Lessons from an era of confusion

George Weigel

In the introduction to Aggiornamento on the Hill of Janus: The American College in Rome, 1955-1979, Msgr. Stephen DiGiovanni warns readers that his book will be most easily understood by students and alumni of the Pontifical North American College. With respect to my old college classmate and friend, I hope Msgr. DiGiovanni is wrong about that. For amidst all the inside baseball about Roman seminary life over two and a half turbulent decades, Aggiornamento on the Hill of Janus offers a snapshot of a once-stable institution caught in the maelstrom of ecclesiastical confusion and crisis. And from that picture, much can be learned for today.

Like any sensible student of these years, DiGiovanni understands that reform and renewal were imperative as the North American College entered its second century in 1959. The severe regimentation of student life undercut the house rule’s intention to prepare men for lives of service in parish ministry, where they wouldn’t have dozens of bells telling them what to do every time something was to be done. The pedagogy at the Pontifical Gregorian University was ill-suited to the American temper (or to any form of intellectual curiosity), as lecturers repeated every year the same (Latin) lecture they’d given on that day the previous year. NAC was understaffed, not least in terms of spiritual direction. Student morale was a problem because of nit-picking rules and chronic health problems caused by inadequate (and sometimes literally poisonous) food. Change was imperative.

What followed Vatican II, however, was not so much change as confusion and even chaos.

One of the many strengths of DiGiovanni’s book is its demonstration that attitudes among American seminarians in Rome closely paralleled the dynamics in the drama being played out in St. Peter’s basilica, just down the Janiculum Hill from NAC, where the Second Vatican Council was meeting. At the Council’s halfway mark, Father Henri de Lubac, SJ – a reformer once silenced by the Roman authorities who was a key theological advisor at the Council – sensed that the reformist party at Vatican II was dividing: one camp sought an organic theological development of the Church’s self-understanding, while another seemed more interested in kicking over the traces and reimagining everything anew. As DiGiovanni’s painstaking examination of contemporary diaries, committee meeting minutes, and various NAC publications shows, that division began to express itself among NAC students at the same time.

So even before that cataclysmic year, 1968, a fissure was opening in Catholicism between those who believed that Christ had given the Church a certain form, reference to which was essential to true reform, and those who argued that the “Spirit of the Council” called for a root-and-branch rethinking of Catholic doctrine, mission, ministry, and morality. This fissure led, in short order, to confusion about the nature of the priesthood and its role in the post-conciliar Church. And out of that confusion, seven devils worse than the first were set loose, as the ministerial priesthood in the Catholic Church took a nose-dive unlike anything the Church had experienced since the 16th-century Reformation.

It should have been no surprise that this confusion was catastrophic for both vocation recruitment and priestly formation; as one of the rectors who turned NAC around in the 1990s, now-Cardinal Edwin F. O’Brien, once put it, “A man will give his life for a mystery, but not for a question mark.” During the last fifteen years of Msgr. DiGiovanni’s story, NAC was a house of question marks – and worse-than-question-marks. The Catholic Church in America paid, and is paying, a heavy price for that season of deep confusion.

The North American College today is as solid a seminary as can be found in the world Church: a happy house, filled with impressive young men and led by an outstanding faculty. NAC’s transformation from the confusions of the immediate two post-conciliar decades is due to a re-centering on first principles: a clarity about what the Church teaches and why that teaching is a prescription for beatitude, for happiness. The mystery – of Christ, the Church, and the priesthood – has replaced the question marks.

Some imagine that a return to the free-for-all of the 1970s is the evangelical path forward for 21st-century Catholicism; others think a return to the 1950s is what’s needed. Msgr. DiGiovanni’s important book not only raises grave questions about both these prescriptions; by pointing at the end toward the reform that NAC underwent in the 1990s, he reminds us of the imperative, and effectiveness, of an authentic conciliar Catholicism dedicated to the New Evangelization.

COMING UP: Don’t be fooled: Feminism isn’t really about choice

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OK, call me crazy. But I the only one who remembers, in my formative years, hearing repeatedly from the feminists that feminism was about freeing us women to make our own choices about our own lives? If we wanted to pursue high powered careers, we should be free to do that. And if we wanted to stay home and raise babies . . . well, that was a valid choice as well. One got the impression that they didn’t understand why any self-respecting woman would make such a choice. But they nevertheless gave some good lip service, sometimes through rather clenched jaws, to our right to choose it.

Well, apparently not so much anymore. Everything I have been reading lately indicates that the facade is gone. Motherhood is out. Careers are in.

That previous incarnation of feminism — the one where women get to make their own choices about their own lives — is now called “Choice Feminism.” And it is so 1995. If you don’t believe me, just google it. I did.

What I found was a whole lot of academic, Marxist-sounding ideology about class and the patriarchy and struggle and some “queer” stuff that I didn’t quite understand. Basically it all boiled down to this: we women may think we are making our own choices. But we aren’t, because our choices are all so influenced by the patriarchy and the oppressive conditions under which we are forced to exist.

So, we should instead choose what they tell us to choose.

At least that’s what it all sounded like to me.

I understand the criticism of “choice feminism” to a certain extent. Many writers spoke out against this idea that any choice a woman makes is somehow a feminist statement. The most-common example I saw was that of the “liberated” stripper who celebrates her stripper-ness as some kind of victory for feminism. Which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.

But, do you know what the second-most common example was? The choice of a mother to stay at home with her kids.

It seems to baffle them that any woman would make such a bizarre sacrifice. It must be because of the patriarchy. Or because child raising is still perceived by our sexist society as “women’s work.” Or because we are still tethered to a ”1950’s male breadwinner model.”

It doesn’t seem to occur to them that it could be because women, having nurtured these tiny little creatures within their own bodies, may actually want to spend their time nurturing and raising them.

The piece de resistance was a widely circulated article in the Australian magazine RendezView, which actually proposes that mothers of school-aged children be forced, under penalty of law, to be “gainfully employed” outside the home. Says Sarrah Le Marquand, somewhat awkwardly, “Only when the tiresome and completely unfounded claim that ‘feminism is about choice’ is dead and buried (it’s not about choice, it’s about equality) will we consign restrictive gender stereotypes to history.”

So, I’m thinking that by “choice” she means “freedom of self-determination”; by “equality”, she means “women being just like men.”; and by “restrictive gender stereotypes”, she means “biological and psychosexual differences that impact our lifestyle choices.”

But the women of the world clearly aren’t voluntarily marching into her brave new world of gender uniformity. And so it is time to employ the long arm of the law. Says she, “. . . it’s time for a serious rethink of this kid-glove approach to women of child-bearing and child-rearing age. Holding us less accountable when it comes to our employment responsibilities is not doing anyone any favours [sic].”

(I have to confess I’m somewhat curious about what will happen to unemployment numbers in Australia when every mother exercises her “employment responsibilities” and enters the workforce. But I digress.)

And so, the mask is off. Feminism was never about allowing women to choose what they want. It is about coercing women to choose what these feminists want them to choose.

It is not not surprising that, in a recent poll, 85% of women responded that they support equality for women, yet only 15% said that they identify as a “feminist.” The movement has moved away from the women it is supposed to represent.

As for me, I don’t want the State, or the Feminist Powers That Be, to issue a list of acceptable choices for women. Particularly when it comes to the often complicated question of whether a mother works or stays at home.

I still subscribe to the apparently antiquated notion that decisions like these are best made by the couple in question.

I know. Call me crazy . . .