I suspect that experiencing the suffering and diminishing Church of today is more difficult for those of us who are older. There are two reasons for this: First, the scandals, decline, and disorder happened on our watch; we clergy especially have a lot of repenting to do over what we have done and what we have failed to do. Second, we remember a time when things seemed better, when the Church was strong and growing, when she was more certain of herself, more dignified. Obviously, it was not a sinless time, but things seemed more unified and orderly. This is not mere nostalgia; the numbers bear out the truth. By nearly every measure, Catholics were more cohesive and more loyal to the Church. Consider Thomas Reeves’ description of the Church in the 1940s in his 2002 book America’s Bishop: The Life and Times of Fulton J. Sheen (a book well worth reading):
During the 1930s and 1940s, the Catholic Church in America blossomed. Traumatized by the blatant anti-Catholicism of the 1928 presidential election, Church members had responded by creating separate Catholic scholarly organizations, professional societies, book clubs, trade unions, even summer camps. … The hostility evidenced by Protestants stemmed partly from the fact that the Catholic Church was thriving.
In 1940, there were nearly twenty-three million Catholic communicants in America, almost three times as many as the Methodist Church could claim, and the Methodists were by far the largest Protestant denomination in the country. Catholics outnumbered any single protestant denomination in thirty-five of the forty-eight states.
Mass attendance was in the 75 percent range or better (in contrast to the flagging attendance in increasingly secular western Europe). In Philadelphia churches, for instance, especially those with second and third generation American families, attendance at Sunday mass hovered around 90 percent. Charles R. Morris, an able historian of American Catholicism, described the appeal of the Mass: “The total experience—the dim lights, the glint of the vestments, the glow of the stained-glass windows, the mantra like murmur of the Latin—was mind washing. It calmed the soul, opened the spirit to large, barely grasp Presences is and Purposes. For a trembling moment every week, or every day if they chose, ordinary people reached out and touched the divine.”
Latin liturgy, Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony, meatless Fridays, fasting before Mass, the rosary, the Baltimore Catechism, retreats, the novena (in 1938, 70,000 people attended 38 novena services at our Lady of Sorrows in Chicago every week), kneelers, large families dressed in their Sunday best, mantillas, and chapel caps, religious in habits, statues, large gothic or baroque churches with dark, quiet places and side altars, elaborate priestly vestments, the smell of incense, the sound of bells at the Consecration, the feeling of awe at the miracle of Transubstantiation—these were all common features of the American Catholic world in the time of the Church’s fastest growth and greatest self-confidence.
Parochial education was booming; in 1943 there were over 2 million pupils in almost 8,000 schools, and 16,838 men in Catholic seminaries. Some nine million people subscribed to 333 Catholic newspapers in 1942. More than a hundred publishing houses were linked with the Catholic Press Association. There were 726 Catholic hospitals.
Protestant paranoia was in some sense justified by the strong spirit of evangelism reflected in the “Make America Catholic” movement. Catholics reported about 86,000 converts annually in the United States. A serious attempt to reach African-Americans was underway. Urban laborers were increasingly attracted to the pro-labor teachings of Leo XIII, the “Pope of the working man.”
Many liberal intellectuals were outraged by the Church’s prosperity during this period. … Attacks reached their crescendo in 1949 and Paul Blanchard’s best-selling book American Freedom and Catholic Power. Begun as a series of 12 articles in The Nation, Blanchard’s book called the Catholic hierarchy rigid, medieval, fascist, totalitarian, tyrannical, bigoted, un-American, arrogant, dishonest, and the enemy of science and objective learning. He said that Catholicism conditions people to accept censorship, thought control, and ultimately dictatorship. There is no doubt the parochial school, whatever may be its virtues, is the most important, decisive instrument in the life of American children. Blanchard called for a “resistance movement” to prevent the Church from taking over America and crushing “western democracy and American culture” (pp. 163-167).
