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October 24, 2006



"Maybe the argument could be made that it worked."

If the Church of the 1960s and 1970s "worked", it did so very much in the short term. It worked for a "moment in time"—when compared with its 2000 year long history.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Church, and indeed the entire culture, forgot the lesson of the Tortoise and the Hare. By focusing only on the moment the Church and the culture lost their way.


I have heard again and again from my older Dominican brothers (80+ years old) that the biggest mistake they made in the late 60's, early 70's was the creation of "alternative" PhD programs for religious women...programs that did not require a basic understanding of the Church's use of philosophy. Without a philosophical foundation these women tended to turn to destructive psychological models of their anthropology and quickly began to absorb uncritically the radical revolutionary zeitgeist of the age. They were "freed" into a new cultural tyranny; released from the "pen" of the convent into the "prison" of a relatively safe, second-wave feminist obsession with "justice and peace." And the rest is (declining) history, or perhaps herstory[sic].


You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.



I finished it two weeks ago. As I recall it was a little light on hope, and there was not enough about those who are doing good. But it seemed to be that Bottum needed to wrap it up and finish so the ending was kind of abrupt. He should consider making this into a book. As if we need another book on the topic. State the problems in the first two chapters, then write about all the people who are engaging the culture in positive ways. Just a thought.

Fr Raymond Blake

The recent document by the Spanish bishops, which Sandro Magister wrote about, seems to be saying the same thing: for too long the Bishops have supported dissidents, which has resulted in confusion and disunity in the Church. This week the Bishop of Granada has removed his seminarians from Jesuit tutelage for this reason.

David H. Lukenbill

I finished the Bottum piece when it came out, and your analysis is not lame but an excellent addition.

From my perspective, as a convert and spending the first three years trying to understand the difference between what my personal study (mostly from the papal encyclicals) and what I was seeing in my parish; the question became, how do I keep in touch with the truth of this Church which I see clearly animated through Peter (papal encyclicals), Jesus (the gospels), and Mary (the magisterium of the Church) and what I see in the institutional church.

Our answer (my wife and I who converted together) was to begin attending the one Latin Mass parish (Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter) approved by our bishop in our diocese, and through that connect to the historic Catholic parish rhythms which have wonderfully buttressed our reliance on With Peter, To Jesus, Through Mary.

M.Z. Forrest

I agree with you that abstinance on Fridays during Lent was probably the one change that had the most effect on your typical Catholic. Altar girls would fall along similar lines, but the Lenten Fridays abstinance was of bigger magnitude.

I am suspicious of those who claim the left is to blame for the Church's problems. Such seems to presuppose that many Catholics up until the 80's were democrats because their bishops were democrats. Such argumentation also presupposes that American conservatism would have been the proper path to follow. All of these suppositions take place in an America were 40-50% of all eligible voters vote. Amongst these folks, slightly over half claim a political party. Amongst member of a party, very few... In other words, we aren't talking about a seismic amount of people.

At some point, I might expand on your critique of our corporate witness, but this post is long enough.

nicole schiavolin

it happened because of the way priests were taught in seminaries, the way lay ministers were taught in their programs, the way catechetical offices and offices of worship were staffed, the way that liturgists were taught and passed on their wisdom, etc...

This phenomenon is precisely what Fr. Joseph Kentenich, founder of the Schoenstatt Movement, spent his life combatting. He saw the threat empty formalism as early as the 1930s, and that it had its roots in modern anthropological heresies. His way of curing this illness was through Marian education - a deep organic love for the person of the Blessed Mother, that allows one to be attached to forms in a meaningful, life-giving way.

I think that Bottum did not sufficiently cover the ecclesial movements in his piece. At least, he doesn't seem to have an appreciation for their inner workings, and rather presents them as clubs for orthodox people. But they are actually trying to form Catholic culture in a new way that is faithful to the deposit of faith - at least, this is what Schoenstatt teaches, and what I am sure the other movements (Communion & Liberation, etc.) also seek to do.

Overall, I had to disagree with Bottum's pessimism. After having been a part of the Pentecost vigil, with 500,000 other members of ecclesial movements pouring out love for the Holy Father, I have more hope that Divine Providence hasn't abandoned the faithful - even messed up moderns like ourselves.

On the other hand, I wonder how much of the fallout was due to the insufficient teaching of St. Thomas that dominated seminary formation up to the council. I have heard that the compulsory teaching of St. Thomas demanded a huge number of teachers in a short amount of time. There simply weren't enough qualified professors to fill the role. And so Thomism was taught in a rigid, mechanized way that opened it up for later abuses, or being discarded altogether. I'd be interested in anyone else's estimation of the issue.

Rich Leonardi


Bottum mentions that the Church's saltuary support for the pro-life movement has been a cultural thread that has kept things together. I don't buy it. As important as that cause is, it's a political, not an ostensibly cultural, phenomenon. On my 'blog yesterday I linked to the piece and made an observation about the disappearance of the "loud Italian festival" that used to surround St. Joseph's Day, whose sumptuous "tables" were part of a culinary tradition that dates to the 13th century.

For Italian-American families in places like Rochester, New York, they were an indispensible part of what it meant to be Catholic. And though they were still celebrated in the 70s and even into the 80s, they have all but vanished; the preconcilar ladies who put them together are now in nursing homes.

Did the doing away of meatless Fridays "cause" this? It certainly contributed to the "everything's up for grabs" milieu which led to it, and it told the faithful in a not-so-subtle way that we're no longer in this together.

Ask my apolitical cousins whether a pro-life rally should even be mentioned in the same sentence as a seven-hundred-year-old solemnity.


I agree, John. As a young father-to-be, a future professor, and a kind of leader among my fellow Catholic graduate students, I do want to understand the causes of the current disorder, but what I really want to see are models for positive change, sparks of the new fire, ideas for how to make my own family and my own local communities sources of revitalization.


John Sheridan

"not finding that richness anywhere in the churches and ordinary Catholic life he was a part of. Of being in parish after parish in which Church teachings were ignored, never mentioned, or directly contradicted from the pulpit, in classrooms and other settings."

I know this is what Rod said, but it is really that bad? This statement is not consistent with my experience.

M.Z. Forrest

Agreed Rich. If anyone skipped over it, reread Rich Leonardi's post.


Making Things Up is the largest part of the problem. I don't want to say anything against creativity, you understand. I'm a creative person myself. But when you go to church, you're not going to experience a human creative effort. You're going to worship God as a community, doing as God commanded in ways worked out over time -- a long, long time -- by that community.

Ars longa, vita brevis -- but eternal life in Christ's body lasts a lot longer than any individual's art.

Over and over again in history, we have learned that if you want to approach God, you have to get over yourself and pay attention to Him. That's hard to do when you're so busy making up stuff that you never stop and listen to Him. Don't we have enough work to do changing our hearts and minds, without running around changing where we stand at Mass? (I know I do.)

Why not hand down faithfully what was given, before launching upon new stuff? Kids need to learn to walk before they run, and how to believe that all the world is a gift of God before they can learn to give to the poor.


Even though some people may have found the book extreme Anne Roche Muggeridge (who could not in any way be accused of being poorly catechized) foresaw some of these problems in her book "The Desolate City." Especially in the radicalization of some of the religious orders.

Hopefully the papacy of Benedict XVI will be able to steer the Church at least somewhat back onto track, along with those Bishops who still know what it means to be a shepherd of Christ's Church.


If the Church of the 1960s and 1970s "worked", it did so very much in the short term. It worked for a "moment in time"—when compared with its 2000 year long history.

Nothing gets stale faster than over-relevance.
Except for Pretentious Over-Relevance.

Ferde Rombola

Why is it lame? It's not lame at all; it is, as far as it goes, an accurate assessment of the decline of Catholic orthodoxy since Vatican II (which is how I identified Bottom's metaphor).

