Quinquagesimo Anno

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 books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.