As mediated by the journalists, the story of the Second Vatican Council was framed as a battle between traditionalists centered in the Roman Curia, the Vatican’s bureaucracy, and a core of progressive bishops, mostly from northern Europe. It was a facile political trope but one that did in fact mirror how important factions within the council understood themselves. Of the two, the progressives were far more open to journalists than the curial conservatives, who treated most reporters—Catholic or secular—as prying adversaries. It was a tactical mistake on their part, but one that did not materially alter either the coverage or the outcome of the council itself.
The prospect of change in the world’s largest Christian church is what brought reporters back to Rome for four straight years, and what kept resident news bureaus busy during the nine months between fall sessions. But the council’s fundamental impact on the media was this: It forced even the most secular of editors to recognize that theological ideas and Church history mattered. The council’s theological debates on issues like the relationship between Scripture and Church tradition turned out to be grave and timely issues that deserved in-depth reporting and merited front-page display.
Unfortunately, few of the media’s mediators had the requisite background. Which is why the New York Times hired John Cogley away from Commonweal ; why Time dispatched Robert Blair Kaiser, a new hire and former Jesuit seminarian, to their Rome bureau; why a range of liberal magazines like the New Republic and the National Catholic Reporter published informed pieces by another ex-seminarian, Michael Novak; and why the New Yorker turned to the pseudonymous Xavier Rynne (Father Francis X. Murphy) for knowing inside-the-council pieces.
It is also, I have always thought, why Newsweek hired me when I walked in off the street. I was a journalist who was a Catholic: I even had a degree from Notre Dame. “Do you think you can be fair to the conservative bishops in writing about the council?” was the only question Newsweek ’s legendary editor Osborne Elliott asked me before confirming my appointment. In truth, with two young children and a third on the way, I hadn’t given the goings-on in Rome that much thought.
The news media is, as I think of it, what we have because we no longer have public squares, salons, or even cafes—places where people used to gather and news was transmitted face to face. Media mediates . But unlike real conversation, the news media creates mass audiences or “publics,” which it addresses by marketing its various journalistic products. Journalists, in short, are skilled workers in what some sociologists in the early seventies usefully identified as “the knowledge industry.”
Journalism is based on reporting, of course. But strictly speaking, I would argue, journalists do not communicate or merely pass along what they have seen and heard. Journalists make things. What they make are coherent narratives, just like historians or town gossips do. But unlike historians and gossips, journalists produce their stories under the external requirements of time and space and according to the prescribed rules and conventions specific to their respective media. And that is what I was asked to do as Newsweek ’s religion editor.
Vatican Council II remains a classic example of how a major event that took place behind closed doors was mediated to the outside world. As many as 2800 bishops participated, making it the largest and most international gathering in the history of the Church—and a rich source of leaks. By the final session, there were nearly as many journalists in Rome as there were bishops. Initially, reporting on the council was like covering Kafka’s castle. The bishops’ deliberations were held in secret behind the bronze doors of St. Peter’s Basilica, and their speeches, called interventions, were delivered in Latin. Only summaries of the bishops’ interventions could be had at the Sala Stampa , the Vatican press office.
The best that most working journalists could do was cultivate enlightened sources from among the 400-plus council periti—the teams of theological advisors and speechwriters who accompanied the bishops. Time ’s Rome bureau hosted a regular weekly session with selected periti before filing its reports to New York. Newsweek , too, questioned periti at restaurant rendezvous over lunch and dinner. Thus, both the news and the interpretation of the council passed through theologians before it reached the public. In short, what readers got were twice-mediated stories of what the bishops said and did. It was in the pages of major newspapers like the New York Times , Le Monde , and the Times of London that Catholics and others first read large chunks of the council’s final documents.