Without going into detail, I see two fundamental causes for the decline of the Church in the USA; first, our bishops, not for the use or misuse of their authority, but for the abdication of their authority, their refusal to teach the Faith and to insist that anyone who calls him or herself a Catholic conform to the teachings of the Church. The bishops' fear of offending the secular culture and being thought of as backward, not hip enough to be taken seriously, set them on their heels and they have yet to recover. Instead of confronting that culture and taking it on with the moral imperative which should define our Church, they, and their priests, caved in and became 'nice guys' while the culture captured their flock and led it away to hedonism and corporeal excess. Doing away with fasting on Friday is a manifestation of their failure; second, the homosexual subculture, which invaded the seminaries in the 60s and 70s and which have now populated many of our parishes and cathedrals, cannot be underestimated in its contribution to the decline of the Church. That, too, can be laid at the feet of our bishops. It is the primary cause of the sex abuse scandal and has caused many thousands to lose their faith, a charge I would not want to face on judgment day.

I believe the darkest days are behind us. We have a crop of new, young bishops who seem to understand the problems and seem about to do something about them (Bottom's lone, returning swallow).

Our Lord will never abandon us. If we keep praying for the return of our beloved Church to her roots, it will happen.


"Tell me you don’t think that’s how 80% of the people in the pews think about religion - any pews, including Catholic ones."

With all due respect, I again have to point out that the Christian East has done a better job of holding on to the center, maybe because Eastern Christians are smaller in this country, they are relatively unknown on the mainstream culture screen (when was the last time anyone heard an opinion on the affairs of the churches that included the Orthodox? No, it's usually Catholics, mainstream Protestants and the Evangelicals).

The Orthodox are sometimes accused of being frozen in time but their patrisic core and the strong adhesion to their traditions have kept them from, as St. James would put it, "being tossed to and fro" with every religious fashion that comes down the pike.

They have done a better job of not being double-minded.

"Catholic culture" has become a negative term even among some American

joanie fan

"I agree with you that abstinance on Fridays during Lent was probably the one change that had the most effect on your typical Catholic. Altar girls would fall along similar lines, but the Lenten Fridays abstinance was of bigger magnitude.

I am suspicious of those who claim the left is to blame for the Church's problems"

But it was the left who pushed for these changes. It surely didn't come from the orthodox.

Fr. Phil Bloom

Things don’t happen that fast without some foundation, ironically, for the collapse.

Yes and no. I entered the college seminary in 1964 and witnessed the collapse first hand. The capacity for self-delusion and the willingness to let others delude us was great. We greatly underestimated the power of the world, the flesh and the devil - and our own defenslessness without reliance on Christ.

Having said that, I want to thank you, Amy, for your reflection on Bottum's article, which itself was very good. I agree that doing away with Friday abstinence was a huge mistake.

M.Z. Forrest

Two diffferent lefts Joanie.


How do we form a God focused Catholic culture? A real big question. First, what you cite as a problem can really be used to our advantage. A lot of us attend Mass because we are superstitious--God spanks and/or God loves. That’s the extent of our catechism. This is good. We have a lot of “blank slate” Catholics who recognize the need to attend Mass regardless of their motives.

The following are some very simple suggestions, by no means comprehensive, on how to begin to build a God focused Catholic culture. Culture begins in the home. To refine it further it begins in the kitchen. Each family meal is a skirmish in the culture war. Around the dinner table we share our time together and exchange information. It is up to the parents to direct the conversations toward Christian topics. The conversation could be extended to the simple tasks around the home, cleaning, gardening, repairs, etc.. We explain why we do our work well in relationship to God. The sense of time in the home should be more focused around the liturgical calendar. There should be a sense of correspondence between our simple domestic activities in time and God’s eternal workings.

Huge topic . . .little space.



Your observations (and the observations of the older brothers) are very interesting. The unmooring of the Church from classical philosophy would explain a lot which transpired thereafter. Not just for Catholic women but for all Catholics who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s. The unmooring gave birth to the environment in which things could be "made up"—as though nothing from the past had anything to say about how things should be, and how people should act and think, in the present and future.

JPII and BXVI, both philosophers themselves, have accomplished much towards restoring respect for philosophy. Someday they will be known as the Philosopher Popes and will be credited with helping the Church reconnect with classical philosophy, on which (at least intellectually) it depends so much.


"The intent was to help Catholics develop a more mature faith, one that was not dependent on an institution laying down rules, because that is not what the individual’s call to a personal relationship with Christ should be based on."

I remember this being very much what was explained.

Your reference to the East is interesting because the traditions of fast there are not juridical precepts. It's not a culture of legalism.

Old Zhou

Well, I'm still reading the Pope's book, "Truth and Tolerance," so that will come out in my comment. [Shamless Papal promotion: Buy and read this book!]

I think this book is quite relevant to this discussion, because it focuses on the situation in the modern world of all contemporary faiths and cultures coming into contact with each other--the windows are open, regardless of what the Church wants to do. They are open by media, by the internet, by travel; we live in a world where it is almost impossible (and probably not very healthy), to try to be in a "ghetto" and isolated from global news, entertainment and influences of diverse cultures and religions.

And dialogue, or interprenetration, of cultures is good, and, indeed, a great way for cultures to make progress. But there are also dangers.

And this is the point that most impresses me: Christianity, specifically the Catholic Church, has the Fullness of the Truth, of the Faith, and rightly understands itself as bringing Christ to the world, to all cultures, and as the Truth, Christ is the goal of all that is good in other religions. The actual goal of the Church is nothing less that world domination in the love of God (hence, Deus Caritas Est.)

The problem is, that this is in direct conflict with the Rationalist/Materialist culture (Deus Mortus Est), and also with the move toward a pluralism or "all equal" inclusivism of religions, a favorite approach of those wishing to be "spiritual but not religious."

If you want to please as many people as possible, and yet retain a "religious" position, you just let little bits of the faith, of Truth, drop away, and become more "spiritual." Less Truth, more peace and comfort. In this environment, where "everyone is included at the table" regardless of response to the Truth of the Gospel and the Faith, the old "Catholic Culture" becomes an embarrassment to the Church. Put those old things in the basement, out of view.

But I think things are changing. I think the Church is waking from her sleep of the last few decades, and realizing that, if the Church is not the "pillar and base of the Truth," then the Church might as well become just another school of Buddhist meditation. Once we again become, as a faith community, "pilgrims of truth," then we will spontaneously "infect" the cultures around us--it is inevitable as human beings, and I think it is quite possible that we will see some new form of (perhaps "catacomb") Catholic culture emerge.

Want culture? Seek Truth.

Rich Leonardi

Thanks, M.Z. And egads, in retrospect my spelling errors are horrifying.

Dannyboy: Unless you know what caused the disorder, you may end up with a flawed model.


"I know this is what Rod said, but it is really that bad? This statement is not consistent with my experience."

Hi, John. It really IS this bad in some parts of the country. I know I identfied many times with Rod's complaints and I live in Rochester, NY diocese. You really have to experience it to believe it. From innovations in the Mass, to blatantly ignoring Church teaching (sometimes even contradicting it), the state of Catholicism is in serious trouble in our diocese. There are some hopeful signs, but trying to be a "light" in the darkness is very hard. Bring up Church teaching in a Bible study and be prepared for scoffs and comments like, "the Church has moved on and the Vatican needs to realize it," or "I believe in the sacramental Church, but I don't believe in the Institutional Church." Yep, it can be as bad as Rod notes.

Rich Leonardi

I know I identfied many times with Rod's complaints and I live in Rochester, NY diocese. You really have to experience it to believe it.

You really do. Every bit of nonsense that came into the Church in the seventies and has since been abandoned -- standing during the consecration, lay homilies, self-intinction, ad-libbed Eucharistic prayers, liturgical dancing -- is de rigeur in my hometown. FWIW, we have found an oasis of sanity in Our Lady of Victory for our trips home.


I wonder also at the effect of modern biblical criticism. If we can, as the folks of the Jesus Seminar did, pick and choose which words of Jesus to trust, how much more likely is it that we'll pick and choose those of a bishop or pope? In the '40s and '50s you would never see cover articles in Time and Newsweek speculating that much in the gospels didn't really happen. Scripture scholars like N.T. Wright and Craig Blomberg are a corrective to the Jesus Seminar but don't have the audience probably due journalists' focus on shock value.

