The 1960s: A Catholic Counter-Culture?

Call the generation of which I am an exceedingly junior member either “the Baby Boomers” or the “Generation of ’68” and you evoke two similar but distinct images. The first makes one think of self-indulgent hippies-turned-self-indulgent old people; the second, revolutionaries-become-establishment. While neither is completely accurate, neither is entirely false. Like it or not, the folk born in the two decades that began in 1944 shall be eternally linked in the popular mind (and in many of their own) with what Wikipedia calls the counter-culture of the 1960s.

Sit-ins and love-ins, protest songs and psychedelic tunes, Berkeley and Haight-Ashbury, and “God is dead” theology and the Age of Aquarius—this jumble of contradictions had many strands contributing to it. The civil rights movement that had labored long and at last successfully to end Jim Crow was part of the phenomenon, as was the growing opposition to the war in Vietnam on the part of many potential conscripts. The collapse of sexual mores contingent upon the legalization of the pill unleashed a wave of marital issues, of which the increasing respectability of shacking up was the most immediately visible. Movies and television served up ever-steamier fare in response. At the same time, drug use among the young skyrocketed, from marijuana to LSD. Even the death of John F. Kennedy had its impact. Whatever the manifold causes to which it can be ascribed, the counter-culture’s results were incontestable in every aspect of life, from manners and clothing to graphic design and education. Music was the most obviously affected, with rock ’n’ roll at once undergoing its own revolution and becoming symptomatic of the ongoing revolution. Music festivals such as Monterey, Woodstock, Glastonbury, and the disastrous Altamont seared themselves into the public consciousness, as did the rock operetta Hair—its very title addressing one of the most visible changes the decade brought.

The other, no less visible changes among the young were in their approach to culture, religion, and politics. Fantasy and its allies among the other literary genres experienced far greater gains in popularity than they had had before. In America, the mainline Protestantism that had been so tied to the Establishment came to be seen by many (despite the fevered attempts of such clerics as Paul Moore, James Pike, and William Sloane Coffin) as irrelevant. In addition to a “Divine Invasion” from the East of various new and pre-existing Hindu and Buddhist spinoffs, there was a cornucopia of other prophets on offer, from Father Yod to Meher Baba to Da Free John and on and on. Astrology, tarot, and all sorts of other esoterica flourished. Any number of communes formed, and toward the end of the decade the “Jesus people” made their appearance.

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At the same time, young people were carrying Mao’s Little Red Book in their shirt pockets. The Students for a Democratic Society were calling for home-grown communism, and radical politics convulsed college campuses across the globe, with May of 1968 being the key date in Europe. Various experts sympathetic to these developments attempted to explain what was going on, ranging from Charles Reich’s The Greening of America to Theodore Roszak’s The Making of a Counter Culture. What these agreed upon was that the members of the counter-culture felt that the civilization they had inherited was rotten, and they wished to replace it with something else.

But what are we to make of all of this decades later, and why should we care? Well, an easy answer to the latter question is that this era turned Western culture on to its present course. Moreover, most of our current leadership either participated in or were affected by that counter-culture. Its mores have entered the mainstream—and have dominated it, albeit in a far duller, far less colorful way. But there is a more important lesson, and it was a vast missed opportunity for the Church.

At various moments in the last few centuries—the Romantic Revolt, the fin de siècle, the post–World War I era, for example—external conflict and uncertainty led many non-Catholics to re-examine Catholicism, and a large chunk of these to convert.

It could well have been that way for many of the Sixties folk. Historians claim to see two more or less separate currents. The first was political and centered in Berkeley, California; the aforementioned SDS and Little Red Book-wielders are an example. But there is a second current, one more interested in the social, cultural, and religious alternatives to what the mainstream America and Britain of the Fifties had to offer. Of that second wave, Tolkien himself spoke of “the behavior of modern youth, part of which is inspired by admirable motives such as anti-regimentation, and anti-drabness, a sort of lurking romantic longing for ‘cavaliers’, and is not necessarily allied to the drugs or the cults of faineance and filth.”

In those “admirable motives,” that “romantic longing,” there could well have been a preparation for the Gospel, as there had been in the earlier mentioned situation—the more so because these motives and this longing were certainly shared by the integralist Catholic groups which we looked at in the past several columns. But where the political current of the counter-culture is dominant today, the second current has left very little in its wake (other than a robust fantasy fandom scene, Renaissance Fairs across the land, and a few long-lived communes). It certainly did not result in the customary wave of converts such movements have traditionally produced. Why not?

