The Catholic Thing
Quinquagesimo Anno Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 23 July 2012

It often seems as if studying history is of no use. Forget George Santayana’s, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” A good enough saying in a way. But given human nature, it’s quite possible, common even, for someone to see a lesson in the past and make the same mistake anyway. Whole nations do it.

Many of us have been feeling lately that the America we once knew has been slipping away like a mudslide picking up speed. It seems like there are unprecedented rifts in the nation, the world, the Church. There’s certainly a whole new tonality to public life.

Just this weekend, I noticed a debate about whether people should be allowed to view pornography on airplanes, in libraries, and other public places. The broad consensus seems to be that they should – and it’s nobody else’s business. There’s plenty else that, not so long ago, seemed unthinkable. How has it come to this?

Mulling over these kinds of things led me to take a look back at 1962, a half century ago, before, it would seem, the really big changes had gathered steam. I’m just old enough to “remember” 1962, sort of. The Cuban Missile Crisis took place in that year, which brought the world about as close to a nuclear holocaust as it ever came.

I remember a friend at Holy Name of Jesus School gleefully trying to scare the rest of us that there was going to be a war. But unlike recollections of other people that I’ve read from those days, I don’t remember being much terrorized. Life for one obviously oblivious young boy just seemed too good and stable.

“Good” Pope John XXIII excommunicated Fidel Castro on January 3, well before the Soviet missiles were discovered, for reasons that are not entirely clear. It had something to do with mistreatment of the Church in Cuba, but also involved a decree by Pius XII – restated by John XXIII – excommunicating Communists. Papa Roncalli was diplomatic about the way it was announced, but he made sure it got done.

The Church in the United States had its own problems. There was a Catholic president, but in 1962 he began his abusive affair – just once of many others concealed by the Camelot myth  – with a 19-year-old intern, Mimi Alford, whom he shared once with an aide, and almost with his brother Teddy (she drew the line there). Ted was elected to the Senate for the first time that year. Mary Jo Kopechne and the bridge at Chappaquiddick were still seven years off.

At the same time, New Orleans Archbishop Joseph Rummel excommunicated people in his archdiocese who resisted desegregation (President Kennedy sent Federal troops to get James Meredith into the University of Mississippi – even in our age of flouting the Constitution, it’s hard to imagine a president trying such a thing today.)

         Justice Byron R. White

Further along the Catholic moral spectrum, the bishop of Buffalo banned Chubby Checker’s “the twist” from Catholic schools. A bishop in the Netherlands came out in favor of contraception, but that was still news in those days since Vatican II wouldn’t open until the Fall.

Internationally, even outside of Cuba, it was wars and rumors of wars. Vietnam and Laos were perking along. Algeria won independence from France, but like the modern Arab Spring, it seemed to settle little. There was a failed attempt to assassinate France’s President De Gaulle. Bombs went off on several planes. Above-ground nuclear testing by both superpowers occurred with frequency.

Even nature seemed capricious and deadly: a freak storm on Columbus Day in the Pacific Northwest killed twenty-six people – and that in the days before global warming. Equally unnatural, Yankee pitching ace Whitey Ford had his streak of scoreless innings in World Series broken at an astonishing 33 .     

It was also the year that Kennedy appointed Byron R. (“Whizzer”) White to the Supreme Court – the only justice besides William Rehnquist to dissent in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. Back then, a Democrat-appointed justice could speak in these terms:

The Court, for the most part, sustains this position: during the period prior to the time the fetus becomes viable, the Constitution of the United States values the convenience, whim, or caprice of the putative mother more than the life or potential life of the fetus. . . . I find nothing in the language or history of the Constitution to support the Courts judgment. The Court simply fashions and announces a new constitutional right for pregnant mothers [410 U.S. 222] and, with scarcely any reason or authority for its action, invests that right with sufficient substance to override most existing state abortion statutes. . . . As an exercise of raw judicial power, the Court perhaps has authority to do what it does today; but, in my view, its judgment is an improvident and extravagant exercise of the power of judicial review that the Constitution extends to this Court.

We’ve certainly come a long way in valuing – perhaps indulging would be the mot plus juste – the  “convenience, whim or caprice” not only of a “putative mother,” but of whole new classes of Americans. The zone of privacy apparently now means I can watch hardcore porn publicly in a library or on a plane, in front of you and your kids. And much more. And who but a warped Christian pervert would think it’s any of his business?