Undermining the bible undermines the Church and by explaining away the miraculous (i.e. loaves & fish was about sharing) you give rise to a kind of Pelagianism where Christ isn't the focus because we don't really need him. If what was handed down to us in the form of Scripture is not respected, then how much more will the liturgy, also handed down to us, not be respected?

mary martha

It's interesting to me that you point out the abstinence from meat on Fridays as so key.

I was never taught that we should participate in ANY penitential fast (meat or otherwise) while I was in CCD in the 80s. But we made lots of felt banners!

I decided after Easter this year to continue abstaining from Meat on Fridays. It has been one of the best decisions I have made in returning to a more consistent practice of Catholicism.

It's amazing how often it comes up with other Catholic friends who had the same bad catechisis, and when I explain it to them they are very receptive. Now granted, they are all fallen away or Christmas Easter Catholics at best... so they think my return to the Church is a bit odd. but the fact that I can explain everything I do (such as abstaining from meat) makes a huge difference. Nothing was ever explained to us, so the fact that there are REASONS makes a big difference to them (some have even come to Mass with me).

It's a simple thing, but I do think abstaining from meat on Friday is a big deal.

I also think that there are lots of people out there who think that 'Catholic Culture' is the felt banners of the 70s/80s and they have NO interest in that (I know I don't). But an understanding of the 1,940 years of Catholic culture before Felt banners... I am willing to bet people might find something interesting in there.

Old Zhou

Dear Mary Martha,

Unfortuantely, the last penitential fashion is:
- eat meat on Fridays, but abstain from the Eucharist.

Because, you know, we are a Desert People.
Maybe do "Sitting Meditation" instead.

(I wish this was a joke.)


Scanning the piece, I think it's conservative self-indulgence. Blame altar girls. Blame women religious. Blame the liberals. It's a tired litany that doesn't get any less false by its repetition.

The post-WWII decades saw massive shifts in western culture: the bomb, suburbs, television, affluent Catholics, communism, civil rights. Bottum is picking on ten-year-old females washing priests' hands? Get a sociology degree for pity's sake.


And see, TSO - I didn't even get to that point. In the 50's seminary training for diocesan priests had relatively little Scripture study - actual study. Then when it was introduced in the 60's - it was all Bultmann, etc.....which continued through the 80's at least. I have no idea what the status of Scripture study in contemporary seminaries is.

But I do know that up until the very recent past, lay ministry formation programs and adult ed in Catholic parishes has been strongly on the deconstructionist end of things - Miracle of Sharing, these are documents that express the Church's needs, not necessarily the true story of Jesus, and so on.

And when that's gone...it's a book of proverbs. And who really cares.

Michael Tinkler

I can't help but think that more history would help everyone's mood.

Here is a really good short book about church councils and their usual aftermaths: The Councils of the Church, Norman Tanner, S.J.

Councils don't solve problems - they lance boils which then proceed to drain for a while - sometimes a century or so. Then the body of the Church heals.

Sorry for the graphic image, but read about the aftermath of Nicaea (most of the dioceses controlled by Arians), or Chalcedon (the almost permanent loss of those churches which refused to accept it, and perhaps setting the stage for the triumph of Islam in the Middle East), the local councils which dealt with Donatism (which almost certainly set the stage for the disappearance of Christianity in North Africa).

In other words, we *have* to take the long view.

Jay Anderson

"Scanning the piece, I think it's conservative self-indulgence."

Of course you do, Todd.

Honestly, I could be wrong, but I don't remember Bottum's peice mentioning altar girls. Are you sure you read it? Or did it merely provide the opening to your statement above.

Catherine L

So much of this - so very much of this is sociological. I heard a bit of Jody’s appearance on the Al Kresta show last Friday, and he made the point that in the 50’s, sociologists were wondering what was going to happen to Catholicism in the United States when the urban ethnic enclaves dissolved, as they were bound to do. Now we know.

I grew up in a thoroughly Catholic culture in New Orleans. There were no urban ethnic Catholic enclaves--nearly everybody, rich and poor was Catholic. I can barely remember the Latin missals at my parish. But I do remember when my mother quit worrying about feeding us meatless dinners on Friday. And I can tell you that was right about the time when it seemed like all the adults started going crazy. It seemed like almost all of my friends had divorcing parents. Suddenly most of the sisters quit wearing habits. There was a big stink when NOPSI (the bus and streetcar system) announced that they were no longer going to let out-of-habit priests and sisters ride free. It seemed that the entire city was chucking the culture and the moral structure out of the window.

I think you're on to something, Amy.

Michael Tinkler

Oh - Rich - come to Geneva. Out here in the boonies of the diocese of Rochester we get priests who are too orthodox for town.


I should note that my parents kept the Friday abstinence observance for the entire family well into the 1970s and for themselves at least through the end of the 1980s, with occasional exceptions. My father similarly retained the daily Lenten fast for many, many years after it ceased to be a preceptual obligation. (Why does no one mention that fast anymore?) I don't remember ember days being observed that way, though.

Joe Magarac

What struck me most about Bottom's piece was his metaphor of clearing out the nooks and crannies where the birds used to roost. Reflecting on that, and thinking about Amy's point (made here and elsewhere) that only a hollow shell of a Church would have crumbled so quickly, I have come to believe that:

1. Throughout the West circa 1950, most people within and without the Church were following old customs without knowing why. Some writers suggest that the two World Wars caused this sense, and I am willing to believe it. But whatever the cause, as a result many people circa 1950 were going through the motions in living their lives, so that they followed rules and customs without knowing why. Older members of religious orders will testify to this as a reality within the Church circa 1950. But it was just as true outside the Church: see books about 1950s housewives, or by John Cheever. Read Merton.

2. By 1960, there was a sense in the West that the best thing to do would be to junk the old customs and start fresh. Again, this was as true outside the Church as inside it. Look at the 1960s buildings on almost any college campus: they will bear almost no relationship to any of the buildings that come before them. Look at urban planning at that time: it often involved demolishing entire neighborhoods and creating new streets and new buildings.

3. This sense that one should scrap the old and create something new was inevitably part of the Church by 1960. Vatican II was just the official recognition of that fact. As a result, Church leaders scrapped old customs just as politicians were scrapping old neighborhoods. This is why we have a new Mass and not just changes to the old one. It's also why we got rid of fish on Friday, novenas, religious processions, prayer candles (I never saw any in the suburban churches we attended growing up), et cetera.

4. I therefore think it's silly to point at any one older tradition (e.g., the old Mass, or the fish-eating) as the cornerstone of the whole edifice. The point is that nobody saw the rationale behind ANY of the old customs, and most people were agreed that it was time to try something new. So when church leaders announced that there would be a new Mass or that there would not be a need to keep eating fish on Fridays, very few laypeople protested. They were busily moving to new suburbs and going to work (if they were women) and otherwise creating new customs.

5. By now, many people have realized how silly the idea of scrapping one's entire past is. College buildings built today now look a lot more like the old buildings, and the 1960s stuff stands out as odd. New houses are often built with sidewalks and et cetera that 1960s suburbs lacked. Within the Church, there are some (including many of us readers) who to some extent self-consciously choose the old Mass, or practice older devotions.

6. It'll be interesting to see what happens next. The days of scrapping the old are over, but because there is nothing old and alive to follow, it seems vaguely artificial for a suburban kid to move into an old neighborhood, or for a 27-year-old woman to wear a chapel veil. The tension between wanting a set of customs to follow and not having any vibrant ones will be resolved in the next few decades.


I have amended the post slightly, because I certainly do not want to give the impression that abandoning the Friday discipline of abstaining from meat was responsible, on its own, for anything. I was trying to say that this was the touchstone for most Catholics - the referent for understanding what it meant to say "the Church teaches" something or "this is who Catholics are." Most CAtholics of that generation will tell you that there was a bit of a sea change symbolized in that.

