COMMENTARY: Back to the ‘50s?

c. 1999 Religion News Service

(Andrew M. Greeley is a Roman Catholic priest, best-selling novelist and sociologist at the University of Chicago National Opinion Research Center. Check out his home page at or contact him via e-mail at agreel(at)

UNDATED _ Will priests coming out of the seminaries today try to return the Catholic Church to the 1950s?

This is a question stirred up by an article in The New York Times Magazine about seminarians at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md. Some of the young men described in the article thought that the black garb of priests was sacred and that their mission after ordination would involve, among other things, frequent condemnation of sexual sins and insistence on the traditional pieties. One read about them and wondered if the Second Vatican Council had occurred.

Then Commonweal, a Catholic opinion journal, weighed in with the worry that these priests would try to return the church to the 1950s. A flurry of letters ensued, most of them deeply pessimistic.

There is no question that there are men like these in the seminaries who are deeply reactionary. They tend to be, I have been told, the products of broken homes, broken careers, broken lives, men in search of an identity. Good luck to them in their search, say I. There was a time when the priesthood conferred an identity that absorbed and substituted for all others. That time is long since past. They will find no more acceptance among their fellow priests or the laity than have similar men who have been ordained in recent years. Their shelf life in the priesthood apparently is not very long.

However, they are unlikely to succeed in returning the Catholic Church to the 1950s and, indeed, to the 1950s that exist only in their imaginations. The real 1950s were an exciting time in the church with the Cana and Catholic Action movements, pastoral counseling, the liturgical revival, and the impact of the French theologians who helped shape the Second Vatican Council. The winds of change were in the air and if you were alert you could smell them _ though even those of us who did smell them were astonished when Pope John XXIII opened his window and the tornado swept in.

Moreover, the Times article was intellectually dishonest. When the author interviewed me, I told her that the data from recent studies indicated that younger priests were somewhat more conservative on the average than middle-aged priests but less conservative than older priests. On the average, however, they were scarcely like the pious reactionaries she described. Yet these confused and immature young men are trying without any hope of success because of their rigidity, ignorance and poor education to retrieve the richness of the Catholic heritage. It is the same task that Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger are engaged in, though their attempt to reassert control over the lives of the laity misses the point and cannot succeed.

Theologian Robert Barron has called the Catholicism of the 1970s and the 1980s"beige"Catholicism, a bland, shallow Catholicism marked by fads and fashions, enthusiasms and false prophecy. Gregorian chant, devotion to the saints, stained glass windows, the Mother of Jesus, the souls in purgatory, Catholic social theory and many other elements of the Catholic tradition were swept away in the name of the"spirit of Vatican II,"as if the Council had said the whole Catholic past should be abandoned. Beige Catholicism emphasized guitar music, the vulgar Marxism of liberation theology, a false ecumenism that dismissed all concern about the Catholic heritage as"sectarian,"low church liturgy, and an endless succession of"movements,""programs,""processes"and"renewals"_ all designed to remake the laity in the image of the beige clerical elite.

The ordinary lay folk continue to cherish the tradition, but many of the clergy and religious, deprived suddenly of the certainties in which they had been trained, desperately searched for new certainties. Alas, they lacked, also because of their training, the depth, the maturity and the wisdom to interpret the tradition in the terms of the post-Counciliar opportunities. A heritage that was Technicolor became beige.

Even the bishops contributed their share to the beige. Someone wrote for them a terrible document on church architecture by the standards of which virtually every Catholic Church since the third century was liturgically incorrect.

The challenge of reinterpreting the Catholic tradition in an era of ecumenism, pluralism, contemporary biblical studies, religious freedom, collegiality, liturgical reform and openness to the modern world (all the subject of decrees of the Council) has hardly begun.

It is time that it did, long past time.