Professor Robert Hickson of Christendom College nourishes an insight which is especially profound. He discussed it at some length about a year ago in an issue of the lively Catholic loyalist newsletter, Common Faith (January, 1982), published monthly by Christendom Press. Hickson, who was a U.S. Army officer during the Vietnam conflict, reflected on the preciousness of Solzhenitsyn’s Eastern Catholic witness, then observed that “we of the West too need a corporate memory of what the Catholic life is when fully lived.”
I could not agree more. For much of the disarray that we see in the Church today, including uncertainty about what the Church actually teaches, appears to me to be a direct result of the piece-by-piece removal, during roughly the last twenty years, of our Roman Catholic group memory and, with that, our private memories.
Not only do our young no longer study the history of the Church throughout the ages; we are most of us prevented from staying in touch with that closer Church, the one we grew up in. It is almost as if, without our knowing, some grisly lobotomy had been performed on us. Just about everything that might give us some warm and happy faith-memories has been cut away.
You can grasp the outline of what has occurred in many areas of Church life if you consider only what has happened in Catholic religious art, liturgical art especially, during the period named. Drawing simply on my own memory, I can recall that at some point very soon after the close of Vatican II we began to hear that pink and blue madonnas were objects to be spurned. If we were really “in the spirit of Vatican II” (a phrase used endlessly), we would ditch our cheap religious statues and other “tasteless devotional objects” that we still had sticking around in our homes and cars and work places. We would “put away the things of children.” So — zip. In our eagerness to be good Vatican II Catholics, freed of that queer ‘medieval’ Catholic mindset that had made non-believers and Protestants nervous about us in the pre-Vatican II days (days now seen as all bad), many of us proceeded to pitch out our plaster Blessed Mothers and glow-in-the-dark pictures and tangled old scapulars — articles that the presumably informed Catholic writers and speakers were calling “cheap devotional junk.” Almost none of us thought to check up on whether the things that we were being told were in the Vatican II documents were really in them. (And they weren’t incidentally.) We just went along.
Were there backyard burnings of years-old palm braids and lacy holy cards? Probably somewhere. For it was open season then on blest objects, what the Church has always called sacramentals.
Now this determined campaign against the traditional Catholic devotions and aids to prayer proceeded fast and effectively for a couple of reasons. First, the ones directing the cleanup of our cluttered Catholic imaginations tended to be priests and nuns. We were used to having the clergy and our religious teachers know best in matters connected with the Faith. We trusted them, as did many of our pastors.
Secondly, the ones who were spreading these new views that claimed to be Vatican II teachings tended to be very highly educated. Another assumption was that in art-related matters they deserved a respectful hearing. So when these eager secularizers lectured to us about “junk art,” and about the extravagance of priests wearing satin chasubles and lifting jeweled monstrances in a world where people starve, we listened.
And where are we now? Look at our churches. Like our tidied up sanitized, uncluttered, modernized psyches, they are about as conducive to prayer and belief as bank lobbies. For visual inspiration we are often forced to choose between a fruitwood crucifix and a celery-stalk madonna. For color now, in place of the bad old stained glass, we have the gaudy felt banners done by grade schoolers on the days it rained.
There is one church here in Louisiana — I suspect that its counterparts are everywhere — in which the big statues which formerly stood in niches around the walls have been herded together in a backroom corral or pen constructed out of pieces of the old ornate altar railing. Presumably this corral keeps those good friends of our childhoods, the best-loved saints, from turning up in our daily lives now and embarrassing us with our smart-set friends. The old hymns from our Catholic childhoods are banned too. “Sentimental.”
But let us be clear about the dangers here. There would be no need now to lament the disappearance of our Catholic group memory, and with it the essentials of our Catholic identity, if artistic impulses only had been at work on this scene. That is, if those progressive Catholics who bad-mouthed cheap rosary beads and gaudy statuary had simply urged the replacement of these by finer articles.
But their program was bigger than that. Its underlying impulse was not art. It was heresy, the heresy of Modernism, said to be the sum of all heresies. And if it tore through the contemporary Church like a hurricane, destroying irreplaceable family treasures, that is because, like all heresies, it had Satanic assistance. The reformers’ struck at far more than the Church’s bric-a-brac; soon everything supernatural, “beyond nature,” was under fire: Resurrection, the real presence of Christ in the eucharist, immaculate conception of Mary, and much more.
The direct result of all this in Catholics the world over has been a massive falling away from the Faith. Millions no longer believe who once fervently did. And the transformation of countless once-faithful Catholics into ordinary worldlings proceeds unimpeded everywhere.
By now it is obvious that if appreciable numbers of these Catholic fallen-aways are ever going to be enticed to “come home by Christmas” to the faith of their fathers, that will be when home starts feeling like home again. It will be when devotional Catholicism, the only kind of Roman Catholicism there is and can be, is fully operative. And when the familiar landmarks and memory props of that Catholicism have been returned to the niches traditionally theirs.