Joe Magee

How is it that we are all here? How is it that there are any of us trying, however feebly, to follow Christ in this Church of his, messed up as it is? This is the question that I think never gets addressed, and it was my reaction to Bottum's article. Having grown up in OC during the time she chronicles, I have to say, as Amy has noted, that the goofiness did not wholly penetrate a core of Catholic culture. I credit the Irish Sisters of Charity at St. Columban's in Garden Grove and their instruction on transubstantiation with my first introduction to Aristotelian/Thomistic philosophical principles, and I even graduated Servite High School with my faith in tact. Sure, not all of my classmates did. But with things as bad as they've been, its a wonder, a miracle really, that the faith has continued in any of us. I really think that post-V II years have been a winnowing of the Church (in the US at least). The vocations shortage here has kept the dammage done by seminaries of the past 30 years to a minimum. With a changing of the guard there, the Church in the US might deserve, and be able to care for, fine young men as priests. We might just be at the beginning of the end of this period of pruning. The Church, and God, think in centuries, not months or years.

mark j

Honestly, I could be wrong, but I don't remember Bottum's peice mentioning altar girls.

I just searched the article on First Things' webpage. No mention of altar girls. But don't let the facts get in the way of anyone's preconceived notion of "petty conservative whining". Or whatever.

Morning's Minion

I think Bottom's key error is in not distinguishing between culture and politics. In that sense, I think Rich Leonardi and others are on the ball. Yes, there was a "silly season" in the 1960s and 1970s. I'm too young to have lived through the worst aspects, but I'm still recovering from the clapping hands, tambourines, hippy priests and guitars of my childhood!

But this is not the same thing as the political right-left division. Bottum, for some reason, thinks it is, and complains nunmerous times that the bishops were too left wing at a time when the faithful was moving right. For sure, Roe v. Wade changed things. It made the Democratic party a less comfortable home for Catholics, but why does this mean that the bishops were supposed to shift gears away from good old Catholic social justice positions? I don't want to get into the old standard "negotiability of abortion" debate, but merely to make a simpler point: why should liturgical dignity and theological orthodoxy have anything to do with one's politics?

And one more issue: what about the risk that Catholic culture could take a turn for the worse due to the increasing alliance with evangelicals? (again, I'm not speaking in political terms here).


"Scanning the piece, I think it's conservative self-indulgence. Blame altar girls. Blame women religious. Blame the liberals. It's a tired litany that doesn't get any less false by its repetition."

Really? And how far back do your Catholic roots go, Todd? What living experience do you have of the Church pre-Vatican II? My husband, my father and the half of my family that have always been Catholic would be the FIRST to say that there is a profound difference in the attitudes of radical women religious and the sisters that taught them in school.


Top Ten Reasons Catholic Culture Vanished in USA

10. Rosary beads not "psychedelic" enough.
9. What are these beads for, anyway?
8. The Protestants boogie, and all we have is this musty Latin chant?
7. You mean, if I eat meat today, I won't go to Hell? Waiter, I'll have the steak.
6. If John and Jackie Kennedy can have a drinky-poo and be gorgeous, why can't we?
5. Catholicism is for squares.
4. Womyn Power!
3. That does it, I want a divorce.
2. Humanae Vitae? Hahahah. Boys and girls, trust your feelings. The truth is within you.

And the top reason Catholic culture vanished in the USA:

1. "Imagine there's no heaven"...


MM and Rich:

You're right. I'd say that was one of the points I was feebly trying to grasp at.

And MM - oy, can of worms. We Catholics have been afflicted with serious evangelical envy in the US for 10 years or so now, but I think the shine is starting to come off that apple, thank goodness, because, quite frankly, the shine is coming off of pop evangelical culture for evangelicals.

(The exception, in my mind, is with the role of Scripture in faith and faith formation. We made a lot of noise about that after the Council, but Catholics still don't care much about Scripture and there are not a lot of really useful tools for the ordinary Catholic to help them incorporate Scripture into their spiritual lives - yes, there are some, but not much in the sort of Scripture's-in-my-life-every day sense that evangelicals have.)


The alter girl "issue" has troubled me. I don’t see it as a problem. I am very orthodox, but can someone please help me to understand the controversy?

Notwithstanding St. John, weren’t the first alter servers almost exclusively women?

John Murray

Bottum certainly writes well, and his overview of the last few decades squared with my experience. My family keeps Friday abstinence at my wife's insistence. It is a spiritually productive discipline, I think. But it is a far cry from being a collective act of an entire community of which you were a part through that sign.

There were two destructive aspects of the Council. First, it conferred license to choose, e.g., you could continue to wear chapel veils, fast from midnight onwards, etc, even though in fact virtually everyone dumped those acts. And second that we were forced to do a lot of loony acts that liberal nuns/liturgists made us do--hold hands in the Our Father, ad populorum, worship of felt banners, etc. That combination of being free to junk tradition but being required to take up wacky new things was deadly. As we know now, it did not square with the teachings of the council.

As for the future, I thought Bottum was too optimistic. I think my own family has righted itself through transfer to an Eastern (Byzantine) Rite. But when I see the minimal or nonexistent level of practice and catechesis among nieces and nephews and kids of friends, I don't see the dark times being over any time soon. The destructive force of the typical interpretations of the Council will, I think, continue into the next generation at least.

Rich Leonardi

... but can someone please help me to understand the controversy?

For decades the altar boy system was treated as something of a farm team for the priesthood. That angry Catholics with a hostility to the priesthood and a raft of other gender-oriented issues made "altar girls" a pet cause was bound to be controversial.


I'm going to comment here from my own childhood impressions of the "years of change." The biggest problem with that time IMHO was a silly optimism that somehow everything was going to be better as we tore down the old. There was a belief that the world was being reborn into a glorious new age. I bought it.

In retrospect, it was a childish sentiment and it shouldn't be liberal or conservative to recognize that many good things were thrown out without concern for what was lost.
Now looking back there are many things we wish we had. I can't believe that anyone thinks we arrived at the glorious future that was envisioned however it is impossible to simply turn back the clock.

Even restoring old traditions and organizations would by nature make them something other than they were. We are at a point where the stasis is too flimsy to hold so in some sense, we're all progressive if we're honest about it. The worst thing for me personally about the current state is that it can stand in the way of just getting lost in the faith. Wherever you stand, you end up on somebodies radar as "progressive" or "reactionary" regardless of intent.

Boko Fittleworth

Great post; great discussion; two comments:

1) Although I'm bored with Todd's obligatory anti-conservative/pro-progressive asides, and although I don't think getting a degree in sociology is good advice for anyone, I do think Todd nails an important facet of the problem. The world changed. (Relative prosperity plus television equals big trouble.)Everything that is in the world (even if not of it) is going to be affected by this. It's going to take us a while to work out a modus vivendi in this modern world, and things are going to be rather messy for a while.

2) There was a failure to catechize and to govern and to worship well, but there was also a great success in these areas. To some extent, the Church's failure was Her enemies' success. The bad guys successfully changed the method and content of worship and catechesis and promoted their allies while stifling dissenters. Some (not all, but some) of the problems we have were deliberately caused, deliberately brought about by people who do not believe what the Church teaches.


Michael Tinkler's comment on the need to take the long view is spot on.

And Joe Magarac's post is very, very insightful.

Sandra Miesel

Altar servers would not have been female in the Early Church initially because its Jewish matrix had no liturgical role for women. Acolytes men were in minor orders, not boys.

The way the altar girl decision came down utterly enraged me and many others. First the rule is broken in individual parishes *wink-wink*. Then more openly with bishops' permission *nudge-nudge*. Rome is entreated to change the rule to follow practice. Communion in the hand became standard much the same way. Female homilists at least didn't quite make it into the mainstream.

I agree that Friday abstinence was an important sign of Catholic identity. It's probably not going to come back officially but no reason why we can't do this voluntarily.

John Sheridan

Joe Magarac,

You're right. The "collapse" involved all aspects of Western culture.
People now dress slovenly at mass, but nowadays people look dumpy when they go to restaurants or theaters or even court.
Church architecture became ugly and banal, but ALL architecture is now ugly and banal.


Contempt for bishops?
No, dismay over many of those who hold this esteemed office.
This resident of the Diocese of Wierdness (OC), looks to the Supreme Bishop when in doubt. Viva il Papa!



Thank you, I did not know that specifically. I always thought of the following when I saw girl alter servers.

