The Council ended in 1965, and every national conference of bishops was expected to adopt the mood and spirit of Vatican II to Catholic education and faith formation. The guidelines for such directives did not appear from the Vatican until 1971, the General Catechetical Directory, [unless one considers Paul VI’s Credo below a catechetical document.] By this time the concrete principles of Vatican II and the less specific “spirit of Vatican II” were beginning to diverge, at least in the United States. If you have been following the Saturday Café blog stream on the Council document Sacrosanctum Concilium, you have sampled the moderate tone of the statement. It is neither radically traditionalist nor open-ended futurist. Sacrosanctum Concilium does not advocate altar girls or abandonment of the church organ, for example, or take a position on even communion in the hand. By the same token, SC does not advocate preserving the pre-Conciliar form of the Mass, either, calling instead for rubrics that would symbolize the togetherness of the Church around the Eucharistic banquet.
It is worth noting here that on June 30, 1968, Pope Paul VI issued his Credo of the People of God. I was in college at the time, and I assumed, along with others, that Pope Paul was getting skittish about the progressive drift of theology and religious education and wished to centralize both academic theology and catechetics. Reviewing it again today, I notice it is considerably longer than the Nicene Creed used at Mass, and that it goes to great lengths to elaborate doctrines not contained in the earlier Creeds now used at Mass. There is elaboration on the Mass as a sacrifice, at a time when religion teachers were teaching the Mass as a Eucharistic meal. There was emphasis upon Marian Doctrine, Original Sin, Transubstantiation, and particularly the supreme authority of the Pope to teach in faith and morals. But then it dawned on me that Credo was published just weeks before the Pope’s controversial birth control teaching, Humanae Vitae. Few Church issues in my lifetime created more anger and grief of conscience.
This is the world in which the authors of “To Teach as Jesus Did” tried to follow a path where bishops could come to agreement on principles and practices of catechetics. American Bishops in 1972 were somewhat less divided than they are today. As TTAJD is the product of endless staff work, it is difficult to know the full intentions of the bishop contributors and voters. When I reviewed the document six years ago, I criticized it for a shortage of hard data and an overabundance of faulty utopian long-range planning. But in recent years, I have more sympathy for the bishops who were in a sense trying to square a catechetical circle. They were forced to make judgments on the most basic question of catechetics, i.e., where do we put our eggs: whether faith formation is most effective in a Catholic school setting or in the CCD setting.
Again, the memory of the Council era is colored by the times, and a popular rendering has it that most Catholic youths in the United States attended Catholic schools. The Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884 had mandated nationally that every church have a Catholic school, with this goal of near universal enrollment of Catholics. In the 1880’s most Catholics lived in the Northeast and Midwest; Archdioceses like New York, Boston, Baltimore Chicago and Philadelphia, and statistics do bear out a high concentration of Catholic schools. As one looks south and west, the concentration of schools would be less, though Catholic schooling was considered a hope in places where it was not available.
By the time of the Council in 1962 the peak enrollment of Catholic children in Catholic schools was 50%; I was shocked to learn this; growing up in Buffalo’s Catholic ghetto, I thought it would have been much higher. The high-water mark for enrollment in U.S. Catholic schools was the academic year 1965-1966 and has decreased every year since. Why this decrease after the post-World War II boom has never been comprehensively explained in one volume, but there are theories in abundance. The Depression, World War II, and the baby boomer phenomenon all factor into rises and declines in Catholic demographics.
The easy and unexamined thesis about the numerical decline of Catholic schools in the 1960’s and beyond has painted the villains as the religious sisters—paid a pittance, in truth--seeking their own destinies in the post-Council days of relaxed discipline, who deserted the schools seeking their own destinies in the post-Council days of relaxed discipline, itself a concept worthy of reexamination. The problems with this explanation are multiple and refuted to some extent by statistical analysis. Repeated studies have shown that only in the years 1940-1960 did the United States produce enough homegrown priests. [Where would my Florida be without the “Irish” priests who built most of the churches and schools? When I arrived here as a pastor in 1978, all my pastor colleagues were educated at Maynooth, not Washington’s Catholic University.] Technically, it would be more accurate to speak of a temporary boom in clergy and religious, rather than a precipitous decline to a level that our ancestors of a century ago would have been accustomed to.
Religious sisters were also recruited from overseas, mostly Ireland, by bishops and pastors in the United States. In When the Sisters Said Farewell: The Transition of Leadership in Catholic Elementary Schools , there is a lengthy account of a 1949 negotiation between an Irish sisters’ community and an auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles who seemed perplexed that the community was hesitant to take up his offer of a princely $50/month stipend in the U.S. when each sister was paid an annual $10,000 stipend by the Irish national government. However, the dynamics of women religious in the post-Vatican II American Church are complex, and while some interesting first-person experiences of those years can be easily found, few or no hard research studies exist to explain why religious women [and priests, for that matter] were becoming more scarce. When coupled with declining enrollment in Catholic schools, the authors of TTAJD had a significant challenge in mapping strategy for faith formation, and their analyses and recommendations remain with us to this day.