Abandoned in a Toxic Culture: How We Failed the New Generation

Twenty-eight years ago, I published a book called A New Generation: American and Catholic, and a little later served as advisor to a new national student publication founded by a senior at Holy Cross College, Charles Crofton, called A New Generation. This brave journal was taken over in its second year by Peter and Peggy Steinfels, then newly arrived in New York.

All that now seems very long ago—for the generations come and go, and so does the establishment they challenge. For example, Mrs. Steinfels, now doing a splendid job as editor of The Commonweal, has recently described our existing ecclesiastical establishment as “the party of change,” which at present dominates such fields as “liturgy, catechetics and religious education, justice and peace offices, campus ministries, much of the administration of Catholic higher education and social services, much though not all popular spirituality, [and] the discipline of theology as a whole.”

In the years prior to and just after the Vatican Council the ecclesiastical establishment was dramatically different; it could by no means have been called “the party of change.” It prided itself on its clear, logical fidelity to “eternal verities” and “sacred traditions,” and it had sharp ears for subtle tones of heresy and a sharp nose for suspicious novelties. In those days, even to announce a “new” generation was to be regarded as giving evidence of spiritual pride, probably heralding widespread ecclesiastical destruction. In those days, in response, bold young spirits came to mock “the prophets of doom” for predicting dire consequences for the Church, should the “party of change” get its way. (The “prophets of doom” now look too optimistic.) I myself inserted some bleak warnings in The Open Church, tutored by Roman ruins and the jeering faces of the jesters in the medieval fountains.

And indeed, after all our optimism during Vatican II, the Catholic Church in America today seems a shadow of what it once was, in terms of self-confidence, direction, and quiet pride. A remarkable young writer in The Commonweal, Paul Elie, speaks of his generation’s prevailing sense of shame at being Catholic: about their “deep embarrassment about our church and its presence in the culture.” After offering several unconvincing reasons for this shame, he adds: “Mostly, though, we are ashamed because we lack the resources of Catholic tradition that might enable us to reconcile seeming opposites and make sense of the absurdity we confront.”

The absurdity we confront. Has it come to this, that the Catholic faith in the United States, displayed in our liturgies, private practices, and public witness, is such an absurdity to our young that it insinuates into their hearts no passion more acute than shame? No more devastating comment has been uttered on the way in which we older generations have realized the promise of Vatican II.

And can it be that, 27 years after a massive effort at renewal and reform, our brightest and most articulate children can plausibly chide us, that we have left them bereft of “the resources of the Catholic tradition”? That would be as though after four generations of ardent preparation for Vatican II—after the great Thomistic and liturgical movements launched in the nineteenth century, after a vast effort at ressourcement, after herculean efforts in biblical study and in la nouvelle theologie, as well as in existentialist, phenomenological, and transcendental philosophy—that would be as though, after all this, we poured our seed into a desert. We have made of our church, as far as many of our young are concerned, an empty cistern, lacking water.

At the very moment during which some of us were urging an “open church” and “opening the windows of the Church to the world,” we neglected to notice that the vehicle in which we were riding was just entering a long tunnel filled with noxious fumes. We opened those windows at an inopportune moment. Thus the “popular” culture in which the young find themselves has at its disposal the most powerful instruments ever—television, cinema, rock music, etc.—and is at the same time perhaps the most toxic in history to Christian faith and morals.

The generation born since 1973 is also the first abortion generation. Ever since 1973, they have grown up in a culture that made legal the killing of infants in the womb—a kind of supply-side morality that has by now evoked a demand for 1.6 million abortions per year (133,000 per month, 4,400 per day), most of them to women their age or younger.

The use of abortion as a contraceptive has corrupted our entire culture by dramatically altering the expectations, practices, desires, needs, and perceptions of our people. That, at least, was the best argument the Supreme Court could recently offer for approving in Planned Parenthood v. Casey the continuance of the devastation it had wrought in Roe v. Wade. Our young people are drenched in erotic imagery and more or less told to make up their own minds and fend for themselves.

