Meet the “Creative Christians” Who Nearly Destroyed the Church

A revealing 1968 documentary on the American Catholic Church tells us exactly what we need to avoid if we want the Church today to thrive.

Somebody needs to sit the pope down, pop a tape into the old VCR, and watch a 1968 documentary called The New American Catholic. That is, if the pope is really set on returning the Church to a progressive view of the Second Vatican Council. 

Produced by NBC News, the documentary shows precisely how the pooh-bahs of the progressive Church viewed the Council and its implementation. It also shows how and why the Church collapsed under the weight of such sincere goofiness. 

One is tempted to laugh out loud watching this mess. You will laugh out loud. You might cry. These are the people who quite hopefully set out to “reform” the old rigid Church but ended up, in many cases, leaving the Church altogether and taking hundreds of thousands with them. They were all about instituting what they thought was the vision of Pope St. John XXIII. You would be forgiven if you think that Sacrosanctum Concilium mentioned guitars. There are guitars galore in this documentary. Guitars and great gobs of schism and apostasy. 

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The only sensible voice you hear is from an ancient Monsignor named Rudolph Bandas who said John XXIII may have wanted to open the windows for some fresh air, but this runs the risk of letting in some “queer birds that can mess up everything inside.”

One of many queer birds was Donald Thorman, then publisher of the still-heretical National Catholic Reporter, who tells a crowded banquet room that the Vatican II moment was a “providential once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for creative Christians and creative Christianity to offer the Church new dimensions of love and service.” Did you gag just a little bit reading the phrase “creative Christians”? I did. 

In his obituary a few years later, The New York Times described Thorman’s newspaper as “uncowed by the church’s sometimes conservative hierarchy and has published many articles, pro and con, on such controversial matters as birth control, priestly celibacy, the virginity of Mary and the morality of the Vietnam war.” No kidding. You won’t recall that the local bishop asked these folks to drop “Catholic” from their title. They refused, as did their successors years later when Bishop Robert Finn asked them as well. 

The main ecclesial voice in the documentary was Bishop James Patrick Shannon of St. Paul, Minnesota, a darling of the progressive party. Shannon believed that Church teaching on birth control was “rigid” and that it ought to be acceptable within marriage. He resigned his bishopric in protest over Humanae Vitae. A year later, he married and was laicized. How’s that for creative Christianity?

Then Fr. James Groppi makes an appearance, wherein he says, “Now you ask me what do I think about the Catholic Church? To tell you the truth, I don’t even think about it.” He later left the Church, got married, and studied for the Episcopal priesthood. He spent his last years as a bus driver in Milwaukee. When he died, he was the head of the bus-driver’s union. More creative Christianity. 

Perhaps the most creative Christian in the documentary was Sr. Anita Caspary, Mother Superior of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Under the spell of Vatican II, Caspary says the nuns were shedding the religious habit, what she called “a costume.” She said they were leaving large communities for small group homes—nuns in apartments wearing pantsuits.

And how did all that go?

The New York Times described Caspary as “the onetime mother superior who led the largest single exodus of nuns from the Roman Catholic Church in American history.” The inevitable, sordid end of the congregation she helped destroy involved the last five decrepit sisters and a lawsuit involving pop singer Katy Perry over a $14 million mansion in Los Angeles. 

It should be noted that Bishop Shannon and Fr. Groppi leaving the priesthood and Sr. Caspary destroying her religious congregation were not a part of the documentary. Those things hadn’t happened yet, but you could see it coming a mile away. In fact, as I watched the documentary, I Googled each of them because I knew they were dissenters. That is progressivism then and now. 

Some in the Church want to go back to such creative Christianity. They want people in adultery receiving Communion. They want out-gays teaching catechism. They want to ban old rites. They want more guitars, for all we know. All we need is to open the windows just a bit more and all will be well. 

Today’s progressives, who want to return the Church to the Second Vatican Council, may see The New American Catholic and say with T.S. Eliot, “That is not what I meant at all. That is not it at all.” We must remind them: this is what happened, and these were your guys not ours. 

My genuine fear is that Pope Francis sees The New American Catholic, slaps his knee, and says, “That’s it. That’s it. Dammit, THAT IS IT.”

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