Back to the Future: ’60s Catholics, ’80s Catholics

In 1965, Daniel Callahan was an associate editor of Commonweal. He was struck by the fact that Fr. John Courtney Murray looked at young Catholics of the Callahan generation and called them a “generation of the third eye.” Murray was worried that young Catholics of the ’60s were cutting themselves loose from their roots, that lacking the nourishment of their traditions, they depended for growth only upon themselves. They were anxious not to look back; they looked forward without a context. They developed a third eye that looked only inward. Introspection was all. Self was the center.

Daniel Callahan edited a book to prove Murray’s thesis, Generation of the Third Eye, published by (who else?) Sheed and Ward in 1965, was subtitled “Young Catholic Leaders View Their Church.” The view was an enthusiastically hopeful one, young indeed. The average age of the twenty-four “young Catholic leaders” was thirty-two. “I sought out,” wrote Callahan in an autobiographical introduction, “a group of younger Catholic writers and thinkers, scholars, doctors, and poets, who seemed to represent a broad cross-section of backgrounds, professions, and orientations.” For virtually all of them, “reform” was the call. Everything would be better if the past were denied and the self-centered adventure of the future embraced. A philosopher educated at Louvain wrote:

I delight in the hopeful talk of the future which has suddenly become a commonplace among us. Its themes — responsibility, freea6m, initiative — have built up their distinctive excitement in me. This future, of course, is that of the church.

And a nun teaching at Trinity College:

I find myself quite irrepressibly hopeful. What I’m hoping for, really, is that the life of the whole Church is in for the same sort of sweeping renewal which I’ve been living through in my own religious congregation.

A young Ph.D. in sociology, identified as “a priest in the Archdiocese of Chicago,” who at that time had written only five books, wrote glowingly of the “tremendous dynamism surging through the American Church.” Andrew Greeley is not so happy now. Neither am I. But I did join the joyous chorus of the 1960s. I wrote in Callahan’s book, knocking, I thought, on the gates of power and influence:

There has probably never been so exciting a time as the present. Explosions of change are heard throughout the land and throughout the world, ignited, of all strange and unlikely places, at Rome. The young Catholic intellectual is now faced with the prospect of becoming an Insider within his Church, of becoming The Establishment.

And what happened when our hopes were fulfilled? Not only were the windows thrown open. So were the doors. When we got inside, we got what we deserved. Twenty-two years later, Peter Occhiogrosso proves it.

In 1987, Peter Occhiogrosso is a free-lance writer who was formerly an editor at the Soho News. He had a new idea much like Daniel Callahan’s old idea. He edited a book called Once a Catholic (Houghton Mifflin, 1987). The subtitle of his book is “Prominent Catholics and Ex-Catholics Reveal the Influence of the Church on Their Lives and Work.” Prominent Catholics and Ex-Catholics are not as hopeful as were Young Catholic Leaders. And few of them are as “Catholic.” The focus has shifted from Commonweal to Soho News, the vehicle from Sheed and Ward to Houghton Mifflin. And to be truthful but unfair about it, I could suggest the difference by remarking that Garry Wills was in the old book while Bob Guccione is in the new book; Ned O’Gorman was in the old book but Frank Zappa is in the new one. And so on. But to be both truthful and fair about it, let me explain why the old book is better.

Generation of the Third Eye is more thoughtful because the people in that book had thought their thoughts before. Introspection did at least produce ideas. The young Catholics were concerned about their Church. For all of their hope, they were worried. The people in the second book are mostly unconcerned. For all of their cynicism, they are indifferent. Enthusiasm has been replaced by boredom. Occhiogrosso found a representative cross-section of Catholics who mostly had not been considering lately, or ever, whether that label fit them. In their indifference, they fall into cliché. When asked, they have to say something. So they give Received Standard Opinion. Comedian George Carlin is typical:

Psychologically, I wasn’t a Catholic much after eighth grade. But I had given it up internally a few years before that. It never took with me. There seemed to be a hypocrisy, an inconsistency, a stressing of penance and punishment and pain, and not a celebration of life. It seemed very antihuman.

