We were never quite the same, at Saint Benedict Center, after the dropping of the atom bomb. It seemed to have shocked us awake. It was almost as if we saw the life around us for the first time. The scales fell from our eyes, and we beheld clearly as actualities many things which we had dreaded might one day be the outcome of our exclusively humanitarian society.
There was worried talk about the revival of Communism. We had never been happy about America’s alliance with Russia during the war, and we were unpopular, often, for saying so. However, we felt that Communism, like Nazism and Fascism, had within it the elements of its own destruction. We were most disturbed about the silence of the Church at this time. Surely now the Church should be giving the challenge of Christ to the ailing world. Surely it should be shouting from the housetops for men to halt in their pagan plunge to destruction. Was there nowhere the voice of a St. Paul, or a St. Augustine, a St. John the Baptist who would bellow in all the land?
We waited and we listened, but no strong voice arose above the noise of the world. There was only the jubilant announcing of a new age, the atomic age, born out of the abandonment of a Christian principle!
In the end, of course, we were forced to ask ourselves what we were doing about it all. We were able to stifle the question for a while with the excuse that it really wasn’t our place to do anything about it. It was the Hierarchy’s place. We were doing our own job rather well. Everyone seemed to think so, as far as we could tell. Archbishop Cushing, at a recent Confirmation of Father’s converts in His Excellency’s little chapel, at Archbishop’s House, had spoken in highest praise of the Center work. However, we were not able for more than a short time to still the steady insistence of our consciences, for we knew it was the duty of everyone who clearly saw the situation to do something about it.
One day news came that the war was ended, and the boys were coming home. Hundreds of Center boys, still in uniform, stopped to see us on their way to their homes. Many said that they were coming back, to go to school again. They, and many others, did return for the beginning of the next academic year. Harvard, like every college in the country, was literally swamped by an enrollment of men, under the GI Bill of Rights, which filled every classroom to its capacity and taxed the housing facilities for miles around Cambridge.
They jammed St. Benedict Center, too. There was in these boys something that had not been in the pre-war students. They were older, wiser. They had been disciplined by the war. They had looked on death. They were eager for all we had to give them, eager for life, these students who had faced the giving up of life. They were hungry for truth, the veterans we met at the Center. They settled down to study at Harvard, and they came to us every possible moment in between their work.
These men completed the change in St. Benedict Center’s policy. Father saw the eagerness go out of their faces after they had been going to school a few months. It was not the normal fading of enthusiasm which so often accompanies the realization of that to which one has long looked forward. It was eagerness replaced by a surprised disillusionment. At the Government’s expense and their own time, they told us, they were being taught, by professor after professor, the very doctrines which had brought on the war they had just been fighting. Many of these professors had been lecturing, safe in their classrooms, all through the war. The students had not gone to battle, so they told us, to rid the world of Military Nazism only to return to college to be taught to base their thinking on Nazi ideology, in the philosophy of Hegel, the psychology of Freud, the sociology of Karl Marx. If these thinkers and their numerous progeny were telling the truth, all right; but it had taken a global war to prove that their fruits were the fruits of error, and not of truth.
On the one hand, in various classes, students were told that God did not exist; man could know nothing outside his mind; the very fact of his existence was doubtful; religion was something devised for the control of the masses; there was no such thing as an immortal soul (much less a heaven to go to after death). On the other hand, they were told that man’s mind was God. In a few years, man would have discovered the secret hidden in the universe from the dawn of evolution, and he could create and destroy at will!
The concept of God had no meaning in physics, the students came to find out, because it was impossible to verify the concept or to experiment upon it. It was impossible to examine God, or to investigate Him. And so, therefore, the concept of God was to be disregarded in physics. One of our students was given to understand that he could be a good geomorphologist, but in order to do it he would have to make geomorphology his religion.
Graduate students in science came to Father for help. They were shaken by the magnitude of the horror that could come upon the world from their own work, and by what seemed to be a complete lack of moral responsibility on the part of their teachers. Indeed, moral standards seemed completely to be breaking down everywhere. A student said to Father Feeney one day, “I wouldn’t give to you or to anyone else authority to set up a system of right and wrong. Anything is right to do if a man thinks it is.”
“Is that so?” asked Father. “Well, let’s see. How would you feel about murder, for instance? Would you hold it was right for a man to murder his mother?”
