The Kids Are All Right

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I have to admit many prejudices. I don’t usually read anything recommended by Father James Martin, SJ. I usually avoid the National Catholic Reporter, as forever burned in my memory from one of their articles—by the redoubtable Rosemary Radford Ruether—is the most fatuous line I have ever read: “The recent election of Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI has been greeted with choruses of negative comments in the progressive communities where I teach and live.” Were I to pick up the thing, probably the last of their writers’ work I would look at is that of Peter Feuerherd. Renowned liberal Catholic author and academic, his latest tome is The Radical Gospel of Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, from Maryknoll’s Orbis Books. Normally, nothing could have induced me to sample anything from such a witch’s cauldron as this. But I broke my own rules, and I am very glad I did!

When you reach a certain age, the plight of the young can move you more than your own sloth—so it proved with me in this case. A young seminarian re-tweeted Father Martin’s fulsome tweet endorsing Feuerherd’s latest NCR article, In came Latin, incense and burned books, out went half the parishioners: Post-Vatican II North Carolina Catholics seek a spiritual home. The youthful gentleman’s accompanying note declared: “I will not give any comments on the article going around that Father James Martin, SJ posted besides this: Yes, as a young seminarian, I do really look up to Saint John Paul II. When did it become a bad thing to be associated with being devoted to a canonized saint?” So I took the plunge and clicked!

For the believing Catholic, picking up the National Catholic Reporter can feel a lot like Enterprise crew members did in the original Star Trek, beaming down to an alien world (as shall be seen, the ‘60s pop reference is wholly appropriate). Some things are familiar; others are completely different. The afore-mentioned article rather hysterically chronicled the takeover of a Catholic parish in Boone, North Carolina by what—from the tone of the article—sounds like a gang of young clerical thugs straight out of The Wild One.

“Religion scholar Maria Lichtmann felt a strangeness overcome Saint Elizabeth of the Hill Country Parish in Boone, North Carolina, four years ago,” Feuerherd breathlessly begins. Miss Lichtmann later defines this strangeness as “the spirit of hyper-orthodoxy.” Apparently the new pastor, Father Brendan Buckler, brought in Latin Masses (after his predecessor allowed young seminarians staying at the rectory to purge the library of heterodox books—much to the outrage of parish’s elderly contingent). As Mr. Feuerherd’s article explains: 

“He is taking us back to pre-Vatican II,” Mary Benson Farthing, a former parishioner, said. She now goes to Mass at another Catholic parish 25 miles away. For those parishioners raised during the advent of the Mass in the vernacular experienced in post-Vatican II parishes, there is opposition. Farthing was in her 20s during the Vatican II years. “Having lived through the 1950s, I don’t think I want to go back to that,” she said.

 A number of parishioners of her vintage have taken to going to a much more casual Mass, offered in rotation by two sympathetic priests in a car repair shop.

Now, I must admit that I do understand what the poor dears are going through, having gone through it myself in the wake of Vatican II. Their complaints about no longer feeling they belonged, of having lost community—I really resonate with them, remembering the liturgical collapse of the 1960s and ‘70s, and the abuse from clergy and well-placed laity for those who remained faithful to what they had always been. It would be tempting to simply say they deserve it, now that—in this parish at least—the shoe seems to be firmly placed on the other foot. But that would be unkind. I would suggest to priests who find themselves with numbers of such folk, craving the sounds of the ‘60s, that a special Seniors Only Folk Mass be introduced, where they can feel at home.

But Feuerherd’s article was not confined to the supposed indignities suffered by the living martyrs of Boone. No, the horrors they endured are soon to be unleashed around the country because of the large number of seminarians who are “hyper-orthodox.” Feuerherd quotes Franciscan Sr. Katarina Schuth, professor emerita at the Seminaries of Saint Paul in Minnesota, who has spent decades analyzing seminarians. According to this reverend lady, 

Today’s seminarians…are part of an overall generational cohort that is more likely to be liberal and secular. These conservative seminarians are set apart in many ways from their peers, with a strong focus on evangelizing their age group members into traditional Catholic ways. They latch on to traditional modes and symbols, such as the wearing of elaborate cassocks.

She said they would exert influence on the church, as more are ordained. 

Sr. Katarina and the article are both upset with the Seminarians’ tendency to turn politically conservative. Both she, and many of the Boone parishioners, are dismayed by the concomitant resistance people are displaying.

A good part of the rest of the article focuses on how narrow-minded these seminarians are, and how Bishops tend to favor them. What never appears in the article is the question why. Why do they exist? Why do they prefer tradition to what various Susans in their Parish Councils have to offer? The supreme irony, of course, is the whining about the young people—by those who, when that age themselves, did everything they could to change things.

For the moment, however, Feuerherd and his elderly cohorts—despite the outrages in Boone—should be happy. The recent inauguration showed a triumphant, geriatric, and liberal Catholicism on parade. The new denizen of the White House himself—a chip off the Teddy Kennedy block—and invocator Father Leo T. O’Donovan, a Jesuit in the Bob Drinan mode (who, as president of Georgetown, funded a student pro-abortion group and permitted fetal tissue research), epitomizes what dominates the top of the Catholic Church in this country at the moment. And not only here! Despite his fear of support for young seminarians among the hierarchy, Feuerherd points out that Pope Francis “once described young priests who put a premium on enforcing church regulations as ‘little monsters.’” As we know, the Holy Father enjoys castigating the young for their rigidity. For the moment, the 1960’s remain enshrined in the bosom of the Church, together with the generation who made them what they were.

In a larger sense, however, such efforts as the recent erecting of the use of altar girls and lectoresses into Church law and the like, do indeed represent the last-ditch efforts of a dying breed to remake the Faith once delivered to the Saints into their own image—before they are carted off to the cemetery. As a junior member of the Baby Boom myself, I very much regret that I shall probably not live to see the last remains of that era interred next to my peers.

It is often very difficult for young priests and seminarians to understand why the blue-headed brigade, from the Pope on down, despise them so. The answer is actually rather simple. In their love for Tradition, for the Sacred, indeed, for the Truth itself, these men are living testimonies that the lifework of two or three generations of revolutionary clerics was in vain. Just by being what they are, they raise the fearful suspicion that the world would have been a better place had their senescent antagonists never been born. No one can react well to such a message, no matter how unwittingly and unconsciously delivered.

Without a doubt, the tensions described herein shall continue until the last of the Generation of ’68 are gone. Before then, the battles shall no doubt intensify. To try to minimize the tension between my peers and the young, I offer to the former this timely advice in words they’ll understand from the pen of Bob Dylan:

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’

By

Charles A. Coulombe is a contributing editor at Crisis and the magazine's European correspondent. He previously served as a columnist for the Catholic Herald of London and a film critic for the National Catholic Register. A celebrated historian, his books include Puritan's Empire and Star-Spangled Crown. He resides in Vienna, Austria and Los Angeles, California.

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