It is important to remember that the renewal and reforms of Vatican II were not created ex nihilo on the council floor. They grew out of theological, social, and liturgical movements within the Church that, by the time the council opened in the fall of 1962, were already decades old. The council vindicated the work of a number of European periti , advocates of the so-called nouvelle théologie such as Marie-Dominique Chenu, Yves Congar, and Henri de Lubac in France, Edward Schillebeeckx in the Netherlands, and Karl Rahner and Joseph Ratzinger in Germany. Some of them, including the American theologian of religious freedom, John Courtney Murray, had been silenced under Pius XII. Now, in the wake of the council, they found themselves treated as media celebrities. The youngest and boldest of them, Hans Küng of the University of Tübingen, whose book, The Council, Reform, and Reunion , had become an international bestseller, quickly made the cover of Time .
Except for the handsome and expansive Küng, who loved the microphone, they were mostly reclusive scholars, more at home in small seminars than at press conferences. I remember pushing through a web of reporters’ tape recorders at Notre Dame to grab the attention of Karl Rahner, whose writings were notoriously difficult to follow, even for fellow Germans. “Sorry, but I’m on deadline for a story about Jesus,” I explained. “So can you tell me briefly, when in your view did Jesus realize that he was God?” Rahner looked up at me with the eyes of a weary bloodhound: “Read my books,” was all he said.
As a discrete event, the council was a journalistic gift that kept on giving: Who knew where it would all end? But what interested me most as a journalist—I arrived at Newsweek in 1964—was how the lines between Catholics and other Christians were being redrawn. Instead of separate churches, the theologians spoke of different historical trajectories and theological traditions. I was deeply impressed by the mutual respect, camaraderie even, between the Catholic and Protestant veterans of the council.
Clearly, the Protestants had been deeply affected by their experiences in Rome. There they had not only collaborated with Catholics, but prayed with them, sometimes even worshipping together at Mass. “I came to feel that it was our council,” Presbyterian theologian Robert McAfee Brown told me. “I concluded that if Catholicism was not going to be the same, then Protestantism is not going to be the same either.” Evangelical theologian David Wells concluded that the council’s “change of mind in matters as . . . fundamental as revelation, the relation of the natural and the supernatural, salvation and doctrines of the Church and papal authority has rendered the vast majority of Protestant analysis of Catholic doctrine obsolete. It has also placed on Protestants an obligation to revise their thinking about Rome.”
What had yet to be reported, though, was the reaction of ordinary American Catholics to all of this. The American bishops were opposed on principle to Church-sponsored surveys of the faithful: On matters of faith and practice, only the voice of hierarchy needed to be heard. Incredibly, no organization had ever polled Catholics to find out what they thought of their Church. Newsweek was the first. A year after the council ended, we hired Louis Harris and Associates to create a valid random sample from among four thousand Catholics in one hundred selected communities. In personal interviews averaging eighty-five minutes, each was asked to respond to 160 questions. This was not the sort of cheap and quick survey that would subsequently be taken by the media every time a pope visited the United States.
The results were published in a cover story, “How U.S. Catholics View Their Church,” and at the time they seemed shocking. Seventy percent of Catholics wanted the Church to lift its ban on contraception, and 38 percent said they were already using some form of it. A huge majority stood with the Church in opposing abortion, though some said they would make an exception for mothers whose pregnancies were life-threatening. And nearly half thought that priests should be allowed to marry.
There was another side as well. Three out of four reported attending Mass every Sunday, and half said their religion was the most important thing in their lives. Some old habits still persisted: More than half (55 percent) felt morally bound to follow their pastor’s judgment on what books or movies to avoid, but nearly as many (46 percent) saw no sin in refusing the Eucharist from “a Negro priest.”
The Newsweek profile of American Catholics certainly dispelled the myth of a monolithic Church, and many readers who wrote letters to the editor charged the magazine with being anti-Catholic. Some bishops attacked the survey in their diocesan newspapers as unrepresentative. In turn, Fr. Andrew Greeley, a well-known sociologist, wrote a syndicated column asking the bishops why a secular magazine should have to do their work for them.
