April 1999

Women Against the Good War: Conscientious Objection and Gender on the American Home Front, 1941-1947.  By Rachel Waltner Goossen. University of North Carolina Press. 180 pages. $15.95.

Goossen excavates the traces of a distinctive but heretofore ignored subculture within a subculture: the single and married women who expressed solidarity with pacifist husbands and fiancés assigned to Civilian Public Service during the Second World War. Many studies have focused on the conscientious objectors; Goossen uses archival evidence, private letters and diaries, oral history interviews, and questionnaires to chronicle the lives of the 2,000 women and perhaps half as many children who lived around the Civilian Pubic Service camps.

By instituting Civilian Public Service (CPS) as a form of alternative service, the U.S. government was acting in somewhat better faith as a home of religious liberty than it had during World War I, when conscientious objectors (C.O.s) who had been granted a narrow exemption from combat roles were imprisoned — some until 1933 — for refusing to participate in noncombatant military service in the quartermaster corps or the engineering service.

The creation of the CPS verged on the courageous, given the results of a 1940 Gallup poll according to which, says Goossen, “only 13 percent of Americans believed that conscientious objectors should be granted exemption from military service, and 37 percent thought that they should be assigned to noncombatant jobs. The remainder…thought that C.O.s should be assigned to regular military service, imprisoned, or receive the death penalty.”

CPS offered conscientious objectors the chance to do “work of national importance” in forestry, soil conservation, or the mental health field. Yet the program received very little financial support. The government paid for tools and technical supervision, but CPS education, health, recreation, and maintenance costs were borne by three church-related organizations — the Mennonite Central Committee, the Brethren Service Committee, and the American Friends Service Committee.

If the government provided conscientious objectors with an opportunity to participate in nation-building without participating in war, the same program put their spouses, children, and fiancées in a very awkward position. Having bucked the general consensus strongly favoring what Studs Terkel would later call “the Good War,” these women were ridiculed for the “cowardice” of their husbands and fiancés — even though U.S. policy had denied those men the opportunity to do humanitarian work in war zones overseas. Moreover, women bore a disproportionate share of the opprobrium. While the men were effectively sheltered in out-of-the-way work camps, their spouses, fiancées, and children — living or seeking work in towns near the camps — faced much more direct, sustained, and often uncomfortable contact with their critics.

The life the women had chosen was difficult. C.O.s received very little material support and no salaries, so they could not meet the financial or medical needs of their wives, children, or dependent parents. Some women served as nurses or dietitians in the CPS camps, or trained others for reconstruction after the war. But most were forced to find whatever work they could as domestic workers, as attendants at chronically understaffed psychiatric hospitals, or even as farmhands.

History has paid little attention to these brave and committed women. Goossen offers a sensitive and well-rounded portrait of them both during their wartime crisis and afterward. Yet if it is clearly in the interest of the women involved to reflect on their experience, and if the story will be of particular interest to those affiliated with one of the historic peace (i.e., pacifist) churches, why might it be of interest to others? In a time of radically deepening secularism, their portrait is relevant to all Christians who believe that the Gospel challenges us to resist the way of the world. As we face the challenges of our era, may we learn from these witnesses who bore the sting of rebuke with the grace of our Lord.

- W.S.K. Cameron



What Went Wrong With Vatican II: The Catholic Crisis Explained.  By Ralph M. McInerny. Sophia Institute Press (800-888-9344). 168 pages. $14.95.

The Second Vatican Council was supposed to herald a new golden age for the Catholic Church. But the three decades since the solemn closure of the Council have been marked by chaos and dissension. Priests left, pulpits rocked, pews emptied, and Pope Paul VI was soon warning about the “smoke of Satan” having entered the Church.

Even while the Council was still in session there were those who, like the formidable Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani, bulwark of the Congregation of the Holy Office, and the genteel Giuseppe Cardinal Siri, Archbishop of Genoa, expressed reservations about where things might be headed, but they were by and large written off as prophets of doom. A new and improved Church was being born, the enthusiasts claimed, a Church which would make major accommodations to secular culture. In Vatican II’s aftermath, those expressing fears of the evil consequences of appeasing the world were shoved aside by a juggernaut of optimism and, often enough, lumped with the likes of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.

Yet we indubitably have, as Msgr. George Kelly has said, “a diminution of Catholic faith and piety among large numbers of…Catholics, a proliferation of dissent against Catholic Creeds, and a disobedience of Church Laws, to an extent proportionately unknown” since the early days of the Church. The statistics certainly bear out his assessment. For example, Mass attendance has plummeted from 70 percent to 25 percent, and seminary enrollment has dropped from 25,000 to 2,400.

What went wrong? Ralph McInerny, long-time Notre Dame professor, former president of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, and Editor of Catholic Dossier, has set himself the task of answering that question. He begins by declaring the 16 documents of the Council a “great blessing for the Church” — if properly understood. But he posits his answer to the question “What went wrong with Vatican II?” in another question: Where does authority in the Church really reside?

