Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!


The swallows would swirl through San Juan Capistrano, rising like a mist from the sea every March 19. Or so the legend goes. In fact, the blue-feathered birds sometimes reached California as early as mid-February, and when they arrived at the end of their long trek from Argentina, they would infest the place like happy locusts, plastering their gourd-shaped nests among the crossbeams and crannies, the nooks and corners—anywhere they could get their colonies to stick to the old stucco and adobe of the mission founded by Father Junipero Serra in 1776.

They were cliff swallows, Hirundo pyrrhonota, the woman from the local Audubon Society explained, speaking in the rapid, inflectionless voice of someone reading, for the sixth time that day, from a memo stuck to her desk with yellowing strips of cellophane tape. Lacking the deeply forked tail of the better-known barn swallow, Hirundo rustica, cliff swallows are known by their white forehead, buff rump, and short, squared-off tail feathers. They gather in large flocks, fluttering their wings above their heads in a characteristic motion while gathering mud for their nests. And they haven’t returned to the Mission San Juan Capistrano—darting past the old Serra Chapel and flitting through the ruins of the Great Stone Church—for nearly twenty years.

Not that the mission hasn’t tried to win them back. What’s Capistrano without its swallows? All the mission bells will ring, / The chapel choir will sing, / When the swallows come back to Capistrano, the most popular song of 1939 told the nation, and for years after the swallows disappeared, you could see the groundskeepers out making artificial mud puddles with their green plastic hoses. In the 1990s, someone had the notion of hiring a local potter to fool the birds, and the mission is still dotted with clay nests: ceramic lures that failed to bring the square-tailed nest builders, Hirundo pyrrhonota, back to hear the bells.

There’s a figure in all this—a metaphor, perhaps, or a synecdoche—for the condition of American Catholicism. Its long history, certainly, from the Spanish colonial beginnings on. But, most of all, San Juan Capistrano seems an image for recent decades—because sometime around 1970, the leaders of the Catholic Church in America took a stick and knocked down all the swallows’ nests.

They had their reasons. What was anyone to make of those endless 1950s sodalities and perpetual-adoration societies, the Mary Day processions, the distracting rosaries shouted out during the mumbled Latin Masses? The tangle and confusion of all the discalced, oblated, friar-minored, Salesianed, Benedictined, Cistercianed communities of monks and nuns?

The arcanery of decorations on albs and chasubles, the processions of Holy Water blessings, the grottos with their precarious rows of fire-hazard candles flickering away in little red cups, the colored seams and peculiar buttons that identified monsignors, the wimpled school sisters, the tiny Spanish grandmothers muttering prayers in their black mantillas, the First Communion girls wrapped up in white like prepubescent brides, the mumbled Irish prejudices, the loud Italian festivals, the Holy Door indulgences, the pocket guides to Thomistic philosophy, the Knights of Columbus with their cocked hats and comic-opera swords, the tinny mission bells, the melismatic chapel choirs—none of this was the Church, some of it actually obscured the Church, and the decision to clear out the mess was not unintelligent or uninformed or unintended.

It was merely insane. An entire culture nested in the crossbeams and crannies, the nooks and corners, of the Catholic Church. And it wasn’t until the swallows had been chased away that anyone seemed to realize how much the Church itself needed them, darting around the chapels and flitting through the cathedrals. They provided beauty, and eccentricity, and life. What they did, really, was provide Catholicism to the Catholic Church in America, and none of the multimedia Masses and liturgical extravaganzas in the years since—none of the decoy nests and artificial puddles—has managed to call them home. All the mission bells will ring, / The chapel choir will sing, / When the swallows come back to Capistrano.


And yet, one can see signs, here and there, that the swallows might have begun their return, mostly through the pro-life movement. In itself, that is a disturbing image: Roe v. Wade as the event that most transformed American Catholicism over the last thirty years. And from the outward and visible signs, the new culture appears much, much thinner than the old; Catholic literature, to take an easy example, remains barely a shadow of what it was in the 1950s. Still, in ways that no one has fully traced, opposition to the Supreme Court’s 1973 abortion decree has helped undo the separation of Catholic culture from the Catholic Church.

Watch, for instance, the New York kids out praying on Saturday mornings with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in Manhattan and Queens. Or visit the energetic and hungry pro-life groups at the nation’s colleges. Princeton, Fordham, MIT, Penn State: It hardly matters where or what the school is; somewhere on campus there’s a group of Catholic undergraduates joining the evangelicals to fight abortion with Students for Life, Life Chain, March for Life, and Day of Silence for the Unborn.

And then there are all the Catholic figures who have emerged in the various worlds of public discourse over the past twenty years. At the political magazines, at the think tanks, in the law schools, in the judiciary, on the television talk shows, on the book circuit, across the nation there’s a way Catholics have of recognizing one another: a wink and a nod, a figurative handshake that declares joint membership in a particular intellectual culture. In 1956 it might have been a fragment of ecclesial Latin, the mention of an imprimatur and a nihil obstat, the odd way of pronouncing the name Augustine. In 2006, it is instead a verbal gesture at natural law and a firm rejection of abortion. The result is the beginning of a new culture: a new Catholicism that, at its best, simply bypasses the stalemates of the 1970s.

Admittedly, you’d hardly know it from the way in which the Catholic Church still seems to play on the American public scene. No matter how much things have changed, newspaper and television reporters continue to frame stories about religion with categories now decades old: liberals vs. conservatives!, feminists vs. chauvinists!, reformers vs. reactionaries! And with just a little shove, Catholics figures—politicians, commentators, celebrities—can fall back into those tired, well-worn grooves.

A few years ago, Georgetown University hosted a conference on the state of Catholicism in America. The opening sessions, about the effect of the priest scandals, were interesting enough, in their way. It wasn’t till the second day’s debate, between Michael Novak and Monica Helwig, that a truly palpable gloom settled over the room. For the neoconservative Novak and the feminist Helwig have had this debate so many times, over so many years, that they began to squabble like an old couple locked in a bickering marriage: forgotten occasions suddenly remembered, dead quarrels fanned back to flame, until we seemed to be back at the 1976 Call to Action conference in Detroit, the low point in post-Vatican II American Catholic unity—nothing learned, nothing gained, nothing advanced in thirty years.

That feeling was unfair, particularly to Michael Novak, who has done important work on religion, economics, and human rights over the long years since the 1970s. Even more, the feeling was unfair to Pope John Paul II, and Mother Teresa, and the new Catechism, and everything that has changed since the confusion that followed Vatican II. We have witnessed over the last quarter-century what the papal biographer George Weigel calls “the maturation of Catholic social thought.” In its slow, ponderous way, Catholic thinking has turned to accept the social goods of the modern world and to present clear arguments about how they might be used for a greater purpose.

Certainly, there still exist media-oriented pseudo-groups like Catholics for a Free Choice—founded in 1973 with the later-defrocked Jesuit priest Joseph O’Rourke as its first president—that soldier on as though nothing had changed in more than thirty years. And there are still Catholic writers—the Washington Post’s columnist E.J. Dionne is a good example—who, though anti-abortion themselves, continue to propose one new compromise after another, each trumpeted as the solution at last! to the national divide over abortion. There are Catholic politicians, as well, from Massachusetts’ Democratic senator John Kerry to Maine’s Republican senator Susan Collins, who intone Mario Cuomo’s decades-old mantra of “personally opposed to abortion” while they vote for abortion measures.

