A Catholic Moment: America engages a new world
The Catholic Church’s long struggle for recognition and acceptance within the U.S. polity came to a glorious climax with John F. Kennedy’s election to the presidency—an event that for Catholics carried a symbolism much like Barack Obama’s election did for African-Americans. And like Barack Obama’s rise, Kennedy’s took place outside the ethnic cocoon that had been a reliable mainstay of his political support.
Kennedy’s election, it turned out, was just the leading edge of a widespread movement of Catholics into America’s secular elite, accompanied by a commensurate diminution of the deference paid by the lay faithful to the church’s authority. America maintained its traditional editorial focus on unions, civil rights, social welfare—and its vigorous anti-Communism. But the struggles of the American church to find a new footing between an “empowered” laity and a revanchist Vatican occupied an increasing share of editorial attention in the second half of the magazine’s 100-year lifetime.
John Kennedy’s election to the presidency was the first great Catholic event of the decade, and there was a distinct emotional arc to America’s coverage of his White House run—first a dispassionate examination of the obligations of a Catholic officeholder; then open bitterness as Protestant anti-Kennedy mobilization portended another prejudice-laced Al Smith campaign; next near-giddy incredulity at the Kennedy poll surge after the first televised debate; and finally unabashed joy at the final ratification of “full first-class citizenship” for American Catholics. (The president’s murder just three years later was marked by “The Cease of majesty/Dies not alone…”)
The second great event was the Second Vatican Council. America’s religious journalism grew more probing, more inward looking, more theological and, as the “never-ending” council plodded on, more critical. Francis X. Murphy, C.Ss.R.—The New Yorker’s pseudonymous Xavier Rynne—coyly called for less conciliar secrecy. The liturgical movement and the “age of the layman” portended a new, highly participatory form of parish life. Articles analyzed Karl Rahner’s models of church democracy and real-life examples of communitarian parishes.
After Pope Paul VI reserved the final decision on birth control to himself, America published a long analysis of the resulting encyclical, Humanae Vitae (1968), that cautiously but confidently concluded that, yes, there was adequate wiggle-room. But the encyclical came as a rude shock. The editors respectfully disagreed—a seismic moment—noting that the teaching was “not infallible.”
Questions previously reserved for the cognoscenti were chewed over in public—divorce and the “intolerable” marriage, authoritarianism. The Rev. Martin Marty chided “Catholic extremists.” In 1965, the editors pleaded that seminary dropouts not be “treated with suspicion.” Just a year later, an article asked, “What’s Bothering Priests?” but there was no hint of the mass exodus just around the corner. Pastoral work was in flux as never before. Boston’s crusty Cardinal Richard Cushing started a diocesan family counseling service staffed by secularly trained workers.
Every aspect of the American church’s self-understanding was called into question. America chronicled Catholics’ flight from their urban strongholds and the struggles of the hollowed-out institutions left behind. A tenure fight and a union movement wracked St. John’s University. The Gellhorn report criticized the quality of Catholic colleges. Laicization and much higher spending lay ahead.
“Participation” was the catchword of the day, especially in the antipoverty program, stirring clerical memories of the great days of the union movement. America parsed the rights and wrongs of Milwaukee’s Rev. James Groppi. Arrested for leading civil rights and welfare marches, Groppi became an instant role model for activist priests everywhere.
America, of course, persisted in its focus on anti-Communism, human rights and unionism, but the cold war educed an unwonted ambivalence on the use of force. The editors applauded President Eisenhower’s warning of an expanding “military-industrial complex,” but they approved a national program of fallout shelters and worried about United States resolve, especially in Southeast Asia. They were appalled at the “cold blooded murder” of the (Catholic) Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, apparently with administration connivance, and later were unswerving in their support of Lyndon Johnson’s grim escalation.
The editors also worried about Taft-Hartley’s burden on unions and the looming threat of automation. The breakdown of authority structures that they cheered in other settings was playing havoc with sexual and marital mores. Robert Drinan, S.J., wrote the first of many articles pushing at that most neuralgic of issues: the Supreme Court’s legal wanderings along the state-church boundary under the obsessive goading of the absolutists at the A.C.L.U.
