“The Fifties” (really 1945-1964) are remembered as a conservative time. They weren’t, but there is something to the impression. For most of its history, the United States has understood itself to be a liberal nation, a beacon of enlightenment and freedom surrounded by the “Old World” of ancient tyranny and superstition. In 1945, America found her faced with a rival that was much more obviously revolutionary, one that had made an even more thorough repudiation of Europe’s Christian, monarchical past. Quite against her preferences, America came to occupy what was effectively the counter-revolutionary position. All the world’s progressive forces looked to the Soviet Union as their natural leader, while the remnants of hierarchy and religion had no choice but to embrace American protection, or at least American-allied Christian Democratic parties.
Such a novel situation required a rethinking of American identity, and “the Fifties” were, in terms of America’s self-conceptualization, the most intellectually creative time of the twentieth century. From this era, we see many foundational works of the New Left, according to which the capitalist, America-led West was conceived as reactionary and oppressive, and also of what was then called the New Right, which re-imagined the Anglo-American world as heirs of Edmund Burke and the European counter-revolution.
America’s reactionary moment was an anomaly. By the Reagan administration, the Republican half of America had chosen to present the country as the true revolutionary power, fighting for liberalism against Soviet tyranny. The Democratic half of America didn’t buy this, of course, but now, deep into the Obama administration, they have largely reconciled themselves to seeing America as a force for good in a world of villainous European nativists and Russian homophobes. Like in the Soviet Union before us, there no doubt remain reactionary elements that will have to be terrorized into submission, but it would take fantastic mental contortions to deny that the regime is pushing along the revolution.
Times have returned to the post-French Revolutionary normal. Stuff written in 1850 seems more sensible to us than stuff written in 1950. Only one institution has failed to return to type: the Catholic Church. At the Second Vatican Council, she locked itself into mid-century illusions about a pro-Christian version of liberalism, and she now finds herself controlled by a cadre of men who built their careers off of promoting those illusions and marginalizing those who weren’t taken in.
The more I think about it, the stronger the case seems for the hypothesis that Vatican II caused “the Sixties” (1964-1975). Apologists continue to make excuses for the Council’s manifest failures, saying that everything would have worked out fine but for a hostile cultural upheaval that by complete coincidence overtook the Western world right as the Council began to be implemented. Is it true that the Left mutated around 1965 into a much more virulent form? I don’t see any evidence of that. “The Fifties” were, I think, a more innovative time for the Left. No doubt some of these innovations would take time to affect the masses, but most of them I’d say tended to make the Left’s appeal to normal people weaker. Anti-Americanism and loss of interest in the working class especially were hardly winning moves. No, what was really different about “the Sixties”, if you think about it, was that the Left was no longer getting any resistance. By 1950, a large part of the resistance to the Left in the West was coming from the Catholic Church and Catholic lay groups. I don’t think my Protestant readers will be offended if I say that it had to have been at least around half. What happens when two armies are equally matched and half of the troops from one side desert is not a slight shift of power, but a rout. The Left might have been weaker than in the Truman years, but the Right was far weaker than in the Pius XII years, because Catholics had now been told that they should be open to the world rather than loyal to the Truth.
Explanations of the Vatican II collapse often fail by denying what they are trying to explain. They assume that any institution that collapsed so quickly couldn’t really have been strong before. However, the evidence for Catholic strength–in Mass attendance, vocations, lay associations, missionary work, and a crop of martyrs that bear comparison to ancient Rome–is overwhelming. Thus, criticisms of the pre-conciliar Church focus on unmeasurable assertions about peoples’ interior states. For example, people were just “going through the motions”. But how can the conciliar debacle be explained without at least a modernist conspiracy comprising the majority of the Council Fathers? If we think our way back into that anomalous time, the mystery disappears. American anti-communism. Christian democracy. Catholics, Protestants, and classical liberals as brothers in arms fighting the Red Menace. In those days, liberal slogans like “democracy” sounded good to Catholic ears, because when we heard them, we registered them as “not communism”. Surely, a bit of theological flexibility is warranted to cement such a beneficial alliance? I know the Council documents don’t directly even mention communism, but it clearly framed the way those who voted on it understood all the things it does mention.
Was this a mistake? Certainly. We can now see plainly that America carries the same core of godlessness as the Soviet Union. On the other hand, we needn’t impute ill will to the majority of the Fathers. Remember, if it weren’t for the United States’ nuclear arsenal, there wouldn’t be any Christians in the world today.