What struck me most, apart from the headline-making results on sex-related issues, was the sheer confusion revealed in the pollsters’ personal interviews. The sudden change in traditional dos and don’ts, like abstaining from meat on Fridays, left many Catholics feeling boundary-less. Reading their responses, I remembered what sociologist Peter Berger had said of the curial officials who had warned of chaos if the Council’s liberalizing reformers got their way: “Conservatives have the better sociological noses.”
In the five years following the council, Newsweek ’s religion section appeared almost every week, averaging over a hundred stories annually and, more often than not, producing more letters to the editor than the other ten back-of-the-book sections combined. More than a third of these stories were about the rippling effects of the council’s reforms, and initially the tone was relentlessly upbeat.
None was more naively optimistic than our Christmas cover of 1967—“The Nun: A Joyous Revolution,” we called it—which described how many religious orders of women were updating their rules at the urging of the council fathers. At the time, American sisters were 180,000 strong, three times more numerous than the priests. For more than a century, they had been the Church’s most familiar public faces as nurses, hospital and orphanage administrators, and especially parochial school teachers. With every change these “women religious” made, symbolic boundaries between the Church and the world outside were breached.
Newsweek ’s reporters focused mainly on those “new nuns” who were experimenting with more flexible lifestyles: moving members out of the cloister and convent and into inner-city apartments, for example, or taking secular jobs in order to be closer to “the people.” Many communities replaced the office of mother superior with elected boards and government by committee. Individual sisters were encouraged to discern for themselves what form of ministry suited their talents. Those who taught in Catholic schools presented bishops with work demands: smaller classes and time off to pursue graduate degrees—a hint of wider gender wars to come. “There are some people,” said the superior of one large religious order, “who see nuns as a convenient labor force.”
The obvious visual symbol for all this updating was the sudden and widespread abandonment of the nun’s traditional religious habit. Newsweek ’s split-screen cover image showed Sr. Corita Kent, a hugely popular artist in the sixties, in and out of habit. For Corita, whose brightly colored serigraphs already hung in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, discarding medieval garb was no big deal. Her work, she told me when I visited her in her Los Angeles studio, was sufficient expression of her religious commitment. But for many other middle-aged nuns—including my aunt—the religious habit was a precious sign of their vows as virgins consecrated to Christ, and they’d be damned before they’d exchange their veils for frumpy polyester dresses off the rack.
The question of what a nun should wear turned out to be more consequential than a mere change of wardrobe. Fundamentally, it was a matter of personal identity. Neither clergy nor laity, nuns were often and unfairly perceived as asexual women wrapped in swaddling clothes. Upon entering the convent, they discarded their family names and took the names of saints. For every Sr. Agnes or Sr. Mary, there was a Sr. Basil, a Sr. Joseph, or Sr. Charles Borromeo, which furthered their gender ambiguity.
After the council, many nuns reclaimed their family names, but among the reformers there was a palpable movement to reclaim their womanhood as well—and with it their sexuality. I woke up to all of this abruptly during a football weekend at Notre Dame. There I was introduced to a stunningly attractive young nun who insisted on controlling her own identity by renewing her vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience one year at a time. She was dressed in a blouse, a straight skirt, and a tangerine blazer. But it was her lipstick that caught my eye: The color matched her blazer. It was one thing to see Ingrid Bergman as a nun in The Bells of St. Mary’s or Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story. But to meet a real consecrated virgin so captivatingly turned out was downright disorienting. “Get used to it, Ken,” said the priest who was then president of St. Mary’s College across the street. “In five years, nuns will be presenting such a new face to the world that their vocational crisis will be a thing of the past.”
He was a poor prophet. Within a year, Sr. Corita was no longer a sister. Her religious order, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, splintered into traditional and reformed factions, and the latter eventually disappeared. So did a lot of the other communities of nuns. By the end of the sixties, women’s religious orders were reporting defections of up to six thousand a year, plus a precipitous drop in new novices. The vocation crisis, at least in the United States, became a steady state of relentless attrition.
