Tumult and Transformation

Book cover
The American Catholic Revolutionby By Mark S. Massa, S.J.Oxford Univ. Press. 224p $27.95

I look forward to the publication of a new Mark Massa title with roughly the same level of excitement with which my daughter anticipates the release of the next Harry Potter movie. I exaggerate only slightly. Massa’s two previous books—one a study of Catholicism and American culture in the 1950s and the other a history of anti-Catholicism in the United States—changed the way I think and teach about those subjects and turned me into an admirer of the author’s keen wit and thoughtful prose. Massa’s latest book, The American Catholic Revolution, met my expectations and more. Written in his characteristically engaging manner, it not only offers an insightful interpretation of a turbulent period, but also makes for entertaining reading along the way.

Massa devotes chapters to Charles Curran, the draft-file raid of the Catonsville Nine, and other recognizable characters and events from the era. But he also covers some less familiar territory. He opens with Frederick McManus, a Boston priest and canon lawyer who served on the Committee on the Liturgy of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops after the Second Vatican Council. McManus may not be a household name now, but in the decade after the council he played a singular role in shaping the reception and implementation of the Second Vatican Council in the United States. Through his frequent contributions to Worship, McManus provided accessible commentaries on the “new Mass” that helped facilitate American Catholics’ surprisingly swift and overwhelmingly positive reaction to the decrees of Sacrosanctum Concilium. Massa’s decision to begin his study with liturgical change is both deliberate and wise. As he asserts, ordinary Catholics experienced the impact of Vatican II most decisively through the “new Mass.” For that reason, he argues that the “American Catholic revolution” began in 1964, with the implementation of the “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.” Whereas liturgists and theologians might have predicted many elements of the new Mass, the average lay Catholic had almost no preparation for what appeared to be dramatic shifts in worship and practice. Here is where McManus entered the picture. Between 1965 and 1975, McManus’s careful and canonically exact commentaries convinced thousands of U.S. Catholics that these sudden transformations did not represent a radical break with the past, but a necessary return to a tradition in which new forms and prayers were routinely incorporated into the church’s central liturgical act.


But McManus’s commentaries had other, unintended consequences for the American Catholic community. Encoded within his “sedate and arcane” articles on the liturgy was a more insidious message: “things change,” even in a church long understood to be timeless and unchanging. In this sense, Massa argues, “this erudite Church lawyer quite unwittingly helped to give birth to the Catholic sixties, a birthing process that began on the parish level with the implementation of the new Mass.” Indeed, the protagonist of Massa’s story is not McManus, the Berrigan brothers or any other single person, but history itself. The American Catholic Revolution is primarily a study of U.S. Catholics’ encounter with history or, more precisely, the dawning of historical consciousness among a people conditioned for centuries to believe that the Church was insulated from historical change. Church leaders evinced a stunning lack of appreciation for the momentousness of their actions and the implications of this new historical awareness: “What the good fathers at Vatican II were quite blithely undertaking in promulgating their famous documents,” Massa writes, “now appears more like placing sticks of dynamite into the foundations of Tridentine Catholicism than simply opening the windows of the Church to the world outside.”

Subsequent chapters explore what happened when American Catholics came face to face with “the radical lessons of history”: the nonreception of the encyclical Humanae Vitae and the subsequent controversy with Charles Curran at The Catholic University of America; the prolonged conflict between Cardinal Francis McIntyre and the Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters in Los Angeles that ensued when the sisters decided to take seriously the council’s exhortation to return to their roots; the raid at Catonsville, Md., and the Catholic anti-war movement it inspired; and the unintended consequences of Avery Dulles’s brilliant Models of the Church (1974), which, according to Massa, lent considerable intellectual and theological heft to the growing acceptance of the fact that pluralism was “the most profound Catholic stance of all.”

Massa excels in recounting the more comic events of the period. Although he is sympathetic to the eventual tragic outcome for the I.H.M.s, he delights in recounting the spectacle of McIntyre’s intervention at the council. Well-known among bishops for his inability to grasp even rudimentary Latin, McIntyre delivered an impassioned plea for retention of the Latin Mass, arguing that to do otherwise would merely distract and confuse those “whose intellectual capacity was not great.”

Historians of American Cathol-icism have been aware for quite some time now that the labels of “liberal” and “conservative” are of limited usefulness in interpreting the council and its aftermath. Massa agrees, pointing out time and again that such labels often obscure as much as they explain. But while most scholars end with a critique of the existing narrative, Massa goes a step further by proposing a model to replace it. While the book does not quite deliver the new “master narrative” promised by its jacket, the lens of historical consciousness does offer a fresh and interesting way to unify the seemingly disparate events of the Catholic ’60s in a manner that leaves tired and reductive categories behind.

Scholars who follow Massa’s lead in the future would do well to apply his thesis more comprehensively to issues of women and gender. Alas, his book is indeed a “master narrative” in the sense that, with the notable exception of Mother Caspary of the I.H.M.s, all its protagonists are men. A discussion of women’s ordination or the abortion question would have enhanced the study. Strictly speaking, of course, both Roe v. Wade and the Women’s Ordination Conference belong to the 1970s, but they do fall within the purview of “the long ’60s,” a term most American historians use to limn the period. More significantly, though, both of these developments were undoubtedly rooted in the events Massa describes, and they were—and remain—quite central to any discussion of an “American Catholic revolution.”

Speaking of revolution, Massa provides a timely reminder that the American Catholic one is still unfolding. Stories about women religious being subjected to “arbitrary visitations” or about Catholic pacifists taking church and state leaders to task for supporting an unjust war will have an eerie resonance with contemporary readers. That the history Massa recounts is so recent makes his book even more remarkable. He has produced a credible description of the forest while most of us are still busy scrutinizing individual trees. And that he has done so with such grace and humor will win Massa more admirers, not only among scholars but also among the coveted and elusive “general readers.”

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