Ho hum. As a group, Occhiogrosso’s contributors certainly represent women and blacks and Hispanics better than do Callahan’s, but most no longer know nor care whether they represent the Church.

The old book is also better because it is more readable, having been written rather than spoken. But I am glad for the fact of the two books. For all of the diversity of response, patterns are discernable when one compares Generation of the Third Eye with Once a Catholic. The concerns and responses of 1965 are not the concerns and responses of 1987. Of course not. They should not be so. But here, within two sets of covers separated by twenty-two years, is fascinating human proof of what I am afraid most Catholics have discovered. The third eye blinked.

Some of the concerns of 1965 remained concerns in 1987. Almost all of the contributors to both books talk about racial injustice and poverty and censorship and birth control. Their attitudes haven’t much changed.

They want less of the first three and more of the last.

Attitudes about liturgy have dramatically reversed. They were pro; now they are con. In 1965, liturgy meant life. A priest writes about a vocation which began with his discovery of the revised Easter Vigil:

Never before had I become so stirred by the Church’s worship; I found myself in tears, but extremely happy, and anxious to renew the promises of my Baptism.

By 1987, liturgy meant not renewal but boredom. Wilfred Sheed is typically blunt:

The English Mass turned out to be an unqualified bore as far as I was concerned. The worst of it was that I had been expecting better English than this. I thought we’d get something like the Book of Common Prayer; I didn’t know we were going to get this flavorless mush.

The 1987 liturgy is to Michael Novak even worse than boring:

It’s worse than television. . . . The reformers took out all sense of mystery, all sense of real adoration, and all sense of real humility. They took the solitary and the personal out of religion, making it group-think…. You don’t feel that sense of being on your knees before the Almighty and before all the angels and saints — we’ve lost that connection with the past history of the Church. We’ve lost the sense both of solitude and of community, a marvelous sense of solitude and yet a marvelous sense of praying together with a community that went down through all the ages.

Many of the churchy concerns of 1965 have disappeared by 1987. Yesterday’s passions cool. How quaint it sounds now to read the old ringing calls for reform of seminary education. And we will all be saved if only we study real theology. Or scripture study will save us. So will more attention to the lay apostolate. The names of the good guys bring smiles of nostalgia to modern faces: the Sister Formation Movement, Catholic Action, aggiornarnento, Xavier Rynne. And the villains no longer scar€ us: the Index, the Legion of Decency, the Holy Name Society, the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Ottaviani. These words — good and bad — have dropped from the 1987 vocabulary, and from our hearts.

But as 1987 no longer talks about the trivia, it hardly talks about God, or worship, or mystery, or prayer, or tradition. Instead, the world, of course, is much more with us. Nineteen sixty-five did not see the world. Garry Wills suggested to us way back then that we should spend less time looking in mirrors and more time looking through windows. One can read all of Generation of the Third Eye without discovering who is president. The narrowness of our concerns in 1965 strikes me now as the greatest shock in the old book. Truly that extra eye looked inward. Selfishly.

I would not have thought it possible that a book about the Church, published as recently as 1965, could have ignored war and peace. No arguments about nuclear holocaust or deterrence or arms control. No arguments. No mention. Except for Justus George Lawler, listed as editor of Continuum. He addressed himself almost directly to his colleagues sharing the same book, Asking them to dedicate their “rebellious instincts to some of the real issues,” such as nuclear war. He pleaded with us to refocus “some of that light and passion which is now squandered on baiting the dean, campaigning for class cuts, or on the more refined ramifications of the perennial problems of undergraduates of all ages.”

