Which American Catholic Revolution Was That??

February 10, 2012 at 12:09 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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The following is a review of The American Catholic Revolution: How the ‘60s Changed the Church Forever, by Mark  Massa, S.J.  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).  Hardback, $27.95. eBook, $12.07. 191 pp.

Mark Massa SJ is dean of the School of Theology and Ministry at Boston College and the author of several previous books on American Catholicism. He has also been teaching for many years, and The American Catholic Revolution suggests that he’s good at it. His book is clear and engaging. As we approach the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, Massa reminds us of some significant aspects of the Catholic 1960s and clarifies some others.

The basic argument of The American Catholic Revolution is that the really important thing that happened during the Catholic ‘60s—extending, according to Massa, from 1964 to 1974—is that American Catholics acquired “historical consciousness.” That is, we moved from a static world-view to the realization that “everything changes, and that historical events and figures need to be contextualized within their specific times and cultures in order to be understood” (xv).

Massa begins not with the opening of Vatican II but with the 1964 implementation in US parishes of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. Before this, most Catholics, we learn, assumed that what they did in church was timeless, but the changes in the liturgy made them consider the relevance of Catholic symbols. The subsequent liturgy wars were less about worship than about “change itself.”  The pre-Vatican II liturgical writings of Rev. Frederick McManus, especially in the magazine Worship, illustrate this thesis. McManus’s “deft historical contextualization of the new liturgy within the evolving tradition of the Western Church allowed American Catholics to see in the Council and its reforms their place in a long history of reform” (25).

Two chapters on Humanae Vitae also illustrate Massa’s point. Though the encyclical may seem to have been about sex, or contraception, what it really did, simply by suggesting that the church’s position on contraception might change, was to further incorporate historical consciousness into US Catholicism. The expulsion of the Immaculate Heart Sisters of Los Angeles from canonical status by Cardinal McIntyre in 1970—the largest group of nuns to be “exclaustrated” in the history of the American church (82)—provides another instance of this shift to historical consciousness. The Vatican II mandate that religious congregations return to their historical charisms led to unintended consequences far beyond the institution’s ability to envision—or control. The witness of the Catonsville Nine—“Dan Berrigan and his faithful cohort” (117)—against the Vietnam War similarly undercut the rigid, culturally assimilated American Catholic vision of the world with “the dangerous (implicitly historical) memory of Jesus” (123).

This argument culminates in a chapter on the work of Jesuit theologian and cardinal,  Avery Dulles, “arguably the most visible and unarguably the most honored American Catholic theologian by the end of the twentieth century” (130). Massa focuses his attention especially on Dulles’s book Models of the Church,  which was published in 1974. For Massa, Dulles’s brilliant presentation of multiple models of the church is the fullest embodiment of the shift to historical consciousness and its law of unintended consequences, one that far transcends the limited perspective of “conservatives” and “liberals.” As a result of all these developments, and especially Dulles’s theology, Massa concludes, the consciousness that everything  changes, even the church, can never be explained away again. After 1974, it will be increasingly difficult to defend church teaching by appealing to timeless, static categories (158-159).

As I said, Massa’s book is clear and well written. It’s easy to imagine it being widely used in undergraduate courses on American Catholicism.  This would be a pity, though, because The American Catholic Revolution is an example of what I have taken to calling the “feminism is so over” genre of Catholic books. What do I mean by this?

To begin with, Massa just plain doesn’t say very much about women. There are thirteen women’s names and groups in the index to sixty-nine men’s.  Massa would perhaps respond that this period—from 1964 to 1974—was well before the feminist movement catapulted women into positions of leadership, and so fewer women than men made noteworthy contributions to the “Revolution.” And of course, he does devote one chapter to women—the exclaustration of the Los Angeles IHMs—and says some very nice things about their contributions to that revolution.

But beyond the IHMs, the women Massa’s chooses to include are at best odd, if not downright insulting. One is Janet Smith, who edited an historically sophisticated volume on why Humanae Vitae was right; another is Anne-Marie Kirmse, a Dominican Sister who served as Avery Dulles’s research assistant for twenty years.

