The Old Days: Were They Really That Good?
January-February 2018By John Lyon
John Lyon has held teaching and administrative positions at several universities, including Notre Dame, Ball State, Kentucky State, and St. Marys (Minnesota). More recently, he taught literature and history at a classical academy in Wisconsin. He has also farmed, raising berries, flowers, vegetables, and apples, and operated a stall at the local farmers market in Bayfield County, Wisconsin.
It is common among Catholics of a certain age or a traditional bent to consider the period just before the Second Vatican Council as a golden age of U.S. Catholicism, especially in education. I graduated from a Catholic university before the Council. Yet I have little idea just how many of my fellow students kept the faith after graduation, and of those who did, what keeping and the faith meant to them. Nevertheless, the issue concerning the good old days in the Church before Vatican II is an important one, and the reflections that follow, though not cluttered with statistics, mathematical formulae, or sociological hypotheses, may yet have some relevance, unless the gates of the minds of our contemporaries are closed against all remembrance of things past that do not resonate with such parameters.
To some extent, those of us who came of age in the 1940s see the good old days of our youth as good because we were young then, survived, and can contemplate them from a relatively safe distance. The perils of our youth threaten us not, or are transmuted into lesser crises. What amendment can be made to our past delinquencies we have long attempted, but we also know that time has only one direction. Though we ask where the snows of yesteryear have gone, and our sins are ever before us, the snows and the sins shadow but do not determine us. We were young and Catholic, and we have survived, some number of us at least, to be not young and yet Catholic. But in what respects does being Catholic mean the same thing in the two disparate temporal dispensations?
Being young in the old dispensation meant that, like all other generations of mankind, we were born into a condition the Germans endearingly call the Urdummheit (primeval stupidity). But we were born into a tradition one that was at once genetic, familial, social, and religious. The things being handed down to us varied from transmissible organic molecules through family structure and patterns of social interaction to ways of knowing matters of ontology, cosmology, epistemology, and theology. These ways were initially quite unsophisticated. A mothers touch and a fathers glance assured us of the goodness of it all. We were generally born into intact families, which were, with equal generality, neither nuclear nor affluent.
Like the young of every generation, we were ignorant, unsophisticated, inarticulate, and innocent. We tended not to cause evil. Mostly. These characteristics are not virtues but can be the preconditions of such. And in our case, parental tuition consisted largely in helping us realize that we were not little cosmic atoms drifting aimlessly about a dimensionless universe. The world was not some vast solipsism. We were not our own; we belonged to a tradition replete with traditional virtues, which attempted to ensure we were educable.
Educable: In Catholic schools, which were not private clubs for the self-selected. Everyone we knew went there. We had little knowledge of the state, its institutions and functions. Our sole contact with agencies of law and order tended to be with policemen, who were, as often as not, the fathers of friends, and who attempted to be as much enablers of our slowly achieved maturity as threats to our passion for street sports and general rowdiness.
My local Catholic boys high school was immense (ca. 1,200 students). Its instruction was generally rigorous, modified by a prudent sense of necessity. Physical encouragement to learning was not absent, but many more were threatened than struck, and I cannot remember a single incident that was characterized by sadism. Allegations were made that one member of the religious order that operated the school was more than intellectually interested in boys, and that some of the boys were less interested in girls and sports than we thought they should be. Our general response to such allegations was simply laughter and judicious caution.
Instruction on moral matters, as we retained it, was largely on issues predictably adolescent. More general principles dealing with distributive justice, just-war theory (somewhat under a cloud after Allied saturation bombings and the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki), and complicated issues best adjudicated under a principle of double effect were presented and sometimes paid attention. More interesting to us were matters of moral extrapolation, such as the suggestion that, should effective means of contraception become generally available, sexual intercourse would become of no more consequence and significance than a handshake. A young religious familiarized us with the work of Marshall McLuhan.
We didnt know where to go with the suggestion about the ultimate inconsequence of sexual intercourse or the then-gnomic saying that the medium is the message. But more of that in a moment.
