There are fewer than ten years separating the ages of my wife and me, a difference hardly worth mentioning in a marriage of more than thirty years. Yet the distance between the two worlds we grew up in, the forces that shaped the cultural and religious horizons of our two lives, remains so vastly different that one might almost think we’d lived on separate planets. The backdrop to the world that framed my childhood and youth, an expanse of stage no happier than which can be imagined, was wholly and uncomplicatedly Catholic. Nothing I did escaped the benign, omnipresent reach of the Roman Catholic Church. From the old priest who first gave me Jesus in the Eucharist, to the young Sister who prepared me to receive him, Catholic smells and bells seemed to be in evidence everywhere in that long ago Golden Age. Nearly all the friends I found in the neighborhoods of my childhood were Catholic, their noise and numbers echoing across the lawns and driveways of a halcyon world where we and countless other large Catholic families lived and played.
If it is true that we are no better than deposed kings and queens, beguiled by memories of a kingdom whose loss we are forever trying to assuage, then why wasn’t I told? Because it never crossed my mind that I’d lost anything. How accurate, then, is the world I’m describing? Was there no worm in the apple? Indeed, there was. Under that cloudless sky of fifties Catholicism, there were hidden neuralgic points, a thousand or more tensions and discontents that, simmering ominously beneath the surface of all those outwardly quiescent Eisenhower years, would soon enough blow the blooming roof right off the cathedral ceiling. We were on a collision course with the 1960s, from the wreckage of which an entire world would be lost.
One mustn’t forget, however, that even before the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, the worm had long since insinuated its poison. For all its pre-lapsarian pretensions, the sixties did not alter the basic human equation, which is that we have all been pockmarked by Original Sin. A doctrine that, as Chesterton once said, has never needed defending. If anyone cares to doubt that, just look in the nearest mirror. Only one of us, we Catholics believe, was spared complicity with evil. Our Blessed Lady, whose innocence reaches right down the bottom of her being. “The serpent,” reports St. John of Damascus, “never had any access to this paradise.”
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And yet the time of the sixties struck many of us as singular in its sheer destructive sweep, leaving those who recoiled from its vibrations in a state of more or less permanent shellshock. And no doubt the blast from that past moves me to idealize the period just prior to detonation, causing me to throw an unreal halo over the years of my childhood and early youth. But I do not want to press the point. In fact, what I believe about that faraway place and time, and will insist upon saying until my dying day, is that despite the convulsive and far-reaching storms destined to come, not a whisper of that distant trauma touched the shores of the placid little world I lived in and loved. Everything seemed to have been nailed down most wonderfully back then, the whole majestic show organized and sustained by this immensely Roman Catholic Thing that had been running the universe for what felt like forever. From the pale Pius XII in the Vatican, to the apple-cheeked Sister Flavia in the parochial school cafeteria, the world I knew was bound by authority figures it would never occur to me, or anyone else for that matter, to question. For all that I was a cheeky child, and I’ve no doubt the record of my villainy in classroom and schoolyard has been duly documented by the nuns I’d succeeded in vexing all my grammar school years, it never would have dawned on me that I was the hapless target of a cruel and corrupt system.
I am perfectly prepared to concede, however, that others may draw upon a very different set of memories. For instance, the novelist and critic John Gregory Dunne, who, coming of age in the 1940s, found the nuns at his school to be so frightful as to evoke the savagery of “concentration-camp guards.” Brandishing their rulers, he recalls, they would repeatedly rap them across the knuckles of their wretched charges. “The joke at St. Joseph’s Cathedral School in Hartford, Conn., where I grew up, was that the nuns would hit you until you bled and then hit you for bleeding.”
Maybe I was just a weird kid, but immersed in that insular Catholic world some ten or so years after poor Mr. Dunne, I was positively bird happy when surrounded by the sisters; and never more so than in the darkened sanctuary serving the 6:30 am Mass for the holy women who taught me everything I know. Of everlasting importance, that is, beginning with the certainty of who made me (God), and why (so that I might know, love and serve him in this world in order to be happy in heaven with him forever).
