Countercultural Catholic, chapter 4: A Heritage Stolen

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Dec 10, 2013

Even judged by purely human standards—even setting aside the immeasurable treasure that is the supernatural gift of faith—the riches of the Catholic tradition are staggering. Think about the literature and the oral traditions: the stories of martyrs and confessors, saints and heroes. Think of the art and architecture, the music, the poetry and drama. Take a stroll through any major public museum, and notice how many of the paintings evoke themes from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Browse an anthology of poetry, and see how much imagery is drawn from Christian theology—and the deeper one’s knowledge of the faith, the greater one’s appreciation of the poetry.

This is an abbreviated version of a chapter in a new book I am developing on building a Catholic counter-culture in a post-Christian world. Comments are welcome!


In Catholic schools, for centuries scholars built on the intellectual foundations that had been laid in the first universities. For generations, any graduate of a good Catholic liberal-arts institution would be presumed to have some knowledge of the great sweep of Western civilization and the rise of Christendom, to have read something of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas (probably in the language in which they wrote), to have an appreciation for the sacred music of Josquin and Palestrina.

Nor should our appreciation of our patrimony be limited to these highbrow heirlooms. Even poor and uneducated Catholics could draw on a rich inheritance of traditional customs, celebrations, folk tales, and popular devotions. There was (and is, or should be) a rich texture to the life of a Christian community, with its communal feasts, its own ways of celebrating at weddings and mourning at funerals, its own favorite saints and forms of piety. Think of the two peasants bowed in prayer in Millet’s painting, The Angelus (a painting, by the way, that can only be fully appreciated by someone who knows the tradition of praying the Angelus at set times).

This is the legacy that we, the living members of the Catholic faith, have inherited. We did nothing to earn it. The question is: Will we protect it? What can we say about the generation of Catholics coming to age in the Western world after Vatican II? Quite suddenly, a legacy that had been built up for centuries was tossed aside. Statues and altar carvings disappeared from churches, eventually to be replaced by cheap felt banners and butcher-block tables. Popular devotions, ceremonies, and sacramentals—Benediction, 40-hours devotions, parish missions, novenas, and, yes, the Angelus—fell into disuse. The rich treasury of sacred music fell into desuetude; the old Latin of the sung liturgy seemed not to match the prosy new English translation. In Catholic schools and universities, the study of “Western Civ” yielded to contemporary social sciences. Theology students were encouraged to skip over Augustine and Aquinas, leaping directly from the Bible to the Documents of Vatican II, almost as if the intervening centuries had been an intellectual embarrassment to the faithful.

The impetus for these abrupt changes did not come from the teachings of the Council. The actual documents of Vatican II pay frequent homage to the legacy of Church teaching. The Council fathers encouraged popular devotions, and stressed the primacy of Gregorian chant in the Latin liturgy. The school of “new theology,” which drove much of the discussion of reforms in the Catholic Church, was dedicated to ressourcement: a move back to the sources, back to the mainstream, of the Catholic faith. This was not an effort to reinvent Catholicism, but to revitalize it; not a quest to abolish old traditions, but to give them new vigor.

We Catholics have amassed a prodigious store of treasures: spiritual, physical, artistic, and educational. Now that precious heritage is in jeopardy.

Consider, for a moment, just the physical resources built up by faithful Catholics in America over the years. Scrimping and saving so that they could contribute their hard-earned nickels and dimes, working-class Catholics bequeathed us beautiful churches, parish schools, hospitals, and universities. Now many of those churches and schools are closed, while the hospitals are being sold off to secular corporations. We cannot ignore the spending of nearly $3 billion to pay the costs incurred by an inexcusable failure to curb sexual abuse among the clergy—a squandering of resources that has now driven 10 dioceses into bankruptcy.

A legacy can be lost. The capital accumulated through generations of diligence and sacrifice can be frittered away in a generation. If our children do not learn to appreciate the value of the Catholic tradition, they will not be able to teach their own children—even if they are inclined to do so.