Now wanna hear the names of some of the Catholic women Massa doesn’t mention? Sister Mary Luke Tobin, for one, though surely her presence at Vatican II gave US Catholic historical consciousness at least a tiny shot in the arm. Then there’s Rosemary Radford Ruether, whose 1974 Faith and Fratricide applies historical consciousness to a particularly sticky aspect of the Catholic tradition. But most astonishing of all is that Massa never once in The American Catholic Revolution mentions Mary Daly, whose 1968 book, The Church and the Second Sex, marked the beginning of US Catholic feminism. But maybe these women are all just  “liberals” transcended by Avery Dulles’s brilliant pluralism.

It’s not fair to criticize somebody based exclusively on what they didn’t write, though. So let’s look at what Massa does say about women. Take for example, the subtitle of Chapter 1: “A Brief History of Catholic Time: Miss Havisham’s House.” Miss Havisham, you may recall, is a character in Dickens’s Great Expectations, a rich jilted maiden lady who spends the rest of her life getting even, a frozen malevolence expressed by all the clocks in her mansion having stopped. Massa is drawing here on a quote from Garry Wills’s Bare Ruined Choirs, in which Wills not only compares the “lying eternity and arranged air of timelessness” of pre-Vatican II Catholicism to an embittered spinster, but also to “Mae West’s vestmented and massive pose. “ Wills compares a male-dominated monarchic institution to two extraordinarily repellent women and Massa chooses to start his book by quoting Wills in full.

Then there’s Massa’s treatment of Elizabeth Johnson.  Toward the end of his paean to Avery Dulles, Massa holds forth on how the theology of Thomas Aquinas is more in sync with historical consciousness than rigid pre-Vatican II neo-Thomist theologians realized. An example of this is the way in which some unidentified Catholic feminists started translating Thomas’s phrase “Qui est” as “She who is,” a translation that is, we are reassured to learn, “both grammatically correct and in line with Thomas’s argument…”(144). Then, in a footnote, Massa writes, “See, for example, Elizabeth Johnson’s brilliant and prize-winning work, She Who Is…” (185).

This, I submit, is Massa’s acknowledgment of Catholic feminist theology. The phrase “She who is” is an example of Aquinas, and a book by a colleague with whom Massa served for many years in the theology department at Fordham, is an example of this example. (Don’t be taken in by his calling Johnson’s book“ brilliant”; he says it in a footnote). This from a guy who quotes Garry Wills repeatedly and writes more about Cardinal McIntyre in the chapter on the IHMs than about the nuns themselves.

I would offer Massa’s chapter on the IHMs, in fact, as the third stunning example of the sexism of The American Catholic Revolution.  It’s all well and good to be grateful that Massa includes a chapter on women in his book. But let’s be clear: the story of the Los Angeles IHMs is a story of domestic abuse transposed to the ecclesiastical level.  Yet a member of the male celibate clergy uses it as the one and only treatment of Catholic women in his entire volume.

It’s not as if there weren’t other Catholic women who embodied historical consciousness during the period Massa examines. How about the Catholic Sisters who marched at Selma in 1965? How about the Leadership Conference of Women Religious whose Sisters’ Survey of 1965-1967 documented change among 139,691 US Catholic Sisters? How about Massa extending the “long decade of the ’60s” a year farther ahead and including the first meeting of the Women’s Ordination Conference in Detroit in 1975? But ending in 1975 would undercut the culminating significance Massa accords the work of his Fordham colleague and fellow Jesuit, Avery Dulles. For myself, hearing those speakers in Detroit call for the full equality of women in the church did more for my historical consciousness, as a twenty-eight year old American Catholic, than ten readings of Dulles’s Models of the Church ever could.

Some may argue that my documentation of sexism in Mark Massa’s The American Catholic Revolution takes nothing away from the validity of Massa’s thesis: the decade after Vatican II changed the American Catholic church forever, making it impossible for the church ever again to deny that things change. And here’s what I say to that: the abuse, exclusion, and vilification of women in the Catholic church is a prime example of the paralyzed pre-historic Catholic view of the world that Massa and others like to think ended with Vatican II. And as The American Catholic Revolution demonstrates.

This review first appeared in the October 2011-January 2012 issue of EqualwRites,  the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference. Those interested in women’s issues in the Catholic Church can subscribe to EqualwRites by sending your mailing address to sepawoc@sepawoc.org.

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