“Now there stood by the cross of Jesus, his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalen.”

Also, when they pour water over the priest’s hands it causes me to think of St. Veronica.

I’ve only returned seven years, and missed the heat of this controversy. It never occurred to me that it was an attack on the priesthood. Can this issue be arrested away from the libs and made ours? Do you think this would be a good opportunity for girls to stand at the foot of the cross like Our Lady?

There is a lot of rich symbolism having the girls be servers, more so than the boys, but only if placed in its proper context.

Rich Leonardi

You're right. The "collapse" involved all aspects of Western culture.

Well, yes. And the Church was bound to be impacted negatively by these things. But let's not be fatalists (or, for that matter, Marxists, who view history as a succession of inevitable forces). Along the way, bad decisions were made by people who should have known better.


". . .We Catholics have been afflicted with serious evangelical envy in the US for 10 years or so now, . . . Catholics still don't care much about Scripture . . . yes, there are some, but not much in the sort of Scripture's-in-my-life-every day sense that evangelicals have.)

Yes, Catholics still have a lot of work to do on that front, but if a Catholic makes only the attempt to follow the daily as well as the Sunday readings he/she will be exposed to more of the Bible in a year than many Protestants now get.

I always found some of the Evangelical approach to Scripture problematic with its "rapture" and "health and wealth" approach, not to mention its lack of sacramental imagination, divorced as it is from the patristic and historical roots of the church. I do recognize, however, that not all Evangelicals fit that mold and some Evangelicals are beginning to realize that with sola scriptura the baby was thrown out with the bathwater after the Reformation.

Joseph Bottum

Dear Amy--

Thanks for posting these smart comments.

The question of impact on average Catholics is important, I agree. But you seem pulled in two directions in answer: On the one hand, Call to Action in Detroit in 1976 and rightest schismatics out in Washington State--all the 1970s weirdness--touched ordinary people in the pews only in the slightest ways. On the other hand, people in the pews felt something was having an enormous impact, as they watched their festivals, their rites, and their culture disappear overnight, abandoned by their churches.

It depends, I think, on what we mean by "culture." I tend to think there are always mechanisms by which intellectual culture influences popular culture, and popular culture influences intellectual culture. America's old Catholic culture had a fairly well integrated way of using these mechanisms; there was, when it worked, a smooth passing of ideas and forms up and down the chain. Is this what broke in the 1960s and 1970s?

Rich Leonardi has a smart point. I don't think I'd separate politics and culture as strongly as he does. Isn't politics part of culture? But Rich's general point is a good one: The pro-life movement and the intellectual culture of natural-law theory are weak foundations for building the kind of rich Catholic culture that produced the old Italian festivals. Rich should note, though, that I dwelt on this weakness at length in the essay and found it the most disturbing aspect of the emerging phenomenon.

One other quick thought, Amy. Are you certain about the origins of modern Catholic contempt for the bishops in traditional anti-clericalism? The Latin Catholic cultures--Italian and Spanish, in particular--always had a strong strain of what we might call "Catholic anti-clericalism": solid Catholics who nonetheless sneered at priests. But the Irish tradition never quite had that; in Ireland, it tended rather toward open anti-Catholicism: Either you stayed a Catholic and loved the priests, or you left Catholicism entirely and hated it all.

Anyway, American Catholicism was always dominated by Irish forms and prelates. More, as a minority in a Protestant nation, American Catholics tended to defend their priests. I'm not saying there aren't some roots in traditional anti-clericalism. But the general Catholic disdain for the bishops--left, right, and center--does seem to me something new in America.


PS--Altar girls? ALTAR GIRLS??? How'd that become the issue?

John Sheridan

In Irish Catholicism, the common people loved their priests--that is true, so they weren't anti-clerical they ways some Italians were. But I believe a lot of Irish Catholics only tolerated their bishops, who were from a different social class and were peceived as snobbish and out-of-touch.


Wow. "Why should liturgical dignity and theological orthodoxy have anything to do with one's politics?" asks Morning's Minions. I say that is the $64,000 question! If anyone thinks that the undignified liturgical changes and lack of theological orthodoxy (which are the hallmarks of the topic being discussed), are not related to political agendas, I suggest a visit to the Call to Action or the America Magazine (Jesuit) websites. Then check out any Democratic Party website. The politics of the liberal clergy and the politics of the liberal laity in the postconcilar church were and are identical. The systematic way in which the left attacked the Catholic Church from within and without(regarding changes in the laws governing abortion), has been detailed and documented in several books by Dr. Bernard Nathanson (a New York abortion pioneer and Catholic convert) among many others. The left set out to make young Catholics shed their cultural baggage (identity) by making it appear unfashionable and downright medieval. Nothing has changed. The issues today are abortion(still), embryonic stem cell research, and traditional marriage.
Without being overtly political and solidly Catholic, Amy’s blog highlights new examples daily. I am grateful for the clarity with which she does it!
Keep reading, Morning’s Minion!

Jay Anderson

"PS--Altar girls? ALTAR GIRLS??? How'd that become the issue?"

You know, because you went on and on and on about them in your exercise of "conservative self-indulgence" - "picking on ten-year-old females" and blaming them for all the ills of the Church.

At least according to one commenter, who was able to discern all that from "scanning the piece".

c matt

Undermining the bible undermines the Church

Not untrue, but I would put it in reverse order - undermining the Church undermines the Bible - after all, the Church pre-existed the Bible and gave birth to it, so to speak. There could be a Church w/o a Bible, but no Bible w/o a Church. Having said (typed?) that, I agree anything that undermines or attacks one, will undermine or attack the other.

As for the altar girl thing - I don't recall them coming around until the '90s. But again, that is more a symptom than a cause. A large cause, both within and without the Church seemed to be this questioning of authority simply for the sake of questioning it. Kind of like what our diversity frenzy has done - companies (and governments) demanding diversity simply for diversity's sake w/o paying attention to actual qualifications or results.

Questioning anything and everything became vogue, without the recognition that the point of questioning is to find an answer. That, and the Alan Alda sensitivity culture - don't want to offend by pointing out you are wrong, blah, blah, blah. But these were not exclusively Catholic pathologies. The problem for Catholicism is that it took these cues from the broader American culture rather than attempt to resist them. In an admirable way, it did want to open its windows to see what was out there; unfortunately, it seemed to open the windows just as the garbage truck was going by.

I get the sense (because I was not really old enough to recognize) that American Catholic culture (from the Bishops on down) really wanted to be more part of the American culture than the Catholic one.

Old Zhou

From Swallows to Altar Girls: What Went Wrong with the Catholic Church in America:
A very brief investigative report by Old Zhou

The connection between Mr. Bottum's article in First Things and "Altar Girls Is Destroying the Church" can be found here.

...Jody Bottum's long and rewarding essay from the new issue of First Things, in which he makes the failure in recent times of the famed swallows to return to Capistrano a metaphor for the death, or near-death, of Catholic culture in the United States. Bottum says that Vatican II's reforms cleaned out a lot of "nests" in the American Catholic Church, things that the would-be reformers thought were mere cobwebs, detritus, cultural bric-a-brac, but which were actually crucial carriers of Catholic culture....

...It was quite a contrast. The 1970s building suggested Our Lady of Pizza Hut. Inside the rounded interior, a large molded plastic cross hung over the altar, which had been moved forward, like a theater in the round. The walls had been stripped of nearly anything identifiably Catholic, except for some modernist representations of the Stations of the Cross. It looked like some sort of badly-dated bus terminal from "The Jetsons." The white-haired priest processed in, trailed by a couple of altar girls, with the congregation mewling some Seventies-era hymn. You can imagine the rest -- indeed, if you are an American Catholic, you don't have to work hard to imagine it...

So, you see, there it is.


"It's probably not going to come back officially but no reason why we can't do this voluntarily."

But there is: those leftist bishops suggested it in The Challenge of Peace. Reason enough to discount it: you might be mistaken for a pacifist.

Thanks for the notice on the altar girl controversy. I thought it came up in the commentariat, but I may have been wrong. Blame the clowns instead, okay?


