No, I Don’t Want to Go Back to the 1950’s

I am traditional, but not because, as “progressives” often say, I want to go back to the time of “Pre-Vatican II,” or “the fifties.”  

It is frustrating to be accused of the right thing for the wrong reason. For example, my wife frequently censures me for being messy (which I am, especially compared to her); yet it irks me when she does so the moment I have pulled everything out of the closet in order to clean it. The same thing happens with the Faith. I am accused of being traditional. I am traditional, but not because, as “progressives” often say, I want to go back to the time of “Pre-Vatican II,” or “the fifties.”  

I do not want to “go back” to the ’50s and that era of the Church. There were faults with that culture, both within and without the Church, and these faults led to the problems later. If we “go back” to that time, the same problems will happen again.  

The first problem was a misunderstanding and overemphasis of obedience. As historian James Hitchcock pointed out, the greatest irony of the “spirit of Vatican II” was how obedience was used to allow disobedience. Catholics had been raised on “father (or bishop) knows best,” and this was used to push through as Church teaching practices that were, in fact, products of select committees or personal preferences. Churches were gutted, the Mass became experimental theater, moral teachings were now “matters of personal conscience,” and we went along because “father said so.” We didn’t know any better. The only information we had was from “higher up” (i.e., what the priest or bishop said), and the average Catholic could not know what to do even if he wanted to question it. 

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We still owe respect and obedience to priests and bishops, but I believe it is better understood now, at least among some. Also, we are better able to be informed on what Church teaching—as opposed to the preferences of a bishop or priest—is. God forgive me for saying this, but there are times I am grateful for the Internet. We have access as never before to the Church Fathers, Church documents and encyclicals, Catholic teaching on art and architecture. Anyone who wants to (and the key is wanting to), can learn what the Faith is and how to live it better. No, I don’t want to go back. 

There was also an ultramontanism in the Church. This is understandable after a century of popes that included Leo XIII, Pius X (until that time only the second pope in five hundred years to be canonized), and Pius XII. Rome was worth her currency. She spoke seldom and weighed what she said. Since then, we’ve seen enough to know that, while the Church is infallible, she is not inculpable. Inflation is not just an economic phenomenon. No, I do not want to go back. 

Along with this was an unhealthy clericalism. The “spiritual life”—at least in any depth—was often considered the province of the religious. To be religious was to be a religious. This led to a later confusion—still with us—that to be religious meant to do what those in religious life do, with the laity flooding the altars and viewing priests as administrators or, worse, “facilitators.” Vatican II was correct in its “universal call to holiness,” but a thinking person knows that universal does not mean uniform. 

There is an acceptance today that the laity have an expertise and a role in the world that the religious do not have. At the same time, there is a realization that that expertise can and must be sanctified by a life of personal holiness no less demanding in its own way than that of the religious. This personal holiness must be founded on the sacraments which only an ordained minister can give and from graces received by those consecrated to a life of prayer. I know that while both bricks and mortar are needed to build a house, they are not interchangeable.  

There was also in the pre-conciliar Church, and in Western culture as a whole, an incredulous optimism and belief in “progress.” Why? The preceding sixty years had seen the “War to End All Wars,” the rise of communism with its mass slaughter and starvation of nations under its sway, the collapse of capitalism, and worldwide economic depression. 

This was followed by another world war in which democracies sided with communism (go figure that one out) against totalitarian thugs in the West and pagan imperial powers in the East—which was ended by the dropping of the atomic bomb. After that, East faced West waiting to see who would drop the next bomb while their economies either starved their citizens or morally bankrupted them or both. How could you not agree with Ronald Knox, who said, “It is so stupid of modern civilization to have given up believing in the devil when he is the only explanation for it.” 

And yet we somehow had this idea that “every day, in every way, we’re getting better and better”; that the “next thing” was the best thing simply because it was the next thing. We had to be “open to new ideas” in the face of a hundred years of new ideas having proved to be stupid. Perhaps it was like seeing a mirage after having been in the desert for so long. In any event, it has proven just as fanciful. 

Part of this was technological and academic. Because we could put a man in space, we believed we could reach Heaven that much easier. Because science could relieve our physical pain, we thought it could relieve our social pains. Psychology could help clear our minds, and we trusted it to cleanse our souls. And now? Do we need any more proof of the doctrine of original sin and the fall? Can we have any doubt of the need for grace? If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that science is a science and not a faith; something to be understood but not “believed.”   

Part of this was cultural. Because the democracies had defeated totalitarianism, democracy, by definition, was best. And whatever a democracy decided was best, no matter what human nature and centuries of experience told us. Government and political power could also solve our problems, we just needed the “right people” in power. 

This ushered in no-fault divorce, birth control, abortion, and pornography, not to mention a host of “nation building wars” in places that weren’t even remotely nations. The longest war we’ve fought is the “war on poverty,” and now the richest nation in the history of the world is crushed in debt with millions living in a poverty far more dire than lack of income. Those who have eyes to see know that government—of whatever kind—is not the answer. 

This was also due to naivete and—truth be told—cowardice. The problem with the ’60s wasn’t that there were bad people who wanted to do bad things. That has always been the case. The problem was that so many who should have known better let them. I’m sure it was hard. Catholics in America had struggled so long to be accepted; and with the election of John F. Kennedy, we thought we had arrived. 

But we fell in with JFK in letting that acceptance trump our Faith. America seemed—and probably was—the best the world had to offer, but we forgot that our citizenship is not of this world and no nation is perfect. Our own “success” led to our fall. It would have taken a miraculously virtuous and intelligent priest or bishop to withstand the cultural tsunami that was coming. We were not prepared for it, and your Athanasius contra mundum was not to be found.

Today, many realize you can’t have it both ways. You can’t reconcile the Catechism with The New York Times. You can’t please the local school board and Christ. And while you can be an American and a Catholic, Catholic comes first. 

No, I don’t want to go back. So why am I “traditional”? (The term “conservative” often doesn’t seem to fit. Who would want to conserve the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into?) I am traditional because I believe in the Catholic Faith, as taught and practiced for centuries; because it alone has the answers both for this life and the next. I prefer the traditional Latin Mass, traditional church architecture, and Gregorian chant because they help me—I won’t speak for others—worship God and come closer to Him more than what has come since. Beauty is an element of the Divine and fads, like fast food, don’t nourish me. 

I am traditional because the saints know what my real problems are and have the cure. The Imitation of Christ and Introduction to the Devout Life have led me to a happier life more than Dr. Phil or Oprah. Mark Twain once said, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” The older I get, the more astonished I become at what my fathers knew. 

I am traditional because the culture and governments of the last few centuries have devastated the family and ripped apart nations. Aquinas knew that a nation and a society were more than GNP and wages. John Henry Newman knew that the most powerful and civilized nation in the world can be nominally Christian but practically pagan.  

Wine makers know that good wine comes from terroir—that combination of soil, climate, and “sense of place” that takes centuries, even millennia, to form and know. Catholic Tradition is the terroir of the soul; it has produced saints. That is why I am traditional. The new wine has burst the skins. That’s why I prefer the old. 

[Photo Credit: INTERCONTINENTALE/AFP via Getty Images]

  • Robert B. Greving

    Robert B. Greving teaches Latin and English grammar at a Maryland high school. Mr. Greving served five years in the U.S. Army J.A.G. Corps following his graduation from the Dickinson School of Law.

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