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Vibrant Catholicism, 1: Lamenting the entire 20th century

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 28, 2015

I have this vision of offering a comprehensive plan to ensure a vibrant, effective Catholicism going forward—because we certainly haven’t had anything like it for a long time. But this is a seductive vision. Even the best and most comprehensive plans for renewal will run into enormous obstacles. The Second Vatican Council, an ecumenical council devoted to Catholic reform, which we know by faith to have been a showcase for the activity of the Holy Spirit, is a cautionary case in point. Do I think I can do better?

Yet a vibrant, effective Catholicism is an end to be sought, a goal to be prized. Obviously we must work toward this end, and I suppose we cannot avoid the responsibility of thinking seriously about what it entails. In fact, it would be a spiritual failure ever to stop thinking about it. And since we have to start somewhere, I propose to start first with a brief survey of what, within the living memory of the oldest among us, has gone wrong.

The Pre-Conciliar Generation

About as far back as we can go within living memory is the generation preceding the Council. Let me paint with broad strokes.

The official Church in the first half of the twentieth century, perhaps up to about 1960, had a marked tendency toward avoiding risk. Henri de Lubac’s notes on the Second Vatican Council frequently reflect back on the excessive caution and even suspicion which dominated the Holy Office (later renamed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) at least from the late 1930s. This accounts for the frequent restrictions placed on theologians and even bishops whose ideas, orthodox in themselves, were considered “dangerous” because they drew on insights from modern philosophy, or from modern science, or from the Church’s critics.

Thus it was considered “dangerous” to recognize the role of culture and cultural consciousness in our reception of Revelation, because these factors were used by Modernists to reduce Revelation to a human construct. Or it was considered “dangerous” to engage in ecumenical work to promote Christian unity, because one might fall into the errors of the non-Catholics with whom one was engaged. Exploring the question of whether God’s plan had an evolutionary character was considered dangerous because many saw the theory of evolution as a substitute for God.

Books which raised questions that pushed the limits of the reigning scholastic “system” were placed on the Index. Even theologians who insisted on stepping outside that “system” to take a fresh look at the sources of Revelation in Scripture and the Fathers were considered dangerous. They were frequently suspended from teaching; they were also ordered to submit their writings to censors before publication.

Some commentators thought Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) had an excessively suspicious mind, making him very reluctant to recognize the validity of any insights which were not his own. Whether or not this was true, the theologians of the Holy Office from the 1930s through the early 1960s expended a great deal of energy restricting the work of those whom they regarded as “unsafe”, even if they were guilty of no formal errors. Virtually all of the greatest orthodox Catholic theologians whose careers peaked in the second half of the twentieth century were under suspicion and even restricted in some way in the 1940s and 1950s.

This fear of “danger” was also, to some extent, a fear of exploring both the mysteries of God and the mysteries of Faith. Insights into Faith were to proceed from the top down. This atmosphere was expressed in part through a “prescriptive” approach to religious observance and religious thought, an approach which emphasized coloring within the lines, accepting the basic statements in the catechism and avoiding lists of enumerated sins. The laity in particular were often discouraged from “getting in over their heads.”

Too often Catholics simply tried to preserve their own world, preferring to condemn rather than to engage the rapidly secularizing society which surrounded the Church—and very often preferring clear rules to a serious exploration of new questions and new issues, or even of the interior life. We must remember that this was a period in which the broad public expectation was still that a productive member of society would be affiliated with some church and would adhere to fairly traditional expectations of public behavior, avoiding scandal. People accepted the rules of their church and participated in its activities, much as they would participate in a respected social club.

As a general rule, however they may have started out, the so-called “greatest generation” did not pass on a deep and vibrant faith to their children. When the culture shifted, their children immediately “lost” their faith (as did huge numbers of priests and religious). Almost uniformly, the parents had no response to make. They were at worst unconcerned, and at best simply bewildered.

The Post-Conciliar Generation

Now there is a certain nostalgia for the “good old days”. Too many who remember, or have heard about, the relative Catholic stability of, say, 1950, are fond of insisting that we return to the the way things were, while refusing to admit how much was wrong beneath that placid surface. I agree that my own broadly negative characterization of an entire generation must inescapably mask significant complexity. But much depends on recognizing the overall truth of this assessment, as the following discussion will make clear.

