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There is a saying, variously attributed, that journalism is the first rough draft of history. There is some truth to this, even in an age when much of what passes for journalism is “fake news.” Reading newspapers published several decades ago—especially looking beyond the main headlines, at minor stories and advertising—gives us a sense of the culture of a particular time, and helps us place past and current events in historical perspective.

For Catholics who wish to look back on the revolutionary changes that took place in the Church in the 1960s, one online resource offers compelling reading (and a better way to waste time on the internet than The Huffington Post or Buzzfeed). The Catholic News Archive, which began in 2011, is collated by the Catholic Research Resources Alliance. Browsing the Catholic News Archive, you’ll notice how much things have changed—and not always for the better.

One great and sudden change in Catholic life concerned regulations for fasting and abstinence. A 1959 issue of Catholic Action of the South, the archdiocesan newspaper for New Orleans, outlines the rules for 1959-1960, which seem stringent to most Catholics today: They include abstinence from meat on all Fridays of the year and certain other occasions, and fasting on all weekdays of Lent and certain other days. In 1966, the U.S. bishops released a pastoral statement on penance and abstinence that terminated the traditional law of abstinence from meat on Fridays. On the front page of the February 23, 1968 issue of The Voice, the newspaper for the diocese of Miami, one sees a small box outlining the simplified regulations: fasting and abstinence on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Abstinence on the other Fridays of Lent is “recommended”; attending weekday Mass or performing other personal acts of penance is “urged.” As explained elsewhere in the paper: “While the Bishops have given us definite guidelines to follow in the matter of Lenten penance, and these may not be lightly disregarded, still the individual can and should judge for himself whether he has valid reason to be excused from these precepts.” This guidance seems like a first rough draft of the present Catholic practice of excusing ourselves from most disciplinary precepts, including those pertaining to fasting and abstinence.

In early 1963, Catholic Action of the South transitioned from its old name and format to the simpler (and less obviously Catholic) Clarion Herald. Archbishop John Cody of New Orleans was very ambitious in his plans for the paper, which he compared with the local mainstream media in his editorial on February 28, 1963: “The Clarion Herald is not in competition with these media. Rather it visualizes its role as working in harmony with the general press to provide for its readers a more complete view of life—the religious focus. It will be in competition with only two things: religious ignorance and moral wrongdoing.”

Cody stressed a dividing line between official Church pronouncements and the freedom the Catholic press should enjoy: “In discussing religious matters on which the authority of the Church permits differing opinions, it will be the policy of this paper to promote free discussion and to refrain from identifying any single viewpoint as the only orthodox belief.”

With all the revolutionary changes taking place, it wasn’t long before the Clarion Herald started “promot[ing] free discussion” and “permit[ting] differing opinions” on religious matters. A front-page story in the March 7 issue that year reported critically on the Catholic University of America’s exclusion of four priests from a lecture series—one of them the still-controversial Hans Küng. The paper also featured a collection of editorials from other Catholic newspapers attacking Catholic University’s decision.

The first rough draft of history these newspapers display to readers now, a half-century or so later, is both enlightening and ominous: We can see how we got to where we are now, with Catholics broadly excusing themselves from disciplinary precepts, and Catholic media often refraining from defending orthodox belief. Yet we can also observe that the pendulum has begun to swing back a little toward tradition. The experiments of the 1960s have either disappeared or settled in, for good or ill. We have lost much since then—and I’m not just referring to the ads for Studebakers—but we have held onto some things as well. Catholic University still has not given in to the likes of Hans Küng.

The Catholic News Archive is incomplete at present—with no records from September 1959 to January 1962, for example, and only a handful of papers hosted. My home archdiocese, St. Louis, is represented only by one issue, from 1832, a poor showing for a city known as the “Rome of the West.” Our seminary was, however, featured in a 1965 story in San Francisco’s The Monitor about changes granting seminarians more freedom, including dropping the rule of silence between night prayer and the end of breakfast, and allowing the use of electronic equipment—but not TVs!—in the seminarians’ rooms.

One can hope that the Catholic Research Resources Alliance will have success in expanding the archive, and in scanning and cleaning up the text of the issues they offer. The Catholic News Archive reminds us of the Church’s turbulent past, and gives us perspective on its present and future.

K. E. Colombini is a former journalist who works in corporate communications.

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