Why did Catholic culture collapse so spectacularly in the 20th Century? Those who control the institutional agenda today seem to believe it was all because of the liberalism introduced at the time of the Second Vatican Council. In this commentary Dr Graham English argues otherwise. He argues that the changes in outlook that caused the collapse had all been underway in the 1940s and 50s, long before the Council. He writes this essay from the perspective of his long involvement in Catholic education.
If Catholic Education has failed it happened in the 1940s and 50s...
The first generation of Australian Catholic priests, nuns and religious to leave in large numbers had all left school by the early 1960s. The first generation of Australian Catholics to leave in large numbers were from this same cohort.
Did the cultural collapse of Catholicism begin in the 1940s and 1950s during the reign of Pope Pius XII?
Younger people have continued to leave ever since, but these now older folk were the first. These first 'defectors' are now in their early eighties, their seventies and their late sixties. Among them were provincials and other leaders, seminary staff, novice masters and mistresses, leading theologians, philosophers and Church historians. There were a lot of people of considerable talent and goodness who had been or who looked to be the hope of the side. And there were a lot of just ordinary people who could no longer see the point of what they had been raised in.
All of this generation was schooled in the rote learning of the catechism. Throughout their schooling they did not know the Bible except as a collection of Bible history stories that were all presented as literally true, and as a set of proof texts and answers to controversial issues, for example to show that we should indeed pray for the souls in purgatory, and trust in good works. Much of what they learned was aimed squarely at refuting the claims of the Protestant Reformers from three and four centuries before and the many Protestants who then surrounded us. At some schools they had also learned apologetics; that is how to argue a rational case for 'the faith'. For example they knew how to argue the case for transubstantiation, why Anglican Orders were not valid and why we are indeed the One True Church.
Supported by a strong religious sub-culture...
They had also grown up in a deeply pious and devotional church with the rosary, scapulars and medals, the nine first Fridays, benediction, myriads of saints and feasts, the Assumption, the Immaculate Conception and a profound fear of death, judgement, heaven or hell (the 'four last things' as they were called). And they were supported by a strong religious sub-culture.
Part of that sub-culture was the high social position given to priests and the prestige given to families from which there were vocations to the priesthood, the convent or the monastery.
Part of that sub-culture was the high social position given to priests and the prestige given to families from which there were vocations to the priesthood, the convent or the monastery. Entering a seminary or a novitiate was seen by the young as a very viable lifestyle choice. The pope could not be wrong and priest, brothers and sisters were by definition good and to be trusted implicitly. Many parents were pleased when their children made the choice to 'enter'. Each year in many Catholic schools several students left home for religious orders or seminaries. It was of the normal order of events.
Then, before Vatican II had much effect in Australia it all began to fall apart.
So if Catholic education failed the Church in Australia as some people persist in claiming, it was not in the 1970s and after that it failed. It failed in the 1940s and 50s and these older people now, the ones who were young about 1960 are the ones that it failed. Something the Church and the schools were doing then led to the collapse of the old Australian Catholic Church. Otherwise surely this generation of Catholics would have fought off the changes, resisted the collapse, and kept the old style Church alive.
They didn't because most of them did not want to or need to. They were looking for something else.
Eventually Vatican II kicked in and it changed things but I believe that had Vatican II not happened the Church here would have collapsed as it did. It wasn't Vatican II that caused the collapse. It may have hastened it but it did not cause it.
So why did it collapse?
So why did it collapse? Why is it that the ones at school in the nineteen fifties mostly walked away, even the ones who for a time entered seminaries or novitiates or were ordained. Whatever it was that stuck to the older people it did not stick to them. And why did it happen so quickly? I think there are lots of reasons, no one enough in itself but all together a fatal or life-giving mix, depending how you view it all.
Below are some of the things I have observed and reflected on from my Catholic growing up. I think they explain some of the collapse.
- Entering a seminary or a novitiate was often a plausible even praiseworthy way to leave a dysfunctional family. Many people entered as prepubescent teenagers or children. Mostly they didn't consciously seek to get away from their family, though some did, but they did it nevertheless. For many of these people what appeared like a free choice was not really a free adult choice at all.
- Most Catholics, most Australians until the 1950s were working class, insufficiently educated and inexperienced and they saw no viable alternative to the lives they had grown up in.
- One of the things I have noticed at reunions of former and current Christian Brothers (the order I know best) is how many of the men who left were good, ordinary men. They are not rebels or backsliders. They entered in good faith, often as children, almost entirely inexperienced but after the 1960s when they had the opportunity as adults to leave they did. They left because they now had a choice. I am also intrigued how many times I have heard former priests and religious say of some really good man or woman who left, "We felt that if HE/SHE could leave we could too". Quite often one good person leaving led to an exodus of others who had not been sure but were reassured by the 'good man' or 'good woman' going that they could go too.
- 'A viable alternative' is possibly the biggest factor in Catholics and former Catholics walking away from the Church and in former priests and religious walking away from priesthood or religious life. Had the alternatives become possible earlier the Church would have collapsed earlier. I have known older priests and religious who have said, "Had the changes occurred earlier I'd have left too. But I am here now so I'll stay." They were not backsliders either; just people who realised the choice had come too late for them.