If we turn instead to the generation immediately following (say 1960 to 1990), I suspect all my readers will agree that there was no Catholic desire at all to avoid risk. Indeed, a complete lack of caution characterized this next generation. Catholics were encouraged to explore pretty much anything that interested them, on the assumption that it was all good. The only thing to be feared, apparently, was fear itself.

But if we believe it is possible to paint the thirty years after 1960 with such a broad brush, then we should have no necessary qualms about painting the thirty years before 1960 in much the same way. In both the larger social order and the Church herself, the reckless abandonment of the second period was surely in large part a reaction against both the rigidity and the sterility of the first. This does not mean there were no excellent developments, significant depths, and outstanding saints in each period. But it is instructive to recognize the overall trends.

In the post-conciliar generation, the Divine liturgy was frequently celebrated with wanton irreverence; higher studies were nearly always tinged with Modernism; Catholic moral principles were, shall we say, “reinterpreted”; catechesis degenerated into a collection of largely natural platitudes; there was massive vocation loss among priests, religious and married couples; Catholic universities escaped ecclesiastical control, even in theology departments; weak, wayward and confused bishops often protected dissent and stonewalled those who complained; and people of every age and state in life were formed—again—more by the larger secular culture than by the Church.

Much has improved since 1990, but some of the problems remain. The primary difference now is that they are at least widely recognized as problemsBut if the second period was in so many ways disastrous for the Church, it would seem to follow that the first period generally failed to form Catholics—priests, religious and laity alike—capable of engaging modern ideas and cultural patterns without losing their spiritual moorings. The obvious conclusion is that my opening assumption was correct. We have not seen a generally vibrant and effective Catholicism in the West within living memory.

Once again, we cannot hold ourselves exempt from trying to figure out what a vibrant and effective Catholicism ought to look like. How might we bring it about? But surely we must take as our starting point the double disaster of the pre- and post-conciliar generations. Learning from both disasters, I propose to take up significant topics for the formation of effective Catholicism in the modern Church.


Next in series: Vibrant Catholicism, 2: A life of constant prayer

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: skall391825 - May. 31, 2015 4:06 AM ET USA

    I was born in 1939 and will trade the pre-Council Church in a heartbeat for the horrors which resulted. At least two generations, our art, architecture, music and education were lost after your "showcase for the activity of the Holy Spirit". It will take a century to heal. All the Holy Spirit did was keep the Bishops from blowing up the Faith completely. Surely, it could have been done better. Must you blame my cautionary generation in your new quest? Can't you see why we embraced caution?

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - May. 30, 2015 10:50 PM ET USA

    Your analysis does not mention things like WWI, WWII, the great depression, etc. which obviously had their effect on the life of the church.

  • Posted by: feedback - May. 30, 2015 1:14 PM ET USA

    These are great and thought-inspiring reflections – as always. And it’s good to keep in mind that there is no shortage of opportunities to witness to Christ and to grow in one’s faith and love of God and neighbor in every circumstances.

  • Posted by: Leopardi - May. 30, 2015 9:51 AM ET USA

    Ditto, Jeff! Let the fabric unfold.

  • Posted by: PS 26 - May. 29, 2015 7:15 PM ET USA

    Great article. We need courageous leadership in the church every day.

  • Posted by: Dennis Olden - May. 29, 2015 6:34 PM ET USA

    VERY helpful in understanding pre- and post-Vatican II. We converted with our young family in 1975, and it seemed that we had converted to much the same kind of thinking as we had left. Almost 2 decades later we found the traditional Mass, from which we have gotten most of our Catholic formation. It's helpful to understand what brought on the disasters of the post-Vatican II era. Mostly one hears how wonderful everything was pre-Vatican II, which can't be the whole story. Thank you.

  • Posted by: Jim.K - May. 29, 2015 6:30 PM ET USA

    I disagree with one major point. My memory of PPXII is that along with other attributes, he was a great scientist and was responsible for bringing modern science into the teachings of the Church. Even today, the errors we see re: life issues were anticipated and answered by him in advance. As a politician he fought against Communism and Italian Facism. During WWII, he protected the Jews in the convents, monasteries, the Vatican and throughout Europe. His death unleashed our modern problems.

  • Posted by: nix898049 - May. 29, 2015 3:39 PM ET USA

    God Bless you, Jeff! Can't wait to read your next installment. The barque has been righted but will she swim? Plot the course and hand me an oar!