Why the ‘Catholic Revival’ Failed

In our last outing, after considering the horror of a society in which the medical murder of little Alfie Evans could occur — especially one as “God-invoking” and “nice” as that of the 21st century West — it was promised that we would examine why the Catholic Revival of the immediate post-World War II years has born so little fruit to-day. During an earlier piece in this same space, it was mentioned regarding the end of World War II, “For the Catholics who came back and faced the emptiness of contemporary American life, a number of new or existing efforts came to the fore — St. Benedict Center, of course, the Catholic Worker, the Friendship and Madonna Houses, the “Movement,” Integrity, Ramparts, and Jubilee Magazines, Marycrest, Catholic Rural Life, and various others — all of whom would go in different directions in the wake of the 1950s and the Council.” One could multiply these examples much further: the Ladies of the Grail; Commonweal; America; the Liturgical Movement; what one might well call the “Para-Liturgical Movement” (as exemplified in the writings of such as Mary Reed Newland, Helen McLoughlin, and Fr. Francis X. Weiser); the Catholic Labor Institute; and a host of others.

Religious orders were exploding in numbers, as were the Catholic colleges and hospitals which they served. Such organisations as the Knights of Columbus, the Knights of Peter Claver, and the Catholic War Veterans were booming. It was not only Sheed and Ward and Benziger Brothers that were feeding the ever-growing appetite for Catholic books of all descriptions; mainline publishing also jumped into the act, with such ventures as Doubleday’s Image Books. Even Science Fiction writers such as Anthony Boucher and Walter Miller infused their Faith into their work. The Big Screen was heavily influenced by the Legion of Decency, and noted Catholic layman Joseph Breen set his mark on enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code. Television offered Archbishop Sheen and The Christophers, Fr. Patrick Peyton’s Family Theatre was on radio, and the performers themselves flocked to join the Catholic Actors’ Guild of America. Despite the warnings of such as Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Paul Blanshard, and the Orange Order in America about the effects of this seemingly massive penetration of American public life by a small minority, most Americans seemed comfortable enough with it to vote for John F. Kennedy on the day of this writer’s birth. Were not he, his wife, and his brother (the new Attorney General) sufficiently glamorous — like the newly minted Princess Grace — to transform the White House into Camelot?

One could come up with many possible historical reasons. In the immediate wake of Vatican II, in addition to destroying age-old liturgical and devotional norms, the very notion of a separate Catholic identity engaging with and converting secular society became anathema to many — perhaps most — of the hierarchy. Since all of these movements had to a greater or lesser degree been dependent upon their relationship with the hierarchy for their standing in the Church, they had to either alter their original mission to the point of irrelevance, or else oppose it, and be branded as Traditionalists “more Catholic than the Pope” — in which case their work in the larger society either ended or was severely hampered.

But this revealed another inconvenient truth: most of these movements were not deeply rooted in the Catholic milieu — that is to say, they actually played little major role in the majority of Catholics’ lives, on either an individual or parish level. When the hierarchy talked in favour of these movements, the average Catholic was vaguely aware of their work, and just as vaguely supported it — as long as his bishop and pastor did. However minor that support might have been, it tuned into determined denunciation if a given group did not conform. It was no accident that most of the Catholic Revival in America’s ultimate inspiration came from foreigners and converts such as Chesterton, Belloc, Peter Maurin, Catherine de Hueck Doherty, and Dorothy Day — even sympathetic non-Catholics like Ralph Adams Cram. The average English-speaking Catholic American in those days — if he thought about affecting the greater society at all — thought no further about it than voting for “one of his own” at elections. The 1960 Kennedy victory was the apogee of this view.

Of course, in the Northeast, Midwest, and Southwest there were innumerable ethnic parishes made up of nationalities who had an active social and political Catholicism of their own in their countries of origin. Although most of these parishioners were poor people who were happy just to survive, such publications and movements as Der Wanderer, Le Travailleur, and the Catholic Central Verein appeared in an attempt to keep connected to the socially active elements of their respective national traditions. But as early the 1890s, the Americanist element became dominant in the United States hierarchy; such events as the Cahenslyite and Sentinelle affairs and the Polish and Ruthenian schisms revealed a hierarchy often more concerned with assimilating their non-English-speaking flocks than using them as a leaven to convert the country. After Vatican II, of course, Latin Masses with sermons in the national tongue for the most part became all English all the time.

Perhaps the last opportunity for the Church in the United States to become, in the words of Peter Maurin, “the dominant dynamic social force,” was actually during the interwar period, at the time of the Great Depression. But although Msgr. John Ryan (social affairs spokesman for the Bishops), Fr. Charles Coughlin, and the Catholic Worker — being the three biggest Catholic social activists at the time — depended upon the same authors and Papal Encyclicals (especially Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno), they were too committed to their non-Catholic political allies to unite. Ryan was dubbed “the Right Reverend New Dealer,” Coughlin allied with Gerald L.K. Smith (heir to Huey Long’s organisation), and Dr. Francis Townsend, the senior citizen chieftain, while the Catholic Worker grew close to the non-Catholic left. An enormous opportunity was lost — perhaps the only winner was Franklin Roosevelt.

Of course, from independence, as such hapless folk as Frs. John Thayer and Michael Mueller discovered, the American hierarchy were not really interested in converting the United States: POAU, Blanshard, and the Orangemen need not have worried. Archbishop John Carroll, our first prelate, endeared himself to Benjamin Franklin by never once mentioning religion to him during their long time together in Canada attempting to seduce the French Canadians from their loyalty to the Crown (although the effort did garner him a local excommunication from Quebec bishop Briand — hence Carroll’s trip to England for episcopal consecration at Lulworth Castle). In his “Prayer for All Things Needful for Salvation,” Carroll did not have Catholics pray for their fellow citizens’ conversion, but rather “…that they may be blessed in the knowledge and sanctified in the observance of your most holy law; that they may be preserved in union, and in that peace which the world cannot give; and after enjoying the blessings of this life, be admitted to those which are eternal.” Thus did he conflate membership in the Church with being an American.

Of course, this was all part of the long process of the Church hierarchy shedding their belief in the necessity of the Church and Sacraments for Salvation, which, as Pope Benedict XVI explained in March of 2016, became general after Vatican II and has negated for most Catholics the need to evangelise, and, indeed, to remain Catholic at all — which reality Fr. Leonard Feeney was crucified for pointing out. But it — alongside the concomitant transformation of the hierarchy’s mission from religious figures to corporation leaders, with the ethos specific to that breed — is what, ultimately, destroyed the Catholic Revival. Why spend time trying to transform every aspect of Society into something more Catholic, when the whole thing is pointless anyway?

Fortunately, many of the younger generation of priests, religious, and laity do not see it that way — and I have no doubt that in some few decades or centuries, or perhaps far sooner in the wake of some catastrophe or other — the hierarchy and Church shall be renewed. In the meantime, we can study the voluminous works the writers and activists of the Catholic Revival left behind about Catholicising every aspect of society — and apply where possible. We should become familiar with them as individuals; some are undoubtedly Saints. In God’s good time, the hierarchy shall again be interest in converting whatever remains of our society, and then we can begin once more in a larger way.