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On Those Catholics “Obsessed” with the 1950s

“Honey, have you seen my corduroy blazer?” I ask my wife as we prepare to leave for Mass.

“Yes dear. I saw it next to Jimmy’s beanie,” she affectionately replies. She too is preparing for Mass. Her Christian Dior dress makes her shine in perfect radiance and modesty. She is certainly the same glorious woman I fell in love with some twelve years earlier, as I watched her jitterbug so gracefully at the annual sock hop.

“By the way, where is Jimmy?” I muse, snapping out of my daydream.

“He was putting away his pogo stick, and then going to shine his earth pads, I think,” comes the response.

“I dig. I’ll get Jimmy,” I offer, before adding, “you collect the other nine ankle-biters. The station wagon is ready to burn rubber!”

“Yes, darling! And don’t forget your rosary!”

We drive to our parish. It is a perfect day. The church bells serenade the air. Sunbeams dance in divine welcoming. Other large families clamber out of their sedans and walk reverently into the church. The building is soon filled to Antsville status. Sister Gertrude plays softly on the organ, even her perpetual scowl does not seem so fierce when she plays.

Mass begins. Father moves along quickly – heels on fire. There is just enough time for one rosary before Communion. After Mass the nuns tidy up the sanctuary while I head outside with the men to smoke and talk about work and politics. The women chatter about recipes and clothing. Meanwhile, dozens of children play kick-the-can near the church grounds. Indeed, everything is perfect. We can’t help but smile as we agitate-the-gravel and head for our suburban home. We are living the ideal of Catholicism.


*          *          *


The preceding was, I imagine, an illustration of how traditional-minded Catholics such as myself seek to relive 1950s Catholicism. At least I think this is how it might look, if I actually had any real yearning for said days. I bring this up, however, because once again the accusation has arisen that traditional Catholics think 1950s American Catholicism is simply Fat City (translation: an ideal situation to be in).

There is a long list of Catholic pundits who have made this claim before. Fr. Dwight Longenecker once likened the pursuit of pre-Vatican II traditions to living at a stale Brideshead Revisited estate, closed off from the fresh air of its surroundings. George Weigel has charged that those who love the Tridentine Latin Mass, as it was said in the days of his youth (1950s), seek a “nostalgia for an imaginary past.” Others have even warned of an “albatross of nostalgia” for Catholicism of the 1950s. But now the most recent imputation has come from none other than Bishop Robert Barron. In a March 2nd article, Barron – ironically compared by many to Bishop Sheen of the 1950s – issued a warning of a “hyper-valorization” by traditional Catholics to, among other things, “American Catholicism of the 1950s.” What a wet rag.

In fairness to Barron et al, I suppose there are some traditional-minded Catholics who believe that the 1950s were the glory days of Catholicism. Not anyone I’ve ever met, mind you – most of whom are decidedly against the liturgical changes of the 1950s. But it’s a vast world and such believers of Catholic idealism of the 1950s must exist somewhere. Still though, it is worth pondering. Just what were the 1950s like? It is complicated, I am sure, as is evidenced by my very parish church:

My small-town parish church was built in the mid-1950s. It faces the east, has a nice-sized sanctuary, and beautiful custom cabinetry in the sacristy. The actual church is not fancy. There is a stucco exterior, and wood wainscoting and drywall gracing the interior. The stained glass is simple, though perhaps drab and uninspiring. The pews and wood accents are golden-oak (not my favorite stain), and the three statues in the church are beautiful, but in various states of disrepair. It is a solid building – not great, but not terrible either.

If you were to browse the basement church library, you would find some old pictures tucked away. One photo would reveal a choir loft in the church. The loft has since been removed, in favor of a clunky elevator system. The aged-choir members now sit near the front pews, from where they push a button on an electronic piano to let the hymns from the 1970s flow out magically. Another picture reveals carefully crafted steps leading to a high altar in the church. The high altar is flanked by various holy items, with a simple gold-plated tabernacle at the heart of it. That was then. Now the steps have a funky green-carpeted bend to them, leading to a table-altar in the middle of the sanctuary. Felt banners proclaiming such things as “Lent: a 40-Day Journey toward Easter” (in case you forget) hang boldly beside a plain wooden tabernacle.

As often is the case, the basement church library also includes some books. There are a few old missals from the traditional Latin Mass, a complete set of Catholic Encyclopedias, and even a few works from Aquinas. There are several books from suspect modernist theologians of the 1950s as well. It is all typical of the time period. However, of note, these older books – treasures and trash – are mostly tucked away in cupboards and drawers. On the actual open shelves there is an array of books from all the usual suspects of the 1960s and up. Books with heresy. A few papal encyclicals (thankfully), though none as yet from the current pope (also thankfully). Pamphlets more protestant than Catholic. Brochures, companions, and videos with words such as “Ministry” and “Living” everywhere. Living with Christ. Living Faith Prayers. Living Justice. Life of Ministry. You name it, it’s living. Maybe one day they will live to see my bonfire ministry.

I will stop with my church tour, lest I sound too tedious. The point is that the 1950s were not ideal, nor perfect, nor even Fat City. An honest Catholic does not need to study the misdeeds of Bugnini, Braga and Bea to grasp this. A regular parish church building plainly tells the story. It says: “We still bothered with these traditions in the 1950s, and they served us well, though perhaps we were restless for our own thing.”

But the 1950s in general were not a complete disaster either, as pundits seem to suggest. If nothing else, most people still knew how to build a church that looked like a Catholic church. There was a purpose to kneelers, statues, and tabernacles. Most of all, in thinking of the old church pictures, there was something the 1950s had that we rarely have today: children at Mass. While the 1950s were not a time to be idolized, they were still better than what I know today – if not saintly, at least half sane. To admit that the 1950s did not yet reach the level of chaos we endure today is not a hyper-valorization, it is rather a damning indictment on our present.

What I really wish to understand is why do certain Catholic writers continue to harp on this time period? Why are they so obsessed with the 1950s? I imagine them as a dad yelling to his child: “Don’t go looking in grandpa’s attic! It’s not good for you!” And what shall the child think? “I wonder what dad is hiding from me?” Perhaps he is hiding some mold and broken glass. But perhaps there is also a glimpse of some treasure to be found. What treasure do I speak of? I think of Ars in 1849, Paris in 1258, the hills of Monte Cassino in 530, and so forth. A treasure of faith and holiness worth discovering anew, and actually living fully today.

If some traditional-minded Catholics mistakenly look back with too much admiration, it is because there is little for them to admire looking forward. We are living in the forewarned city which lies half in ruins. John Senior, in The Death of Christian Culture, seems to illustrate this in one stark sentence: “Christianity nowadays is so immersed in worldliness that one scarcely sees its origin; the clergy preach sociology from the pulpit and monks have swimming pools” (p. 74). To which I say we are surely drowning. Monks on YouTube talking insider baseball on the latest superhero movie. Nuns dancing for TikTok. Bishops placing a religious insight on the latest grotesque HBO series. Parents glued to their phones. How, and when, shall we pray? Ask James Martin! Fill your house with the fresh air of the world. May your light shine so brightly before Instagram. Whatever you do, stay in Gomorrah and do not look back, or you will turn into a pillar of salt.

To warn of a “hyper-valorization” of 1950s American Catholicism is precarious, for it seems a feeble attempt to distract. Yes, Catholics of good will must remember caution and prudence when looking to the past. But learn from the past we must. For there was once a past command from Our Lord which remains today, “Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48). What shall inspire us to perfection now? Certainly not our modern Church, nor its current hyper-valorization.

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