- It is possible the Depression and World War II and the consequent hardships forestalled the collapse of Catholicism. Then the relative affluence and the widespread secondary and tertiary education of the 1960s hastened it.
- The Church authorities did not see it coming and they had no plan B. They didn't know what to do.
- Then the authorities made the mistake of listening to those who tried to crush change. They thought that the answer was to do the old tested things only harder. This failed dismally.
- Possibly the changes and the collapse were inevitable and unstoppable anyway. This was made worse because so much of what people had been encouraged to do and believe just didn't make sense when looked at in the light of alternatives.
- Superstition and authoritarianism that were accepted by poor, uneducated people with no voice just couldn't sustain the old culture. A few small cracks in the wall and the dam burst taking everything with it.
- Lots of Catholics in my parents' generation were advised to put up with it because 'when you die you will be in heaven'. "Offer it up" could have been the motto of the generation my mother came from, especially for the women. One day a critical mass of Catholics asked "Why?" and no one had a convincing answer.
- Eventually fear does not work. A former colleague who is a good actor used do a demonstration of why hitting your child as the main form of discipline eventually fails. He'd stand pretending to talk to a son. "Why? Because I say so!" SLAP! Here he would mime bending over and punching the son in the head. Next time the bend was less and slap had to be higher as the son was taller. Next time the slap higher, then higher again, then when the son was taller than the father, "Why? You don't want to? And if I do that again you will punch me in the head? Oh!" The problem with using fear as the motivation for folk to live good lives is that one day some of them will catch on that there is nothing to be afraid of. In even the most oppressive societies there are always some souls who see through it, some souls who are brave enough to defy you. What do you do when most people don't believe in hell and are not frightened?
- The same goes for cultural identity. You can denigrate the neighbours. You can warn what will happen if we mix with them. You can threaten sanctions if we marry them. But one day someone will fall in love with one of them, or discover their cooking is better than ours, or find their poetry is startlingly good and want to read their prose too. You find that their hymns are better musically and theologically and you want to sing them. You find that their theologians (think Bonheoffer, Bath, Bultmann) are addressing the current milieu better than yours are. You cannot stop that. It is what humans do; it is what makes other places and people interesting and what enlivens us at the same time.
- The Church has a tendency to make good ideas and useful speculation into dogma. Thomas Aquinas suffered from this from the time he was reinstated in the 19th century. The theologian who was at the cutting edge of philosophy in his day and was suspected of heresy in his lifetime was treated as if his words were perennial and 'the last word on everything'. We pretended we were ahistorical and acontextual and that Aquinas was. This stopped Catholics thinking and asking the right questions.
- Travel confirms some people in their prejudice that what we do is clearly the best. But most people grow out of this. Anyone who has been in foreign places has heard boofhead Australians shouting "Ozzie! Ozzie Ozzie! Oi! Oi! Oi!" and felt embarrassed but this is just the yobs. We are not all like that. Just look at the variety of ethnic and fusion cookbooks in any bookshop. Some things they do better than we do and we want to share in it. From the 1950s Australians have been inveterate travellers. And we have become multi-cultured. Catholics are typical Australians in this respect and are possibly more multi-cultured that average. After all we always knew the Chinese could be saints as much as we could.
- 1968 and Humanae Vitae made a very big difference. When the authorities talked about God, theology, the Immaculate Conception and all those many esoteric things people listened, or didn't but as they were mostly uneducated and mostly had far more to worry about than whether Mary was a virgin before, during and after the birth of Jesus, they didn't care much. That was priests' talk. But the ordinary people did know about sex and marriage and they did desire some form of birth control. And when Paul VI used theology to deny them they revolted. They just did not believe him. "If he is wrong about that he might be wrong about many other things". The authorities lost credibility. Loss of credibility is a very difficult thing to restore even for popes.
- The Catholic sub-culture was based on things that were likely to pass. Working people intent on upward social mobility will change when they achieve it. Identity based on mainly one ethnic group will fade as the group alters through migration or intermarriage. Schools that encourage working class people to attend university are also encouraging them to think and to question. Tight knit communities are put under pressure by questioning especially when it is applied to everything not just the things the authorities want questioned.
- Cultures based on defence, on thwarting or resisting an enemy (Protestants, modernism, communism in our case) will lose their power if the enemy dissolves, gives in or turns out to be no enemy at all.
So there you are. I still marvel at the changes that have occurred in my lifetime. I am still amazed at the people I know or knew who seemed so much part of the 'Catholic Thing' who left, or who now practise but in ways very different from those we were brought up to think were non-negotiable. I am just as amazed that something that in 1960 seemed so solid, eternal almost fell apart so completely and so quickly. And we won't be getting it back. It is gone.
As Ned Kelly almost said, "Such it seems is life!"
Graham English written and submitted to Catholica on 27 Aug 2012
Dr Graham English spent his working life of forty six years in various forms of Catholic Education. He is now retired.
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