Neither light nor passion focused on women. Women were not a concern in 1965. Only four of the twenty-four contributors to Callahan’s book were women. And they were not so much concerned about women either. A progressive and energetic young woman on the staff of an ecumenical center in Boston had the same list of complaints as everyone else in the book:

I am increasingly troubled by the restrictions on freedom within the Church, the lack of channels through which laymen can voice their concerns and contribute vitally to Church life and policy; the frequent resistance of clergy and people to directives on liturgical participation; the irrelevance of most sermons and parish organizations to both world needs and personal spiritual development; the mediocrity and conformism of so much of Catholic education.

She voiced not a single concern as a woman. A void can speak eloquently. A nun voiced only this single sentence concerning women in the church:

The essence of the religious life for women is most fully expressed in the vow of chastity, by which the woman consecrated to God is assimilated to the Church, the Bride of the Lamb, so that she seeks to live out in her own life on earth the spousal union of Christ and His Church.

Just try that one on today.

Only Mary Kathryn Schutzius, who was at the time conducting for The Grail a study of the role of women in American society, and Rosemary Ruether, then a graduate student in classics and patristics at Claremont, spoke from anything like a feminist position, but without ever using that adjective. No one used the word “feminist.” No one, male or female, mentioned women priests. And the word “abortion” appeared nowhere in the book.

I’m glad that our Catholic world is bigger in 1987 than it was in 1965. War and peace, feminism, abortion appear on virtually every page of the Occhiogrosso book. And so they should. It is clear that our Catholic world is now more “relevant” than it was in 1965. But why did it also become more divided and less Catholic? Why did our desire for peace and our hatred of war turn into a new war among ourselves, where deterrence is considered more evil than aggression or, on the other hand, where gentleness is called cowardice? Why did our necessary liberation of women become connected with a blood orgy of abortions? How did our hopes for the Church so quickly turn to indifference? How did we travel so far and get nowhere? What happened?

Only three persons made it all the way from “Young Catholic Leaders” to “Prominent Catholics and Ex-Catholics.” And yet none of these three seem to remember the old book as they write in the new book. We can see changes, and consistencies, that might surprise them. Over those twenty-two years, Wilfred Sheed remained suspicious. Michael Novak moved right. And Dan Callahan left the Church. Maybe looking more closely at these three journeys will throw some light on what went wrong.

From beginning to end, Wilfred Sheed never seems deeply engaged in reform. He masks his concern with a stylish brittleness. He is, of course, funny and insightful. But neither his writing in the first book nor his talking in the second book rings with faith or hope. Ile started out wanting the human side of the Church to be better, to produce better liturgy, better sermons. But he didn’t expect it to happen. And, indeed, in the second book he discovers that it didn’t. Parish life got even worse.

When the Church decided that everybody should go vernacular, I think they were imagining some terrific flowering of some specifically local cultures that would feed into the Church. But what we got here were bad guitar Masses or desperately uninspired hymns belonging to no time or place because we don’t at the moment have a culture that’s suitable. To take away one you’ve already got — and, which however foreign to begin with, is already part of the American Catholic soul — and say, “Well, now you can do one of your own. . .” well, it can’t be produced on demand. The Episcopal culture is vernacular, but it goes back to the seventeenth century, when the English language was just right and English music was just right, so they could produce something that stands. But we don’t have either a suitable culture or a tradition to supplant what we lost.

Mary Gordon sees the same cultural lack as the reason for the failure of liturgical reform:

The people on the Left who are doing all sorts of good works want to play Peter, Paul, and Mary for you and have Sister Corita posters hanging on the walls. They kind of got stuck in 1965. I don’t know what there is to move forward to — you can’t replace Peter, Paul, and Mary with Prince. But when you get stuck in a not particularly distinguished historical moment, that’s a real tragedy. Better to get stuck in the thirteenth century than in 1965; better to get stuck in “Pange Lingua” than “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

Sheed wants to go all the way back in order to get unstuck. He can’t imagine “anything better than a total restoration” of the old liturgy.

