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The Great Chastisement and a father's authority.

The year was 1969. I was 6 years old, seated before the black-and-white Magnavox with my four older brothers and sister. Entering the living room, my normally soft-spoken but always opinionated father barked: "Turn that garbage off! I won't have it in my house."

The trash my father demanded removed was "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," the widely popular CBS variety show that included a fair share of anti-Vietnam War and anti-Nixon barbs.

I pushed the off button. Meanwhile, my more sophisticated older siblings ribbed Dad for being out of touch.

My father was a reasonable man. Hey, he voted for Humphrey over Nixon the previous year. But on this point he was firm: He wanted none of those "smart-asses" on the tube, those folks who were disrespecting American institutions--the military and the presidency--infecting his children. A proud World War II veteran, he would have none of it.

Compare this to the experiences of Veronica Arnold (now author Veronica Chater), who, as a child living through the same era a continent away, in California, lamented her father's tight-fisted control. "Instead of the news, I wish we could watch 'Love American Style' or 'The Sonny and Cher Show' or 'Laugh-In' like the [neighbors] get to watch and sit around gut-laughing at the telephone operator lady with the nasal voice who insults callers," she writes in the newly published Waiting for the Apocalypse (Norton, 2009), "but I don't ask to watch those shows because Dad says no."

The difference in our experiences is considerable. It's the difference between reasonable and misguided authority, between a kindly curmudgeon and, frankly, a fanatic, a man who equated conviction with righteousness.

Chater offers her father's bizarrely Catholic take on the tumultuous '60s and early '70s. "My understanding of Vatican II goes something like this: 'Nobody died, or broke the law, or went to jail, but 10 years ago, in 1962 (the year I was born), a meeting was called and it lasted three years, and the pope ordered the priests to 'open their church windows wide to let in the fresh air.' But instead, the Smoke of Satan entered, and muddled everyone's brains, making them modern and sinful and prone to divorce. And now Catholics everywhere were behaving like Protestants, which was only one step away from being atheists, which was no different from being communists."

Chater's father possessed the zeal of the convert he was. Distraught at turns in the church and the United States, he moved his large brood to Portugal--the land of Fatima that Mary promised to spare "The Great Chastisement." He gave up a solid if modest position as a California highway patrolman to embark on the adventure that nearly destroyed his family and, in a tale of neglect that should horrify anyone entrusted with the care of children, nearly led to the death of the book's author.

All parents take risks--including with the lives of their children. Some allow their kids to play football, others direct them toward soccer. At what age is a child allowed to cross a busy street? Others, more seriously, are forced to choose among risky medical procedures for a sick girl or boy.

But Chater's is a tale not of risks weighed and considered, judged and found reasonable or not, but of fanaticism. In this case, a strange supercharged Catholic extremism.

Nearly destitute, the family returns from Portugal to the United States, living under the patronage of a wealthy anti-Vatican II propagandist, attending Sunday "Mass" at storefronts and empty warehouses established by Catholic dissidents, sending the two oldest boys to a Brazilian "seminary" from which they escape with tales of brainwashing, and generally acting as if "The Great Chastisement" would soon be upon the world. Humor, pain, separation, reunion, tragedy and reconciliation of sorts ensue. Chater knows how to tell a story.

The '60s and early '70s are correctly remembered as times of tumult on the political and theological left. But what is frequently forgotten is the conservative reaction to that era. Much of it was benign, such as fathers demanding television programs that insult their sensibilities be turned off. I've since done that myself. But some of it was dangerous and disproportionate to the threat.

The Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, we read in the pages of this issue of NCR, has invited the Lefebvrite Vatican H-haters back into the church fold. An act of paternal kindness, some say, while others see a misguided use of authority.

Maybe Benedict should have just pushed the off button.

[Joe Feuerherd is NCR publisher. His email address is
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Title Annotation:COLUMN
Author:Feuerherd, Joe
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 6, 2009
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