Sorry, if off-point on the alter girls. It was an attempt to discuss how to create a stronger Catholic culture within the bounds of orthodoxy.


How good was pre-Vatican II Catholic culture at evangelizing and catehizing, anyway? My greatest-generation Italion-American relatives, in their 80s and 90s now, are and always have been Catholic to the core. Haven't missed Mass for going on a century. But you couldn't talk apologetics or doctrine with them for five minutes. They don't really know the faith a whole lot better than today's average young person. They're more loyal to the institutional Church; it's an integral part of their very being and identity and they will not separate themselves from it. But if I ever saw a single aunt or uncle of mine from that generation -- and I love them, I really do; they put my Christian charity to shame -- reading a papal writing, or a Catholic newspaper, or any sort of apologetics work, I'd fall out of my chair. They live it without knowing it. Their thrust after the War was to assimilate and to make life better for their kids -- the Boomers -- than it had been for them. Leave the evangelization and catechesis to the priests and nuns.

God love the greatest generation, but the current vacuousness of the Church in America owes as much to pre-V2 Catcholic culture (clerical: pray, pay and obey) as it does to the post-V2 one (make it up as you go along). It didn't materialze out of nowhere.

Rich Leonardi

Mr. Bottum,

Thanks for the compliment, and I hope I did not mischaracterize your position.

I don't negate the importance of politics (as most readers of Amy's comment boxes know), but I do think it is, as you indicate, a very weak foundation for building a culture. Aside from encouraging an overly intellectual experience of the Faith, it leaves out the vast majority of Catholics, who think about politics, if at all, every fourth November.


I'm probably coming at this from a very different perspective than most. Even though I was born at the height of the felt banners/clown Masses/experiential liturgy craze, I experienced very little of it. My parents had a radical conversion when I was young and quickly progressed through several stages from the charasmatic rewewal to hard-core, but legitimate Traditionalists. As an adult I've settled in an area with orthodox parishes and a supportive Catholic community and for the first time in my life have been an active and registered member of a parish. And it has been a fruitful, wonderful thing. I suppose it's as if I skipped the 70's and 80's altogether and went from a traditionalist community which was high on reverence and doctrine, but often angry, disunified, and somewhat insular, to a JPII-styled, post-Vatican II parish that is also high on reverence and doctrine but continually amazes me with its charity, unity, dedication to the truth, and deep spiritual life, as well as an understanding of its obligation to be a light to the world. I see every sign for hope in the life of ordinary Christians that I know, in the sacrifices and dedication of our priests, in the ecclesial movements, in all the expanding pockets of faithful Catholics who are trying to be a leaven in the world. Of course it takes a long time to build a culture, but I can't help thinking it's in the works.



I think you're right. One thing everyone should read (along with LOTS of history, per/Cranky Prof) is The Church and I by Frank Sheed. It is a memoir of his life as an apologist and, more to the point, publisher, and he often sounds as if he could be writing in 2006, for all of his despair about the poor knowledge of the faith of the general Catholic population - even among clergy and nuns.


If politics and liturgical culture are so closely linked, then how to explain the modern Episcopal Church? The church I grew up in had high church liturgy -- anthems, incense, and all -- and deeply-felt lefty politics. Lots of Anglicans manage choral evensong and the Crop Walk, and see beauty in both.

Rich Leonardi

But there is: those leftist bishops suggested it in The Challenge of Peace. Reason enough to discount it: you might be mistaken for a pacifist.

The point, made clearly in Duffy's essay, and which even a gadfly like yourself knows, is that a corporate commitment to such things makes a profound, Body-of-Christ-building difference.



I know this is a bit tangental to the discussion, but my mom insists that the swallows still do return to Capistrano every year. She has this on good authority; both my brothers and their families live in Orange County, and my sister-in-law has mentioned the return of the swallows in the recent past. Also, my mom says that she saw the swallows when she visited the mission a few years ago.

Yet the article says that they stopped coming about two decades ago. Now I don't know what to believe about that.

In Jesu et Maria,


Yes, Amy, I'm certain ennui and apathy has been a problem in the Church for far longer than we tend to think. What frustrates me about my older Catholic relatives isn't so much that they don't know their faith; it's that they seem to have no desire to know it. Like today's generation, they're more influenced by what's on TV than what's in the Catechism. In fact, they view the faith through the eyes of the popular culture rather than viewing the popular culture through the eyes of the Church. Not in toto; surely they are shocked at how immoral things have gotten. But in general, their ongoing "formation" -- their worldview and their perspective -- comes far more from that damn flickering box in the living room than from anything the Church has said about anything.

As for why ... Surely when the waves of Catholic immigrants got here, they had to band together in order not to be Know-Nothing'ed out of participation in the American dream and in order not to feel totally alone. The parish became the center of social life. Hence the 80%-plus Mass attendance, the vibrant feasts and processions, the magnificently Catholic culture at the local level. Once assimilation was complete, and WW2 was over, it was time to spoil the BoomerBrats and give them little reason to rely on God, much less to learn about him. It all seems so inevitable, in a certain sense. The Church was fat and happy; it wanted to maintain the pray-pay-obey status quo. And the pre-V2 people went along. They didn't make waves. When their children and their children's children rejected the faith, or cafeteria-ized it, they didn't have the tools, the motivation or the knowledge to do anything about it. And so here we are.

Old Zhou

About the swallows that (used to) flock to the Mission San Juan Capistrano:

The San Juan Capistrano Mission in Southern California had once been a regular vacation spot for them for over 200 years with the entire town anticipating their return. However, with the urbanization of this area and the lack of mud and food supplies there the numbers of the cliff swallow residing at the Mission have declined and they are being forced to nestle under bridges, culverts and eaves of buildings. Source.

Development around the area (a metaphor for the forces of the culture surrounding the Church?) is probably more of a factor than any particular action in the Mission.

Cliff swallows regularly show up in my home area, and they build their nests under all sorts of (concrete) bridges, on towers, under eaves of buildings, etc. They really don't mind if last years nests are knocked down; they just build new one.

But, if you take away the mud...nothing to build with!

Joe Magarac

Mr. Bottum writes that "people in the pews felt something was having an enormous impact, as they watched their festivals, their rites, and their culture disappear overnight, abandoned by their churches."

Rich Leonardi states that "bad decisions were made by people who should have known better."

I respect both these commenters, but must disagree with them here. I don't think laypeople made the decisions to do away with all of the old trappings of Catholic culture. But few of them opposed those decisions at the time they were made, and many -- perhaps most -- saw them as part of an overall societal change that was good and timely.

It therefore seems inaccurate to imply (as Bottum does) that laypeople watched in horror as their heritage was stripped away, when those very laypeople were busily (and eagerly) leaving their homes and moving down South or out West or to the suburbs, buying polyester bell-bottoms, and doing countless other crazy things.

It seems equally wrong to say (as Leonardi does) that the bishops in 1970, who were painfully conscious in ways that we cannot remember of the felt emptiness of established ritual, "should have known better" than to create a new Mass or to permit felt banners to take the place of purple Lenten statue covers.

We know now, in hindsight, that scrapping the past in favor of an invented present does violence to us in any number of harmful ways. A few prophets warned us about that at the time, and a few others -- Joseph Ratzinger among them -- realized early where the trends of the 1960s were heading and chose to resist them as best they could. But blaming what happened in the Church on a few bad apples, a few bad decisions, or even an overly passive laity, is in my view to get things wrong.

The problem was a trend that swept through society and necessarily shook the Church. The miracle is that so much survived, and that so many green blades are now rising.

Rick Lugari

Yootikus and Amy,

I don't know if it's fair or even worthwhile to give much attention to the generation of simple cultural Catholics. Not that I don't think it is a good thing to be able to give reason for our hope, I just don't think that the evangelical mission is for everyone. I think we too often view the past through today's eyes rather than yesteryears. There's something to be said for simple people living out simple lives, working and sanctifying themselves. It seems that is in good part what our lost Catholic culture did best. Sanctify souls.


I just don't think that the evangelical mission is for everyone.