The immediate post-council years also witnessed an unprecedented exodus from the priesthood. Various polls showed that most Catholic priests felt celibacy should be optional, and thousands of them opted to marry with or without formal dispensations from holy orders. Vatican officials admitted that they were receiving more applications than they could handle from priests seeking permission to resign in order to marry. To force the Vatican’s hand—and to ensure a faster dispensation—many priests married first and then presented the Vatican with a fait accompli.
Newsweek published several stories on priests who had secretly married and fathered children while continuing to serve as pastors. We also reported on “priests who date,” noting how they exploited their attraction to women who were excited by men they saw as forbidden fruit. In 1968, James Shannon, the bishop of St. Paul, Minnesota, became the first member of the American hierarchy to resign—the issue was the Church’s ban on contraception—and later married.
I tried to find a pattern in all of this, but there was no single explanation. James Carroll, the son of a World War II admiral and a college chaplain active in the anti-war movement, abandoned the priesthood after only five years, claiming later that once the resistance was over, being a priest had ceased to be “fun.” Some, like Philip Berrigan, met a nun in the anti-war movement and found a soul mate. Others were Catholic college professors who left, married, and continued to teach theology. A number of pastoral types took off their collars and became psychotherapists. They, at least, had skills they could transfer to a secular occupation. Most parish priests were not so fortunate. My own pastor, a grumpy monsignor, had secretly been seeing a woman who followed him from parish to parish. Eventually, he gave up his double life and disappeared with her. We never heard of him again. I trust he found work.
Some ex-priests claimed that they were the “healthy” ones—that only the emotionally immature and closeted gay men remained to serve the Church. This claim, of course, was self-serving: It supposed that no “healthy” male would choose the celibate life. Personally, I felt betrayed by every priest who left. When I married, I had sworn vows to my wife and I expected priests to honor those they made at ordination. In any case, life in a rectory or a convent struck me as poor preparation for the give and take of marriage. “Good luck, guys,” was the best wish I could muster.
This was not the “open Church” that the (then) liberal Michael Novak had so recently celebrated. Words like “crisis” and especially “identity crisis” became routine in headlines on stories about American Catholics. And for the first time, Catholics began to talk, usually disparagingly, about something they called “the institutional Church.” My own attention fastened on the Catholics’ sudden loss of confidence in the Church’s educational system. There were, at that time, 309 Catholic colleges and universities in the United States, tenfold more than in the rest of the world combined. Collectively, they represented an enormous achievement by an immigrant and often embattled Church. Together with the Catholic grammar and high schools, they educated nearly six million students.
Doubts about the value of this achievement began with the universities. In 1966, the American Council on Education issued a study that failed to uncover a single Catholic university with a “distinguished” or even “strong” graduate department. This prompted Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, the leading American Catholic historian at the time and a tart critic of Catholic intellectual life, to suggest a radical consolidation. “I don’t think we should have more than three Catholic universities,” he told me in an interview for Newsweek , “one on the Atlantic seaboard, one in the Middle West, and one on the West Coast.” Ellis knew it would never happen, given the independence of each university. Even so, his magisterial pronouncement prompted a public-relations contest among them in the hope of surviving the final cut. Fordham, for example, took out a full-page ad in the New York Times , promising that it would “pay any price—break any mold—in order to pursue her true function as a university.”
Then that mold started breaking on various Catholic campuses. At Webster College, a tiny Catholic school for women, Sr. Jacqueline Grennan, who had won fame (and a profile in Life magazine) as a female New Frontiersman during the Kennedy administration, moved to secularize the college by making theology courses optional. The best-known “new nun” besides Corita, “Sr. Jackie” eventually resigned from the religious order that had founded Webster, arguing that a college president should not be subject, as she was, to a religious superior. By 1967, Webster was no longer a Catholic college and Sr. Jackie had married, eventually moving on to a tumultuous term as president of Hunter College in New York City.
And so it went. “The less Catholic it is,” declared the vice president of Chicago’s Mundelein College (which would disappear), “the better the Catholic college will be.” A faculty draft report on academic freedom at the University of Dayton, run by the Marianist Fathers, was more blunt. The purpose of a Catholic university, it claimed, was “to become secularized; for to be secularized means to come of age.”
