On Sunday, April 27, one of the large lecture halls at Harvard Divinity School was two-thirds filled primarily with graying, upper-middle-class liberal women of the baby-boom generation who had come to hear and applaud Dr. Ida Raming’s “courageous” story of resisting the all-male hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. Raming, you may recall, is one of seven women, mostly German and Austrian, who were excommunicated in summer 2002 for participating in an illicit ordination ceremony. She celebrated a liturgy at Harvard, kindling the activist fires in her supportive listeners, who are working to “liberate” women from the Roman “structures of power” that have discriminated against them these long twenty centuries.
One expects such fare at Harvard. It was not twenty-four hours earlier, however, that Richard John Neuhaus addressed a crowd three times as large at the nearby Harvard Law School campus—a crowd consisting largely of young, conservative Catholic graduate students and professionals, evenly divided by sex, and of visibly diverse ethnic backgrounds. Here, Neuhaus elicited a standing ovation upon encouraging our generation to continue answering God’s call to fight the evil of abortion in America—“the great civil rights issue of our time.” He reminded us that the Catholic Church has been the voice crying out in the wilderness on this issue as on many others. His talk followed another by Father Paul McNellis of Boston College’s philosophy department, who tied the abortion issue to that of sexuality, telling the sympathetic crowd that one way to fight the evil of abortion on the personal level is for young men to start living chastely out of a “courageous,” “manly” protectiveness toward young women—to love their girlfriends truly and stop leading them into situations in which abortion is a temptation.
The aspirations of these two crowds could not have been more different. Since the 1960s, the first crowd has sought to seize power from the leaders of the Catholic Church, to recast the Church in the image of modern, liberal society, and to purge it of all distinctions, not only between male and female, but also between priest and people, and even between mankind and God Himself. By contrast, the second crowd turns away from the moral and philosophical confusions of the sixties toward the leaders of the Church—particularly toward a Pope who asserts without blushing his divinely ordained authority to define what is right and wrong. They embrace a view of the world that has a privileged place for lasting and binding conceptions of natural and divine law, and for the traditional authorities that continue to expound such teachings despite the world’s resounding rejection of them.
Having been a student at Harvard for five years—first as an undergraduate, now as a Master’s candidate in religious studies—I have observed a growing chasm between the aspirations of the generation that is teaching us and those of more and more of my peers who are returning not merely to traditional ways of thinking, but in a remarkable number of cases, to the orthodox Christianity many of their parents rejected in their youth. While it would be misleading to say that such students make up anything more than a small minority at Harvard, their numbers are undeniably growing, in large part because of their infectiously hopeful spirit.
Within my own immediate circle of friends at school, for example, there are at least a dozen who either have converted to orthodox Catholicism from other faiths or from no faith at all, or embraced such Catholicism on their own despite having been raised in lax Catholic homes. Each of them has additional friends with similar stories. Friends who have previously been students at Princeton, Yale, and elsewhere have spoken of similar phenomena on those campuses. Having been raised myself in an unusually strong Catholic home where one often felt like a member of a dying race, I have been swept off my feet these past few years by the enthusiasm of friends who have come to the faith—especially its moral teachings—despite its extremely countercultural messages.
The presence of these young, faithful Catholics was particularly evident this spring at Harvard. Student attendance has been significant at daily masses, regular Confession, and Rosary groups both at the College and at the Law School. In addition to the annual symposium on pro-life issues put on by the Harvard Society for Law, Life, and Religion, as well as the ongoing activities of the undergraduate pro-life organization, Harvard Right to Life, Catholic students at Harvard have benefited from discussion groups on Thomas Aquinas, natural law, and the women doctors of the Church. Participants in these groups confidently and cheerfully embrace orthodoxy and the teachings of the Magisterium.
Moreover, a graduate and professional student Bible study group has sprung up; every week fifteen to twenty students gather to discuss the gospel and to integrate it with insights drawn from Pope John Paul II’s encyclicals, writings of the doctors of the Church, and lessons from the Church Fathers. Perhaps the most public and successful event was the coming of a “Theology on Tap” series to a bar in Harvard Square, where large numbers of young people in the area gathered regularly to hear informal but very well-informed and inspirational talks by orthodox Catholic priests and laymen. The series will be returning to Cambridge this fall.
What I find particularly striking about many of my peers in this veritable young Catholic movement at Harvard—particularly the young women among them—is their fervent rejection of modern liberal conceptions of sexual difference, sexual relations, and family life. They are familiar with Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body,” for example, and embrace warmly the message of encyclicals such as Evangelium Vitae and Humanae Vitae. They also support the Church’s stance that women cannot be ordained as priests, seeing in it a recognition that men and women—having distinct natures, body and soul, and complementing one other in a way that reflects a higher theological reality—ought to continue to have separate roles within the life of the Church.
To flesh out further the countercultural intellectual orientation of some of these young women, it is useful to point out the popularity among them of Professors Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School and Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr. of the Harvard government department. Glendon, a member of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, has been an outstanding inspiration for these women, who are looking to role models who combine success with faithful Catholicism. Mansfield (who is not himself Catholic) has been awakening students for decades to premodern, particularly Aristotelian views of natural right, and he is currently making waves in academe, particularly among feminists, with a project on manliness, arguing that the social and philosophical reality of sexual differences may be more fundamental than our officially gender-blind society allows itself to see.
The more cynical of the older women who attended Ida Raming’s talk at Harvard Divinity School would probably trace my opinions to the subtle enslavement of our sex by men (chief among them the charismatic Pope John Paul II). Yet I and many of my peers can only shake our heads in wonder at the blindness of so many in the sixties’ generation to the beauty of orthodoxy. This beauty is particularly apparent to us in the Church’s teachings on sexuality: these teachings seem to express a sublime reality that we catch glimpses of in our own lives—in observing and relating to young men, and in our continual journey with Jesus Christ toward God the Father. Human masculinity and femininity have their own loveliness in relation to one another, reflecting the mystical romance between Christ and his Church. To ordain women to the priesthood—to robe them in the trappings of those who truly act in persona Christi in the sacramental life of the Church—seems to us to upset the harmonious order of the universe at which we have learned to gaze in wonder, despite all the obstacles to such visions presented by our dreary modern world. Likewise, we are learning to see again the beauty of marriage conceived as a sacrament, and openness to new life within marriage as the due thanks we must give to God for the privilege He grants us to participate in His creative power through procreation.
My generation is increasingly catching glimpses of the beauty of a society that is committed in spirit and in law to a culture of life, which is why we are turning against abortion. There is no turning back when one beholds such beauty—when one falls in love with God’s will for the human family. We recognize the struggles that accompany acting upon a commitment to His will, but such struggles appeal to the idealistic impulses of youth. They are hurdles to be scaled, not avoided.
These are exciting times for the Catholic Church in America, as the eventful April weekend at Harvard proved to me and my friends in abundance. There is a generational struggle afoot, and it is not at all what the 1960s generation would have predicted it would be. Young men and women are turning to the ancient wisdom of the Church—even at Harvard University.
Bronwen Catherine McShea is a Master of Theological Studies candidate at Harvard Divinity School and a 2002 graduate of Harvard College.