Sheed grew up believing in a Church of density and richness. Perhaps some of it was a childhood fantasy. Most of us build up a Church of the ideal, but there was safety and comfort in an ideal Church. Bad as current parish life might be, the ideal remains. Even in 1987, Sheed is not ready to throw it over:

A universal Christian Church remains not merely an ideal but, once tasted, the only possible ideal, and I’m not about to drop it because of some quibble over prose.

What Sheed liked best about the reform movements of 1965 was “vitality, as opposed to cheaply-won optimism and bounce.” And he still admires that quality:

I’ve always thought of the Church as being somewhat like the Democratic party: totally disputatious and infinitely varied and colorful, but traditionally capable of pulling itself together to act as one.

And yet not optimism but caution has consistently been Sheed’s special note. He was out of tune with his generation in 1965. Where most of the Third Eye pieces damned the present and demanded the future, Sheed damned the damners:

There was a proneness among my companions to an impotent sourness, to an almost mechanical railing — against the system, against the clergy, against everything — that was almost more depressing than the problem itself. In many ways, this kind of whipped-dog sniveling was the most unhealthy aspect of the Catholic life.

That sniveling marked many of the 1965 comments; it marks even more obviously the comments of 1987. Christopher Durang is only too typical in his Once a Catholic piece, filled as it is with mean-spirited whining about sexual repression, masturbation, worry concerning what to do with consecrated vomit. The 1987 folks don’t smile at themselves, don’t laugh at their silly childhood fears, don’t see that much of what they blame on the Church is nothing more than conventional problems of growing-up. This generation needs some of Sheed’s humor, his distancing, and, most importantly, his ability to warn his own generation.

Wilfred Sheed warned us in 1965 that our negating the past was simplistic and dangerous:

It is tempting under a new regime to curse everything about the old one. But if we believe that the Catholic Church manifests Christ to each generation of men, we cannot be so summary in dismissing the last four hundred years. It would surely diminish one’s confidence in the present reforms, reducing them to a level of mere tactical ingenuity, if one believed that the Church could go so totally wrong as that in the past. (If then, why not now?)

Why not indeed?

In the old book, Michael Novak sounds like most of the rest of us. In the new book, he stands almost alone. And yet he has changed very little. His consistency makes clear how much the times have changed. The most important link between the old Novak and the new Novak is his praise for diversity within the Church. Similar to Sheed’s praise of the vitality of diversity, Novak in 1965 believed that “the Church is for all kinds of men”:

There has been room in the Church for Chaucer, Alexander VI, Mauriac, Graham Greene and Cardinal Spellman. The ideal of uniformity and sameness is as far as possible from the Catholic reality.

Twenty-two years later, Novak still likes diversity rather than uniformity:

I like the variety, the turmoil, the struggle, the rivalries and cliques in the Church — they are proofs of its human, conflicted, turbulent reality.

But Novak has come to fear a new conformity, which has replaced diversity. In 1965, he could speak as a progressive and attack the Catholicism of an Italianate culture, which was juridical, monarchical, conformist. Now the progressives — a Catholicism of an Americanist culture — have become the wielders of conformity. “There is now,” he argues, “a progressive bourgeois Christian credo and agenda.”

According to this orthodoxy, I ought to hold that celibacy should be abolished; that women should be priests; that the Pope should be a colleague — one bishop among bishops, one theologian among others, one conscience equal to all others, one of the happy crowd of progressive bourgeois Christians, all alike.

When, in the old days, Novak praised diversity, he assumed that ever more diversity would be revitalizing. That, he now admits, was his mistake:

Many conservatives were predicting that the Vatican II reforms would go badly, and we called them “the prophets of doom,” after a phrase that Pope John XXIII had used. I kept thinking that the time was ripe and that, done well and with wisdom, the reforms would be very popular and revitalizing. I did not anticipate that so many priests and nuns would leave and that institutionally there would be so many disruptions. I did not think that there would be so many challenges to the core of the faith itself, although I do remember using as the frontispiece of The Open Church, “All things human, given enough time, go badly.”

