Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

A Question of Authority: Friction in the Catholic Family Life Movement, 1948-1962

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

A Question of Authority: Friction in the Catholic Family Life Movement, 1948-1962

Article excerpt

In 1950 spiritual directors for the National Councils of Catholic Men and Catholic Women met in Denver for their second annual conference. These priests, in most cases the family life directors of their dioceses, were struck by an emerging split within the Church over the future of family life movements. The Reverend Roy Rihn of San Antonio asked his fellow workshop attendees how they could "avoid `ecclesiastical schizophrenia' in view of the two approaches in Catholic Action. . . . The top-down, mass appeal, stressing organizations, monster rallies, etc. [or] the Bottom-up, slow growth method, based on formation of teams through the inquiry method (see-judge-act) the apostolate of like to like."1 It was a difficult question, one with important ramifications for the future of the Church, but in 1950, these spiritual directors had no ready answer. Although the "family apostolate" emerged after World War II as the fastest-growing movement in the American Catholic Church, there was widespread disagreement over its direction. Some individuals working on family issues forecast a gloomy future unless lay Catholics accepted priestly authority and closely followed the Church's teachings. Others saw the Catholic family itself as a medium for positive social change and as a way to affirm their identity as religious Catholics within an increasingly secular society. Both sides of this emerging family apostolate promoted new programs and ideas to protect and defend Catholic "family values" from the perceived ills of secular society. Those who believed in continued reliance on hierarchy and lay obedience preferred a traditional "top-down" focus on educational efforts and"monster rallies" firmly under hierarchical control. A more radical vision emerged after the war, however, as lay Catholics began to recognize their power within the Church and pushed for programs that emphasized lay action in small groups.

Action-oriented groups that used a Catholic Action "inquiry method" and focused on the family from the "bottom-up" were a result of the profound social and demographic changes of the postwar period.2 In a 1943 national survey of thirty-five parish priests, twenty-two mentioned some parish society whose work included improving family life, but none that worked exclusively on family issues.3 just fifteen years later there were more than ten national groups concerned solely with strengthening Catholic family values through action, study, and prayer. Most of these new groups encouraged husbands and wives to work together, and many preferred taking action to studying scholarly literature. The rise of family-oriented groups helped to make questions about authority and who had power to make decisions an increasingly contested issue in the Church after World War 11. A fast-growing group of suburban, middle-class Catholics, many priests acknowledged, were different from their earlier ethnic and urban counterparts. A group of Chicago clergy who met regularly to discuss social issues were aware, for example, that older relationships between priest and parishioners were changing. They agreed that while the "present form has been set over many years; it was "largely a result of old world customs and immigration"They noted that ideas about the clergy were "changing rapidly. . . the old tyrant can't get away with it. More is expected of us than before but in a different way."' An educated and increasingly active laity made it more likely that lay Catholics would make decisions based on their own experience. The family life apostolate of 1940's and 1950's marked the beginnings of a conflict over authority that would flare much brighter in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. Beneath that seemingly placid 1950's moved an undercurrent of challenges and change to the Church.

The conflict between the National Catholic Welfare Conference (NCWC), especially the Family Life Bureau, and the leaders of the Christian Family Movement (CFM) and the Cana Conference movement represents one aspect of an emerging conflict between hierarchy and laity. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.