there came also a notable shift in ethical sensibility. Having transcended the ghetto materially, American Catholics sought to transcend it morally it as wellto fashion sexual lifestyles suitably commensurate with American values of personal autonomy and democracy. Or, to put it another way, the sexual ideals of their church were increasingly felt by Catholics finally "come of age" in the United States as not only personally unattainable but alsoby virtue of the constraints they imposed upon individual freedomas somehow un-American.
And finally, it is undoubtedly of great consequence that the church through Vatican II encouraged a greater openness to the world at precisely a time when the world was in a state of considerable turmoil. More specifically, the cultural explosion commonly referred to as the "sexual revolution" was at full blast in the United States in the years immediately following the council; and American Catholics, so recently released from the confines of their religious ghetto, were perhaps the most exposed of American groups to its effects. The ethical and religious uncertainty that stemmed from the council, in other words, was compounded by the more general cultural volatility of the 1960s and seventies. In a cultural climate relentlessly hostile to the claims of traditional authority, the sexual teachings of the churchespecially now deprived of the social support previously provided them by the Catholic ghettowere bound to appear to much of the laity (and, for that matter, the clergy) as insufferably archaic.
It's the combination of these various factors, thentheir historical confluence, if you willthat must be held responsible for the rapid erosion of the church's authority over sexual matters since the Second Vatican Council. Still, it's not entirely clear why so many American Catholics remain actively involved with their church despite rejecting so much of its moral teaching. In Greeley's view, the relatively low rate of defection from the church is directly attributable to the emergence among lay Catholics of a new religious imagination; for the most part, he contends, American Catholics today envision God not as a stern judge but rather as a loving and tolerant spouse or parent who welcomes unconditionally their participation in the ritual life of the church.
New religious imagination or not, it is unquestionably the case that the totalistic commitment of the Catholic ghetto has been largely replaced by a fragmented or sporadic commitment more consonant with American ideals of democratic freedom and personal autonomy. In a sense, thereforeand here this first chapter comes full circlethe ideas of Isaac Hecker have achieved nearly complete dominance within the American church almost a full century after their condemnation by Pope Leo XIII in the encyclical Testem benevolentiae. Indeed, Hecker's vision of a faith inseparably Catholic and American, one fully informed by individual spiritual experience and democratic values, has been realized to a degree that would scarcely have been imaginable at the turn of the century.
ONCE AGAIN, NOTHING ALTERS QUITE LIKE THE UNALTERABLE. And it's not likely that many enterprises have passed more rapidly from a state of unalterability to one of radical change than American Catholicism after the Second Vatican Council. By no means, however, has this been an uncontested development. Over the past thirty years, a number of broad-based factions of resistance on the Catholic right have waged constant guerrilla warfare against the transformed Catholicism that has come into being since the council. The first of these factions of resistancewhich I call Catholic conservatismis the subject of the next two chapters.
Meet the Author
Michael W. Cuneo is an associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Fordham University.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews