The Fifties: Catholic Paradise Lost?

Memory is a tricky thing, and historical memory can be trickier. For example, to many Catholic Americans, the 1950s look like a golden age of innocence, when life—especially church life—looked like a series of Norman Rockwell and Harold Anderson illustrations. As with all such reminiscences, it is not entirely inaccurate. Certainly America’s Catholics benefited alongside everyone else from post-War prosperity, and joined the great migration to the suburbs and Southern California. In such favored spots, new Catholic institutions—churches, schools, and hospitals—bloomed like flowers, as did the numbers of female religious who serviced the latter two. In keeping with the general increase in American church attendance across the board in that era, the numbers of Catholics soared.

In return, Catholicism appeared to have acquired a new respectability on the American scene. Certainly it was so in popular entertainment, where Bing Crosby’s Father O’Malley conquered hearts in Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s, and Archbishop Sheen was top dog on the nascent medium of television. Every war picture featured an Italian kid from Brooklyn, and Catholic elements were introduced into the quasi-religious cultus of the nation: the veneration of the Four Chaplains lay great stress on their interfaith Americanism, of which the Catholic priest in the quartet was full. Catholics even began to dream of having one of our own in the White House—a dream accomplished at the end of the decade. In such books as Will Herberg’s Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Catholics taking an integral role in the nation’s mosaic was hailed. If a few dissenters like Paul Blanshard looked at papal and foreign Catholic proclamations and saw a threat to American democracy, there were a host of Catholic and non-Catholic commentators keen on refuting them. Father John Courtney Murray, S.J., was busy writing and theorizing in defense of the claim that the Founding Fathers’ views were actually the best possible expression of the Church’s social teachings. America’s Catholics had arrived.

Or had they?

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There were a few voices of dissent amongst the Catholic community, who felt that this acceptance came at too high a price: abandonment of the Church’s prophetic mission to evangelize these United States. Many of these voices had their roots in pre-War Catholic dissent, such as the Catholic Worker and such Distributist-inspired figures as Monsignor Ligutti’s back-to-the-land movement. One of these was Ed Willock, a Catholic Worker veteran with a unique vision of how the Church’s social teaching should be applied in America. With Carol Robinson, in 1946 he launched a magazine called Integrity, which was intended as a platform for Willock and his collaborators. In their first issue, they explained what they were about:

Integral Catholicism is already becoming a popular expression. It does not mean piety so much as wholeness. It means that what we profess to believe is consistent with the assumed principle by which we live out our daily lives. It suggests a consistency of theory and practice; a unity of public life and private morals; a reconciliation of commercial ethics and religious dogma, of individual conscience and statutory law. It means a cessation of the uneasy Sunday-lipservice-to-God-and-40-hours-a-week-with-time-and-onehalf-for-overtime-devotion-to-Mammon by which so many of our lives are compromised.

The articles in the magazine’s ten-year run covered every aspect of life, from politics to household affairs, and were intended to help the readership develop their lives in an entirely Catholic direction. One by-product of this effort was the founding by Willock and his supporters of Marycrest, a community of lay Catholics who wanted to live in a Catholic community—complete with corporate observance of the Church year, from St. John’s fires to Epiphany singers going house to house. Madonna House in Canada, founded by Catherine de Hueck Dougherty, had a similar emphasis, and young ladies of such a bent found a home with the Ladies of the Grail in Ohio.

Similar ideas spread through an informal and loose network of Catholic intellectuals who dubbed themselves the Detachers (signifying a desire to “detach” from what they considered an immoral and banal culture), most prominent of whom were such lights as writer J.F. Powers and Senator Eugene McCarthy, most of whom had also done time with the Catholic Worker. Authors like Helen McLoughlin and Father Francis X. Weiser, S.J., wrote books explaining calendar customs from all over the Catholic world, thereby assisting modern parents to use them to sanctify their homes and home-life. In that way, it was hoped, the same spirit that dominated Marycrest and Grailville might be brought into ordinary Catholic homes across America.

Thomas Merton, already a convert-celebrity thanks to his literary and monastic status, joined with his college pals and fellow converts Ed Rice and Robert Lax to found Jubilee magazine in 1953, with which they hoped to “produce a Catholic literary magazine that would act as a forum for addressing issues confronting the contemporary church.” Even Jubilee’s odd financial set-up—a sort of cooperative between the management and the charter subscribers—was described by the former as “worked out after a study of the two great papal social encyclicals, Rerum Novarum (Leo XIII) and Quadragesimo Anno (Pius XI)…” Such names as Robert Lowell (during his transitory Catholic phase) graced its pages, and in its way it was quite as radical as Integrity, albeit far glossier.

On a more strictly clerical level, Monsignor Joseph Fenton and Father Francis Connell, CSSR, fought what they considered Father Murray’s accommodationist and indifferentist views in The American Ecclesiastical Review and other fora. Their contention was that the American version of separation of Church and state, so far from being the best possible arrangement as Father Murray asserted, was in fact only the best that Catholic Americans could hope for in the immediate—the Catholic confessional state being the ideal. If their reasoning occasionally came across as a bit more tortured than that of their opponent, it at least did not discount all of the papal encyclicals on such matters up to that time.

Exciting as these and allied currents seemed during the 1950s (and fascinating and useful as many of the writings they left behind are today), with the exception of the Catholic Worker and the Grail (both of which organizations are rather different from what their founders envisaged) the whole thing was not more lasting than a soap bubble. But so, too, with the Catholic Church in America as a whole, which half a century later is woefully sick—at the moment of writing, so far from influencing the United States, it is unable even to celebrate Mass publicly. While it may be hoped this last shall pass swiftly, one wonders what any American of the 1950s would think, were he told that in a future pandemic the churches of all denominations would be closed, while legal abortuaries would be kept open as “essential services.” That reality by itself shows just how little Catholic America really means.

So why did the Catholic radicals fail so signally? Partly because of the aftermath of Vatican II and the loss of Catholic identity. But that loss itself was indicative of a deeper problem. As with the pre-World War II Catholic activists, they had no real following with either the majority of lay Catholics or the hierarchy. Mostly converts or only-partly assimilated ethnics, they made the same mistake Paul Blanshard had made. They thought that, as a whole, Catholic Americans took their faith seriously. Our history since then shows that, as a whole, we did not. We are paying the price for that lack of zeal today.


  • 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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