The Catholic Revolution: New Wine, Old Wineskins, and the Second Vatican Council.
Most students of American Catholicism identify the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) as a moment of profound transformation for the church. It stands as the great divide between the old and the new Catholicism. That it occurred during a time of great social upheaval in America and the broader west only amplifies its perceived impact. It has become a great shorthand reference for a range of dramatic changes that undoubtedly derived from other social forces as well, and as such it draws much criticism and praise from those who lament or celebrate the changes that Catholics have undergone in the past forty years. We still have no social history of the American experience of the Council, though social scientists have been studying various aspects of it for a number of years. This makes Andrew Greeley's intention to write no less than "a sociological history of Catholicism in the United States in the last half of the twentieth-century (14)" with a focus on Vatican II welcome news.
Sociologist (and Catholic priest, best-selling novelist, essayist, and public figure) Andrew Greeley has been interpreting the Council's effect on American Catholicism for much of the last forty years. Over time he has changed his mind about it. At first he downplayed its significance relative to the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae that reaffirmed the official church opposition to birth control, then he saw it as playing a significant role in the lives of the laity. Most recently he has located Vatican II as a catalyst for nothing short of "the Catholic revolution."
Greeley's brief study consists of two parts. In the first, he lays out his interpretation of the Council and its effect on American Catholics. This part, involving roughly two-thirds of Greeley's work, will be what draws social historians' interests, and is the focus of this review. Part two consists of Greeley's prescription for the church in light of the interpretation he laid out in part one. Greeley bases his assessment in part one on a series of social surveys conducted for various reasons between 1963 and 1998, his own observations of the period as he lived through it, and theory regarding revolutionary events, collective behavior, and the Catholic imagination.
The story that emerges from Greeley's study places the Second Vatican Council at the forefront of a revolution in American Catholicism. He sees the laity of the 1950s and early 1960s living relatively comfortably within the confines of a church that placed great emphasis on rules and regulations, on obedience to an exalted church hierarchy, and on a rich array of metaphors and symbols that tied lay Catholics to their church. The laity had become much better educated than in previous years, but by and large they "remained generally devout and supportive of authority." In fact little in 1963 suggested that Council sessions "that had started in Rome would do much to shake the structures of American Catholicism (32,33)."
The world's Catholic bishops gathered at the Vatican for a session each autumn from 1962-1965 in what we know as the Second Vatican Council. (The first Vatican Council met roughly ninety years earlier and served to centralize power on the pope. It was this Council that declared the pope infallible on matters of faith and morals.) Though the curia, the Catholic administrative bureaucracy that served the pope, sought to minimize any opportunity for change, and though the bishops generally did not expect to be able to effect meaningful reform, an "effervescence" occurred at the Council that led to significant reform. More dramatic still, according to Greeley, was the revolution that the laity and the "lower clergy" (presumably the parish priests rather than the bishops and chancery officials) effected in the U.S. in the decade following the Council's close, 1965-1975. This revolution ended the obedience and deference that the laity generally practiced before 1965. The break became very pronounced in the almost complete rejection of Paul VI's 1968 encyclical denouncing artificial birth control, but could be seen in a wide range of moral issues. Subsequent efforts by popes, bishops, and the American clergy to restore the authority structure from before the Council have failed, and will continue to fail, Greeley argues.
Greeley's new contribution in this sociological history of Catholics is to give agency to the laity in the revolution that he sees occurring in a very brief period--1965-1975 at most, but more likely, in Greeley's telling, between 1966 and 1972. This brief moment saw a more highly educated but still deferential laity become an active, discriminating and independent people. Though most social historians will see this as a modest proposal, it is a powerful point in the contemporary debate among Catholics about the period. Conservative Catholics prefer to see the period as a victimization of the laity by liberal culture and clergy that can be remedied by a reaffirmation of the pre-Vatican II Catholic culture. What liberal and permissive clergy and culture did to the laity in the 1960s and 1970s can be undone by a more authoritarian clergy in the new millennium. But not if the laity effected this revolution themselves.
Because Greeley relies on social surveys to mark these changes, he cannot provide a full narrative that tracks and fully explains the transformation in lay attitudes and behavior. He uses a 1963 survey of Catholic college graduates that he conducted for a study of Catholics and education as a baseline against which to compare Catholic attitudes in later surveys. He finds lay Catholics in 1963 to be little changed in their religious behaviors and attitudes from those of a decade earlier, despite their dramatically increased education levels. By the time of the next survey, 1974, sharp changes in religious attitudes and behavior were evident. Catholics attended mass less frequently, changed their attitudes toward sex (and their attitudes toward the church's role in shaping their opinions toward sex) dramatically, altered their attitude toward church authority significantly, and donated far less of their incomes to the church. Greeley concludes that a revolution took place in that decade, and later pinpoints the change even further to the years immediately following the Council's conclusion (1966-1972). All subsequent surveys confirm that the laity have not reversed their course, despite hierarchical efforts to roll back the revolution.
That American Catholics underwent dramatic changes from 1963 to 1974 is clear. What is less clear is whether that change began before 1963. (The Catholic Digest conducted a survey of American Catholics in 1952, but the data cards cannot be found.) If the changes began before the Second Vatican Council, the revolution would be better understood as beginning from below--a revolution more in keeping with our notions of political transformations and one high-lighting lay agency even further. But if it truly began in 1966, then the Council would justly be identified as its source. This issue cannot be resolved with the existing social surveys, and must be approached in other ways.
Andrew Greeley's sociological history of Catholics in the twentieth century's second half establishes clearly that lay Catholics revolutionized their religious beliefs and behaviors since World War II. He notes some of those significant changes well, documents their lasting impact persuasively, and identifies the Second Vatican Council as the revolution's source. Whether the Council began the revolution or joined one already underway remains unsettled, however. For this, we await a study of 1950s Catholics that relies on other sources.
Saint Vincent College
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2005|
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