They are hardly unique in this. Far too much of America’s social argument remains caught in the 1970s. The marchers in peace parades are redolent of Vietnam activism circa 1972—in both how they see the war in Iraq and how they see themselves. “I’ve become almost homesick for the smell of tear gas,” Hunter S. Thompson declared at a rally in 2003, and the gathered protesters erupted in cheers. The fact that they are not actually being tear-gassed only makes the nostalgia easier.

But one can find at least hints that Catholicism has finally begun to leave the deadlocked past behind. Within the new Catholic culture, abortion is no longer a 1970s kind of disputed or divisive issue. Regardless of polls that reveal some dissent about abortion among those who identify themselves as Catholic, you can’t travel far in Catholic circles without feeling the pro-life pressure. Every diocese, from the most liberal to the most conservative, maintains a pro-life office. Every parish, from the most radical to the most traditional, refuses to preach in favor of legalized abortion. The passion, the excitement, the moral force that makes less-dedicated people feel a little guilty—everything that makes a culture, in other words—is pro-life at its core.

Any serious believer will insist that the Church itself exists to distribute the sacraments and preach the gospel, and there is a promise that the gates of hell will not prevail against it. Cultures, on the other hand, rise and fall, appear and disappear, and for a long while it looked as though there wouldn’t be any Catholic culture in the United States. If that no longer seems the case, it is because something different has emerged—although, to understand how and why, you have to brace yourself and revisit the mess that was the 1970s.


The Catholic Church probably appeared to most Americans in the mid-1970s a vestigial and fading thing: suicidally absorbed in its internal battles and working hard to fall by the wayside. What role could it have in the nation’s political and cultural future?

The “secularization thesis”—the claim that religion is a remnant of premodern superstition, doomed to fade away with time’s advance—was at the peak of its explanatory power in those strange days. Yes, Time magazine declared 1976 the “Year of the Evangelical,” as Jimmy Carter gained the presidency and religiously identified political groups began to stretch their wings. But the evangelicals were typically viewed by high culture as throwbacks and Neanderthals who simply hadn’t heard the news. And through it all, the Catholic Church in the United States looked like secularism’s Exhibit Number One as it hemorrhaged priests and nuns and parishioners. In 1965, there were 8,000 seminarians; within twenty years there were only 3,000. Women’s communities collapsed from 180,000 nuns to 70,000. Weekly Mass attendance fell from 67 percent to 45 percent.

Even the remaining believers often didn’t seem to hold Church doctrine strongly. The stand against contraception, set forth in Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, remains the obvious example—and for good reason: “It rolled like water off a duck’s back,” an elderly priest in Rapid City once told me about his attempts to preach it. “The people in the pews listened politely, gave a shrug, and stopped at the drugstore on their way home from Mass.” Every poll since 1968 has found larges majorities of American Catholics disagreeing with their Church on contraception.

And yet, I’m not sure that the problem was really the laity’s disagreement. It may have been instead the laity’s great shrug—the widespread feeling among normal, everyday Catholics in the 1970s that they couldn’t figure out, and perhaps shouldn’t much care, where the Church stood from one day to another. The feeling had cause. In the years after Vatican II finished in 1965, nearly everything seemed up for grabs, and nearly everyone was uncertain what would end up licit and what would end up illicit in Catholic teaching.

In the early 1970s, it was not unknown that reputable Catholic theologians and even bishops would, in ecumenical settings, concelebrate the Eucharist with liberal Protestant clergy. Such events were unusual, of course, but those participating thought they were only a step or two ahead of where the Church was going. If you cannot imagine this happening today, that’s partly because the old mainline Protestant churches matter so much less than they used to. Besides, their sharp anti-Catholic turn in recent years—much of it occasioned by the battles over abortion—has made this kind of unfocused ecumenical gestures pointless. Mostly, however, you can’t imagine bishops or theologians of stature concelebrating the Eucharist with non-Catholics because the doctrine of communio, with all it entails for Christian unity and division, has grown firm again.

Back then, however, nearly every element of Catholic doctrine appeared as tentative and changeable as figures in wet clay. Indeed, insofar as anyone could tell at the time, the emerging shape seemed to be the separation of Catholicism even from Catholic communion. Why not consecrate the elements with almost anyone who wants to join in?

These were the days, you remember, when popular writers such as Father Andrew Greeley would speak of “cultural Catholics,” vaguely identifiable by their social sense rather than by their actually assenting to Church doctrine or going to Mass. Sociology in the 1950s had predicted the assimilation of American Catholics as they crossed the crabgrass frontier to suburbia, or melted down their ethnic heritage in intermarriage, or rose to middle-class respectability. For the next generation of writers, Catholicism itself was on the chopping block. Left or right, everybody piled on, and the discount-book tables were littered with copies of The Decomposition of Catholicism and Runaway Church and Can Catholic Schools Survive? and The Devastated Vineyard and Bare Ruined Choirs and Has the Catholic Church Gone Mad?

It was the silly season, and anything seemed possible. Remember Malachi Martin’s odd bestsellers? Remember The Exorcist? In 1971, the Jesuit Robert Drinan became the first Catholic priest elected to the U.S. Congress—only to reject the emerging pro-life movement as “the powers of darkness” and denounce his fellow Catholics for “seeking to impose” their pro-life views “on the rest of the nation.” Stretching the Church on both ends, Latin America produced both Gustavo Gutiérrez’s A Theology of Liberation, a key text in the emergence of an openly Marxist Catholicism, and Joaquin Saenz y Arriaga’s Sede Vacante, a foundational book for the new traditionalism. The exiled archbishop Ngo Dinh Thuc—brother of the assassinated Catholic president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem—was wandering the globe, consecrating his own bishops left and right. The Jesuits were giving up ownership of their colleges. The nuns were giving up their habits.

And then there was the bishops’ conference. The 1970s were a highly politicized time, and perhaps it is no surprise that official Catholic statements were equally politicized: the Resolution on Southeast Asia, the Declaration on Farm Labor Legislation, the Proposals on Handgun Violence, the Statement on Domestic Food Policy. It’s worth noting, however, that all these papers from the bishops’ office were on the Left and moving even more leftward through the 1980s—even while the majority of American Catholics were trending right in their voting patterns.

Part of the reason was the way the bishops had structured their national offices. Since World War I, American dioceses had supported the National Catholic Welfare Conference, a lobbying office in Washington, D.C. It had a long history of progressivism, dominated for years by Monsignor John A. Ryan, dubbed the “Right Reverend New Dealer” for his support of Franklin Roosevelt’s economic policies. But Vatican II demanded that bishops work more closely together “for the common good of the Church.” So, in 1966, the American hierarchy met to transform the old welfare conference into a new, two-pronged organization called the “National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the U.S. Catholic Conference”—a name whose awkward acronym, the NCCB/USCC, signaled how unwieldy it would prove. (In 1997, the two prongs were merged again to become the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.)