According to McInerny, that latter question was brought to the fore on July 25, 1968, when Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae reaffirmed the Church’s constant condemnation of artificial contraception. As theologians rushed to denounce the encyclical and challenge its authority — often without first reading its text — confusion quickly spread. McInerny also provides an accessible account of the period when the topic of contraception (removed from the Council floor by Pope John XXIII) was turned over to the Pope for his definitive judgment, fateful years during which countless couples were misled into believing that the Church would soon alter her teaching and that they were therefore free to decide for themselves whether or not to use the Pill.

The dissenters were aided by theologians who took a novel view of the teaching office of the Church: Its function, so they argued, was to endorse and promulgate whatever the majority of the Pope’s birth control commission arrived at. The Pope, of course, had another view, as expressed in Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium: His authority is “full, supreme, and universal,” flowing from his position as St. Peter’s successor as the earthly Vicar of Christ. McInerny proceeds to document how in the ensuing years the struggle between these two ecclesiological visions became institutionalized. The dissenting liberal side became entrenched in academia and mass communications, effectively winning the battle for the popular interpretation of the Second Vatican Council, an interpretation that hinged on an alleged “spirit of the Council” instead of what the Council Fathers actually wrote.

McInerny makes a convincing argument for his thesis. What began as a quarrel over a particular question of sexual morality quickly escalated into a fundamental dispute as to the nature of the Church and where her authority lies. There is a certain over-simplification in this explanation. This reviewer, for one, would more readily accept McInerny’s thesis if it were amended to place some of the responsibility on the havoc wrought when the Latin Church’s liturgical traditions, wherein the majority of believers experienced the Church, were tossed to the four winds in the years between the close of the Council and the good professor’s “1968, the year the Church fell apart.” Nonetheless, McInerny’s core argument holds: “What went wrong” originated in a rebellion against papal authority.

- John-Peter Pham



How Far to Follow?: The Martyrs of Atlas.  By Bernard Olivera. St. Bede’s Publications. 131 pages. $14.95.

On Christmas Eve 1993 a band of terrorists broke into the Trappist monastery of Our Lady of Atlas, in Tibherine, Algeria, and demanded of the monks medical help for their guerrillas in the nearby hills. When the monks refused to collaborate with a group dedicated to violence, they knew they were exposing themselves to mortal risk.

Determined not to co-operate with violence of any kind, they also chose not to accept protection from the local police. They also refused the papal nuncio’s invitation to move to safer quarters in Algiers. Their own bishop encouraged them to stay in their monastery, and they elected to do that in obedience to their vow of stability. For the next two years they lived with a sword hanging over their heads, while the murders of other religious in the area heightened their awareness of their peril.

On March 27, 1996, seven of the Trappist monks were kidnapped, and on May 21 they were martyred. Fr. Bernard Olivera, the Father General of the Trappist order, has put together a book to commemorate them, with brief descriptions of the men and excerpts from their letters and journals, among which the writings of Fr. Christian and Fr. Christophe stand out for their articulation of the struggle for self-abandonment that all the men went through.

There is a report of the events that followed the deaths of the monks, and there are first-person accounts from two monks and several retreatants who escaped the notice of the kidnappers and therefore survived. The story is fascinating, but it may deserve fuller treatment, for questions arise that are never directly addressed or answered: What is it like to be the only two monks to survive when seven brothers are killed? Did the monks make the right decision when they chose to stay at Tibherine?

Their spirit of self-abandonment shows there were deeper reasons for their martyrdom than presumptuous heroics. Fr. Christian’s haunting reflection on the death of a Marist brother shows the connection of martyrdom to everyday life: “His death seemed to be so natural, just part of a long life entirely given to the small, ordinary duties. He seemed to me to belong to the category that I call ‘martyrs of hope,’ those who are never spoken of because all their blood is poured out in patient endurance of day-to-day life. I understand ‘monastic martyrdom’ in this same sense. It is this instinct that leads us not to change anything here at present, except for an ongoing effort at conversion.”

Three groups of Trappists have been martyred during this century: 19 during the Spanish Civil War, 35 in China in 1947, and now 7 in Algeria. The monastic vocation can seem sheltered, but if it is lived deeply the connection with martyrdom becomes clearer.

- Cecilia McGowan



Parochial and Plain Sermons.  By John Henry Newman. Ignatius. 1,721 pages. . $59.95.

This volume brings together 191 sermons of John Henry Newman, preached when he was still in the Church of England but nonetheless of great value to Catholics. Originally published in eight volumes — which would certainly daunt most readers — they have been cleverly combined by Ignatius Press into one volume (first issued a decade or so ago and now re-issued). Unlike certain overgrown and unwieldy books published today, this volume fits comfortably in the hand.

Nowadays a collection of sermons is not going to be a bestseller, or, even to a religious audience, an enticing prospect. Of course, in our time a sermon or “homily” is all too often a burble of psychobabble or political nonsense. Newman, however, speaks directly to the reader as might a wise and experienced friend to whom one had turned with some question or problem. Newman probes the deepest questions of faith and the spiritual life. His sermons are a truly rare mixture of profound and practical advice about how we should face the daily quest to be a better Christian.

- James E. Tynen





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