Fr. Bevil Bramwell, OMI: “The Sixties Are Still Here”

Originally published by The Catholic Thing.

Fr. Bevil Bramwell, OMILent is a good time to see where our pet behaviors come from. In the Western Church, many people’s thoughts and behaviors are substantially shaped, even now, by what happened years ago in the Sixties. They follow ways of thinking that originated then, waste their time reacting to them, or they ignore them hoping they will go away.

As at other disruptive times in history, basic ideas and ways of behaving were driven so deeply into people’s psyches that those of us who were not affected by the 1960s keep tripping over the debris, even today. It’s not just that many present-day Catholics grew up then, but some pass on what they learned then as if it is the new gospel. For me, life sometimes seems a constant search to comprehend clergy and laity who are pro-abortion, pro-contraception, pro-homosexual marriage, you-name-it and who still regard themselves as “Catholic.” I found a lot of light in the late Tony Judt’s sketch Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. He wrote about Europe but much in U.S. society is derivative from what happens in Europe.

First, there was the exaggeration of the import of youthfulness. According to Judt: “At the very least, it seemed to many young people as though they had been born into a society reluctantly transforming itself. . .before their very eyes and at their behest.” There lies the rub. The Sixties young believed that they originated the meaning and the symbols of life. In their minds, at least collectively, they were separated from previous generations. So in brief – no  tradition and no Church, even as Vatican II recognized it.

In addition: “The youthful impulse of the Sixties was not about understanding the world.” Yikes! Understanding would get in the way of our self-involvement! For Judt, the purpose instead was “to change it.” (a la Marx) Two things followed: the first was the change-for-change-sake approach to Church teaching and practice. The other was a strange link to political agendas. In Europe, until the Eighties, the Church dominated some political parties. Then, with secularism, the parties themselves became dominant, and members twisted Church teaching to fit partisan positions. Sound familiar?

Oddly too, there was an emphasis on the style of clothing where “the generation of the Sixties placed unusual insistence upon looking different.” The roots, perhaps, of clergy concelebrating Mass without vestments today? The rejection of formality was widespread, confusing formality with formalism. Formality conforms the individual to the larger reality of the Church worshipping in Heaven.

Tony Judt

A great illustration can be found in Sixties architecture. Regarding architectural design from that period, one can say that “sociologically and aesthetically it was rootless. . . .This break with the past was deliberate. . . .The 1960’s was self-consciously ahistorical.” Applied to the Church, the whole idea of the “Church” only starts the moment an individual starts thinking about it. Such thinking, however, does not refer to a real Church.

Judt comments that “architects and sociologists may not have understood that their projects would in one generation, breed social outcasts and violent gangs, but that prospect was clear enough to the residents.” There is an interesting parallel here with the effects of poor “theologies” that actually promote the culture of death. Those that ignore the Church, personhood, historicity, and the social matrix deprive humans of their humanity and make the culture of death seem tolerable, even a matter of common sense.

Judt lists authors who “sought to undermine the very concept of the human subject that had once underlain” so much thoughtful discourse. Out the window goes the data about human beings from revelation! This mainstream current depended on two common Sixties assumptions. The first, that power rests “upon the monopoly of knowledge. . .[which then required] repressing subversive ‘knowledges’.” So for Catholicism, its truth had to be replaced by various myths. Hence the “Whose orthodoxy?” question. Some Catholics were only too glad to help. The Marxist notion of substitutingone “knowledge” for another to gain control of the social narrative underlay much “theological” writing in the Sixties and Seventies.

More worrisome still was the second assumption: “the seductive insistence upon subverting not just old certainties but the very possibility of certainty itself.” Until the Sixties, it was mostly believed that arguments could stand on their own, “independent of the persons making them.” But the tactic of discrediting what was said because it came from that person became a cheap and lazy commonplace. What was lost was the skill to judge when an argument is true.

So with the denial of what constitutes humanity and what constitutes truth, a large group of “Catholics” are propagating lethal ideas. Humanity is being diminished through impoverished thinking, but also through simply poor thinking. Let’s get the Church’s house in order. Why prolong the Sixties?


 Fr. Bevil Bramwell, OMI PhD is the former Undergraduate Dean at Catholic Distance University. His books are Laity: Beautiful, Good and TrueThe World of the Sacraments, and, most recently, Catholics Read the Scriptures: Commentary on Benedict XVI’s Verbum Domini.


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