The 1970s were not a happy time in the United States, and America reflected that mood. My notes from the decade have a distinct “things fall apart, the center cannot hold” flavor.
The previous decade’s optimism on new models of the church had mostly dissipated. The Rev. Andrew Greeley wrote of the “End of American Catholicism” in the wake of Humanae Vitae. Another author suggested that only Catholics on the far left and far right were in touch with their roots, while the middle was merely “drifting.” Karl Rahner, S.J., and Hans Küng wrote on disagreeing with the pope, while Avery Dulles, S.J., weighed in on the limits of papal infallibility. Disappointment followed high hopes for the 1971 World Synod of Bishops. There were meditations on the plague of alcoholism among priests and on whether the American church was heading toward an era of predominantly lay parish administration. And was it time to hold a “wake” for the Catholic press? Reports of steady improvements in liturgy and music offset some of the gloom.
On social issues, there was the shock of the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, only eight years after the decision in Griswold had established a right to contraceptive privacy. In 1978, the editors warned of the ambitious program of Planned Parenthood, now as “respectable as the Red Cross,” to “eliminate any moral standards that would inhibit their view of what population control should be.”
America praised Senator Sam Ervin’s resistance to the erosion of defendants’ rights in the Nixon crime-control legislation and steadily escalated the editors’ opposition to the death penalty. The editors hammered away at the disgrace of American prisons and featured an extended contribution by Karl Menninger, a longtime critic of the U.S. penal system. A parish priest agonized over counseling for battered women; the default position was to retrieve the marriage, which too often entailed more beatings.
On civil rights, the editors were disappointed in Richard Nixon’s demagoguery on school busing and deplored Catholic school segregation in Louisiana. An extended piece chronicled the struggles of a black Catholic for acceptance within her church, a consistent America theme for at least 60 years.
Worries persisted on the future of Catholic higher education—finances, unrest on campuses and the difficulty of maintaining Catholic “values.” The editors continued to poke at the “sleeping contradictions” in the Supreme Court’s educational rulings—the hard, bright line drawn against any aid to parochial schools, against a virtually laissez-faire attitude toward federal funding of Catholic colleges.
The politics of the decade were toxic. The editors carefully parsed the legal issues in the Watergate convulsions as well as the pros and cons of the Pentagon Papers case. America also noted with great pleasure that priests were running for political office. Drinan, a longtime contributor, won a Congressional seat in Massachusetts in 1970 and sat on the Judiciary Committee, playing a prominent role in the impeachment of President Nixon. During the 1976 campaign, Drinan wrote an extended piece on the religiosity of Jimmy Carter, his evangelical background and his commitment to the human rights and peace movements.
On the international front, America was skeptical of the Nixon-Kissinger “opening to China” and of the good intentions of the Chinese leadership. There was sympathetic coverage of Carter’s multiple policy “botches” his first two years in office, albeit with fervent hopes for improvement.
America’sfocus on internal issues of Catholicism intensified. One line of articles could be called “managerial”: a piece by the Rev. Charles Curran on the church’s (poor) internal management; the new prominence of Hispanics in New York’s Catholic population; Curran and the editors on separating heresy from dissent; the expanding roles of women in parishes; attracting teens to Mass; blunt assessments of the miserable leadership skills of bishops; the sharp falloff in Catholics availing themselves of Penance; cleaning up the Vatican’s financial mess; the proper role of bishops’ conferences.
Theological articles often chafed at the tightening control from Rome. Jesuit backs arched sharply at Roman attempts to exert control over Catholic colleges in the United States, and America deplored Rome’s rigid approach to ecumenism. There was long reflection on the state of moral theology, an account of the evolution of liberation theology in Latin America and careful tracking of the Roman inquiry into Leonardo Boff, O.F.M., who was silenced for a year in 1985. A 1986 issue featured Avery Dulles, S.J., the liberal laywoman Sidney Callahan, Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C, and others in a Symposium on the Church, an occasion one might not have imagined even 30 years before.
