Dreaming the 1940’s Church

1 03 2010

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The Intentional Disciples blog is a site that I have grown to love to hate. For one thing, I profoundly dislike it’s a-cultural, “conservative” approach to Catholicism: some post-Vatican II homogenization of Faith to the lowest common denominator. There is an attitude there of “hey, if some bishop said it’s okay, it must be okay…” It is also permeated with the error, traceable to Newman and the modernists, that whatever is “vibrant” is true: better something fervent and alive than something “true” and declining. The general ethos of the blog is that the “Third World” is somehow going to save the Church because it has a vibrant Faith, and not necessarily one that passé First World Christianity understand.

While I am ambivalently sympathetic with that idea, I, as a Catholic who has the burden of some formation, also have to say that it is off-kilter on a very important level. You see, I grew up with that “Third World” Catholicism. We lived with my grandparents growing up, and they were Catholic charismatics who read that crummy liberation theology Bible that includes in its pages, pictures of peasants, workers, and Dr. Martin Luther King himself (not that I mean any disrespect to Dr. King, but his picture does not belong as an illustration in a Catholic Bible). So while the authors at Intentional Disciples dream of the gatherings of brown and black peoples possessed by the Spirit, I remember such gatherings as traumatic experiences. What business does an eight year old have watching some woman go into speaking in tongues while praying the rosary in Spanish? All I wanted to go was get out of there, and to this day the words, “grupo de oración” make me nervous.

So yes, I will readily admit that that is the course Catholicism will probably take at least in Latin America. But does truth have anything to do with it? Was that woman speaking in tongues really possessed by the Holy Ghost? If I were some conservative American Catholic with a blog, I might be possessed to think of her as some sort of religious noble sauvage in the style of Rousseau: someone more in touch with the divine because she is neither white, suburban, nor middle class. Pardon me if I think such idealizing is a sort of reverse racism. But as I have described previously, this is a very American thing to do anyway.

Nevertheless, this website does provide good reading, and is one of the few that speaks about Catholicism as it is manifested amongst non-white people. A recent post entitled A People Without a History took on the idea that the post-World War II boom in the Catholic Church was normal or healthy. The animus of her post was directed against John Zmirak’s recent article on Inside Catholic where he asked:

What faithful Catholic wouldn’t, if he could right now, wave a magic wand and swap the American church of 2010 for that of 1940 — with all its acknowledged abuses and hidden worldliness? I’ll take the blustering Cardinal Spellman over the scheming Archbishop Weakland any day.

To this, a blogger on the Intentional Disciples site responded:

1940: the year that the Nazis marched into Catholic France and Belgium? The year when the whole world hovered on the edge of a cataclysm that was going to take 60 million lives and throw Christian Europe into an abyss from which it has never really recovered? The year that Maximilian Kolbe was hiding 2,000 Jews in his Franciscan community? 1940: The year of despair for millions and millions of Catholics in France, Belgium, Germany, Poland, and Italy. That 1940? Innumerable promising Catholic leaders and movements were crushed when the Nazis, and later, the Communists marched in. How many Catholics lost their faith in the midst of that unimaginable horror?…

Or are we talking about the real American 1940 when Catherine Doherty was battling for the most minimal baptismal rights for black Catholics – like being allowed to attend local parishes, go to Catholic schools and universities, etc? Most Catholic parishes and Institutions reflected the deep, unreflective racism of the surrounding culture – even toward fellow Catholics. (One vivid anecdote: In the late 40’s, Catherine Doherty was attacked and had her clothes torn off her by a group of white Catholic women in Georgia when she challenged them on this issue. She was rescued by the black janitor.) The Church teaches that racism is an “intrinsic evil” and in 1940, it was just as wide-spread among Catholics as anyone else.

The Berkeley-trained social intellectual in me of course applauds this re-reading of 1940’s Catholicism, one that gives “voice to the oppressed”. One should not think of Catholicism in terms of how it manifested itself in the context of the post-World War II economic boom, but how it is manifesting itself today and in the rest of history. But even few “conservative” churchmen saw the pre-Vatican II church as “healthy”, particularly in Europe. Indeed, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre himself thought that the Church was very much in need of reforming in the late 1950’s, and even implemented many of the suggestions of the Second Vatican Council in the religious houses that he ran. The embattled Bishop Richard Williamson of the SSPX has vehemently attacked the “Sound of Music” Catholicism of the 1950’s. Some of the most insightful thoughts on this subject came from, of all places, a sedevacantist bishop:

The traditional Masses, even in the Society, are not how Mass was back in the old days at all. I remember giving a sermon on the pros and cons of the Indult when it came to town. I actually went to see it. As soon as I stepped into this Church — it was an experience. It was so eerie. You know, nostalgic Catholics come to Mass with us for the first time and they weep. “This takes me back to my childhood.” That’s a big factor in all of this… faulty memory. But it is a part of your life you can relive, part of your childhood — the Latin Mass. People don’t make it for the long run just on that alone, but for the short run they are really happy for a while. But when I went to that Indult church it took me back to my childhood in a really eerie way, in a way that I have never experienced in any traditional chapel anywhere in the world. There was this mumbling, this rushing around the altar, gothic vestments flying, that even the old independent priests, like Fr. Wickens, didn’t capture. It was weird. It made me realize, this memory, that maybe it wasn’t such a good thing what was going on back then. It obviously needed to be reformed somehow. It was the sort of change or reform that you would get by bringing in the Redemptorists or the Passionists or somebody like that.

So I would not put all of the animus against the traditionalists, for many of them know that the Church of 1940 was not ideal in the institutional sense. What do I think? I don’t believe in golden ages just like I don’t believe in the tooth fairy. I think the Church faces some pretty insurmountable obstacles today, and just letting those crazy old kids do whatever they want (the liturgical and theological chaos that permeates much of Catholicism, First and Third World) because it makes them feel good and keeps them in the pews may not be “preaching the Gospel” at all, but just an exercise in postmodern consumeristic narcissism. And it doesn’t matter what their skin color happens to be. If people start talking of a Catholicism rooted in the “spirit”, without discipline or the unnecessary “cultural accretions” of the past, my only counsel is, “head for the hills” because those people have just turned Catholicism into an exercise in institutionalized group-think. And God knows we don’t need another version of that going around, Catholic or not.



4 responses

5 03 2010
James Dominic James

Let’s say you’re Winston Smith in1984. Would there be glossolalia or Christian rock in Room 101? Blah gurgle blah blah or hot bitchin’ Petra? Feel my flow, girl.

The skeptic in me is too hung up on crowd psychology and suggestion to give in on Tonguesworld, I’ll admit. Maybe that’s my loss.

If Tonguesworld happened in early Christian communities, and even in the life of St. Paul, does that make it good? If Scripture reports St. Paul thinking this stuff is from the Holy Spirit, does that mean the truth that the Holy Spirit wants to communicate by means of Scripture is that St. Paul was correct in his judgment? What procedure do we follow in order to answer that question?

2 03 2010


I just read your posts and it reminded me of something I’ve always said: “Part of being a Traditionalist is having respect for other Traditions.” The way I see it, it’s simply a natural side-effect from being solidly “in yours,” that it’s hard not to be able to respect people who are just as solidly “in theirs.” (I hope that makes sense; but trust me, I’m not spouting relativism.)

From your description of what a “Renegade Trad” is (i.e. the blurb in your blog’s header), you sound fairly close to my own position about the Trad and Neocon movements, and at some point I’d like to dialogue with you about that. In the meantime, please allow me to add you to my blogroll.

1 03 2010
1 03 2010

What’s your oppinion on Newman (I take it you meant Card. Newman)?

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