Much hasn’t changed since 1962, because human nature doesn’t change. But much has changed as well that, in those far-off times, seemed impossible. A history lesson, perhaps. And history hasn’t ended.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (8)Add Comment
written by Grump, July 23, 2012
Back in '63 I was just out of the Navy and catching up after 3 years mostly at sea or serving abroad. That was the year after the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory prayer in public schools is unconstitutional.

For many of us who grew in the '50s, there was still optimism in the air but that largely vanished the following year when JFK was assassinated and the nation lost whatever innocence it might have had. The national psyche was badly wounded after that horrible event and never recovered.

Now a doddering 70, I look back and see a better country and a better people from the days of my youth. The "broad consensus" you refer to does not surprise me any more than the public opinion polls that show a sizable number of people, perhaps a majority, favor same-sex "marriage" -- an idea that would have be unthinkable in 1962. So much for the advance of civilization.
written by Manfred, July 23, 2012
Thank you for an excellent article, Dr. Royal. The good news is we still have the Boy Scouts, the prosecutors in Philadelphia and now the NCAA. Hopefully, some of the leaders in the secular world and the Catholic laity and some excellent bishops and priests will be able to alleviate some of the insanity in today's world.
written by Walter, July 23, 2012
The only problems the US Church had 50 years ago were the dalliances of the Kennedy brothers? Really?
written by Hoss G, July 23, 2012
I have understood for many years now that 1962 was a pivotal year in our country and the world. I believe the same as you in this article. I also wondered for many years how NAZI Germany became so complete in German society. There is always that question: How did it happen in Germany? But now I think we are living in 2012 (1933). I believe the United States is following the same history as Germany of the 1930's. We don't have concentration camps but our thinking is being changed in ways that are perverse and just wrong. The 2010's are our 1930's similar to Germany. One party -Democrates- are doing and getting everything they want. Who in 1962 would have ever thought it possible? Our Lady of Fatima pray for us!
written by Sue, July 23, 2012
Read "How Support for Abortion Became Kennedy Dogma" by Anne Hendershott in the Wall Street Journal. But there's even more ...that was the decade that Father Hesburgh set things the Church up to crumble on contraception (read at "HEART ATTACK: CATHOLIC ACADEME MEETS "EX CORDE ECCLESIAE"") and wound up becoming chairman of the Rockefeller Foundation.

There's quite a bit more to the Catholic sixties than meets the eye.
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., July 23, 2012
Dear Grump, I'm just 63, but I have vivd memories of how shaken we all were on that horrilbe day in November 1962. But with all due respect, I do think it is possible to exaggerate the effects of that event on our natinal pyshce. Two years later, LBJ was elected in his own right by a landslide and many were filled with optimism over apparent progress in civil rights and the War on Poverty. But soon revolutionary forces that had been hibernating for decades set fire to the cities becuase progress was not on their agenda. More fires were set when LBJ decided that he did not want to be the first US President to lose a war to Communists, and the one-time darling of Liberlas was denounced as a new Hitler and even accused of being behind the Kennedy assassiantion (Remember McBird?). It was not really out of no place that America became awash in drugs and promiscuity became the norm. People we're not getting stoned and fornicating to help themselves cope with JFK's death. WE have neer been the same again.
It is significant both that last version of what we supposed to call the Extraorindary Rite was published in 1926, during Papa Ronali's papcy, and that he continued the practice ex-communicating Communists. I point this out because some would have us believe that ever since Pope John the Church has been just fine is Marxism and Freemasonry. Keep tellint the truth, Dr. Royal. And thank you, Sue, for your input. To add to what you wrote about the Catholic sixties, just as Catholic historian Paul Johnson notes that sometimes decades don't start on time, sometimes they start ealeir than we think they do.
written by Tony Esolen, July 23, 2012
The opinion about the acceptability of public viewing of pornography proves, in case we needed any further proof, the complete anti-social nature of the sexual revolution: steeped in selfishness.
written by Gian, July 24, 2012
Mr Esolen,
More than that, it is the rejection of the valid claims of society on part of the Right and its hyper-individualism, reinforced with the mythology of the Frontier.

The Right mostly rejects Solidarity, something it needs to be tasked with, when they trumpet the virtues of Solidarity.

For instance, the Church teaches that the poor have just claim on our superfluity. And the State exists to pursue Justice, so poor relief is a valid function of State, yet too many on the right reject this argument and ask the poor to be relieved by Charity alone.

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