The assault on Catholic education quickly trickled down to the Church’s grammar schools. In the mid-sixties, the most widely discussed book in Catholic education circles was Mary Perkins Ryan’s Are Parochial Schools the Answer? Her answer, in a word, was “No.” The schools were no longer needed to protect Catholic students from alien religious influences. It was a variation on the theme that American Catholics had “come of age.” Instead, she proposed that the Church provide after-school catechetical classes and rely on the Sunday liturgy to form the children’s religious sensibilities and habits.
Hers was a naive proposal, one that only a liturgical expert would suggest. It presumed that Catholics still lived in urban neighborhoods where the parish was the center of communal life. In fact, more than half the nation’s Catholics had already moved to the suburbs, where, as any amateur sociologist could tell you, the school was now the center around which Catholics formed their connections. Suburban parishes were more like the intentional communities that Protestant congregations had always been, and their vitality depended primarily on the voluntary efforts of that core of parents who sent their children to the parish school. Although Catholics talked a great deal about the importance of “community,” they were not well practiced in forming one based solely on Sunday worship.
And then there was the new rite of the Mass. At its inception it was better described, as one forgotten wit put it, as “the participation of the laity in the confusion of the clergy.” Compared to the old Latin liturgy, I found the new version about as moving as a freight train. Silence was now a liturgical vice, conscripted congregational responses the new regimen of worship. In a pale imitation of the early Christians’ kiss of peace, there was now a scripted pause. I remember vividly the funeral of the great Catholic apologist Frank Sheed at St. Patrick’s Cathedral: Swinging round to shake hands with whomever was behind me, I found only a pair of hands holding a limp missalette at arm’s length. One middle finger was extended. I shook the finger—there was nothing else to grab—and looked into the disdainful eyes of William F. Buckley Jr. “You S.O.B.,” I wanted to say, “I don’t like this Rotary Club routine any more than you do.”
Buckley’s National Review , a magazine produced mostly by Catholics, had responded to the Church reforms with a question on its cover: “What, in the name of God, is going on in the Catholic Church?” Good question. Defecting priests and secularizing colleges did not affect me directly, but the new liturgy did. In place of my much-loved Latin hymns and chants, the new liturgists bade us sing old Reformation anthems like Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” I could not bring myself to join in when the chosen hymn was “Amazing Grace””in fact, I still refuse to do so. It’s a lovely piece, all about getting one’s self individually saved, Evangelical-style, but theologically it has no place in the corporate worship of the Catholic Church.
What the liturgists didn’t borrow from Protestant hymnals, they conjured up by themselves. Mostly, it was folk music sung to plucked guitars with relentlessly upbeat lyrics about how much a nice God loves us and aren’t we fortunate to be his chosen people. There was no awe, no hint of the biblical fear of the Lord in this music, only the mild diuretic of self-congratulation. Our children loved it: It matched the treacle they were learning in Sunday school classes, which is why my wife and I pulled them out to teach them the fundamentals ourselves. The Church’s failure to pass on the faith, through the liturgy or through the classroom, would eventually snip two generations of young Catholics from their own religious roots.
Three years after the end of the council, PopePaul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, which reaffirmed the church’s opposition to contraception, produced a far-reaching crisis more damaging to the Church than even the child-abuse scandal that erupted twenty years later. It was a subject that touched the intimate lives of every Catholic couple. To use a contraceptive, Catholics were taught, was intrinsically evil. In fact, some Catholic moralists called it “intra-vaginal masturbation.” Contraception was also a public issue, one that had for a long time defined an important boundary between Catholics and other Americans.
The very existence of the international commission Paul VI had appointed to advise him on the issue suggested that the Church’s position was not written on stone tablets, prompting many Catholic theologians to rethink on their own an issue heretofore considered foreclosed.
