1971: The best of times, the worst of times

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 01, 2015

I was in my early twenties in 1971. I had just finished college and entered graduate school. For the past five years, since my freshman year in 1966, I had been steadily increasing my involvement in apologetics, attempting as a layman to defend a Faith which was everywhere being abandoned by priests and religious.

Sad as this was, in some ways it is hard to characterize 1971 as the worst of times. Neither the abortion license nor gay marriage had yet been established in the United States, and only the incredibly far-sighted would have been able to foresee the possibility of State sanctions against faithful Catholics. But the phrase is definitely apt with respect to the nearly unthinkable turmoil in the Church.

Nonetheless, in some senses, it was also the best of times. It was a time when you found out very quickly who your spiritual friends were. For the laity, it was a time to come of age as Vatican II’s Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem) demanded. Indeed, orthodox leadership fell by default to the laity. If they did not take up the challenge of defending the Faith within the Church, the Faith was not likely to be defended at all.

As a general rule, then, this “best” and this “worst” were really opposite sides of the same coin. The secularization of bishops, priests and religious led many to imagine that the Church was on the verge of being “relevant” again to the larger world. Those who succumbed to this secularization really did think it was the best of times, a time of nearly unlimited possibilities. And so they made it the worst of times for everybody else in the Church.

The reference here is to the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, lines written about the period of the French Revolution, but lines that could easily have been written of the Church in 1971. Here is the passage:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way….

I could tell my own stories. For example, in 1970 I was nominated for a Danforth Fellowship by Rutgers University, because the Danforth award was oriented to those with a particular interest in religion. This nomination led to interviews in New York City, and the man who interviewed me picked up quickly on my interest in the contemporary internal problems of the Church. He repeatedly commended my perspicacity, encouraging me to enlarge on the subject.

But at the very end, he revealed that he was actually a Catholic also, and on the other side. He was a writer for several of the Catholic magazines that had become dissident (such as CrossCurrents, Jubilee, and America), and served as an editor for one of them. He threw his whole weight behind what I had just described as a counter-magisterium of intellectuals who substituted scholarship for intelligence, and worldly aspirations for faith.

I knew on my way out that my name would not be advanced for the Fellowship. I remember thinking that it was a negligible price to pay. The sufferings of many others (and especially those priests who remained faithful against all odds) proved me right.

It is not all about me, despite what my critics may say! The lesson of 1971 is important, and it affected many. My own personal reminiscence here was merely triggered by the similar recollections of two intellectual giants of the period. I found these recollections in a poignant letter from the brilliant and faithful French philosopher Étienne Gilson to the equally-brilliant and faithful French theologian Henri de Lubac, in—you guessed it—1971. Gilson wrote:

Thank you, Reverend Father, for your good letter [which praised Gilson’s book Linguistics and Philosophy]. Language, today, is not of primary concern to the French Catholic. We can’t be certain whether we’re in communion with our bishops. I can’t keep from suspecting that the priest who patently garbles the Consecration at the Sunday Eucharistic Assembly still thinks his sloppy commemoration effects the transubstantiation. It’s sad, and there’s nothing I can teach you on that score, but it’s wormwood and gall to me, and at least I can tell you about it and feel reasonably sure it’s the same for both of us. That’s a consolation.

This is Letter 18 in Letters of Étienne Gilson to Henri de Lubac. De Lubac had them published with his own commentary, because they touch many of the pressing philosophical and theological issues within the Church of the mid-twentieth century. In a note on this letter, de Lubac explains that Gilson had also addressed the issue of clerical loss of faith in a volume of essays on art and philosophy published in French in 1967, Les Tribulations de Sophie. He offers the following quotation from that source (again, this is Gilson speaking):

The ideas are more arcane than the rites…. Undoubtedly the most troubling puzzle for the laity could be these ideas, that the priest keeps hidden in his head, that chart his conduct for him, but that the faithful cannot know. [Note 2]

And in another note, de Lubac explains:

[Gilson] was suffering because he could no longer speak frankly with his Church’s legitimate representatives, so effectively had the myth of the “renewed Church” blinded many pastors to reality, or at least influenced their attitudes and their way of speaking. But Gilson found refuge, and a very real consolation that transcended his anguish, in the Holy Scriptures. [Note 3]

As proof, de Lubac recounts an anecdote provided by Fr. Jacques-Guy Bourgerol, OFM, who worked with Gilson on a project honoring St. Bonaventure. On November 17, 1972, when he was 88 years old, Gilson told Bourgerol: “My dear Father, as of now I have only one book left in my library, the Bible” (note 3).

It was the worst of times—yet perhaps it was the best of times for growing holy.

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: Thomas429 - Oct. 03, 2015 11:37 PM ET USA

    I wandered away from my Christian faith during this time. I am not going to blame the failure of the Churches to assert their identity for this fact. I probably had to wander in self will to find my way to a real dependency on God. But, we can certainly see the effect of this time on the leadership of the Church.