Officially, the NCCB was the ruling side, composed only of the bishops themselves and responsible for things like transforming the liturgy in light of Vatican II. But the real force was the much larger bureaucracy on the USCC side, which included priests, nuns, and laypeople as members, and had a remit to pronounce on education, social development and peace, and communication. “The USCC was intended as a laboratory for shared responsibility at the national level,” one Catholic journalist recently observed. “Shared responsibility also was the rationale underlying the bishops’ controversial ‘Call to Action’ conference.”

Ah, yes, Call to Action. You can’t read much about contemporary Catholicism without hearing of the conference that met in Detroit in 1976. Everyone agrees that it marked something—either the highest reach of the reforming spirit of Vatican II, or the finest example of nuttiness in American Catholic history, but one way or the other, a profound symbol of its time.

Back in 1971, Pope Paul VI had issued an apostolic letter that asked Catholics to “take up as their own proper task the renewal of the temporal order.” Indeed, “it is to all Christians that we address a fresh and insistent call to action”—for “beneath an outward appearance of indifference, in the heart of every man there is a will to live in brotherhood and a thirst for justice and peace, which is to be expanded.”

That phrase, “call to action,” became the rallying cry of progressive Catholics everywhere. At a synod in Rome the same year, an international group of bishops expanded the call to include a demand for hard self-examination and self-criticism, declaring, “The Church recognizes that anyone who ventures to speak to people about justice must first be just in their eyes; hence, we must undertake an examination of the modes of action, of the possessions, and of the lifestyle found within the Church itself.”

It is not easy to describe the error here. Who could be against self-examination and self-criticism? If anything, Christian faith seems to require it. But the actual effect of this demand from the synod was to invert Paul VI’s call. The energy that was supposed to go outward instead got turned inward, and what the pope had intended as a church acting against the injustices of the world became instead an obsessive interiority—a self-devouring church that was determined to find the world’s injustices first within itself. The U.S. bishops returned from the synod and obediently began several years of “a creative consultation process” that would culminate in 1976 with a three-day meeting in Detroit.

In truth, the bishops may not have been all that obedient. Most of the ones who were genuinely interested, such as Archbishop Peter Gerety of Newark, were outspoken progressives. The conservative bishops tended not so much to opposition as to indifference, and they turned over the whole “creative consultation process” to the bureaucracy of the USCC. Why is it no surprise that by the time the 1976 meeting rolled around, a majority of the 1,340 delegates were Church bureaucrats, and the mechanisms they proposed for fixing the Church’s ills always demanded more bureaucracy?

“Some delegates were quite frank” about regarding “the Catholic Church in America as a potentially useful auxiliary of the extreme left-wing of the Democratic Party,” the conservative writer Russell Kirk would snap. “Others were more radical in their aspirations.” That distinction—between leftists and radicals—was potentially a sharp one: The leftists wanted American Catholics to direct their moral energy to the social and economic battles that were roiling the nation; the radicals wanted the Church to change its doctrines about itself.

The two sides could have fought each other at Detroit. After all, if you have a political agenda for America, as the leftists did, you don’t want your ally to waste its strength on internal battles or dismantle itself in the name of ideological reform; what you want instead is good, old-fashioned, politically powerful Catholicism to help push your cause (as, for example, the labor unions knew from the 1890s to the 1950s). But the radicals carried the day at Call to Action and turned the whole event in on the Church. “You came here to listen, not to talk!” one delegate lectured a bishop who had ventured a comment at the meeting.

The resolutions that began by demanding the Church fight “chronic racism, sexism, militarism, and poverty in modern society” grew into resolutions that the Church change its positions on celibacy, male clergy, homosexuality, birth control, and Communion for the divorced and remarried—with further decisions to be made by majority votes of laypeople. “This was one of the greatest days in the Church,” an ecstatic Archbishop Gerety told the New York Times, “a good indication of what the people in this country are feeling.”

Perhaps so, although national politics over the next two decades suggests the opposite. Regardless, it didn’t have much to do with anything recognizable as Catholic. Avery Dulles, who helped prepare the notes on ecclesiology that were supposed to guide the meeting, remembers, “One of the rules was that the people who drew up the White Papers . . . were not to be allowed to defend the papers in any way, because then, the idea went, the members of the conference, the people in attendance, would be so overawed by their authority that they would not be morally free to express themselves.”

Particularly in the rush of resolutions in the closing hours, reforming the Catholic Church seemed to become necessary for nearly all the world’s problems. The delegates would offer up one demand for reform after another—married priests, women priests, lay bishops, gay bishops, no bishops: anything and everything. “And the vote,” Dulles recalls, invariably “came through overwhelmingly, yes . . . . It was madness.”


The madness of those days was hardly confined to the Left. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the radical Catholic traditionalists emerged as well: the mirror image, the doppelgängers, of the Call to Action crew. Opposition to the liturgical reforms of Vatican II varied on a range from grumbling to heresy. Some traditionalists stayed within the Church, others flitted on the edges, and a few openly embraced schism—believing they were sacrificing themselves, like ancient martyrs, for the one true Church they could see, even if no one else could.

The most memorable of the radical traditionalists may have been Veronica Lueken, “the Bayside Seer.” A housewife from New York, she had her first vision in 1968, when St. Thérése of Lisieux visited her while she was praying for Robert Kennedy, dying in California from an assassin’s bullet. Two years later—on April 7, 1970, to be exact, and exact dates are vital in Lueken’s mysticism—the Blessed Virgin Mary announced she would appear to Lueken at St. Robert Bellarmine church in Queens on June 18, 1970, and many times thereafter.

With astonishing speed, Lueken became a religious celebrity and St. Robert Bellarmine a Marian shrine. Thousands of devotees descended on the church, forcing the parish leaders to fence off the grounds in 1973. Her embarrassed bishop, Francis Mugavero, declared there was “no doctrinal basis for the content” of Lueken’s messages. Undeterred, Lueken began typing up and circulating mimeographs so all could read the messages she was receiving from the Virgin.

The most striking theme of these early messages was the horror of abortion, just then becoming legal in New York State. “The Eternal Father commands that you stop these murders at once!” thunders one from August 5, 1971. “You will not destroy the lives of the unborn. Human life is sacred in the eyes of God. No man has the right to destroy a life. The Father, He sends this life to you, and only He will decide when it will return back to the Kingdom.” Two years later, when the Supreme Court made abortion universal with Roe v. Wade, Lueken’s followers saw her condemnations as prophetic, a sure sign the apparitions were authentic.

Saint after saint came to Lueken: Robert Bellarmine, Teresa of Avila, Bernadette of Lourdes, Thomas Aquinas. The archangels Michael and Gabriel appeared as well, and even Jesus Christ himself. And as the visions multiplied, their targets expanded. Her vision on September 14, 1979, for instance, denounced popular music: “You must remove from your homes these diabolical agents of hell, the recordings of Lucifer, that will put into your child a spell, a hypnotism leading to promiscuity, deviant sex, homosexuality, drugs, murders, abortions, and all manner of foul deeds that could only be conceived in the mind of the prince of darkness, Lucifer himself.” The devil had infiltrated even the Church, according to Lueken, destroying the sacred liturgy and placing an “imposter pope” in Rome, a Satanic pretender substituted for Paul VI, leaving the Church without a true pope: sede vacante, “the seat empty.”

