John Allen quotes an interesting observation from Archbishop Timothy Dolan while interviewing Mother Mary Clare Millea of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the sister in charge of a Vatican-sponsored apostolic visitation of women religious in America.
Allen: I was talking yesterday with Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, and he made the argument that it’s a mistake for American Catholics to compare today’s numbers on anything, including religious life, with the peak period of the 1950s, because historically that peak was an aberration. Do you agree?
Mother Millea: Yes, definitely. That was a very unusual and unique peak in the number of vocations in the 1950’s. After the pioneering and the struggling times, part of it is that we built so many institutions. Those institutions met so many young people and influenced their lives, causing them to join and to become a part of that. That was a passing phenomenon, and many of the institutions have been taken over by other people so capably.
I'm so grateful when people with the status of Archbishop Dolan and Mother Millea spread the word. The American vocation spike that some want to insist represented the reality of the entire pre-Vatican II Catholic Church, was a one country, one generation aberration.
In addition to the institutional factor that Mother Millea mentions, there is some evidence that the horrific events of the 30's and 40's resulting in a world living under a nuclear Sword of Damacles, made many young men and women think again about secular life (understandably!). There were probably a number of other factors that led to the "one brief shining moment" but if we keep regarding the 50's as the American Catholic Camelot, we will profoundly misunderstand the significance of what has happened since and the times in which we live.
As I wrote last summer, in a post called "Generational Shift".
The bloodbath of World War I had overlapped with the October revolution in Russia which was ferociously athiestic. In fact, Pope Pius XI spoke of the "Terrible Triangle" - referring to persecution of Christians in the new Soviet Union and the civil wars in Mexico and Spain in which Catholics and the Church suffered horribly. Simultaneously, Hitler rose to Power in Germany. It all ended in another global catastrophe - World War II, the Holocaust, the bombing of HIroshima, and the beginning of the long anxiety of the nuclear era and the cold war.
Their literature, which I read a great deal of while preparing to teach the graduate course in the Theology of the Laity at Sacred Heart Seminary last June, is filled with anxiety and cataclysmic language. They talked as though all of life hung by a thread while we look back and think of them as inhabiting a serene, sunlit pastoral valley flowing with ecclesial milk and honey. i think we have to let the pre-Vatican II generation speak for itself in these matters. By comparison, we are the ones living in the sunlit valley.
I recently came across a blogger who wrote that any "faithful" Catholic, would, if they had the choice, choose to live in the American Catholic Church of 1940 rather than the present. I was stupefied. Especially by the fact that no participant in the conversation raised the obvious problems with that assertion.
Would I rather live in 1940? Because the Catholic Church was so much healthier and strong in 1940 than it is today?
1940: the year that the Nazis marched into Catholic France and Belgium? The year when the whole world hovered on the edge of a cataclysm that was going to take 60 million lives and throw Christian Europe into an abyss from which it has never really recovered? The year that Maximilian Kolbe was hiding 2,000 Jews in his Franciscan community? 1940: The year of despair for millions and millions of Catholics in France, Belgium, Germany, Poland, and Italy. That 1940? Innumerable promising Catholic leaders and movements were crushed when the Nazis, and later, the Communists marched in. How many Catholics lost their faith in the midst of that unimaginable horror?
Two days ago, the baptized daughter of a holocaust survivor told me a story her Jewish mother had just revealed before her recent death. From about 1940.
As a very young woman, her mother, who was raised in Germany, had been raped by German soldiers. Somehow she and her family escaped to France where she discovered she was pregnant while in hiding. To save the lives of the rest of the family, the baby's grandmother, a physician, aborted her own grandchild. The woman telling me her mother's story ended by saying "I never understood why my mother refused to believe in God again because I thought her whole family had survived. Now I understand."
Nearly everyone would concede that 1940 was a very bad year for Catholics in Europe. But do we really think of 1940 in the US as a sealed off sunlit island in a world in anguish? Where Catholic institutions were booming and all was right with the world?
