At the Gates of Notre Dame
The aspiring professionals who attend and staff elite Catholic universities tend to identify with other upwardly mobile young people, focused on career and lifestyle choices. But the vast majority of Catholics, to whom Catholic universities ultimately must answer, seek in Catholic culture the strength with which to confront the urgent concerns of ordinary life.
One could offer here a number of analogies, of varying accuracy. Take divorce in detective stories, for example. In mystery novel after mystery novel through the 1950s, there existed an accepted trope that a reasonable motive for the murder of, say, a wife was that she was a Catholic and so would never give her philandering husband the divorce he wanted. It didn’t matter that Catholics were, in fact, divorcing at nearly the same rate as everyone else in those years; what mattered was the trope: the cultural identity of Catholics as people who do not divorce.
Friday abstinence might be another analogy: the cultural identification of Catholics with their fish eating. This was a universally recognized marker, a sign of Catholic culture to Catholic and non-Catholic alike. Regardless of how much theology and liturgy were reformed by Vatican II, the loss of Friday abstinence may have caused more changes in Catholic culture than anything else attempted in the aftermath of the council. Of course, Friday fish eating was never as central to Catholic thought as opposition to abortion is now. Even rejection of divorce was not as central, though it, too, involved defense of the family.
A better analogy might be the role that veneration of the Blessed Virgin played in Catholic culture through the 1950s. Protestants always felt there was something deeply wrong with Catholicism’s treatment of Mary, but—as many Catholic theologians pointed out—the Protestant complaint never precisely fit official Catholic theology on the point. That doesn’t mean, however, that the Protestants were wrong. They understood, in fact, that the Blessed Virgin occupied a cultural place for Catholics that official Catholic theology did not fully express.
Indeed, the analogy with the cultural role of abortion gains strength when we remember that the Marian doctrines were not forced down on the Church by intellectuals or the hierarchy. Well into the nineteenth century, Catholic theologians and the Vatican generally resisted the movement. The importance of Mary— her symbols and the strong definition of the Marian doctrines—was pushed from below: given to the hierarchy by the sense of the faithful.
That much is true of opposition to abortion. In an important essay in the Fall 2005 issue of Human Life Review, the historian George McKenna demonstrated the surprising withdrawal of the bishops from the political fight over abortion in the crucial years from 1979 to 1983—and maybe all the way to 1998, when the American bishops finally issued a pastoral letter that sharply separated the life issues from other concerns. The cultural centrality of opposition to abortion in America was not pushed down from above; it was forced on the reluctant bishops by the sense of the faithful, and that forcing took almost twenty years to accomplish.