For a brief moment, Veronica Lueken seemed ready to capture the American imagination. She was profiled everywhere, from New York magazine to Rolling Stone. She was even consulted by a detective working on the Son of Sam murders, in hopes of eliciting some supernatural clues. At the height of her fame, Lueken’s followers wielded enough power to have the city government grant them a shrine at Flushing Meadow Park, where her team set up These Last Days Ministries, accompanied by a Lay Order of Saint Michael. Recordings, transcripts, books, and relics of the Bayside Seer proliferated.

In 1986, Bishop Mugavero finished his investigation and announced that “no credibility can be given to the so-called ‘apparitions’ reported by Veronica Lueken and her followers.” Indeed, “the messages and other related propaganda contain statements which, among other things, are contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church.” By that point, however, the movement was already in decline, and though it survives to this day, primarily as a website, Lueken’s death in 1995 at age seventy-three released most of her few remaining followers.

Lueken was only one of the self-proclaimed visionaries and mystics who attempted to reclaim the Church after Vatican II. The 1970s produced dozens of odd figures. Remember the demon hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren? Or the cult leader Francis Schuckardt? Or Clarence Kelly, who broke away to found the traditionalist Society of St. Pius V because Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre’s traditionalist Society of Pius X just wasn’t traditional enough?

And yet, though they were always intense and often bizarre, not all of them were from the lunatic fringe—as the curious case of Gommar De Pauw shows. Born in 1918, the son of a Belgian newspaper editor, De Pauw was an impressive figure. Drafted out of the seminary, he served as a combat medic with the Belgian infantry before being captured at Dunkirk. After his escape from a German POW camp, he was ordained (by special indult from the Holy See, recognizing Belgium’s state of emergency) at age twenty-three, the youngest priest in the world at the time. He promptly returned to the battlefield, serving as a military chaplain and winning awards for his courage.

After the war, he resumed his studies, taking a triple licentiate from the University of Louvain and, coming to America in 1949, a second doctorate from the Catholic University in Washington, D.C. John XXIII appointed him a peritus, an expert adviser, at Vatican II, and Paul VI elevated him to monsignor.

That was the high point of his harmony with the Church. Even before the council had finished, De Pauw had grown horrified by the proposed changes, particularly in the liturgy. In March 1965, he announced that the long fight for “truth and tradition” had begun. Time magazine reported: “At a Manhattan press conference last week, Father De Pauw argued that the American bishops had been bamboozled into accepting reform by a few liberal theologians . . . who have misrepresented the American Catholics and seduced the bishops in Rome.’ De Pauw hinted that these theological liberals were also flirting with heresy by downgrading the authority of the pope and devotion to Mary. To counteract these tendencies, he said, his movement is urging the bishops to limit the number of vernacular Masses and take a national referendum on Catholic opinion about the liturgical changes.”

Indeed, he declared in 1965, the changes of Vatican II have made the Mass “no longer the sacrament of Calvary but a song fest with the overtones of a hootenanny.” In 1970 he added that “liturgical beatniks” were “striving to de-Romanize the Catholic Church,” creating “the collective madness which has taken possession of our once Catholic Church in America.”

None of De Pauw’s fulminations sat well with his superior, Baltimore’s Cardinal Sheehan. But the war hero and peritus monsignor was hard to discipline, and through his friends in Rome, he was placed under the jurisdiction of a traditionalist-friendly bishop in Italy. In 1968, De Pauw established Ave Maria Chapel in Westbury, New York, advertised as the “only publicly functioning Traditionalist Catholic parish in the entire world.” For the next thirty-five years, he celebrated the Tridentine Mass each week, with some of his parishioners traveling over a hundred miles to attend. He edited a conservative journal, Sounds of Truth and Tradition, and produced a worldwide Sunday radio Mass.

Perhaps De Pauw’s greatest feat—one that few other hard traditionalists have been able to pull off—is that, through it all, he remained a priest in good standing with the Church. Certainly, he clashed with the hierarchy many times. At one point, only the unlikely intervention of an exiled Chinese bishop saved him. But he never had his priestly faculties removed, never fell into open schism, and never became a sedevacantist, asserting that the current pope was illegitimate. Indeed, for all his criticism of the post-conciliar Church, particularly the pontificate of Paul VI, De Pauw defended the papacy’s authority. In 1995, he disturbed rival traditionalists by mildly praising John Paul II during the pope’s visit to America.

Gommar De Pauw was perhaps the last of the old-style traditionalists: formed before Vatican II, brilliantly educated, fluent in Latin, and rooted in the European tradition. Nicholas Gruner might stand as a typical example of the new kind of traditionalist that emerged in the 1970s. Born in Canada in 1942, Gruner took as his great passion Our Lady of Fatima, the Marian apparitions to three Portuguese children in 1917. After his ordination in 1976, Father Gruner established Our Lady’s Fatima Apostolate in North America, publishing the first issue of his journal Fatima Crusader in 1978.

It was in the journal’s pages that he preached not only the central message of Fatima—repentance and conversion—but also the Virgin’s insistence that Soviet communism would spread unless Russia was consecrated to her immaculate heart. All the popes since 1917 had failed to do this, and everything from the Russian invasion of Afghanistan to the attempted assassination of John Paul II was proof that Fr. Gruner had correctly read the signs of the times.

The movement proved successful for a while. Fueled by volunteers and donations, Gruner took his International Fatima Rosary Crusade on the road, hauling along an enormous Pilgrim Virgin Statue. To date, he “has preached on the Fatima message in more than 500 cities and 30 countries,” according to his enthusiastic website.

None of this was obviously heretical, and much of it was praiseworthy. But, as with so many other traditionalists, Fr. Gruner couldn’t draw a line as he got closer and closer to the outer edge of orthodoxy. Like their twins on the Far Left, the traditionalists all had some hunger in them that made them push and push until somebody finally pushed back. Alarmed that Our Lady’s message was being suppressed, Gruner began openly quarreling with the hierarchy. Digging into the reason for the silence on Fatima, Gruner informed his readers that the cause was the infamous “Vatican-Moscow Pact,” a secret treaty signed during Vatican II, in which the Church agreed not to denounce communism (and therefore to soft-pedal the message of Fatima) in return for better treatment of Christians behind the Iron Curtain.

You might think the election of an anticommunist Pole as pope in 1978 would finish off such fantasies, but Gruner continued to inveigh against Church leaders for failing to obey Our Lady of Fatima. His magazine grew increasingly frustrated and even apocalyptic: Terrors and catastrophes awaited us all if the pope refused to heed the demands of heaven. Gruner’s followers assailed the Vatican with petitions, imploring the pope to consecrate Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary now—explaining why all previous papal consecrations had not meet the exact, precise, meticulous requirements of Our Lady.