Or are we talking about the real American 1940 when Catherine Doherty was battling for the most minimal baptismal rights for black Catholics - like being allowed to attend local parishes, go to Catholic schools and universities, etc? Most Catholic parishes and Institutions reflected the deep, unreflective racism of the surrounding culture - even toward fellow Catholics. (One vivid anecdote: In the late 40's, Catherine Doherty was attacked and had her clothes torn off her by a group of white Catholic women in Georgia when she challenged them on this issue. She was rescued by the black janitor.) The Church teaches that racism is an "intrinsic evil" and in 1940, it was just as wide-spread among Catholics as anyone else.
In 1940, the famous ethnic Catholic enclaves in the US that protected us from the surrounding Protestant culture were European ethnic enclaves. How many times have I been told of the old pattern where there was an Irish Catholic Church and a German Catholic Church and an Italian Catholic Church all within a mile? I was just walking around historic Boston a couple weeks ago where there was three ethnic Catholic churches within a few blocks of one another. Are we to believe that these Catholics weren't in anguish about their families and friends in Europe in 1940?
1940 - when the young men filling those packed Catholic schools were about to march off to war by the hundreds of thousands? From 1940 - 1945, 300,000 young American men died on the battlefields of Europe, North Africa, and Asia. Another 300,000 were wounded, many maimed and traumatized for life. Many of them and their mothers, fathers, siblings, wives, and children were Catholic. Sounds like bliss to me.
My father was living in 1940 and part of his reward was getting to liberate a death camp in May, 1945, as a teenager. (As a small child, I wondered about my dad's collection of World War II books complete with extremely graphic and horrifying paintings and photographs of death camp survivors. It was only much later that he told me about his concentration camp experience and I understood.)
And then after the war, huge parts of Europe were taken over by Communist regimes who were virulently anti-Christian and anti-Catholic and Catholics and Catholic institutions in eastern Europe lived through another two generations of suppression and suffering. While Catholics in the US and the rest of the world lived under the shadow and constant anxiety of cold war and possible nuclear holocaust.
No wonder, opinion polls of young people in the 40's and 50's show that often the majority of young people did not expect to live a normal, full life, they were convinced that they would die in war, atomic holocaust or something like that. The times were really, really bad in 1940 and all adult Catholics living then knew the times were bad. No one living then thought of it as a kind of golden age for the faith. "Happy Days" was a 70 - 80's sitcom, not a 1940's reality.
Which was one reason so many entered religious life and the priesthood between 1945 and 1965.
And why the US Catholic Church has more priests today, in 2010, than she did in 1945. The post-war/cold war "bump" had not yet happened.
As one Dutch priest survivor of the war told Fr. Mike recently, many of his contemporaries entered priesthood because they had promised God they would become a priest if they survived. Of his minor seminary class of 78, only 18 were ultimately ordained - and of that 18 - he was the only one who had not left the priesthood.
We all know this history. And yet, when discussing the fortunes of the Catholic Church before and after Vatican II around the blogosphere, we suddenly became a Church without a real history. As though we had blotted out everything that happened between 1914 and 1962. Everything that the generation that held the Second Vatican Council had lived and suffered through and knew all too well.
I know that no one in the blogosphere is thinking or saying "It was ultimately a good thing that a global cataclysm annihilated the lives and hopes of so many millions because it made tens of thousands of American guys think again about becoming priests. Let's do that again."
But when, in the name of our current culture war battles, we accept selective amnesia and mythology as a substitute for history, we are deceiving ourselves. Self-deception makes for very bad theology and very poor discernment of our past, our present, and our future.
Being a faithful Catholic in the early 21st century is very difficult and complex. Being a faith-filled Catholic in the mid 21st century is going to be very difficult and complex.
But if we think it was less difficult and less complex in the early and mid 20th century because they had the Baltimore Catechism and the Latin Mass, we have utterly, utterly left reality behind.