Unfortunately, the Sixties were also the time of the post-Vatican II implosion, when the American Catholic hierarchy were apparently more concerned with conforming to the post-Protestant mainstream than preaching the Gospel message—not that evangelization had ever been a large concern for most of them throughout our history. Integrity magazine had folded in 1958. Many of the other Catholic social efforts simply turned to the left in the Sixties, abandoning much or all of their Catholicism; such was the fate of Grailville, many (though by no means all) of the Catholic Workers, and Jubilee magazine.

Tragic indeed was the fate of Ramparts Magazine, founded in 1962 with the intention of publishing “fiction, poetry, art, criticism and essays of distinction, reflecting those positive principles of the Hellenic-Christian tradition which have shaped and sustained our civilization for the past two thousand years, and which are needed still to guide us in an age grown increasingly secular, bewildered, and afraid.” But two years in, new editor Warren Hinckle took it in a frankly left-wing direction; by the time it ceased publication a decade after its inception, it was indistinguishable in outlook from Mother Jones.

Then again, this self-secularization mirrored what innumerable Catholic institutions were doing at the same time—as with the major Catholic colleges and their 1967 Land O’ Lakes Conference. In all of this, many of them believed themselves to be following the lead of the Holy See itself, which in the wake of Vatican II abandoned the call for Catholic confessional states, preferring to “work with all men of good will for a more just society.”

Regardless of the theory behind this shift, it was interpreted by countless Catholics in all sorts of positions as calling for the abandonment of the specifically Catholic identity—in social and political affairs as much as in liturgy. Henceforth, on the bus of society, Catholics were to be simply along for the ride. Rather than converting the world, Catholics were to conform to it. This was not a message calculated to win over the disaffected in society—and, unsurprisingly, it didn’t.

It must not be supposed that these developments went unnoticed or unopposed among Catholics themselves. But as they had come from the very hierarchy that Catholics were used to obeying without question, it took a while for unease to develop into opposition. When it did, it was primarily in the liturgical sphere—not too shocking, given that this is and was where most Catholics most routinely encounter their faith. Moreover, Catholics interested in reorienting society in accordance with the Church’s social teaching had always been rare in these United States.

Nevertheless, in 1966 Triumph magazine was founded.

The brainchild of William F. Buckley’s fiery brother-in-law, L. Brent Bozell, it was created in reaction to what Bozell considered to be the “soft” adherence to Catholicism on the part of Buckley’s National Review—specifically, Buckley’s notorious profession, Mater, si; Magistra, no. Bozell assembled an amazing pool of literary and editorial talent whose cosmopolitan background reflected the diversity of the Church herself.

What united them was first a complete attachment to the papal social encyclicals and distributism, as well as an affection for any nation or group that had tried, or appeared to have tried, to put them into practice. The Habsburgs, the Carlists, the French Royalists, the Jacobites, Dollfuss, Franco, Salazar, and Petain were among the foreign figures looked to for inspiration, while American examples were sought, from Father Coughlin to the Old South.

In terms of practical politics, Triumph broke completely with National Review over the election of 1968. Bozell and his collaborators came to oppose the war in Vietnam and nuclear deterrence, without, however, following Ramparts in surrendering their conscience to the Left. Quite the contrary. When infanticide was consecrated as the law of the land by the Supreme Court, the magazine famously declared: “If she is to protect herself and she is to abide by her divine mandate to teach all peoples, the Catholic Church in America must break the articles of peace, she must forthrightly acknowledge that a state of war exists between herself and the American political order.”

This truly radical stance lost Bozell and his more committed staff a good deal of support, even as his own health was declining. In 1976 Triumph closed down. But given the temper of the times, one can only wonder what the Church in America and elsewhere might have accomplished had the hierarchy and the rest of the Church been less accommodating—not to say collaborationist—with the mainstream.

What if the United States bishops, rather than concentrating on making the liturgy as banal as possible and obscuring the abortion issue with their “seamless garment” idea, had instead adopted something of the spirit of Triumph? Such a message would have resonated with many members of a generation who (at that time, anyway) sensed that there was something deeply wrong with America and had the drive to try to fix it.

Instead, the Church in America seemed to join the chorus of “me, too,” while many of the young pursued solutions—worse than the problems—which we live today.

Image: Pope John XXIII at the opening of the Second Vatican Council


  • Charles Coulombe

    Charles A. Coulombe is a contributing editor at Crisis and the magazine’s European correspondent. He previously served as a columnist for the Catholic Herald of London and a film critic for the National Catholic Register. A celebrated historian, his books include Puritan’s Empire and Star-Spangled Crown. He resides in Vienna, Austria and Los Angeles, California.

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