What went badly, Novak (and the rest of us) now know, was that, in our rage for reform and diversity, we lost tradition:

I hate the idea of “sandbox Catholicism,” in which persons of our generation play amid the treasures of tradition, throw them about, discard them, as the whim seizes them. No. We are carrying forward a tradition, which has its own identity and makes clear and distinct and troublesome demands.

Those troublesome demands of tradition may not be valued in the new conformity, but, nevertheless, “those who choose to belong (no one has to) incur an obligation to carry forward to our children its wisdom and its treasures.” The treasures of tradition are manifold, made up of “a heritage of ideas, symbols, stories, and values.”

Michael Novak always tried to find that heritage in reality rather than in abstractions. In 1965 he complained that the “natural law” argument against birth control in marriage was based on abstract definitions of human nature rather than on marriage as it is lived. In 1987 he still rooted theological arguments in reality. He suggested that the empowerment argument in favor of women priests was irrelevant, suggesting as it does that Christianity is based on power, and altering as it does the entire symbolic network of the priesthood.

Most of Novak’s concerns in the later essays are wider than the Church. He discusses war, arguing for deterrence. And he discusses economics, detailing his conversion from democratic socialism to democratic capitalism. Yet the main burden of Novak’s current argument brings us back again after the broadening. He sees, more clearly perhaps than anyone else in the Occhiogrosso book, that both 1965 and 1987 were wrong. The generation of the third eye was too narrow in looking only inward, toward themselves rather than toward tradition. But the generation that was only once a Catholic throws away too much in looking only outward, toward society rather than toward tradition. Novak wants more, a Catholic tradition with a perspective that sees beyond society:

My motive for belonging to the Church is not its contemporary sociological order. . . . No, the Church means participating in God’s life, no matter what, believing in God, and not in nonsense. The Creator of this whole blue-brown ball in space and the vastnesses beyond — a Majesty whose viewpoint dwarfs what each of us must live through day to day.

More than anyone else, Daniel Callahan tells the story of 1965 to 1987. He forms a parenthesis around the last twenty-two years of American Catholicism. He starts the one book, and he ends the other.

Callahan was more prescient than most. He was afraid of the 1965 move toward “relevance.” In the book that he himself edited, he asked a telling question; one that could well be addressed to most of his contributors: “Is it inconceivable that this cry for relevance masks a weakening sense of the intelligibility, the rationality, the intrinsic plausibility of Christianity in its trans-temporal, supernatural meaning?” Callahan in 1965 was asking us to do what Novak sees in 1987 that we have not done: keep our vision on a Church beyond the contemporary sociological order, a Church of trans-temporal supernatural majesty. Callahan was afraid that the enthusiastic articles in Generation of the Third Eye, which so eagerly called for reform (articles such as mine), would move us away from the “clear and distinct ideas” of our tradition, to a “muddy (but rich) experience” of the future. Callahan predicted our loss. And his own.

When the reforms came about, they brought with them not a new enthusiasm, but boredom. The experience turned out more muddy than rich. Paradise was not regained. Callahan explains the disillusionment:

Catholics who were unhappy as Catholics in a lot of vague ways had placed a lot of hope in the Catholic reforms and still they were unhappy. They realized that whatever their problems had been, they weren’t going to be solved by having the reforms.

So enthusiasms waned. “I faded out from the whole thing,” Callahan explains, “and ceased being a believer, ceased going to church, never particularly becoming angry.” Where is Callahan now?

It’s just an absolute big blank. It’s as if people say, “What do you think of Mount Shasta?” And I say, “Nothing. I don’t have any feeling for Mount Shasta.” Literally, this doesn’t exist in my psyche — there’s a hole there.

The devil’s greatest trick is to give us what we ask for. The generation of the third eye asked for reform. We got it. Now what?


  • Donald P. Costello

    Donald P. Costello is professor emeritus of English at Notre Dame University.

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