But it was the personal testimony of the five mothers on the committee that proved crucial. One of them, Patty Crowley, brought letters from three thousand women in the Catholic Family Movement detailing their stories of frustration, depression, and spousal alienation as they struggled to conform their conjugal relations to the Church’s approved “rhythm” method. It was the first time the committee of cardinals and bishops had heard women speak so openly about their sexual lives—and their first opportunity to consider the issue of contraception from other than a male perspective. One of the commission’s theologians was troubled by the implications of what he heard. “What then with the millions we have sent to hell?” asked Spanish Jesuit Marcelino Zalba. To which Patty Crowley replied: “Fr. Zalba, do you really believe God has carried out your orders?”
Four theologians and three cardinals and bishops dissented from the seventy-two-person commission’s ultimate recommendation for change. But among the dissenters was the resourceful Fr. John C. Ford, an American Jesuit moralist. Ford immediately prepared a minority opinion and sent it to the pope. Within days, copies of both documents were leaked to the National Catholic Reporter and Le Monde in France. From there, news stories turned up on the front page of the New York Times and elsewhere around the world, including Newsweek and Time . Once again, the media were the first to inform Catholics of a major event in the history of their Church. Two years then lapsed between the commission report and the encyclical’s release, years in which, as Newsweek reported, a majority of American Catholics changed their views on contraception.
The negative reaction to Humanae Vitae proved far-reaching. Contraception ceased to be a staple of Sunday sermons. Both sides of the confessional box adopted a policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Rather quickly, the acute Catholic sense of sin, for so long focused on sexual morality, faded, while sins against the new morality of “justice and peace” went unrecognized and untold. Parish priests who habitually spent up to seven hours every Saturday hearing confessions found that the serpentine lines of penitents had disappeared. Within a decade, the confessional boxes themselves had vanished from most parish churches, replaced by “reconciliation rooms.” So did that special form of Catholic hell-fire preaching, the annual parish mission, which typically honed the laity on sexual transgressions.
In 1971, Newsweek again polled American Catholics for a cover story”“Has the Church Lost Its Soul?””that, with copious charts, went on for seven pages. What we found was a once apparently cohesive community in disarray: As one liberal monsignor bluntly told us, “The Church is one god-damned mess.” Nearly as many American Catholics, for instance, said they now looked for spiritual guidance to evangelist Billy Graham as did those who still looked to the pope. By “soul” I meant “an integral Catholic subculture with its own distinctive blend of rituals and rules, mystery and manners” which, as I saw it then, “has vanished from the American scene.”
Had I that cover story to write all over again, I would have added that the membrane that once separated Catholics from other Americans had been finally rent. The assimilation of Catholics—a quarter of the population—into mainstream American culture and society had been accomplished, though at heavy cost to the institutions of the Church. And after Humanae Vitae and its fallout, the internal boundaries by which Catholics had differentiated themselves from their neighbors gradually receded.
Most Catholics clung to their faith and said they expected their children to do the same. In closing the story, I tried to lay a journalistic finger on the reasons why. For that I had to look inside myself, and this is what I wrote: “When the Catholic faith runs deep, it establishes a certain sensuous rhythm in the soul, a sacramental sensibility that suffuses ordinary things—bread, water, wine, the marriage bed—and transforms them into vehicles of grace. In these spiritual depths, doctrine and Church laws fade in importance.”
In focusing on the idea of religion as a distinct sensibility, formed through a set of communal practices based on a comprehensive religious worldview, I was trying to understand how—and for how long—any religious tradition might persist without the sociological protection provided by geographic, ethnic, and other socially constructed boundaries. The reforms of Vatican II may have hastened but certainly did not cause the collapse of those boundaries by which Catholics, like all minority groups, had maintained their identity. That was the work of other social forces. I was in my early thirties at the time, but already I could sense that these forces would affect not only the Catholicism of my children but of my children’s children as well.
Kenneth L. Woodward was religion editor of Newsweek from 1964 to 2002. This article is adapted from his book in progress, Getting Religion , a memoir of American religion and culture since 1950.