And they are left alone, increasingly, within the ghetto of youth culture, a far narrower and steamier place than the so-called Catholic ghetto of our own childhoods. Our young people have been left without “the resources of a tradition,” in a world of “change,” in which “uncertainty” is taken to be a virtue in adults, and especially in moral authorities (so that the category “authority” is emptied of any possible sense). The valedictorian at one major Catholic college commencement announced, to the horror of the parents present if not of the faculty, that the primary lesson he had learned in four years was that everyone’s values are relative, and therefore we shouldn’t be judgmental or certain about anything.

Finally, the strength, confidence, and dynamism of the pre-conciliar Church has been lost, perhaps irretrievably, and it has been replaced by a Church deeply lacking in the spirit of community, moved instead by a spirit of bitterness, faction, and defeatism.

On all these counts, it is difficult to see how our young could see much to admire in our presentation of the Catholic faith. To love that faith, they would have to search far beyond us.

The Christophobic Elite

Meanwhile, they are under incessant assault by a cultural elite that is radically Christophobic. Those who work in the movies, rock music, television, the law schools, some leaders of the feminist movement, some leaders of the gay rights movement, and many in journalism who worry about protecting their progressive credentials are together waging a form of total warfare to destroy every vestige of cultural support for (and the residual cultural prestige of) Christian faith and morals. They steadily attack the figure of Jesus, as in the public comments and reviews surrounding, for example, the two recent books on Jesus by A.N. Wilson and Gore Vidal. In the artifacts of the so-called “popular culture”—which is really neither popular nor culture—one virtually never sees a serious Christian at prayer or acting in faith. Instead, persons of the clergy and believers are almost always made objects of ridicule and contempt. Acts of public blasphemy—such as those of Act-Up in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral—do not shock the press or public, so inured are they to the public prevalence of Christophobic sentiments. The Last Temptation of Christ and “Piss-Christ” did not arouse the shocked reaction that outrages against Jews or Blacks have often aroused.

Yet contemporary Christophobia also attacks the faith practiced by Jesus Christ, the particular and devout Jewish faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In few ages have the pressures on Jews to give up their Jewishness been more powerful, subtle, and seductive. An attack on the Jews is the surest sign of Christophobia. For Jesus Christ makes no sense at all except as a Son of Israel. The bonds between Israel and Catholicism are imperishable.

Again, the intellectual leaders of modern culture assault the very notion of objective truth. They cannot say with Jefferson: “We hold these truths….” They interpret truth as an expression of power alone. As they knock out from under Christianity the essential foundation—that there is a truth to be searched for—the whole quest of Christianity becomes senseless. And the name of God—that God is Truth—becomes absurd.

But modern Christophobia entails a war not only against the image of Christ, against Judaism, and against truth, but also against Christian morals and practices. With diabolical cleverness, the cutting edge of this assault is seduction through issues of sex and gender. Modern sexual ethics—whether as theory or as practice—is directly incompatible with Christian morals. The essential link between sexuality and generativity has been broken. The modern age treats sex as mostly about fulfillment, pleasure, free expression, the following out of fantasies, sadism and masochism. To say that homosexual acts between consenting adults are morally wrong is taken as evidence of bigotry. The appearance in television chitchat of such words as “fornicators” and “adulterers” would sound quaint. In our movies and on television one sees many love-making scenes (but virtually never between husband and wife). If one can introduce an entire generation to sexual libertinism, one will corrupt both their natural reason and the normal starting places of faith. One will make the Christian faith seem impossibly impractical and out-of-date.

For this reason, the most common route of attack for Christophobia is via concupiscence. Disordered there, human reason loses its balance, its purity, and its directness. It is bent; it is lame. So Saint Augustine, and we, have experienced barbarism.