America celebrated Judge John Noonan’s historical analysis of abortion but also extolled as “an American Catholic classic” Mario Cuomo’s Notre Dame speech on abortion. Two Jesuit seminarians reported from a day they spent as Operation Rescue volunteers outside an abortion center in Manhattan. The Rev. Andrew Greeley wrote on why Catholics stay Catholic and on the Catholic aesthetic of Bruce Springsteen. A report from a pro-life convention pointed to the tightening link between the pro-life movement and the movement against capital punishment.
Nuclear tensions were high in Europe, as the Carter and Reagan administrations responded to a Soviet medium-range missile buildup with equivalent American missiles. America sided strongly with European protestors, was enthusiastic about the 1983 bishops’ statement on nuclear weapons and was pleased at the mutual Euromissile removal agreements in 1987.
The editors noted that the Soviets were bankrupting themselves with the arms race and feared America might do the same. David Carlin, a Rhode Island legislator, published a meditation on the complexities of civil disobedience: you must be a showman, appear as an exceptionally good person, and yet maintain humility.
Latin America, long a focus of America editors, was in turmoil for much of the decade. Articles tracked the course of Nicaragua’s Sandinistas, the upheaval in El Salvador and Guatemala and the state of human rights in Argentina. The American anti-inflation program was imposing cruel burdens on deeply indebted Latin American “petrodollar” borrowers.
America was pleased with the U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter Economic Justice for All (1986) but allowed the number of pages devoted to unions to fall off sharply along with the precipitate decline in private-sector union membership. The editors gloomily reported on the sophistication of anti-union consultants at Litton Industries and registered alarm that Catholic hospitals and other institutions were employing similar tactics.
The happiest news of the decade, perhaps, was a ringing endorsement of Catholic schools by the sociologist James S. Coleman, the author of the highly respected “Coleman Report” on American schools. The report especially singled out the quality of “community” at Catholic schools.
And finally, a throwback piece—on the men who attempted to assassinate Hitler; there was no anniversary, no connection to current events. It was just there, the kind of random little gem that marked America’s early days.
Abortion was a major America focus of the 1990s. An article on Catholic abortion rates—were they really as high as among non-Catholics?—drew many letters. Was there room for “prudent” accommodations: could Catholic politicians work to reduce abortions when abolition was not a practical possibility? Several articles linked abortion and human rights. Archbishop John Quinn wrote that abortion was the “axe” at the root of human rights. America noted that the pro-choice movement was confused on the moral question; they tried to ignore it, but it would not go away. There were more reports from Operation Rescue.
The Catholic Common Ground Initiative to bridge the gap between liberal and conservative Catholics was launched in 1996. The Rev. Andrew Greeley wrote that Catholics were not polarized; it was merely that the “loudest” Catholics were on the left and right fringes. Greeley also published a factual analysis of the issue of sexual abuse of minors by priests and extended his series of Catholic sociological studies—on marginal Catholics, the Catholic elite, conservative Catholics and defense of priestly celibacy.
Richard McCormick, S.J., was a regular contributor on theological issues: on theology as a “public art,” on the morality of warfare, on the morality of ending life, on theology and feminism, on the ethics of AIDS and on Catholic AIDS networks. A young physician wrote on the conflicts involved in the new laws about physician-assisted death. Robert Drinan, S.J., who was very much on the Catholic left on “life” issues, pushed at the distinction between “suicide” and an earlier death for a suffering person. Andrew Sullivan contributed a featured piece on the hopes of gay Catholics to be accepted by the church.
Parishes were reeling from the priest shortage. Articles explored women in parishes, lay leadership and more voices for the laity in church management, the ordination of women, the feminization of the ministry in other mainstream religions and the church’s odd reluctance to welcome converting Episcopalian priests. Msgr. Myles Bourke, a longtime professor of theology in the New York Archdiocese, found current seminarians “rigid.” Boomers preferred “dogma-lite” religion.
