The National Catholic Review
Maurice Timothy Reidy

It is no great secret that the Catholic liturgy in the United States underwent significant changes in the 1960’s and 1970’s. First came the switch to the vernacular and the repositioning of the priest at the altar. Other changes soon followed. Traditional Catholic hymns were dismissed in favor of folk songs and Protestant standards. The organ was turned off, the guitars plugged in.

How did all this happen? Gallons of ink have been spilled trying to answer that question. In Knocking on Heaven’s Door, Mark Oppenheimer, a staff writer for The Christian Century, makes the rather obvious observation that Catholicism, like other religions, was coming to grips at the time with the counterculture amid great political and social unrest. This was true for religion as well as for society at large, and this book sets out to examine how five mainstream religious traditions adaptedor failed to adaptto the spirit of the age.

Oppenheimer argues that contrary to conventional wisdom, institutional churches did not lose followers in droves to fringe cults in the 1960’s. In fact, they did just fine, largely by incorporating parts of the counterculture. The Unitarian Universalist Church, for example, created an Office on Gay Affairs in 1973, and the Episcopal Church ordained women in 1976. Both stories are recounted in this book.

Catholicism presents an interesting problem, because the church did not make changes like these. So instead of writing about institutional battles, Oppenheimer focuses on aesthetics. In the Catholic Church, he writes, the hierarchy retained its tight, conservative control on what Catholics were supposed to believe, while the iconography of liberalismthe sandals, guitars and huggingseized the day.

The late 1960’s and early 70’s were certainly a time of great liturgical experimentation. One church in San Francisco brought in a mime to deliver a sermon and celebrated a children’s Mass inspired by the comic strip Peanuts. Catholics like the theologian Miriam Therese Winter began writing folk songs for the liturgy. Those songs, Oppenheimer argues, often served theological as well as aesthetic purposes: Catholic folk songs encourage a noncreedal universalism. Their religion is not about doctrine or catechism but about the generalized spirit. Whereas traditional Catholic liturgical music reminds people of the complexity and fanciness of Catholic ritual, these songs could easily be sung in a Methodist, Lutheran, or Presbyterian church.

Oppenheimer makes a few shrewd observations. His point that the promoters of experimental liturgies were fleeing tradition, not commitmentthey spent hours planning these servicesis exactly right. But I am skeptical of his larger argument, that the iconography of liberalism...seized the day. Consider the story of the Community of Hope, a Catholic congregation founded explicitly on liturgical style. Started in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1968, the community grew quickly, attracting nearly 300 families from 47 parishes by 1970. The community wrote their own prayers, sang songs by Simon and Garfunkel and celebrated Mass outdoors. But after a few very successful years, the numbers dwindled drastically and they closed in 1989.

Oppenheimer argues that the community dissolved because it was no longer unique; by the 1980’s, folk liturgies could be found in many parishes. But perhaps something else was at work. For all the enthusiasm of the participants, something was missing from these liturgies, and maybe that became apparent over time. Take the music. Songs that encouraged a noncreedal univeralism just are not the best vehicle for conveying a uniquely Catholic message. You do not need to be a strict traditionalist to see that. These days, folk liturgies are far from the norm. Sandals, guitars and hugging were once the order of the day, but their success has proved fleeting.

The liturgical innovations of the 1960’s and 70’s were creative, if at times flawed, attempts to reconcile tradition with the counterculture. It is an old story, but a compelling one because of that tension. But that tension, unfortunately, is largely absent from Oppenheimer’s chapters on the Episcopal and Unitarian churches. There is simply no drama to these stories. Women and gays are welcomed into the fold because of the demands of tolerance, while the demands of tradition are deemed largely irrelevant. These chapters would have been far more instructive if they included more intelligent arguments on behalf of the tradition. Granted, tradition does not hold much importance for Unitarians, but it is one of three pillars of Anglican theology. Religious institutions can learn a great deal from the culture, especially in the case of women’s rights, but the work of discernment is far messier than it appears here.

To his credit, Oppenheimer is a sharp and witty writer and his book is far more fun to read than most dissertations. (He wrote it while a student at Yale.) His analysis is a bit sophomoric at times, but the questions he raiseshow and when should religious institutions adapt to the culture?are more relevant than ever. The religious battles of the 1960’s are worth revisiting, if only to catch a glimpse of our own reflection.

The most intriguing chapter in this book deals with a group of small Jewish communities, or havurot, which existed from 1968 to 1975. These groups, made up mostly of young people, chose to study and worship together outside the synagogue community. They were leery of their parents’ emphasis on assimilation and sought to cultivate their Jewish identity by studying the Torah. Their politics aside (they were very liberal), they remind me of young Catholics today who did not grow up in a thick Catholic culture. These Catholics are not interested in fighting their parents’ battles. They yearn for a better understanding of the tradition. Many of them are quite conservative, and can be naïve, if not ignorant, about life before the Second Vatican Council. But they should be listened to. Maybe the counterculture has not seized the day. Maybe tradition has something to offer after all.

Maurice Timothy Reidy is an associate editor at Commonweal magazine.