Even a message from Sister Lucia dos Santos, the chief seer of Fatima—saying that John Paul II had performed the consecration in 1984 and God had accepted it—didn’t suffice. Gruner’s followers dismissed it as either a forgery or a lie to which Sr. Lucia had been forced by arm-twisting from the Vatican. The Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 was an illusion, Gruner insisted, and Russia’s evils would soon manifest themselves again. And what about that third secret of Fatima, finally released to the world by the Vatican in 2000? It was not the true or full third secret, and the Roman hierarchy had conspired yet again to muffle Our Lady’s voice.

With a résumé like this, Fr. Gruner was bound to fall afoul of Church authorities, and he finally did in 2001. After years of trying to find a bishop to protect his apostolate, he had his case referred to the Vatican, and the verdict came back: “The Congregation for the Clergy, upon the mandate from a higher authority, wishes to state that Rev. Nicholas Gruner is under an a divinis suspension.” It was a bitter blow for the priest, even as his followers resorted to legalistic arguments, as traditionalists always seem to end up doing, to claim the sentence was invalid.

Gruner continues his Fatima ministry to this day—pumping out the same fiery magazine, producing books and pamphlets, holding conferences and going on pilgrimages—though his status is, at the least, irregular. But he remains in the minds of his followers and himself a misunderstood oracle, persecuted for revealing God’s intentions for humanity, fearlessly proclaiming truths the craven prelates refuse to hear.


That charge—craven prelates, cowardly bishops—is something you hear over and over again in American Catholic circles. When, say, Saginaw’s Bishop Robert Carlson pronounces something against gay marriage, it is immediately ascribed to his fear of Rome. When Bishop Tod Brown urges Catholics in Orange County to approve same-sex civil unions, it too is blamed on fear, in this case of negative attention from California’s liberal press.

Rumors and conspiracy theories abound. Cardinal Law failed to act against priest-predators in Boston until the public revelations of 2002 forced his hand, and the real reason—it’s hard, in writing, to invest that phrase with the full, revelatory, explains-everything tone with which it is always pronounced—is that he was being blackmailed. Paul Shanley, the former Boston priest now in jail for child molestation, publicly called for legalizing sex with minors at a 1979 meeting of the North American Man-Boy Love Association, but when Cardinal Law arrived in Boston, he did nothing because (the conspiracy theorists insist) Shanley’s friends threatened to publish the names of all the homosexual priests in the archdiocese.

Of course, rumors sometimes do prove true. Before his 2002 resignation, Archbishop Rembert Weakland really had paid off a former student with “$45

0,000 in hush money,” according to a scoop in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. But true or false, the rumors all begin with the assumption of the American hierarchy’s failure. There’s a tone of contempt for the nation’s bishops you hear widely from Catholics in the United States: left or right, active or inactive, orthodox or heterodox. Even when particular bishops are praised, they are usually cast as exceptions—which is surely a sign of the general crisis of authority that afflicts American Catholicism. The Church lost something from the battles of the 1970s to the revelations of the priest scandals in 2002, and though Catholic culture in America may have begun its return, the institutional Church has yet to reclaim much of what it lost.

The 1990s did see some improvement. The Vatican had a glowing reputation in the United States for its role in the collapse of Soviet domination in Eastern Europe, Cardinal O’Connor was a figure of national stature, and even the Church’s old-fashioned political abilities seemed to come back—mostly through the intellectual and rhetorical power of Catholic natural-law analysis. And then came the revelations of the priest scandals.

In Washington, when the sex-abuse stories broke, it was like watching a building collapse. On December 1, 2001, Catholics were at the front of the fight against cloning: lobbying, testifying to Congress, mobilizing voters, setting the terms of the debate. Two months later, by February 1, 2002, Catholics had essentially disappeared. In the middle of the campaign to force an anti-cloning bill to come to the Senate floor, one bishop told me he didn’t dare lobby his senators, for fear they would answer, “Who the hell are you to lecture me on a moral issue?” and rupture their relations forever.

Twenty-five years of the prestige built up by John Paul II and Mother Teresa drained away in an instant. And at every moment since, whenever the bishops have tried to influence public affairs, there has been someone ready to remind us of their sins. In October 2004, Denver’s archbishop Charles Chaput encouraged Catholics to vote against pro-abortion politicians, and Maureen Dowd immediately used her column in the New York Times to denounce “the shepherds of a Church whose hierarchy bungled the molestation and rape of so many young boys by tolerating it, covering it up, enabling it, excusing it, and paying hush money.” How dare they debate “whether John Kerry should be allowed to receive communion”?

The pro-life movement was not exempt from this disdain for the bishops. In his interesting 1997 study, The Smoke of Satan: Conservative and Traditionalist Dissent in Contemporary American Catholicism, Michael Cuneo documents pro-lifers’ increasing willingness to criticize the bishops publicly: “For the first decade or so following the Roe ruling, the bishops were more outspoken on abortion, and more actively engaged in fighting it, than the Catholic leadership of virtually any country in the Western world . . . . By the early 1980s, however, this close connection between movement and hierarchy was starting to show signs of strain.”

Much of the anger focused on the archbishop of Chicago, Joseph Bernardin, who issued a call, during a 1983 speech at Fordham University, for Catholics to make the fight against abortion part of a “seamless garment” or “consistent ethic” of social action. To pro-life activists, Cuneo notes, “it seemed that the cardinal was beating a strategic retreat from the anti-abortion position.” The reform-minded Bernardin was, at the time, perhaps the most influential bishop in America: a leader of the Catholic conference in Washington, a man regularly consulted by the Vatican before its appointments of new bishops in the United States, and a favorite of many politicians. But the pro-life movement was furious with him, and since his death in 1996, his reputation has been in decline.

The weakening of respect for the bishops’ authority had many causes. Broad sociological factors certainly played a role: the suburbanizing of the old ethnic communities, for example, and the rising suspicion of any authority since the end of World War II. Broad ecclesiastical factors did their share as well. Archbishop Gerety claimed the leftist Call to Action was “a good indication of what the people in this country are feeling,” while Monsignor De Pauw insisted a national referendum would vindicate his traditionalism. But, in truth, American Catholics generally reacted to the changes after Vatican II with a great shrug—the Great Shrug. If so much had changed today, who knows what will change tomorrow?

Meanwhile, the bishops did not help their own situation. The scandals that broke in 2002 overwhelmingly concerned crimes that had happened during the 1970s and 1980s, at the peak of a peculiar diffidence that had captured the diocesan offices. With so many priests leaving the priesthood, how could the hierarchy crack down on the ones who remained? Besides, after all the dissent on birth control, the bishops seemed embarrassed at the Church’s apparent failure to be modern—and the best modern opinion at the time told them that deviant sexuality in the clergy required psychiatric treatment rather than old theological categories such as sin and penance.

The best legal opinion, as well. Lawyers for the Church in those days consistently argued for psychiatric treatments and bureaucratic reassignments, fearing that any ecclesiastical punishment would be an admission of institutional guilt. As the situation grew more and more ungovernable, many bishops seemed to retreat to their role as businessmen in charge of major financial institutions and concerned primarily with public relations and legal liabilities. Ecclesially and theologically, that was a horrendous decision, and its huge costs—more than a billion dollars since 2002 in judgments and settlements for priestly abuse—prove it an equally bad financial decision. It is not even good business to concentrate solely on business.