Years ago, when our children were young, my family moved into the same town where I had lived as a grammar-school child. Introducing myself to the pastor, I mentioned that I hoped the parochial school, which had been shuttered for years, could someday be reopened. I cannot forget his reply: “We need to keep it closed for this generation, so that we’re ready to re-open it for the next.” At the time I was too stunned to reply, but if I had had my wits about me, I would have made two points. First, I am responsible for the education of my children, now; I cannot wait for another generation. Second, if my children and their contemporaries do not know the benefits of a Catholic education, they will have no incentive to revive the old parish school. Sure enough, in that town—which now has a larger and more affluent Catholic population than in my early years there—the school buildings have been razed and replaced by a parking lot.

Many of my grammar-school classmates still live in that town, and have raised their own children there. Some still attend Mass at the parish church where I was baptized and confirmed. But few of their adult children can be found in the pews. It is no longer safe to assume that the children of practicing Catholics will themselves be practicing Catholics—nor even that they will know what they are missing as they drift away from the faith. Writing in Commonweal in November 2013, the psychologist Sidney Callahan reflected:

Looking back I see that there was no structured way in our parish for my children to get what I had gotten in my intellectual journey to the Catholic faith. I always had access to the sophisticated historical, intellectual, and theological dimensions of the faith.

Something precious has been stolen: from my children, from my neighbors, even from me. This is a grave injustice. I will not tolerate it. Will you?

Previous: 3. With Apologies to the Martyrs
Next: 5. False Diagnosis

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Dec. 12, 2013 7:27 AM ET USA

    Who is responsible for the post VII collapse? The parents bear a share of it but that share is mitigated by the fact that their sharing of the faith was taken over by CCD and other 'preparation' classes. I place the blame on the leadership of the church. Bishops that felt the spirit of VII was more important than the actual Spirit of the authentic Catholic faith. How high does the failure rise? Does it go all the way to the Pope? Sadly there is some evidence that it does.

  • Posted by: shrink - Dec. 11, 2013 6:12 PM ET USA

    At the center of this grand theft were the major professors of theology at the Catholic universities; a pack of liars and cheats if there ever was. At the top, were the two Teds; spiritual con-men, Msgr Theodore McCarrick and Fr Theodore Hesburgh. In their Land O'Lakes pact, they perpetrated a huge fraud on Catholic families. Many fine parents were lied to, their kid's souls were raped, their minds twisted. I witnessed the spiritual carnage with my own eyes. It still makes me angry after 50 yrs

  • Posted by: lak321 - Dec. 10, 2013 10:50 PM ET USA

    Thanks to sources such as the Catechism, from there we can go to the Internet and find all these treasures. Where there is a will, God will show the way. But who has the will? We are all too busy with Facebook, xboxes, jobs, etc. Modern life is too comfortable and few need God as much as before all this materialism. But go to a Third World country, and He is mentioned every 5 sentences, just as our Founding Fathers did.

  • Posted by: bruno.cicconi7491 - Dec. 10, 2013 4:31 PM ET USA

    It is an important issue and it is one that makes me sad deep in my heart. I am a millenial, and I almost had to pursue the faith all by myself. Sadly, Catholicism is much more lively in books and on the internet than it is in most parishes I have ever been to. Salvaging our heritage is an urgent matter. I hope Pope Francis is aware of that and doesn't see it as a "self-centered" preoccupation - it is about being grateful to those who came before, and caring for those who are to come.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Dec. 10, 2013 11:31 AM ET USA

    This is the issue of our time and generally the most poorly understood. Tremendous work! There will be an accounting for our performance in this time of evil- a time lacking due good. The symptoms are there: sexual abuse, secularization, decline in vocations, loss of faith, loss of piety, decline in influence etc. Not only do we not know who we are, we don't know why we are who we are. Very well-articulated principles; perhaps the most significant post of the year. Appropriate for Advent.