“Well, I wouldn’t murder my mother myself. But if somebody else murdered his mother, I would hold it was the right thing to do if he believed it was.”
“What if it was your brother who murdered his mother?” Father asked. The student made no answer.
As the year wore on, more and more reports reached us of students losing their Faith, of students committing suicide. A proctor brought to Father one night three students, each of whom had been contemplating suicide for some time. Father did his best to talk them out of it.
One morning Father found two war veterans waiting for him. They were unhappy. “We were just thinking, Father,” they said, “of where we would send our children to school, if we had any. We wouldn’t send them to any school we know, Catholic or non-Catholic.”
“What’s the matter with the Catholic schools?” Father asked them.
“You tell us, Father”, they answered. “We’ve just been talking to a fellow who’s left the Church. He and four others. Five of them. And they all come from that Catholic preparatory school in Portsmouth, Rhode Island.”
“Nothing adds up”, the boys said.
The situation added up for us, however, and it made the sum of our duty clear. Someone had to tell the truth before it was too late. The full, unequivocal, uncompromised message of Jesus Christ had to be thundered in the world again. It could not merely be told. It had to be shouted, bellowed, because the world was deaf, asleep, already half-dead. Polite talking would not wake it, nor would vague reference, large gesture, platitudinous utterance. “Never give offense” seemed to be the Catholic policy of the day. We knew that it was impossible to tell the truth, and not give offense. Christ had given offense to the Pharisees of His day, and to the Sadducees (the free-thinkers of His time), who robbed Jewish children of their full birthright of revealed doctrine.
We knew full well what had happened to Jesus for telling His eternal truth. He was lied about, called crazy. They strove to drive Him out; they crucified Him between two thieves. They would have no part of Him. But He told the Truth, nevertheless, even though it embarrassed men in high places. Was the servant above the Master- should he ask for any more than the Master had received?
We went into a more intensive study of the Scriptures. We studied the Church Fathers, and the Doctors of the Church. We studied the Scriptures in Greek and Latin because we wanted to know exactly what Jesus had said and how He had said it, for our own knowledge and sanctification and so that we might be better able to tell His truth to His people.
We would give the full Catholic message by every means God had given us in the Center. Father Feeney would tell it on Thursday night. We would study it in our courses; we would write it.
We would write it- we would bring out a magazine, and we would call it, this magazine which would have to borrow from the saints and doctors their thunder, this magazine which we hoped would go roaring into the highways and the byways, which would shout the truth, we would call it FROM THE HOUSETOPS.
The first issue of FROM THE HOUSE TOPS came out in September 1946. It was very well received. Monsignor Hickey called upon us to tell us how much he liked it. Monsignor Wright said that His Excellency, Archbishop Cushing (to whom we had gone when we first conceived the idea of the magazine, for his approval and blessing) would be glad to contribute some articles for it. In the December 1946 issue, Archbishop Cushing had an article in the HOUSETOPS entitled, “Catholic and Communism”. In the March 1947 issue, His Excellency wrote on “The Catholic Chaplains”. In 1947 also, someone in the Vatican wrote a letter in praise of FROM THE HOUSETOPS.
The circulation of our magazine resembled very much the representation of people in the Center. Subscriptions came from countries in Europe, from India, the Near East, the Far East, South America, Canada, most of the states of the United States, the Philippines. College libraries subscribed to it. Priests contributed to it; nuns wrote for it. We came to have a group of distinguished writers, as well as a list of distinguished readers.
As our message grew clearer, and our voice stronger, the general praise of us grew more wary. We were startling the Liberals, who had expected that under Father’s direction the HOUSETOPS would take on the charming humor, the delightful wisdom, the joyous entertainment of his own earlier books.
We have been asked many times what we mean by a “Liberal”. It is evident we do not mean a Liberal in the political sense, but in the religious sense, and as pertaining to the Catholic religion, inasmuch as religion in the abstract has no meaning to a Catholic. A Catholic Liberal is one who, having taken all his cultural standards from a non-Catholic society, tries to make his Catholic dogmas square with these standards. Liberal Catholicism can occur in any country because it is a relative thing. Our battle with it is particularly as it has occurred in the United States, where non-Catholicism anteceded the advent, in large numbers, of Catholics. This situation induced Catholics to attempt to reconcile beliefs they had brought over from Europe with the humanitarian, utilitarian, pragmatic and political ideals of the new world into which they now moved. As a result, Catholics stopped being interested in Christ, and started being interested in Christianity. This term Christianity quickly became hyphenated with the various secular group movements, and it ended up by leaving Catholics with a set of relative standards as regards religion, and caused them to abandon, little by little, their dogmatic certitudes.