America backed health care reform and ran articles on the wide gaps in coverage in the United States, the struggles of Catholic health care institutions and the depersonalizing effects of medical training. The editors worried about the increase in homelessness, the growing casualness of teenage sex, the direction of “welfare reform” and President Clinton’s tendency to adopt the policies of the right. The editors argued hard for school choice, and Drinan wondered how the A.C.L.U. absolutists would treat state aid for handicapped children in Catholic schools.
Jean Harris wrote on women’s prisons. America pushed hard for abolition of the death penalty and for a reduction in prison populations. The withdrawal of a Clinton cabinet nominee, Zoë Baird, because of a household help issue, the editors feared, had an anti-immigrant subtext.
There was detailed coverage of Haiti, the unwisdom of a threatened American invasion and a long interview with President Jean-Baptiste Aristide, a former priest and liberation theologian.
A young man and young woman contributed regular Catholic “singles” columns. There was a 50-year retrospective on the gross anti-Semitism of the Rev. Charles Coughlin, perhaps as a corrective to America’s mild references in the 1930s.
This was a difficult decade for America, but it ended well. At home, the Bush administration was methodically hacking away at the social support systems America had long supported. Abroad, the administration was pressing, or threatening, military action on a broad front. The Vatican’s demands for orthodoxy grew ever more insistent. At home, another flare-up of the sexual abuse scandal came close to demoralizing good priests and devoted Catholics.
The scandal may have consumed more editorial ink than any other issue. But it took several years for America—and most of the Catholic press—to be clear that in terms of offenders and victims, this was a rerun of the mid-1990s scandal. There were very few new cases. What was new was the revelation that bishops had covered up the abuses, repeatedly shifting known offenders from parish to parish—a “Catholic Watergate” one commentator called it.
On social welfare issues, the editors deplored the morphing of “compassionate conservatism” into a “cruel” “ownership society.” America railed futilely at the administration’s enthusiasm for the death penalty and for guns, its (but not the president’s) hostility to immigrants and rough detention methods, the gaping holes in the reformed welfare system, growing income inequality, the “eight different Americas” of health care access and the “meanest cities” list on the treatment of the homeless.
The administration’s roughshod disregard of civil liberties in its war against terrorism was deeply offensive to America; even in the McCarthy era, the magazine had accorded civil liberties primacy over its staunch anti-Communism. The “tar-pit” of Iraq confirmed the editors’ misgivings about the rush into that war, as did using the war as a boondoggle for the rich—a “red-white-and-blue” budget with huge tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans.
Pope John Paul II’s charisma and energy raised the profile of the church globally, but America distrusted his centralizing instincts and the lack of “civility” in discussion of ecumenism. Joseph O’Hare, S.J., wrote a careful defense of American Catholic colleges: the church has a “relationship” with the schools, not “jurisdiction”; and administrations had been “laicized,” not “secularized.” (Legally, almost all the schools are independent institutions under the control of their boards of trustees.)
Upon John Paul’s death, the editors wistfully listed the hoped-for traits of his successor—openness, decentralization, discussion, less silencing. That same year, America’s editor in chief and longtime contributor Thomas J. Reese, S.J., was forced to step down under Vatican pressure. Jose De Vera, S.J., spokesman of the Jesuit curia in Rome, wrote that Reese had always tried to present a spectrum of views on neuralgic issues like stem cell research. He noted that whenever issues touched on doctrine, the Vatican wanted Jesuits to defend “whatever position the church has manifested, even if it is not infallible.”
America noted that the Supreme Court had a majority of Catholics for the first time in its history, which caused the editors to hope for changes on abortion and the death penalty. The death penalty presented the first test of the hypothesis; Samuel Alito, a Catholic, wrote the majority opinion in its favor.
But the hard decade ended well. America does not recommend presidential candidates, but it pointedly reminded readers that racism is a sin and that a conscientious Catholic could vote for a pro-choice candidate if other “life” issues, like torture and war, outweighed the abortion problem. The editors did not conceal their satisfaction with the result. The election of Barack Obama was “a chance to reverse [the United States’s] dismal standing in the world. The opportunity comes not a moment too soon.”