The strangeness of American politics added yet another layer of confusion. Through the 1980s, the majority of American bishops were Democrats—not surprisingly, given that they were drawn from the generations of American Catholics for whom membership in the Democratic party seemed almost a byproduct of baptism and confirmation.

And yet, while Catholics were still Democrats, Democrats were increasingly less Catholic. In 1971, Fred Dutton—an organizer of Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign and a major figure in the party—published Changing Sources of Power: American Politics in the 1970s. As the young historian Mark Stricherz notes, “The book acknowledged that ‘the Catholic vote’ had consistently supported Democratic presidential candidates since the 1930s. Even so, it contended, the ‘party’s political self-interest’ lay in appealing to other constituencies: ‘The net effect of these groups in relation to the dynamic of social change has become vastly different from thirty or sixty years ago.’“

Dutton would go on to guide the 1972 McGovern Commission, which effectively transferred power in the Democratic-party conventions from the mostly Catholic blue-collar unions and urban political machines to the upper-middle-class enclaves of the Northeast and the special-interest groups of feminists and minorities. And that, in turn, would lead to the end of the special relationship between the party and Catholicism. Despite the late appearance of the Catholic Sargent Shriver as the Democrats’ vice-presidential nominee in 1972, Catholics began deserting the party to vote for Nixon. In the Reagan victories of 1980 and 1984, they increased their flight. And by the elections of 2000 and 2004, Catholics showed no particular party affiliation at all.

There was a long period after 1972, however, in which the bishops were stretched further and further by the changed Democratic party. The new convention platforms made no concessions on any traditional Catholic issue—tax breaks for parochial schools, abortion, euthanasia, church-state relations—but an old marriage such as the one between Catholics and the Democratic party doesn’t end in an instant, and the bishops were tugged along in their attempts to remain progressives in good standing with the party.

As Kennedy-era Democrats, they were, for example, embarrassed by the old Tom Dooley kind of support that Catholics had given the Vietnam War. (Hadn’t it once been thought a war against godless communism, led by a Catholic administration in Vietnam?) So, too, as members of a patriarchal institution, the bishops seemed helpless in the face of the moral authority claimed by the feminists from the 1970s on. The trouble, really, was that the bishops wanted to go along with the turn to the Left, and their inability to do so on the life issues only made them hunger, all the more, to join the leftists on other issues. While the general Catholic population was slowly moving right, many of the bishops were quickly running left—and it ended up making them look even more like political partisans than they had back in their powerful moments with the 1950s Democratic party.

All these factors contributed to the decline of the bishops’ reputation, and as their authority faltered, they increasingly hesitated to use it. The effect continues to this day. Take a close look at nearly any diocese in America, and you’ll see elements of a new Catholic culture emerging. But it remains consistently thinner than any Catholicism the nation has ever known before, and one of the reasons is that it lacks much of a role for the local bishop. In Orange County, for example, the crisis of authority has grown to become the single most apparent fact about the entire diocese.


Up Highway 73, twenty miles or so from San Juan Capistrano, there’s a little church called St. Mary’s by the Sea. It varies architecturally from other churches in the diocese: a white clapboard chapel with an enclosed wooden porch—a house, really, distinguished from its Huntington Beach neighbors only by the small cross atop its green roof. But in most ways, St. Mary’s seems a typical Catholic parish. Or typical, anyway, for Orange County.

The area has changed since it was known as Reagan Country, the Republicans’ suburban bastion between Los Angeles and San Diego. Three million people now live in the county, more than a third of them Catholic: 186,147 registered households in fifty-eight parishes. The influx of Hispanics has altered the religious mix of the entire state, but Orange County has, as well, a large Catholic Vietnamese population. The latest class of priests “represents the cultural diversity and the multicultural ministry that are the hallmarks of the Diocese of Orange,” proclaimed a press release from Bishop Tod Brown’s office in June 2006. In fact, cultural diversity was the least obvious characteristic, as two of the three newly ordained priests were Vietnamese.

Geographically compact, Orange County is nonetheless like most dioceses in this country, with its good, its bad, and its indifferent elements jumbled together. Who can sort them out? There are some nice, average, little American parishes: St. Joseph’s out in Santa Ana, for instance, a gray Spanish castle with the red-tile roof almost obligatory for California, a drab but functional interior, and a grade school nearby. And there are the usual fading communities of habitless nuns—historical preservations of the 1970s’ goopier moments: the Sisters of St. Joseph, for instance, with their low-slung Center for Spiritual Development, who protested against President Bush in August 2006 by announcing they would “join together in a dance of universal peace.”

The diocese even has its equivalent of a mega-church. In expectation of the separation of Orange from the archdiocese of Los Angeles, St. Columban’s in Garden Grove was built in 1967 as a kind of proto-cathedral, seating fifteen hundred. But when the diocese was finally established in 1976, the first bishop, William Johnson, chose instead the four-hundred-seat Holy Family Church as his cathedral, leaving St. Columban’s as an oversize oddity: six thousand registered families, and ten thousand people at its Sunday Masses. Bishop Brown had plans to build a large new cathedral, akin to Cardinal Mahony’s recent post-modern cathedral in Los Angeles, but the 2005-payment to victims of clerical abuse in Orange-County—$100 million, the largest-settlement so far—reportedly scaled back the construction.

Meanwhile, the Norbertine Fathers have prospered with their Silverado abbey and school in the eastern foothills of the diocese. Established in 1958 by refugees from Eastern Europe, St. Michael’s Priory was floundering until it took the plunge into modern times, embracing John Paul II’s reading of Vatican II and adopting as its motto “not rejecting what is good in the old, and taking what is good in the new.” The canonry now has forty-three priests and twenty-four candidates preparing for the priesthood.

That’s not to say everyone applauds. One Call to Action activist recently denounced the success of the Norbertines as a stumbling block to reform, a group of angry traditionalists attacked them for allowing the adopted child of homosexuals to attend the school, and the attitude of diocesan officials seems, at the least, ambivalent. But their chant-laden, half-Latin services are reverent and handsome, and the priory’s Masses are overflowing. Indeed, according to the abbey newsletter, St. Michael’s will soon be moving to larger buildings, since “each year the abbey turns away vocations and the school turns away qualified students due to lack of space.”

Down on the beach, only thirty miles west of St. Michael’s, St. Mary’s by the Sea might be in a different country. New pastors sometimes forget that, unless things are very bad, parishioners hate change; they want their church as it was to be their church as it is. But when he arrived as the parish administrator in 2005, Father Martin Tran immediately launched into reform, beginning with the elimination of the Sunday morning Latin Mass his predecessor had said for years. Nearly all the three hundred parishioners who regularly attended that Mass, one fifth of the parish, promptly left—many of them badly catechized enough to head off to Our Lady Help of Christians in Grove City, a strange little schismatic chapel whose only attraction appears to be its Tridentine rite.

Worse may be what happened with the parishioners who frequented the English Masses. The diocese has always had something of an anything-goes reputation: Native American blessings offered at San Juan Capistrano, liturgical dance at St. Angela Merici, interreligious services in consecrated spaces—all in a diocese with regular Latin Masses and the Norbertines’ abbey as well. Fr. Tran, however, was determined to change his mildly traditionalist parish into a fully liberal one, and, armed with memos from the diocesan office, he decided to outlaw kneeling at Mass.