My post-secondary education at a major Catholic university was hardly that of a seminary, the apparently dismissive description of much of pre-conciliar Catholic educational institutions and curricular design. There were crucifixes in the classrooms, and we usually began class with a prayer. Lights were out in the residence halls at 10 PM. No women were allowed in our rooms, and campus social events were minimal. We had to rise a specified number of days per week and make a Mass check by signing a register before 6:30 AM outside the hall chapel, though we were not actually required to attend Mass. We were required to take 18 credits in specified philosophy courses, and the same in theology. No doubt the natives were restless in those classes, which in general were taught sub specie Neo-Thomism. But we had little to compare and contrast with this procedure. We were yet intellectually naïve and thus rather easily satisfied by argument deductive or inductive, regardless of the general framework in which it was placed or the precise method it followed. I found these courses engaging and challenging, though my major intellectual interests lay elsewhere.
Some would dismissively call that approach a seminary model. There was indeed a seminary on campus, and its students took classes with us. But the rest of us came from the great unwashed to institutions whose governing faculties had long since given up the hope that any large number of students would enter the seminary. The code of conduct expected of us was perhaps more military than religious, though these codes are not mutually exclusive. What is to be expected, however, when 5,000 young men are confined to a limited base and set to rigorous tasks?
Whatever the model be, we had become less ignorant, less innocent, more articulate, and pretentiously sophisticated.
I am not sure just what contours or models for higher education would provide alternatives to the seminary model, adequate to the expectations and anticipations of post-Vatican II critics. But I offer the sketch of one here: not a hypothetical situation, but one quite actual and in-place and suffered through by tens of thousands of contemporary students.
Our youngest daughter, who was introduced to what are euphemistically called recreational drugs while at a nominally Catholic high school, where such usage was reportedly widespread and generally without serious disciplinary consequence, had the subsequent misfortune of attending a branch of the state university. With the exception of one residence hall that could supposedly be opted for, all halls, and all floors in all halls, were co-ed. Our daughters freshman-year room was at the center of one such floor, and, as might be suspected, the traffic was heavy. This daughter, herself hardly a prude or devotedly religious, reported that she simply could get no rest, for her roommate had various men several times per week sleeping over or cavorting about until around 3 AM. No more significant than a handshake, but taking considerably longer. The roommate she could only describe as a hoor.
No doubt, as the old routine has it, one could become a saint even in a whorehouse. But in a hoor house? And in a world where fewer than ever seem to have a sense that the only tragedy is not to be a saint?
During our youth, my brother and sisters and I were moderately fascinated by a small, green safe secreted in our basement. There was never any traffic in or out of it in our presence, so we exercised our imaginations periodically as to its contents: gold, silver, jewels, family heirlooms, legal documents showing our rightful titles to the British crown. When, upon our mothers death in 2002, we came into possession of the inheritables, the safe was among them. With great anticipation, we opened it. The inside wasnt quite like the absence at the heart of the holy of holies, but near. Though the family treasures might have been removed, what did remain was a series of pamphlets from the 1930s and 1940s, written by clerics, and explaining to the laity morally acceptable means of birth control for Catholics things not likely to be kept in restricted access by anyone in the Age of the Cloud and electronically transmissible salaciousness.
None of my ancestors, so far as I know, ever went to college. Authority was transferred generation to generation by family extended into clan, by generally cohesive neighborhoods, by occupational associations, and by the Church in which the laity were set apart from a college-educated clergy. Today we are all beneficiaries of degrees (some of us have even suffered third degrees). Our family green safes tend to be empty, or filled with sentimental mementos or cash. We are not sure that we have anything much of value to keep private or pass on. We are mass men, our souls shaped by trivia as we wallow uncritically in the educational acid bath wherein we are taught, perhaps oxymoronically, to think critically about everything except thinking critically. The past has been superseded and the shape of the future is uncertain. Green safes are something for ecologists.