With the fumes of so toxic a culture blowing full blast through its open windows as it races through a long tunnel, the Catholic Church in America is choking from carbon monoxide poisoning. Even many good and serious people have given up on defending the Church against the onslaught of sex and gender issues. I am not denying that these issues are complex, that they require prolonged and skillful argument, and that for a variety of reasons new possibilities have appeared in our time and new questions have arisen. What I am deploring, rather, is what seems to be abject surrender. Let me offer some examples.

•Too many Catholic public voices acquiesce in the judgment that the decision against contraception in Humanae Vitae was wrong, without at least noting what was right about it, and how amply its predictions have been borne out, far more so than those of the optimists among the early critics of Humance Vitae.

•Far too many public Catholic voices are willing to give up on the issue of celibacy, without ever insisting that the public at least understand its justification and importance, even were the current thousand-year priestly discipline to be changed.

•Too many public Catholic voices merely accept the feminist critique of patriarchy, the “necessity” of priestesses, and the use of gender-neutral language. (But if men and women were unsexed angels, no Church would be necessary; nor any incarnate Savior).

•The possibility that the tradition of the Catholic Church on celibacy, the male priesthood, and gender-differentiated language might have something to teach the modern age, and might be closer to the real truth of nature and history than modern fantasies, does not even enter into public discussion.

Why should our young people admire a Catholic people so quick to fly the white flag on so many crucial issues?

Another great difficulty faced by young Catholics in taking their faith seriously appears to be the daily witness of the older generation of Catholics. Although it is often said that “community” is one of the leading characteristics of the Catholic tradition, we in the United States do not live in a Church that represents community. On the contrary, our Church is deeply and bitterly divided. Let me leave aside at the outset of this discussion the relatively few extremists on each end of the spectrum; leave aside Rosemary Reuther, Mary Daly, Matthew Fox, and a few thousand others at that end, and a few thousand traditionalists who reject Vatican II. The ancient maxim was: Roma locuta, causa finita est. The new extremists shout: Causa locuta, Roma finita est.

Still, even with such extremists left out, I have seen visceral hatred among conservative Catholics for what they see as perversions of Vatican II by the more or less mainstream left or left-of-center leadership; not to put too fine a point upon it, contempt for Richard McBrien, Richard McCormick, Dan Maguire, Archbishop Weakland, and others caught in a net thrown as far as “the National Catholic Reporter crowd.”

I have seen at least an equally visceral hatred expressed by those on the moderate left for Pope John Paul II, for Cardinal Ratzinger, for certain neoconservative American Catholics, for the 4,000 or so American Knights and Dames of Malta, for the Americans who belong to Opus Dei, and for others.

About all this, Margaret Steinfels of Commonweal has been making many sensible and wise points over the past two or three years. It is plain that we American Catholics have not been acting like a church. We do not have a community. No one could look at us as an example of solidarity, charity, or communio. We do not even resemble one large, cantankerous, combative, argumentative, passionately conflictual family. Our antipathies run deeper than that. People think that others are not just wrong but destroying the Church—and cutting them off from the faith, as well.

How did we come to this pass? I have come to think that Vatican II was seriously misrepresented in the United States, and that the precise ways in which we have misunderstood it need to be carefully drawn out.

Betraying Vatican II

A great deal of emphasis was placed upon “the spirit of Vatican II,” as if there hadn’t been a real text negotiated with great care, designed to be as faithful as possible to the traditions of the past and to engage as broad a consensus of the Council Fathers as would prove overwhelming. When you reread the actual texts of Vatican II, particularly in the later translations (the earlier ones had many careless renderings at crucial spots), you are today struck by how weightily conservative the texts actually are. To be sure, there is still newness in them, life, openness, a sense of confidence and dynamism. All this was made possible by the lively Catholic intellect that thrived during the 100 years before the Council in the great “Catholic Renascence,” as we used to call it, of the twentieth century.

Our crisis today is that that renascence—the labor of artists and scholars such as Cardinal Newman, Jacques Maritain, Edith Stein, Charles Peguy, Sigrid Undset and others—has now been squandered. That confidence is gone. That dynamism is no longer present. We have pitifully little by which to excite our young. In speaking always of “the spirit of Vatican II,” we were dealing with phantoms, with ghosts, with emanations from the text, fool’s fire. We were practicing gnostics, intoxicated by a new consciousness withheld from our predecessors.