You're entitled to your opinion, Rick. So was Pope John Paul II, who said "No believer in Christ ... can avoid this supreme duty: to proclaim Christ to all peoples." That's from his 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio. Well worth a read in its entirety:


Old Zhou

Re: Rick and Yootikus

Last month my baptismal godfather died, at about age 85. I last spoke with him in July, and he, knowing that he had cancer, gave me his final gift of wisdom.

He talked about how, in his generation, people were just what they were. Catholics were Catholics. Lutherans were Lutherans. When you married, you were married. People were not occupied with endless "re-inventing" of themselves. So you actually had time to learn to live your life, your faith, your marriage, over the years. And he told me to love my wife.

He is probably one of the most solid Catholic men I have ever known. He lived in the same house since the end of World War II, raised about 10 kids, with his one wife, in the same parish, to the end, through all the changes in Catholic life in coastal Los Angeles from the 1930's to 2006.

He was a laborer, a father, a husband, a parishioner. We never really talked about theology. Why should we? He lived his faith.


Rick is right. Personal holiness is everything. Faithful Catholics evangelize with their very lives. Those who truly love Christ cannot help but fulfill their "supreme duty to proclaim Christ to all peoples." It's not rocket science.


Amy, this post was not lame. I thought it was the most worthwhile thing I have ever read on a blog. I largely agree on the meatless Fridays issue and I think Pope Benedict the XIV (note that’s 14th not 16th) would agree too. He wrote this in 1741 about Lenten fasting, but I think it’s safe to say he would apply it to other traditional fasting practices as well:

“The observance of Lent is the very badge of Christian warfare. By it we prove ourselves not to be enemies of the cross of Christ. By it we avert the scourges of divine justice. By it we gain strength against the princes of darkness, for it shields us with heavenly help. Should mankind grow remiss in their observance of Lent, it would be a detriment to God’s glory, a disgrace to the Catholic religion, and a danger to Christian souls. Neither can it be doubted that such negligence would become the source of misery to the world, of public calamity, and of private woe.”

What I don’t get is this: I know more Catholics who have completely abandoned their faith in every way except for abstaining from meat on Fridays than practicing Catholics who observe meatless Fridays (aside from folks at the indult parish I go to). What’s up with that?


Oh, trm, such a good point. Worth a post!


Zhou: The St. Francis approach to fulfilling the Great Commission -- il povorello is said to have told the brothers to "Preach the Gospel; only use words if you must" -- worked fine when the Church was a strong force in the culture. Surely that was the case in the 1950s. But it's not any more. Is this not why JPII called for a "New Evangelization"? Did he not see that the Church was now being changed more by the culture than it was changing the culture, claiming it for Christ and, thus, saving and sanctifying souls?

No doubt he also saw that, if Catholic lay people wouldn't do their part to "give account of the hope that is in us" -- including to the people sitting next to us in the pews -- then evangelical Protestants and Pentecostalists would be more than happy to.

Mike Potemra

Congratulations on your splendid post, Amy. When you say Catholicism has "spent 40 years making stuff up," you come to the heart of the matter--that the Catholic Church is, as Vatican II intended but not quite in the *way* Vatican II intended--closer to the heart of modern man than it had been.

Vatican II was a brave act on the part of the Catholic branch of Christianity to bring itself more closely in line with the will of the Holy Spirit. It was brave because the result of such wide-ranging change was quite foreseeable: A certain "mystique"--the aura of perfect changelessness, of divine stasis--would be lost. Within a decade George Carlin would be joking that "Hey, there are still people doing time in Hell on a meat-on-Fridays rap." In other words: You don't need to take the Catholic Church seriously, folks; they've already admitted they were wrong on some things, and if you disagree with them on anything else, well, just wait till they see the error of their ways on that too. You could see, finally, the little man behind the curtain.

Vatican II was a great gamble, and conservatives find it easy to recite the statistics about all the harm that has ensued from it (declining Mass attendence, low vocations, etc. etc.). But I think that, fundamentally, the Vatican II leaders--Montini, Suenens, Lercaro, Leger, Ratzinger, Wojtyla, et al--had a touch of the Spirit in what they were doing. The Catholic Church made herself vulnerable, in trying to be faithful to the truth (as opposed to its own institutional power and importance)--and I can't help seeing, in that very vulnerability that has been the cause of anguish to so many Catholics, the face of Christ.

I predict that after this dark transition, there will be (25 years from now? 50? 75?) one of the brightest chapters in Catholicism's history.



This is a good point.

"But blaming what happened in the Church on a few bad apples, a few bad decisions, or even an overly passive laity, is in my view to get things wrong."

The question is where do we go from here, and from where does the renewal come?
I think that cultural renewal starts with us in our homes. Also, tools like the internet and other media allow the Holy Father to do an end-run around any recalcitrant hierarchy. These tools allow us to catechize ourselves. We have cause for great optimism.

Rich Leonardi


I know plenty of lay Catholics who participated in those bad decisions. They may even have represented a majority sentiment. But in the context of the Communion of Saints, which pre- and post-dates them, they indeed may be a mere "few bad apples."

And your bit about the "felt emptiness" of the old rite is the sort of assertion that requires proof.



Thanks for that thought.

And I would say that Eamonn Duffy would likely agree with much of what you noted; he is hardly a traditionalist. His observations arise more from the study of the history of change.

To a great extent, the juridical-preceptual model for girding Catholic culture that blossomed in the Church's second millennium was exceptionally brittle in its last phase, and I think the Friday abstinence precept was an excellent example of this. The sin was condsidered grave not from substance but where the intent was disobedience to the precept, but that was hardly a nuance grasped by everyone. The same was all the more true of the preceptual obligation of clerics and religious to pray the Breviary each day, about which there was humor more mordant than that of George Carlin.

On top of this, there was (especially in religious orders) a cultivation of obedience as the summum bonum that I think many of us would rightly raise eyebrows over. The kind of obedience that implicated a trickster-God: many of you know the pious (and sometimes true)stories of the saints who, when confronted by a direction of Christ in a vision, submitted instead to the very contrary direction of their confessor and were rewarded by Christ in a later vision for their obedience to their confessor.

While I can can certainly trace the straight line in this, one has to be aware that this notion of obedience tends to reward an infinite regression of self-doubt that can readily collapse into scrupulosity and depression among folks who tend towards piety.

Rick Lugari


Funny you should mention St. Francis' words for they instantly came to mind when I read your reply to me. You cite it, then explain that it was apt for a time but not anymore. A sentiment I both agree and disagree with. I think St. Francis' way is the foundation. It matters not how many apologetics points you can rattle off if you're not living your faith so that those who are hearing you will listen (if that makes sense). On the other hand I recognize and accept that in today's society we should be more active spreading the gospel by word and media.

Nevertheless, I think my point still holds that we shouldn't judge folks like your grandparents by today's standards but by those of their day.

c matt

[St. Francis style preaching] worked fine when the Church was a strong force in the culture. Surely that was the case in the 1950s. But it's not any more. Is this not why JPII called for a "New Evangelization"? Did he not see that the Church was now being changed more by the culture than it was changing the culture, claiming it for Christ and, thus, saving and sanctifying souls?

Even more reason to use the St. Francis method - how many Catholics live their lives in ways that are indistinguishable from many Protestants, agnostics and atheists? A good start would be to see the indistinguishable-from-the-main-culture Catholic divorce rate become distinguishable again (meaning lower than average, not higher), the small families get larger, and any other number of things where actions speak louder than words.


Btw, I believe that the attribution of that aphorism to St. Francis has questioned.

Ferde Rombola

"1. 'Imagine there's no heaven.'"

Or better, imagine there's no hell.

Into the next generation, at least, John Murray?? A blink of the eye to the Church.

Ferde Rombola

JohnT and Rich:

Another problem I see with girls serving on the altar is, boys don't like to do what girls do. I've been in two 'flower-child' parishes and seen the decline in boys serving Mass. It's become a 'girl thing' and boys want no part of it.

ron chandonia

I love this discussion, one of the best I've seen in a good long while. I think Amy's point about "making things up" is excellent. It comes to mind whenever my daughter gets into a new lesson in her "Faith First" religion book. It's as if there's no real substance in our faith which children might be able to share.

