The End of an Era
The End of an Era
The coming together of the racial crisis, bitter internal divisions over the Vietnam War, campus upheavals, political radicalism associated with the New Left, the growth of the counterculture, and the emergence of new forms of feminism made the 1960s an epoch of revolutionary change for all Americans. But for American Catholics the profound religious reorientation associated with the Second Vatican Council multiplied the disruptive effect of all the other forces of change. This clashing of the tectonic plates of culture produced nothing less than a spiritual earthquake in the American church. Although the dust has still not fully settled, it was clear from an early date that the old ideological structure of Catholic higher education, which was already under severe strain, had been swept away entirely. As institutions, most Catholic colleges and universities weathered the storm. But institutional survival in the midst of ideological collapse left them uncertain of their identity. That situation still prevails. To explore it fully would require another book. Our task now is to review the emergence of the problem, sketch its general outlines, and point out why it marks the end of an era in the history of Catholic higher education. For a number of reasons, freedom became the central theme in American Catholic higher education in the early 1960s. As the most basic of American values, it was, of course, immensely attractive to the socially assimilated generation of younger Catholics for whom John F. Kennedy’s election and Pope John XXIII’s aggiornamento vindicated the hopes of the earlier Americanists, whose travails Catholic historians had so recently explored. Moreover, the contemporaneous demand by African Americans for “Freedom Now” linked freedom to the religious idealism of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s non-violent crusade for civil rights. Freedom was, in addition, the polar opposite of the rigidity, formalism, and authoritarianism that had become so distasteful to American Catholic intellectuals; by contrast, it meshed beautifully with their growing insistence on the importance of individual subjectivity.
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