Yes, those were, at least to an external observer, the halcyon days of the Church in the United States. Tomorrow’s post will center around the Church in Europe, where in this same period the situation was quite different: the two horrifying World Wars had severely shaken the faith of Catholics there, and the number of practicing Catholics was plummeting. In America, a similar decline would wait another twenty years.
Something must have been going on under the surface for the Church to have collapsed so quickly. As a Church we were certainly ill-prepared for the cultural tsunami that hit in the 1960s. Wave after wave rolled through, sweeping away all that was familiar. The waves of the sexual revolution, radical feminism, rebellion against authority and tradition, drug use, no-fault divorce, abortion on demand, the normalization of fornication and homosexual acts, cohabitation, and now the bizarre world of “transgenderism.” Yes, wave after wave; it was a rapid destruction.
The roots of modern ills stretch back philosophically to the close of the Middle Ages, as the rise of Nominalism spun an ugly, though intricate, web through Descartes, Locke, and Hume, and ultimately to Nietzsche and Nihilism or Sartre and Existentialism. In effect, we increasingly stepped back from reality, either in nihilistic madness declaring that nothing has meaning, or in existential hubris claiming that we make up our own meaning. Like a witch’s brew, this was bubbling in the background.
In the Church, we sought to resist this through the Counter-Reformation and later through resistance to Modernism, but during the bloody and revolutionary 20th century we lost ground and increasingly compromised with the world. We allowed our ancient, distinctive Catholic faith to slip through our fingers.
While the Second Vatican Council was surely a major battlefield, the war was bigger and older than that (for a thoughtful treatment of this period I recommend reading Roberto de Mattei’s book The Second Vatican Council, an Unwritten Story). For, truth be told, the ones sowing revolution inside the Church were raised in the “old system”: the Latin Mass, the old Catechism, regimented seminary formation (usually in Latin).
The college students sowing the cultural revolution were also raised in the old system: prayer and the pledge of allegiance in the schools, and for Catholics, the Latin Mass, parochial school with uniforms, and solid catechetical foundations.
So, even in those halcyon days, something was brewing. It seems that the external glory of the Church in America during the 1940s and 50s was three thousand miles wide but only two inches deep. When the earth shook with our indignation in the 1960s, things broke up quickly. Angry rebellion was everywhere; iconoclasm was widespread, and we congratulated ourselves as the wrecking balls hit just about everything.
Something came over us that was bigger and went further back than this four-year council. Some of us like to point to the vision of Pope Leo XIII in 1884 and the hundred years of trial that God permitted for the Church. As the years tick on well past one hundred, I wonder if the explanation isn’t more complicated and mysterious; God’s providence is often paradoxical. One thing is clear to me: we are under a period of pruning and punishment for our sins. Ten years ago, I had no idea the rot was so deep. It is so much worse than I ever thought then, and I am convinced we are going to see a lot more exposed in the next few years.
I sit before the cross in the rectory chapel frequently these days. Even as I type this, I am near it. Often, I just sigh. There are no words to express the grief I feel for the Church, the Lord’s Bride, and my Mother. How we, her children, have soiled her beautiful garments and torn at them! But she is always the Bride and never the widow; her Groom lives forever.
Here in this chapel, in the Eucharistic Presence of the Groom, I await the renewal He will surely bring. I am aware that more purification may be needed first, and so I wait, I sigh, and I accept my share in the purifications.
The following motet is by William Byrd:
Ne irascaris Domine, satis,
et ne ultra memineris iniquitatis nostrae.
Ecce respice populus tuus omnes nos.
Civitas sancti tui facta est deserta.
Sion deserta facta est,
Jerusalem desolata est.
Be not angry, O Lord; enough.
and remember our iniquity no more.
Behold, we are all your people.
Your holy city has become deserted.
Zion has become a wilderness,
Jerusalem has been made desolate.
Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: A Lament for the Diminishing Church