But, alas, this was most decidedly not the world my wife was fated to enter. Not only had the roof been blown away in the great storms then sweeping the Church after the Council, but so much of the dust and rubble that settled in its wake seemed to have buried something of the ancient faith as well. Ersatz substitutes were popping up like poisoned mushrooms all over the place, leaving great big bishops and priests and nuns—a heaping swath of the laity as well—to be swept up in the awful swirl of post-conciliar chaos and confusion. Even God himself appeared not to have survived the terrible simplifiers, an entire legion of new theologians having solemnly pronounced his passing in both the learned and popular press. The Death of God became a regular feature, it seems, of magazines like Time and Newsweek, whose iconoclastic style matched the nuttiness of an addle-headed age. (“Presumably,” as Kierkegaard acidly announced a century earlier, “God waits in the lobby while the scholars upstairs debate his existence.”) Perhaps Marx was right, after all, when he predicted that with the coming of modernity everything solid would inevitably melt into thin air.
This was the setting in which my dear wife’s generation was expected to find and nurture the inheritance of the Apostles and Martyrs. Ensconced in an elite Catholic Academy for the daughters of well-heeled suburbanites, presided over by nuns so unsure of their own vocations that instead of catechizing their students on the truths of holy religion they constructed collages adorned with images of Che Guevara and the Berrigan Brothers, this was the Brave New World whose outline of bleak despair would drive not a few of my wife’s classmates to drugs and suicide. Here was the look of Catholic lite for the next forty years. Here amid the chic and stylish, the upwardly mobile Catholic middle class, were the beginnings of what years later the writer David Foster Wallace, himself a suicide, would describe as “Neiman-Marcus Nihilism.” If the future belongs to those who show up, here was a party that nobody would show up to celebrate.
Well, the silly season soon gave way to an almost endemic sense of ennui, or boredom, which sent great numbers of priests and nuns out of their rectories and convents (not infrequently together) in frantic search of the nearest fleshpot, paid for out of jobs snapped up in the secular city. Meanwhile, back in the suburbs, marriages and families were imploding faster than anyone could say Hugh Hefner or Betty Friedan, to cite but two icons of the hour that helped dismantle the structures of faith and morals.
So how does one escape the mindset of an age that has lost its mind? Has jettisoned even its soul? Where does one turn for oxygen at a time when the air having turned dangerously and terribly toxic, people everywhere are gasping for breath? The only enduring solution, of course, is to turn to Christ, from the intensity of the encounter with whom an entire world can be rebuilt. But along the way back toward God, one has got to take ownership for the mess one has made. An accounting, in other words, of what went so disastrously wrong on the cusp of what we’d all been so confidently promised—from Good Pope John who convoked the Council, to the least chancery bureaucrat breezily charged with implementing its reforms—would be a new and blessed Pentecost for the Church and the world. Because what followed upon those high and heady days was an attempted high jacking of the Church herself, which proved ruinous to great sectors of her institutional life. It was certainly no exercise in hyperbole that moved Pope Paul VI to pronounce balefully on the “smoke of Satan” having penetrated the hallowed precincts of the Church. So why did it happen? And is there any hope of recovery?
My own theory is that amid all the materialism of modern life, the ever expanding comfort zone of bourgeois culture, a world unwilling to set limits on the pursuit of appetite and pleasure, a terrible forgetfulness of God began, as a result of which too many Catholics found themselves unprepared for the excesses if the sixties. There were no more reserves, as it were, of heroic sanctity on which they could draw.
Is there a way out? Certainly there is and Pope Francis, the latest in a series of wise and holy popes, has given us the road map. In his remarks this past July to the young people of the world, who had come to Brazil to reconnect with Christ and the Church, he urged them (and urges us) to heed the advice of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. When asked what needed to change in the Church, she replied that the starting point is always and everywhere the same: the soul of each human being whom Christ came to redeem. “This woman showed determination,” the Pope exclaimed. “And today I make her words my own and I say to you: shall we begin? Where? With you and me! Each one of you, once again in silence, ask yourself: if I must begin with myself, where exactly do I start? Each one of you, open his or her heart, so that Jesus may tell you where to start.”