As adolescents, we often simply sat on curbs as the default position of being out. Even after almost 70 years, I recall particularly one such sitting with another young man my age who was grousing about various things. Out of the blue, he suddenly opined, If I had a rubber, Id f- - - the hell out of Linny! But he hadnt one, and probably couldnt get one. And therein lies the principal difference between the old days, good or otherwise, and the present times. The young can now indulge their lubricity largely without consequence, and it matters little, if at all, that the Church preaches chastity at them. It remains an inconsequent social ideal, whatever its private or personal appeal.
Lubricity among the young is hardly a novel situation. Think of St. Augustine. But with our contemporary young Augustines, there need not be any Deusdedits, either literally or figuratively. The Church seems hardly to know what to say. She at times appears simply to have given up on issues concerning human sexuality and transferred the moral burden of the confessional and pulpit to the amorphous contours of social justice. Matthew 25 trumps all.
After World War II there was a popular song celebrating the re-civilianizing and consequent domestication of those who served in the military. Its code lines were: Im gonna settle down and never more roam / And make the San Fernando Valley my home. What seems to be at home in the Valley now is a multibillion-dollar pornography industry. Human sexuality has its own dynamism. Intercourse loses its edge when it has no consequences other than pleasure. And so, the ante must be upped in the game. Though my curbside friend could hardly have imagined it, his grandchildren are growing up in a world with easy access to numerous Linnys. Their aim isnt to rid them of hell, however, but, with the aid of the porn industry, to fill them with it.
In the face of all this, what is troubling about Catholic apologetics as institutionalized both before and after Vatican II in Catholic parishes and many colleges and universities as experienced by this octogenarian and at least some of his 38 children and grandchildren is its dishonesty or, better yet, its bipolar mentality. On the one hand, there is the Church and religion; on the other, science, technology, sociology, and psychology. The Churchs parish homiletics almost invariably avoid hard passages. Its journalists too often set up straw men of science and technology that can be blown away with simple strokes. Its episcopacy often appears to be so unsure of itself that, with honorable exceptions, it serves as the enabler of increasingly totalitarian legislation (and seemingly altogether too similar to the English bench of bishops that provided Henry VIII and his successors with their titles and powers and, ultimately, certified the Privy Council to set dogma and discipline). Its universities are converted, by emulation of peers, into institutions providing specialized instruction in business, science, technology, law, and industry (all with tenuous if not specious relation to any competent comprehension of revelation). It is dreadfully afraid to come to terms with makers of the modern world such as Thomas Malthus (though it knows, as Malthus did, that sexual restraint will not work as a means of preventing overpopulation, and that the alternative is either war, famine, and pestilence, or vice, now recertified by society as virtue). As a consequence, Catholic apologetics suffers the outrage of democratic totalitarian government on the one hand, and popular alienation on the other. It leaves us in the world of Kafkas parable on parables, allowing various authorities to instruct us that the bridge connecting the land of the living and the land of the dead is love. It sounds quite parabolic. But the life that we must live daily, that is another matter.
The principal difference between these times and the good old days lies, for Catholics as well as many others, in the breakdown, redefinition, and simple atomic dissipation of families, along with the consequent evaporation of any injunctive authority other than the simple power of the state. Causes of these effects include, principally, the amazing sophistication of biotechnology and, in a minor key thereof, the ready availability of contraceptives, the intrusion of media into the most intimate personal spheres, the worldwide search by capital for cheap labor (with the consequent transmissibility of jobs into gigs), and the near-monopoly of education by pragmatic enablers of hedonistic utilitarianism. Symptomatic of these changes is the drug culture and the general crassness and vulgarity of daily life, classically incited and reflected by popular, generally rhythmic (when not rapt) organized sound.
Omnia mutantur (everything changes), Ovid mused. Of this truism we are rather sure. But of its sequel, nil interit (nothing perishes), we remain uncertain.
DOSSIER: Trends in Catholic Education