Wednesday, October 27, 2021

“The New American Catholic”: A Documentary from 1968

Following up on Peter’s post on Monday, “An American Layman Reminisces about Liturgical Upheaval”, here is a fascinating documentary broadcast on NBC in mid-1968 about “The New American Catholic”, which proves the truth of the adage that nothing goes out of fashion so quickly as modernity.

As someone raised in the Church in the 1970s, I found all the talk here about “renewal” (et similia) simultaneously funny and saddening. Funny, because in 1968, people did evidently still think, quite sincerely, and despite many warning signs to the contrary (signs that Vatican II had told Catholics to look for and read) that conforming the Church to the modern secularized world, embracing its culture and its concerns, was somehow going to be a roaring success; saddening, because the failure of it all could not have been more complete, and all the more so because, even today, so many people in the Church refuse to recognize this singularly unmistakable fact.

There are quite a few things here which I thought were noteworthy, although not, alas, as signs of the once-promised New Pentecost™. The young bishop who appears several times, James Shannon, auxiliary of St Paul-Minneapolis, resigned from that office later that year in protest against Humanae Vitae, which (using some of the cant of his era which has of late become fashionable again) he called a “rigid teaching”, declaring God’s law “impossible to observe.” The following year, he would marry civilly without lawful dispensation, for which he was suspended a divinis. This is particularly ironic because the Second Vatican Council, to which the soon-to-be-Mister Shannon refers several times as the source and cause of all the “renewal” that was going on, had also reiterated the Church’s perennial teaching on the use of artificial contraception. (Gaudium et Spes 51)
From about 16:00 forward, we see several scenes of what was for that era a very modern (i.e. broadly desacralized) Mass: an ugly poncho vestment, guitar players processing in with people waving posters, lots of clapping, people calling out their prayer intentions; but perhaps the most absurd part of all is the setting, as people seem to be sitting around the tables of the school cafeteria. (The scenes of the Mass are interspersed with other signs of “renewal”, including a young woman teaching children from a poor neighborhood how to sing Kumbaya... as if their lives weren’t difficult enough...) The celebrant, Fr William Nerin, a priest of the diocese of Oklahoma, left the priesthood in 1975.
In regard to the Mass, I make bold to repeat here a superb observation made by one of our regular commenters, Mr Glenn Ricketts, on Monday’s post. “... any ‘effectiveness’ in the garish scenes depicted here ... depended on being familiar with the old liturgy that was abruptly discarded. The new rites were ‘effective’ because of the striking, often shocking, contrast they posed against the traditional way of celebrating Mass, an in-your-face gesture apropos of the 1960’s countercultural upheavals. But after the initial shock to those raised in the old rite, the reforms proved to have no lasting symbolic substance or aesthetic power of their own. Now they are simply boring and bland beyond imagination.”
so groovy...
At 30:38, we meet Fr James Groppi of the archdiocese of Milwaukee, a well-known civil rights activist. This is perhaps the saddest case of all, a priest who seems to have completely forgotten the things of heaven for the sake of concerns which, however worthy and laudable in themselves, are concerns of this world which passeth away. “Now you ask me, what do I think about the Catholic Church? To tell you the truth, I don’t even think about it.” In 1976, Fr Groppi left the priesthood.
Of course, no documentary on American Catholicism in the 1960s would be complete without an appearance of the National Catholic Reporter, and at 2:55, we briefly meet the publisher, Donald Thorman. Later that year, Bishop Charles Helmsing of Kansas City forcefully (and altogether rightly) condemned the paper “for its disregard and denial of the most sacred values of our Catholic faith”, asking the editors, as a matter of honesty, to remove the word “Catholic” from its masthead. This request has, of course, gone unheeded, even as the NCRep has effectively repudiated the Catholic Faith more and more thoroughly with each passing year.
At about 35:45, then-still-Bishop Shannon introduces us to Vatican II’s Decree on Religious Life Perfectae Caritatis, and the general review and rethinking of how religious orders lived. This brings us to Sister Anita Caspari, the Mother General of the Immaculate Heart Sisters, who famously steered her order to almost complete dissolution with the “help” of psychologist Carl Rogers. In an interview with Dr William Marra, titled “The Story of a Repentant Psychologist”, one of Rogers’ collaborators, Dr William Coulson, gave an agonizing account of how the IHM community in Los Angeles was destroyed.
The penultimate section (42:24 to 48:20) is dedicated to women religious who had left the traditional forms of community life and broken up into small groups, the better (so they thought) to dedicate themselves to the service of the poor. In the midst of this part, Bishop Victor Reed of Oklahoma addresses this phenomenon, and concludes by saying that “as long as the persons involved are persons of good reputation, and their expressed intentions are good, those in authority should permit them... to experiment, and perhaps find a new and better way in which to serve the Lord than that to which they have been accustomed, and in which they have found some personal difficulties.” Bishop Reed died in September of 1971. By the time his successor, John Quinn, was moved to San Francisco in February of 1977, the number of women religious in the diocese had dropped from 630 to 268, a decrease of well over half. As of two years ago, there were 69, a decrease of almost 90% from their height just after the end of Vatican II. (Statistics from

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