As letters to America go, this one was nothing special. A Catholic physician had written to argue for a married Catholic clergy, listing a number of familiar arguments, including the superior ability of married Protestant ministers to relate to their congregations, the equivocal witness of early church history regarding a celibate presbyterate and the shortage of homegrown vocations. An editor volleyed back a point-by-point response of equally familiar rebuttals. Nothing extraordinary, right? Except that it was written in 1936.
Seven decades before the current vocation crisis, contributors to America were hashing out an argument we often think particular to our historical and cultural milieu. Nor was this the only “contemporary” issue addressed in those years.
As an editorial intern, I’ve been paging through old issues of America as part of a research project, exactly the sort of time-consuming distraction that my fellow Jesuit novices suspected I would find before long in this assignment. These jaunts into history fire my imagination for days on end, as I find myself reading an editorial on the chances of the United States entering World War II, published on December 6, 1941, or an account of Chiang Kai-Shek’s supposed military triumphs over the Chinese Communists in 1948. Each hints at a historical mindset that could not possibly have predicted the dramatic changes to come. But, as that letter to the editor suggests, parallel to that Catholic world is a church and a people who are, in many ways, not very different from ourselves.
In 1936, the readers and editors of America also debated the following issues: the abysmal instruction in church doctrine at Catholic colleges and universities (“Our colleges and universities accept without reserve secularistic philosophy”), the need for catechetical instruction suited to a modern mind (“The Baltimore Catechism is no longer intelligible”), liturgical fads (“I wish the new pastor, right as I know he is, had not changed everything all of a sudden”) and clericalism (“I accuse those in religion in our country of monopolizing the right to live consciously in the state of grace”).
That year also produced letters and editorials on “Academic Freedom,” “Birth Control: An Evil Growth,” “Divorce and the Church” and “The ‘Stop War’ Movement.”
Raised with no experience of the oft-cited “traditional” Catholicism of the preconciliar era, I am prone to fall into the intellectual trap of thinking the religious and cultural issues of today sprang fully formed from the Second Vatican Council, and that the fresh air that entered into a formal, hierarchical, clerical church during those years changed forever the issues Catholics discuss and the terms of the debate. What these glimpses of the past suggest is the opposite: our hot-button issues have existed in familiar form for quite some time, and have long been discussed fairly openly and debated rather rancorously.
To be sure, there are matters discussed openly now that would have been verboten 70 years ago, as the recent scandal of sexual abuse by clerics and of unresponsive bishops and religious superiors shows clearly and painfully. The debate is also open to many more participants; women and minority groups who were long neglected in the Catholic intellectual arena have far more of a voice today.
A pessimist might look at the parallels between our debates today and those of a half-century ago and say “nothing has changed; American Catholicism remains stuck in the terms of debate established in the 1930’s.”
What these parallels suggest, however, is that our notion of a tortured, cacophonous present-day Catholicism in contrast to a muted, univocal past is something of a fiction. It is simply not true that in the preconciliar church, controversial topics were not publicly discussed by Catholics; it is also misleading to paint these past four decades as ones of radical departure from the “traditional” practices that held sway in American Catholic culture.
Yes, things have changed. But have they changed all that much?