By the time the Los Angeles Times got hold of the story—with an embarrassing front-page spread in the May 28, 2006, issue—”at least two altar boys, the parish altar-servers coordinator, and three members of the parish council” had been “dismissed from their duties for kneeling at the wrong time.” The situation soon grew even more envenomed. There were parishioners who weren’t just kneeling but kneeling with intent—to embarrass their pastor and his supporters. And there were other parishioners who were refusing to kneel in the same way—to be noticed, to make a comment, to take a stand.

One pratfall followed another. Fr. Tran used the church bulletin to thunder that his flock was in “rebellion, grave disobedience, and mortal sin,” and the kneelers issued at least fifteen different flyers to parishioners and enlisted Catholic bloggers to mock their pastor on the Web. In response, he sent letters to fifty-five parishioners, ordering them to stay away. Only last-minute intervention by a worried lawyer in the parish kept Fr. Tran from handing out a church bulletin that listed the fifty-five names. Not that it helped him much, for the incensed parishioners found the discarded copies in the trash and promptly distributed them.

When Bishop Tod Brown finally got around to addressing the situation, it had deteriorated beyond easy repair. Brown had come out of St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, California—not the best sign for a contemporary bishop, as more than 10 percent of the graduates since 1950 have been accused of sexual molestation, including a third of the classes of 1966 and 1972. Nonetheless, he seems by most accounts a steady leader: a little squishy on homosexuality, maybe, and more than a little unwilling to deal with doctrinal disputes and irregularities at Mass. His very public distribution of Communion to the pro-abortion congresswoman Loretta Sanchez at Servite High School in 2004—and his allowing her to campaign from local pulpits—caused real agitation in the diocese. Still, Brown had finished his first posting as bishop, in Boise, Idaho, with the reputation of someone who could reorganize financially troubled institutions, and it was always as a responsible administrator that he presented himself.

Certainly, that’s how he is known to his California friends, particularly Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles and Cardinal Levada, formerly the archbishop of San Francisco and now prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with whom he regularly vacations. The $100 million settlement for abuse cases he signed in January 2005 proves, once again, the bad business of paying attention only to business, but Orange County has at least put a ceiling on the costs of the pending lawsuits.

In the end, though, you can see the limits of a bishop who acts primarily as an administrator, detached from the feeling in his diocese, with Brown’s April 2006 visit to St. John the Baptist in Costa Mesa—where he was caught on videotape yanking repeatedly at a woman kneeling before him, tugging on her arm and blouse to get her to stand.

You can see it even more in the saga of Rod Stephens. Father Rod was prominent for years in Orange County: director of the liturgical office that issued the anti-kneeling memos, head of evangelization for the diocese, organizer of the Jubilee 2000 project, the bishop’s expert on architectural renovation, and a man appearing openly at events with his male escort. “What do you want from me?” Bishop Brown plaintively asked when local Catholics objected—and when they asked if he was responsible for Stephens’ behavior as a priest, the tired bishop insisted, “No, I’m not.”

Or, at least, that’s what the angry parishioners say happened at their September 2001 meeting with the bishop. To follow the Rod Stephens story is to suffer a kind of motion-sickness, your sympathies batted back and forth until you have no sympathy left for anyone.

You start outraged at a priest who cohabits so blatantly that he sends out Christmas cards that read, “For Chanukah, Christmas, and the New Year, All the Best: From Our Digs to Yours, Howard and Rod.” But then you learn that it all came out because his own family snitched on him to the conservative Catholic press. Your outrage returns when you find out his family had approached him privately first, and he told them, “The bishop knows about it and so does Cardinal Mahony, and they approve.” But your teeth start to ache when you discover the relatives went on to hire a private detective to dig up dirt on the priest. And then you see that the dirt included $10,000-a-ticket vacation cruises taken by Fr. Rod and his companion.

Along the way, you are exposed to moments like the reported explanation, from the bishop’s notoriously foot-in-mouth spokesman, that if the diocese tried to control its actively homosexual clergy, “there would be so few priests left we’d have to turn it over to lay people to run it.” Or the memo from diocesan officials during Fr. Stephens’ tenure that insisted teen-chastity programs are suitable only for “homeschoolers and fundamentalists.” Or the right-wing protesters, complete with banners, who paraded for photographers in front of the bishop’s residence. Or the letter from the vocations director of the diocese, which denounced Mother Angelica’s EWTN television network for “religious intolerance and arrogance” and labeled the Franciscan University of Steubenville, a conservative Catholic college in Ohio, “a pathetic organization of bitter people.”

On and on the story goes, the whole thing enough to make you want to crawl into bed and pull the covers over your head. This is Catholic life in America? This is Catholic culture? In 2004, Stephens left the priesthood. The old-boy network kicked in and found him a consulting position at San Juan Capistrano, but he was never a good fit. The mission aims at historical accuracy, while Stephens tends toward the modern stripping-of-the-altars style you can see, for instance, in the work he did at Sacred Heart, a church in nearby Ocean Beach. And once upset parishioners started reporting that the ex-priest was receiving $300 an hour from parish funds, the mission and the diocese quickly retreated, insisting Stephens had been involved only in a “preparatory committee meeting.”

The man is still around on the fringes of Catholic life in Southern California. Though he chose his lifestyle over his Church, the priesthood is not something one ever exactly gets over. Catholic fiction used to be filled with the character of a “spoilt priest,” a broken figure who had somehow ruined the vocation that continues to haunt him. It isn’t a category that people talk about much anymore, but it sometimes still seems to fit.

You could find Rod Stephens in, for instance, the news reports about Jane Via, one of the women ordained by Roman Catholic Womenpriests (the group that had a brief media swirl in August 2006 for its attempted creation of eight priestesses on a charted boat cruise in Pittsburgh). When she returned to California to hold her first service, at her side, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune, was Rod Stephens, “who resigned his faculties as a Roman Catholic priest in the Orange County diocese in 2004 but still considers himself a priest.”

There’s something sad about that line, like a character in, maybe, a James T. Farrell novel, defrocked and disgraced, who after a few drinks starts to mumble about how, by God, he doesn’t care what anybody says, he’s still a priest—louder and louder, while the anxious barmaid maneuvers him toward the door. But maybe the greater sadness is how dated the entire situation in Orange County seems. The whole diocese has a fossilized, fly-in-amber feeling to it.

And yet, well—what is the solution? A few years ago, I was out in Southern California, visiting a school in Orange County. I can’t remember the name of the parish to which the students took me for Mass, but what has stayed with me ever since is the conversation as they drove me back to the hotel. Talk about the homily’s content didn’t interest them; even talk about the homily’s lack of content didn’t interest them. “I just kind of tune it out,” the driver said, and the others all agreed. “I just go to church for confession, to pray, and to take Communion,” added the young woman in the back. “At least the priests can do that.”

These were serious Catholic kids—daily communicants, pro-life marchers, soup-kitchen volunteers, members of perpetual-adoration societies. They were showing off a little for their guest, no doubt: taking stronger positions than they actually feel, arguing for the joy of arguing, the way college students do. It was revealing, however, that when one of them shyly mentioned the Tridentine Mass at the renegade chapel in Garden Grove, the others shouted her down.