In my own childhood, I think I experienced that substance more in the Friday abstinence than I did in the arcane words of the Baltimore Catechism. It was who we were--the kids who didn't eat meat on Fridays. And it wasn't just a mindless custom. I think all of us (at least all of us who went to Catholic school) knew it had to do with Jesus, our Savior who died for us on a Friday afternoon.

My wife recently took up the Friday abstinence, and I don't eat meat at all myself, but it's not the same. Our not eating meat is more of a personal choice than an expression of a collective identity. There are many other personal choices by which we try to make our faith come alive in our daily lives, but none of them is a shared experience in the way the Friday abstinence was.

TM Lutas

In my own diocese, the fast schedule is rather demanding. Wednesdays and Fridays (aside from the occasional feast) one is not to consume meat, fish, dairy, or alcohol. Essentially, you're a 2 day a week vegan. The Easter and Christmas fasts have few days where one can have a bit of milk or some fish, maybe a glass of wine.

This was not true prior to the current bishop. He made the announcement, changed the typikon, and didn't make much of a fuss over the matter afterwards. Change is possible. Change is happening.

We are instituting a religious education program that is 1st class, IMO, based on the Montessori method. I expect catechesis to markedly improve over the next decade.

This is not to say that our diocese is all light and sweet song. There are many problems. But one can see that things are improving.


Amy, this is among the very best pieces you've posted! Kudos to you. I think the points your raise go to the very heart of what it means to be a Catholic in our contemporary world and how in fact we got here. To be a faithful Catholic is to live the life we were meant to live...in community, in compassion, in helping and being helped, to know our place in this world and our relationship to God. Our actions define who we are and we ultimately believe. I'm afraid that it's too easy in our culture to have false values..to believe that I'm self-sufficient, that I don't need God, and that I certainly don't need the Church. So much of it is self-centeredness, and then we wonder why the world is the way it is and why the Church seems so dysfunctional so many times.

I think once the demands on people were loosened, and given how human nature operates, its easy to see how standards and expectations lessen over time. I never really gave the meat on Friday thing much of though but, yeah, expect less from people and you'll get less. You see it all the time, in parents relations with their kids, with educators and their students, and the Church with its members! People want so much now but are often willing to give so little in areas that don't benefit them personally.

All the related issues such as the acceptance of sin (abortion, etc.) in our society, the absence of beauty in our art, our churches, etc, the rampant lonliness among people is merely an outcome of the collective discarding of what used to be there in community but so often isn't anymore. I suppose volumes could be written and no one should escape complete blame nor should any one constituent accept all the blame either.
Keep the discussion coming!
Cheers from Canada.


Amy, this is among the very best pieces you've posted! Kudos to you. I think the points your raise go to the very heart of what it means to be a Catholic in our contemporary world and how in fact we got here. To be a faithful Catholic is to live the life we were meant to live...in community, in compassion, in helping and being helped, to know our place in this world and our relationship to God. Our actions define who we are and we ultimately believe. I'm afraid that it's too easy in our culture to have false values..to believe that I'm self-sufficient, that I don't need God, and that I certainly don't need the Church. So much of it is self-centeredness, and then we wonder why the world is the way it is and why the Church seems so dysfunctional so many times.

I think once the demands on people were loosened, and given how human nature operates, its easy to see how standards and expectations lessen over time. I never really gave the meat on Friday thing much of though but, yeah, expect less from people and you'll get less. You see it all the time, in parents relations with their kids, with educators and their students, and the Church with its members! People want so much now but are often willing to give so little in areas that don't benefit them personally.

All the related issues such as the acceptance of sin (abortion, etc.) in our society, the absence of beauty in our art, our churches, etc, the rampant lonliness among people is merely an outcome of the collective discarding of what used to be there in community but so often isn't anymore. I suppose volumes could be written and no one should escape complete blame nor should any one constituent accept all the blame either.
Keep the discussion coming!
Cheers from Canada.

Lawrence King

Amy, this is a great piece. I really enjoyed Bottum's article, but I felt that something was wrong with it. Your two-sentence summary is dead-on:

In reading Bottum’s piece most average Catholics would not know what the heck he was talking about. The events and statements that he describes certainly had an impact on the life of the Church, but they didn’t hit Catholics where they lived, for the most part.

However, I think this not only applies to many of Bottum's subjects (the Call to Action conference, etc.), but it also applies to the "consecrating bread in baskets with Blowin’ in the Wind wafting around our heads" that you mentioned. I've lived in the suburbs of Los Angeles, Seattle, and the Bay Area for 41 years, and I have almost never seen real liturgical nuttiness of this type. What I have seen is bored priests delivering boring sermons that neither they nor the congregation care about. The disregard for the liturgical norms is almost always pure laziness (e.g., overuse of Eucharistic ministers) and almost never part of some conscious rejection of liturgical tradition.

I submit that the genealogy of this "boring Mass" does not run through "Call to Action" and Charles Curran, but neither does it run through clown masses and Bob Dylan masses. Its genealogy runs directly through the Tridentine low masses that were said in haste with no real interest from the priest or the congregation, in the generation before 1962.

Yes, I know there were profoundly celebrated pre-'62 Masses with a devout priest and an attentive congregation. But if every Catholic in 1962 was truly in love with Christ in the Eucharist, they would have taken up arms to stop what happened in the 1970's. Instead, they yawned.


I suspect that part of the problem with Vatican II was simply the timing. The church was saying "let's engage the modern world" at the very moment that the modern world was going nuts.

On the other hand, I think that the type of Catholic culture you had in the 1950s was just not going to last. In the U. S., the old urban ethnic enclaves managed by the bishops were breaking down; Catholics were moving out to the suburbs; and, basically, becoming just like everyone else. I believe that Joseph Bottum himself has pointed out (contra Deal Hudson in 2004) how Catholics simply vote like everyone else (roughly 50-50 Democrat-Republican).

A new Catholic culture is, no doubt, possible but it probably won't look like U. S. Catholicism in the 1950s.

So, Michael Tinkler is right. The long view is the only sensible view.


Catholic university campus embraces Catholic culture (Newsweek article, Aug 2005):



Yootikus, I was born in 1968. In grew up listening to intense dinner table discussions (or arguments, they amount to the same thing in my family)over that latest encyclical, bishops' doings, etc. Not all of that generation were uncatechised. My grandparents in particular were deeply grieved over much that they valued as beautiful being jetisonned. Interestingly, the bishops whom
they were most concerned about theologically 30 years ago or so have largely been the ones responsible for our recent scandals. Hmmm.


Rich, the ladies quit cooking because they were told it didn't matter anymore, and indeed had never mattered. Indeed, they were probably not only told but had it shoved in their faces, along with permission to use birth control in the confessional. They were told Rome didn't know what it was talking about. What could be the conclusion of this but a shrug and confusion? Apathy and diversion to other things?

Catholics stopped being devout because they were told they shouldn't be devout. So a good many of them became wealthy instead because that's where they put their energies. Pointedly, when you can't say the rosary at the Church on Tuesday night, you go home and watch TV, go shopping or go make some money to pay for your shopping habits. It's the saddest thing--it's all they had left so taht's what they did.

Very negative, scornful proclamation by sources that looked authoritative to the usual catholic was the usual manner in which people were told to stop praying the rosary, wearing the hat, kneeling at the bells, giving silent thanks after mass, etc etc etc. It still goes on in many places in fact.

Why? I've asked myself many times. I think Amy has picked up the reasoning very well, if not all the ideas which contributed to this awful collapse.

The sheer hopelessness of the situation was remarkable. I can remember realizing about 1989 what was happening in the Church, 4 years after converting and being shocked at the inability anyone had to recover the Church in her entirety. Years before I had been a Catholic school student and so remembered and was aware of what had been lost. The stunning thing was how completely in the grasp of dissidents the church was at taht point (at least in the United States).

I believe that right now we are in another period of rapid change and it will finally come around right, but not without some real doing (and praying!) on our parts. For the first time since 1989, I have real hope that I will see this in my lifetime.

God bless Pope Benedict XVI.

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