Maybe you think I am insufferably cynical, or judgmental. I condemn myself. I was part of it all. I was there. I saw it all unfold. Even from my childhood, I remember the heated arguments my older brothers and sisters had with my father at the Sunday dinner table. I remember my sister who was adamantly Catholic refusing to use the pill despite her husband’s adamant disbelief. I think that her marriage survived only because my sister had the good sense to die young after her five children were mostly grown. People are foolish enough to think that domestic servants and children are deaf. They are not. I was not. I watched the faith begin to wither in the materialism of the 1950’s and finally to succumb in the hedonism of the late 1960’s.
I genuinely believe that Pope Paul VI’s encyclical “Humanae Vitae” was the defining watershed of the death of the West and of the Latin Rite of the Roman Catholic Church. Artificial birth control and the subsequent sexual revolution were the cause célèbre of the seminary in which I was educated. I remember the ranking moral theologian teaching us about “epichaia,” the moral principle by which one could be faithful to the intention of the lawgiver, rather than to the exact wording of the law. You tell a bunch of adolescent boys that if they understood the intention of the lawgiver they needn’t exactly follow the law. Bedlam resulted.
In particular, this great moral light taught us how to help people think their way around the prohibition against artificial birth control. He carefully and regularly explained that full consent of the will and full knowledge are required in the commission of a mortal sin, and who when they have raging hormones, ten children and a pushy spouse can really have freedom of the will? At most it would be only a venial sin. A group of adolescent males recovering from the scrupulous era of the 1950’s heard “good sins and bad sins” instead of “venial sins and mortal sins.”
So it was that we were released slowly but surely from the idea that we were bound to obey any moral authority other than our own adolescent brilliance. Humanae Vitae, liturgical law, moral law, the truth of Sacred Scriptures, good sense, were all second to the freedom of personal conscience, and of course a bunch of twenty-year-olds were all moral and philosophical geniuses. What adolescent doesn’t know infinitely more than his parents and teachers? Then they set us loose on the world.
It was an age of impiety. Perhaps mine was the only seminary in which this was true, but morality and piety were simply signs of immaturity. After 1969, there were no rules. We didn’t have to get out of bed in the morning or go to bed at night. There were drugs everywhere. It was the sixties. Of the priests who prepared me for the priesthood about twenty left the priesthood. One would come back to school after vacation wondering who had left the priesthood over the summer. Those who remain were and are good and holy men. I am not sure if it was funny or sad or both, but I remember a Scripture teacher, a priest who never wore clerical clothing, who thought it was all just poetic nonsense. He ended the school years with a dramatic reading of the Song of Songs, as interpreted by him and a certain nun. The professor was a little bald fellow with a comical mustache and a thick south side (of Frostbite Falls) accent.
“Duh flowers appear on duh eart’. Duh season of singing has come, the cooing of duh dove is hoid in duh land.”
He ran off with the nun about two weeks after the dramatic reading.
I remember one priest professor who organized an annual obscenely named party mocking the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in which we apparently no longer believed. We were encouraged to be creative about morning and evening prayer, and not to be shackled by the regular Breviary that priests were expected to use for prayer. I remember one evening prayer service in chapel which consisted of the playing of the entire sound track of the Wizard of OZ. Morning and evening prayer ended when a young man as part of an “Easy Rider” themed morning prayer, did a motorcycle “wheelie” on his Harley Hog up the main aisle of the chapel. It certainly woke us all up. I cannot remember morning prayer or evening prayer being held again after that.
At one point the more progressive wing of the student body decided that traditional music would no longer be sung at Mass, that is when we were still going to Mass. They came into the chapel armed with kazoos. Hearing “Tantum Ergo” played on a kazoo is definitely an interesting experience. The faculty acquiesced and we started singing non-religious songs at Mass, such songs as “Today while the Blossoms Still Cling to the Vine” (It was religious. It mentioned “wine.”) By that time, the inmates were clearly running the asylum. Another chapel incident sticks out in my mind. We all regularly received Holy Communion in the hand, though at the time it was forbidden, and usually the paten and the cup were passed around. Everyone took Communion instead of receiving it. This had the desired effect of ending the notion of the consecrated hands of the priest.
Cardinal Cody was coming for a visit and the great moral lights of the seminary faculty reminded us that were not to receive Communion in the hand when his eminence was there, but in the prescribed manner, on the tongue. You may ask “What’s wrong with that? Everyone receives in the hand now.” You are missing my point. We were actively being encouraged to rebel unless it might cause trouble for our teachers. In that case, the moral thing was to lie to authority. Piety was actively discouraged. Only a few die-hards attended daily Mass, which was a “dialogue homily, stand around the altar with ‘interesting’ bread and port wine” sort of thing. I suspect that weeks went by without a valid Mass being said in the seminary.
As things progressed, to be curious about how to say the Breviary (the traditional daily prayers of the clergy and religious orders) was a good way to get into trouble. Excessive attendance at Mass or the public and regular recitation of the Rosary were reason for dismissal from the seminary. Excessive piety was a danger sign of an unstable and reactionary mind.
In all honesty, things are immeasurably better now. Seminarians are once again encouraged to pray, but the damage had been done. Almost two generations of priests were taught that traditional piety was immature and even wrong. We were made to sneer at the simple faith and devotion that had for centuries sustained the culture and the Church. We were taught that the moral thing was to destroy the values and customs of the past. And we were remarkably successful. The Church in Europe and the Americas is a shadow of itself. The real horror was that we were taught to think our way around sin. If I can think my way around one sin I can think my way around any sin. And believe me, we, the clergy, have thought our way around a lot of sins.
How many have rejected Christ and the Church because I and some of my fellows, Christ’s ambassadors in the world, have failed to be holy or even to risk appearing excessively pious?
Next week: more to come