The Liberal Catholic, it may be said, is one who always knows how God should behave. God’s behaviour is invariably made to conform with the Liberal’s own fine feelings in any situation. Father Feeney once said, “A Catholic Liberal tries to make the Jesus described in Holy Scripture square with his own preconceived notion of how an incarnate God should talk and behave. He wants to seek first the mercy of God, and objects that His justice will be added to it.”
A Liberal Catholic does not like the statement “No Salvation Outside the Church”, because “it isn’t nice”. One of his favorite expressions is, “My dear grandfather was not a Catholic, but he was a good man in every way.”
Father Feeney had come to know Catholic Liberalism in England and in America, in his work at Oxford, and in New York, where he was an associate editor of America, the Jesuit weekly. He had come to be aware of it with that sixth sense which is the poet’s, that keenness of perception which is denied those who are not poets, and which is the cause of much suffering for the possessor of it because he must wait until his more unseeing brothers catch up with him. A poet, like a prophet, is never without honor save in his own country.
Father had long seen where liberalism in Catholicism was going to lead us. In 1935. almost innocently in the midst of what was supposed to be his lighter verse, we find issuing from the pen of the so-called “whimsical Leonard Feeney” a poem as stark and challenging as any poet of modern times has uttered. The fact that it went unnoticed was not Father Feeney’s fault, for he was realistic enough to call it by the name it deserved. Its title was “The Hound of Hell”:
Pray for the fragile daughter,
And the frail, infant son,
Whom, at the font, the baptismal water
I pour upon.
The cycle has swung to sorrow,
Our ranks have begun to fail;
We know not what gate of Hell tomorrow
Will not prevail.
The foam-at-the-mouth is frothing
In the Beast with the flashing tooth;
The Hound that was sent on the scent of Nothing,
Has found the Truth.
The guns will be hard to handle
In the forts we will soon forsake.
Pray for the light of the single candle
On the birthday cake.
Father Feeney had despaired of doing anything about Catholic Liberalism until he was at the Center for several years. When so much came clear to us about the state of a world which would permit the dropping of the atom bomb on Japan; when the boys came back to study and found in every class, practically, the same philosophy which had brought on the war; when we came to the realization that we must speak out no matter who was hurt or whose sense of expediency was outraged; Father knew we at last saw the problem. And when Father had, finally, strong and holy men and girls (become so under his direction) who were as eager as he was to work for the Truth, then he knew that something could be done about it.
He changed, then, from the “poet priest” his admirers had known. (Father used to say that this title gave one the impression of a poet who did a little priesting on the side.) He changed from the priest who had been lionized in literary circles in many cities, who had been in demand as a dinner speaker, a lecturer, a famous humorist, who had delighted all and challenged none. He became instead the thundering, fighting missionary who, warring in the name of the Wonderful Mediatrix of all Graces, God’s Mother, filled students with a love for God which sent them into all the churches around for daily Mass, which led them to spend their spare time studying the Scriptures and the Doctors, which fired them to make sacrifices so heroic that they left homes, parents, prestiges,- to face disgrace, ignominy and persecution.
It was not until the second year, however, that the shouting From the Housetops really pierced the ears of the Liberals. One article, principally, caught their attention. It was in Volume II, No. 1, the September, 1947, issue of the Housetops. It was called “Sentimental Theology“, and was written by Fakhri Maluf.
After the publication of that article, we were able to discern, far out, signs of a gathering storm. However, we were too busy trying to get to the bottom of Liberalism to regard these signs as ominous. We had come to know that our work of the moment, namely, the charting of clear values to replace the shattered certitudes of the students, was work on the periphery only. There was, somewhere, a serious disarrangement of truth, and we knew that if we prayed hard enough, groped long enough, worked steadily enough we would find the doctrine, the displacement of which had made Catholic Liberalism possible.