Some even interpreted Vatican II as a revolutionary break in the history of the Church, as if nearly all that went before were suddenly irrelevant; as if something akin to the Resurrection and Second Coming had happened in the years 1961-65. Some acted as if these had created, in effect, a new religion, so that one could forget what one had learned before; so that the past was no longer important; and so that the tradition no longer had legitimacy. What really counted was yet to be discovered, the new, the open. As I once called the main style pre-Vatican II “nonhistorical orthodoxy,” I call this new main style after Vatican II, “neodoxy.”

Finally, we made a great deal more out of “the collegiality of bishops,” and thought of this concept much more at the expense of the office of Peter, than the Vatican Council actually did. One should reread those texts again. One should also recall that from 1963 on, Paul VI took almost daily charge of the Council. Without his daily interventions and daily care, it would never have come to a conclusion as it did, with such a huge number of documents done—and done well, miraculously well. Without the intervention of Pope Paul VI, it is certain that the Declaration on Religious Liberty would never have passed, nor even have achieved its final form. (In the published record of the debates at Vatican II, one can also see how Archbishop Karol Wojtyla won a reputation as a young leader among the progressives. His interventions on religious liberty and the concept of “the person” demonstrated the universal validity of the Declaration and its practical necessity in a large and important part of the world.)

Against the Culture

For my part, I think that our generation is quite culpable for squandering our inheritance. We received, perhaps, a better education in the Catholic tradition than had been available to any generation before our own for hundreds of years. We inherited the best of historical scholarship, biblical scholarship, and the philosophical and theological ressourcement. It was all squandered during our lifetime. Let me speak for myself. I know that I will have a lot to answer for.

Repenting and doing better, how can we best communicate the faith to yet another new generation? The best thing we can do is to begin a major re-study of Vatican II, without the preconceptions that distorted that Council for us during the past 30 years. We need to study it afresh, and let it speak to us as the will of God, for that is what the work of a Council of the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is. A Council by no means has the same authority as Holy Scripture; it falls under the authority of Holy Scripture. Nonetheless, to read the texts of the Second Vatican Council correctly is to allow God to speak to us through them, not in line with our own desires or predilections, but as a challenge to us.

To be a Catholic is not to be “open” to the world in the sense of going along with the world. It is to be committed to God. And it is also to be in union with Peter. We live in a very rotten intellectual culture, at a very rotten time in history. At such a time, to be a Catholic in America is to be against the intellectual culture of our time, to be at odds with it, and perhaps even to begin to doubt the legitimacy of the regime.

Any of the young who would stand with us are going to have to prepare themselves for heroic, generous, and difficult service. From the world, they must expect to receive a great deal of contempt. They will be at odds with their times. They will be regarded as stupid fundamentalists, and by their charity they will have to defeat charges of intolerance, and by such wit and good humor as that of Saint Thomas More they will have to defeat charges of narrowness of mind.

I think we must stand with Vatican Council II. We must stand with the pope, the only pope we have (and in my mind, one of the greatest of all the popes), but certainly—however his papacy is to be judged—the successor to Peter.

We must in any case find a way to restore our sense of community, left with right, right with left. Mistakes have been committed on both sides. Before being able to help our young to become Christians, we will have to learn to act like Christians.

“The spirit of the Council,” alas, taught all of us a lesson of division. Good guys were divided from bad, progressives from traditionalists, the open-minded from the curialists, the party of change from the party of resistance. These were bad habits, against the whole spirit of charity and faith, and lacking in commonsense.

The words of Gustav Weigel, S.J., at Vatican II now seem depressingly prophetic: “All good things, given enough time, go badly.” I think our generation needs to say we failed. We were so sure of our superiority to earlier generations. How they must mock us now, like those jesters of the fountains in the streets of Rome.


Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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