Stemming the Tide of Catholic 'Drift'

So how did it all happen?

How did American Catholic church attendance halve in the 40 years following the Second Vatican Council? How did American Catholic families shrink to barely above replacement level and tens of thousands of priests and religious jump ship during the same period? How did vocations to the priesthood and religious life fall off a cliff?

You will not find definitive answers to these questions here. There are too many theories and too little space. I have written elsewhere on the subject, and far better experts than I have devoted books, starting with giants such as Jacques Maritain and Dietrich von Hildebrand immediately after the council.

Since then, American authors such as the late Msgr. George Kelly and the still very much alive James Hitchcock and Msgr. Michael Wren have weighed in, but it will take decades for the whole sad story to be told with the proper objectivity. By then, the United States will already be witnessing the resurrection of the Church that John Paul the Great intended when he embarked on the New Evangelization.

Effects, however, do have causes, and the biggest cause for this one (aside from the world, the flesh and the devil) is a massive break in the tradition — the handing on to the next generation of the faith of our fathers.

We will learn most, I believe, from the men and women who lived through this Catholic crack-up and survived to tell the story. One of the very first of these full-length accounts has been written by Mark Gauvreau Judge: God and Man at Georgetown Prep (Crossroad Publishing, New York, 2005, $18.95). The subtitle condenses a generation of failed catechesis: “How I became a Catholic despite 20 years of Catholic schooling.”

Judge has written an autobiography that is part Thomas Merton, part Augustine with a rock ’n’ roll beat in the background. Unlike the protagonists of these classic conversion stories, Judge was brought up in a rock-solid traditional Catholic family, where he was duly baptized, first holy Communioned, confirmed and educated at privileged Catholic grammar and prep schools and the national university of the Catholic Church.

At the end of it all, he did not have a clue about what it meant to be a Catholic.

Sadly, his story — laid out in painful detail in this wonderful and ultimately hopeful book — differs little from that of millions of baby-boomer Catholics.

Some now populate evangelical churches, some have joined liberal Protestant churches, and some have drifted off into the hedonistic consumer society, unconcerned about their salvation because, whether or not there is a heaven, there certainly is no hell.

And of course, that leaves out the millions of uncatechized boomer Catholics who still populate the pews of own churches, though they couldn't make it through even the first three chapters of the old Baltimore Catechism without running into “hard sayings” they disagreed with.

The book opens as the adult Mark is going through his late father's belongings after his death from cancer.

“In the summer of 1996, I found myself surprised to finally realize that my Dad had been deeply, seriously, and mystically Catholic. He believed in the supernatural world and believed that we could catch glimpses of it in this world. He saw in nature not only beauty but also the face of Christ.

“In all my years of Catholic teachings, I had never read or heard anything that brought these words together — that explained Catholicism as a religion about faith and reason, about the reality of this world and the next. I always considered my father's mysticism, his love of nature and poetry and beauty, to be the sign of a brilliant man who occasionally had his head in the clouds. No one ever explained that his mysticism may have been the sign of someone whose feet were planted firmly in reality.”

Our author soon becomes exposed to Chesterton's Orthodoxy, a biography of Cardinal Newman, the aforementioned Merton's Seven Story Mountain and more.

He begins to understand his beloved father and to see what he missed out on during his first 40 years. Speaking of his exposure to Chesterton's Orthodoxy, he says, “I was thunderstruck — not only by the brilliance of the prose, which in a flash made me understand more about Christianity than almost 20 years of Catholic schooling had, but by the realization that this passage beautifully summed up my father.

“In my mind, Dad was many things: an intellectual and scholar, an explorer, a hilarious — and occasionally bawdy — Irish story teller who could keep a room rapt with attention for an hour, and someone who loved rock ’n’ roll. In my mind, none of these things were Catholic. Being Catholic was going to Mass and confession. It was old priests and strict nuns. It had nothing to do with philosophy, science, love, or anything worthwhile in the world. It was the religion I had left behind in high school.”

Judge spends the rest of the book describing his schooling in the very post-Vatican II era atmosphere of bad liturgy and even worse music.

It is a “Catholic” schooling that almost totally neglects the history of Catholic art, architecture, sacred music, literature — or for that matter the history of the Church itself, much less instruction in basic truths of the faith. In short, whatever was intended by those overseeing the education of this generation, they accomplished a revolution as complete as those of 1517, 1789, or 1917.

Happily, the Holy Spirit intervened. Pope John Paul II was elected in October 1978, Pope Benedict XVI in April 2005 and now the New Evangelization is in full swing.

So Judge's father died salvifically, bringing his son back to the faith through the younger Judge's rediscovery of the wisdom of Catholic literature. As Judge writes:

“Sadly, without these events I may never have discovered the magnificence of Catholicism — its fierce intellectualism, its deep love of the order and mystery of the world, its loving invitation to humanity to take a step out of fantasy and fairy tales but into the heart of reality. That reality was denied my generation in the 1970s and 1980s, the richness of Catholicism kept from us by people inside the Church itself. They were teachers who for political reasons — not to mention the excitements of modern culture and psychotherapy — refused to teach the best the faith has to offer.

“Catholics in my generation suffer from deep religious illiteracy, the result not only of conscious efforts by certain radicals, particularly in the 1960s and the 1970s, but by what historian James Hitchcock calls ‘drift’ — the tendency to let traditions dry up through neglect, conscious and not.”

In some ways this book forms the middle of an as-yet-incomplete trilogy. The first volume was Pat Buchanan's Right from the Beginning, an account of a pre-Vatican II upbringing in exactly the same geographical and educational milieu Mark Judge experienced.

Judge's book — the second volume of this trilogy — has a happy ending: He becomes a creative writer who lives his faith through the sacraments (read the hilarious account of his first confession after many years away), prayer, work and friendships.

And the third volume? That waits to be written perhaps in the year 2030, by a man who has come of age in the glorious days of the “new culture of life” even if he also has had to pass through the travails of persecution and cultural warfare.

Father C. John McCloskey III is a research fellow of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington D.C . and a priest of Opus Dei.