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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Confessions of an Aging Sixties' Radical

          They say that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged. I am a conservative who came of age under Pope John XXIII.

          My formative years were shaped by the post World War II takeover of Eastern Europe and China by Communist governments. A priest refugee from Croatia came to Decatur as chaplain of our Catholic high school. He became a frequent visitor in our home, and I was prepared, on the basis of the stories he told, to be forced to leave wherever I was living with just the clothes on my back and hit the road, walking to somewhere-only God would know where. I was convinced by an eighth grade classmate that Communists were stockpiling machine guns in the basement of his next door neighbor.

          One of my most admired teachers in my first year of college seminary was convinced that Joseph McCarthy was being persecuted because he was Catholic. That seemed sensible to me. Communists were insidious, and they were everywhere.

          I was religiously conservative too. When Pope John XXIII decreed, in 1962, that all courses in Catholic philosophy and theology seminaries were henceforth to be taught in Latin, I vigorously defended the policy. That was until I read, in Latin, a questionnaire in the official Vatican journal Acta Apostolicae Sedis. The questionnaire was so ridiculous, even to me, that my rock-solid Vatican fundamentalism suffered its first crack.

          Then I read, in Pope John’s 1964 encyclical Pacem in Terris, that political systems founded on faulty philosophical bases can sometimes be lived with. You don’t have to go to war with them if they meet minimum standards of serving the public good. The experience for me can be described by the “windows thrown open” metaphor often used to describe Pope John’s calling of the Second Vatican Council.        

          Maybe I was just tired of war. Second World War, Korean War, and the beginnings of the Vietnam War-all of these had worn me down.

          Recently I read that Teddy Roosevelt believed that each generation of Americans ought to have a war so young men could realize their masculinity. He engineered the Spanish American War to make his belief a reality. I used to wonder if our leaders believed the same thing, because it sure seemed to be the pattern.

          More likely, every generation has to test the new weapons that keep the defense industries alive.

          Pope John’s openness hit the world at the precise moment that the U.S. was electing its first Catholic president. All of a sudden it seemed that history was on our side. After years of struggling as an embattled minority, we Catholics were on a roll. In the words of a (rather conservative) priest professor of mine, “We’ve got the devil on the run, and it’s a downhill pull.”

          Looking back, I think we were somewhat seduced by the experience of being on the winning political side for the first time. Catholic president, admired pope, and a Council throwing open the doors and windows. We were on the cover of Time magazine. I was on the Harvard campus, where John Kennedy had studied, and whose faculty had provided half the officials in his Washington administration.

          I think we made the same mistake that Christians made when Constantine merged his political power with Christian ideals. It feels good suddenly to be able to be listened to by people with power.

          It is always hazardous to analyze other people’s motives, but I have the sense that the religious right, including not a few Catholic bishops, have been enjoying the same experience with the Republican Party.

          It’s their turn now, which is why I am an aging Sixties’ radical. Our time has passed.

          The pendulum will swing back.