Sure, they agreed, pretty Masses are better than ugly ones, and they all preferred high-churchy smells and bells to guitar services and liturgical dance: the things their parents’ generation, poor souls, fondly imagined would “engage today’s youth.” But the radical traditionalists seemed cut from the same cloth as the radical revisionists—and the students dismissed all that kind of 1970s stuff as simultaneously boring and infuriating: the self-obsession and self-glorification of the two sides that, between them, had wrecked Catholic culture in this country. We live with a million aborted babies a year, daily scandals of corruption in the Church, millions of uncatechized Catholic children, and this is what those tired old biddies are still squabbling over?

“You remember how, you know, the old hippie types used to say, ‘Never trust anyone over thirty’? Well, they were right. Only it was their own generation they were talking about,” the thin, quiet one in the back announced as we pulled up to the hotel. “You can see it clearly out here in California. That whole generation of Catholics in America, basically everybody formed before 1978, is screwed up. Left, Right, whatever . . . . The best of them were failures, and the worst of them were monsters.”


There’s something disturbing about that line, although one hears it often enough. Last year, a young seminarian used a version to dismiss the revelations of the priest scandals—day after day of news reports about heart-wrenching vileness: “Yes, yes,” he told me, “it was sickening and evil, but what did anybody expect? Those are just the worst examples of everything that generation did wrong.”

This quick, irritated impatience seems common in the emerging Catholic culture. You find it in the parishioners of the Polish Dominicans working at Columbia University, and in the conservatives gathered around the political theorist Robert George at Princeton. For that matter, it is present among the graduate students at such places as Notre Dame and Boston College, and among the younger theology professors around the country. The public figures of the new culture—the Catholic lawyers, magazine writers, and think-tank analysts—have it in spades: an intolerance, an exasperation, with everything that preoccupied an entire generation of American Catholics.

For the development of a new Catholicism, this doesn’t look the most-promising start. Rich local cultures may produce great works, but few people in the United States have that kind of cultural wealth anymore. Certainly not many Catholics. The number of Americans who grew up in a profoundly Catholic setting is smaller than it ever has been before—which creates a problem for a new culture. If Catholicism is something elected rather than received, can Catholics achieve what earlier cultures did?

Their children, perhaps, will come from a thick-enough world that they can write the kind of strong Catholic novels, make the kind of strong Catholic art, prior ages knew. But in the meantime, a rebellion against rebellion doesn’t escape the problems of rebellion, and a chosen tradition is never quite the same as an inherited one.

Still, in at least one sense, these Catholics seem right to reject the battles of the recent past. The greatest work of John Paul II may prove his reintegration of Vatican II into the history of the Catholic Church: a swerve, a changing of the trajectory that both sides in the 1970s had assumed could not be altered. Far too many in those days believed the Second Vatican Council had definitively broken the Catholic Church from its past. Whether they wept or cheered, whether they were traditionalists or spirit-of-Vatican-II reformers, they acted as though the new Church were no longer in continuity with the old Church.

In serious Catholic intellectual circles, at least, who makes that assumption of discontinuity anymore? Patristics has returned as a prestigious field for graduate students, philosophical analysis routinely grapples with St. Thomas Aquinas again, and literary criticism has begun once more to work with something like a canon of Catholic books. What’s more, the centrality to the new culture of the moral stand against abortion has the great benefit of turning the energy back out toward the world—the call to action that Paul VI demanded, finally answered after thirty-five years.

It would be an exaggeration to say opposition to abortion was the sole signal that a Catholic culture could return to the United States. The enthusiasm and hopefulness created when John Paul II became pope in 1978 was vital. With the entire world’s media following in his charismatic wake, with even Southern Baptists cheering that the Church had a “pope who sure knows how to pope,” it was hard not to feel that perhaps, after all, being Catholic signaled something—distinctive.

Then, too, there was the intellectual base—the sense that membership in the Church actually had content—that came with the completion in 1992 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Catechism remains indispensable, John Paul II later insisted, “in order that all the richness of the teaching of the Church following the Second Vatican Council could be preserved in a new synthesis and be given a new direction.”

At the time, these signals of something new were often seen through the worn old 1970s lenses. With the Catechism came the predictable rejections, like the galvanic twitchings of irritated nerves. Father Thomas J. Reese of the Jesuit journal America cried, “Is a catechism for the universal church necessary or possible? . . . Can any statement of the Christian faith stand outside of history and culture?” And from the Right, Michel Simoulin of the schismatic Society of Saint Pius X raged, “The Catechism of the Catholic Church is . . . not Catholic. It expresses the conciliar ecstasy before the splendor of man and can only seduce the poor Christians severed for the past thirty years from all serious doctrinal formation.”

And yet, even back then, now more than a decade ago, most of these attacks on John Paul II and the Catechism had a sadly dated feel. Left or right, the criticisms missed the curve in the road, as though they were determined to follow the old trajectory off the cliff while the rest of the Church swung off in a new direction.

This is not to say everything is suddenly rosy. The American hierarchy has recovered little of the respect it once possessed, the bricks-and-mortar institutional Church in the United States will continue to suffer from the payouts for the priest scandals, and many Catholic colleges and hospitals seem locked in the bad decisions they made during the 1970s about their self-definition and future. Any analysis that shows brightness among American Catholics can be inverted to show plenty of darkness.

But consider how things used to be. A few years ago, the journalist Robert Blair Kaiser published Clerical Error: A True Story, a book that accused Fr. Malachi Martin of seducing his wife and breaking up his marriage during the Second Vatican Council. Kaiser was a correspondent for Time magazine, while Martin was the private secretary of Cardinal Bea in Rome. Kaiser needed help with technical points of Catholicism and Roman intrigue, and Martin needed—well, according to Kaiser, Martin needed an entry into American publishing, an outlet for Vatican rumors he wanted printed, and a chance at Kaiser’s wife.

Clerical Error is an odd book, its authorial self-obsession and downright weirdness making its accusations hard to believe. But as a description of that generation, it really can’t be bettered. Before his death in 1999, Martin would move to New York and become a bestselling traditionalist of ambiguous clerical standing. Kaiser would go on to publish volume after volume: each demanding ever-more-unlikely reforms, each raging against the Church for its failure to be sufficiently like Robert Blair Kaiser. If this is what Catholicism was like in those days, we are better off without it.

Late this spring, a friend called from Orange County, chattering excitedly about how she had just seen a swallow at the Mission San Juan Capistrano. Only one, and she couldn’t find where it had made its nest. Still, there it was, flittering through the ruins of the Great Stone Church with the strange, carefree flight the birds always seem to have: a smooth coasting, interrupted with sudden swoops and sideslips, like a hang-glider with the hiccups. “Maybe they will return,” she said. “Maybe they really will.” All the mission bells will ring, / The chapel choir will sing, / When the swallows come back to Capistrano.

Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things.

First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

Click here to make a donation.

Click here to subscribe to First Things. 

Image by The Catholic University of America via Creative Commons. Image cropped.