Misinterpreting the Legacy of the 1960s

Part of The Revealer’s series on the John Jay report, The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010.

by Scott Korb

For a good part of the past four years, I met every other week with a former Ursuline nun – let’s call her “Josefa” – to talk about the life of the Church from the ’50s to early ’70s, precisely the period of time when the child sexual abuse crisis was at its worst. Josefa, approaching 80, was writing a memoir; I helped her along. Together, inch by inch and mile by mile, we paved the way for her entry, as a teenager, into the religious order known to be the first group of Catholic sisters to arrive in the new world. And together, week by week and year by year, we came to understand why exactly, at 40, she left.

We often talked, and she often wrote, about sex and sexuality. For instance, as a young Catholic girl her mother taught her that women went out to buy babies. She also recalls being sent to a dingy, corner drugstore in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood with a note reading “modess,” and then watching as the druggist wrapped a box of sanitary napkins in plain brown paper, which made her wonder on the walk home how those napkins might help reduce women’s underarm odor. Scolded once by a nun for orchestrating a childhood game of Truth or Dare that involved putative smacks on the backside, she reflected, “I hadn’t even heard of a vagina, much less known that I had one.”

Her experiences as an adult were hardly more grown-up. Priests she knew tried to practice what was then called the Third Way, a sexual relationship with a woman somewhere between celibacy and marriage – though never with her. The very idea offended the younger, pious Josefa, but recounting a day spent at a state park with a “Father Highet” and two other nuns, “one woman with her head on his thighs, the other with her head on his stomach,” she admits that a schoolgirlish part of her was always jealous of those women and the affections of that era’s Father Highets. (This particular day in the park was broken up by a group of students from the Catholic girls’ school where the women all taught and where the priest worked as well.)

Josefa blames the Third Way, in part, on the culture pop-psychology of the 1960s. The sexual revolution affected the church, and along with it, Josefa concludes, came “a useless competition … with meanness, jealousy, and misery among the contestants.” (There were also, undoubtedly, some great love and liberation found through less competitive, less abusive, and more mature pairings – including a good deal of laicization and a fair number of happy marriages.) But for her, the blame goes deeper (and with her childhood stories as evidence, the problems started much, much earlier). Together we came to understand that within the church, the sexual power plays between adult men and women that she witnessed had primarily to do with “[t]he strictures of cloister,” which “were a means of control by churchmen, treating women like children.” Sickened by the Church abuse scandal as its features came more and more into focus over the years we spent together, Josefa never once made the connection between ’60s counterculture and “crisis” in the Church.

That’s not to say we never talked about what happened in the Church in the ’60s. Indeed, the most exciting – and indeed, countercultural – parts of her story include brushes with the likes of a towering Dorothy Day at her Catholic Worker house in New York’s East Village and on the Peter Maurin Farm on Staten Island. Pacifist priest Daniel Berrigan also makes an appearance (and disappearance), followed apace by the authorities.

A few days later, when I answered the phone, the caller identified himself as an FBI agent, asking like a good Catholic boy:

“Sister, can you tell us where Father Dan is?”

In the ’60s, this quiet nun from a comfortable, white New York family met a young black nun from Arlington, Virginia, who reintroduced her to the most countercultural of all the biblical books, the Song of Solomon. Asked to give a short talk to a group of young nuns, Josefa’s new fried Harriet began, “I am black but beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem” (1:5).

I worry that I’m beating a dead horse here, but the new John Jay report on the abuse of children in the Catholic Church makes a mistake in looking narrowly at the cultural effects of the ’60s and ’70s. And indeed, if what the report says about the abusers is true – that they “showed evidence of difficulty with intimacy” and often began abusing “at times of increased job stress, social isolation, and decreased contact with peers” – how in the world could they be so affected by a revolution taking place in a society they were, by all accounts, avoiding? Blame the cultural revolution of the ’60s for the libertinism of those Third Way priests, perhaps, or even the collapse in vocations that has come to be the story of contemporary American Catholicism. Blame it for Josefa’s own departure from the Ursulines in 1972, not to mention her taking up in her golden years with a former Catholic priest. But let’s also remember that the ’60s gave us some truly great American Catholics. And as our numbers continue to drop and our footholds get increasingly conservative, let’s consider the possibility that by misinterpreting the legacy of the ’60s, we all but guarantee that the Days and Berrigans and Sister Harriets of that era may be the last truly countercultural – that is, truly biblical – Catholics this nation ever sees.

Scott Korb is co-author, with Peter Bebergal, of The Faith Between Us and associate editor of The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers, winner of the American Historical Association’s 2009 J. Franklin Jameson Prize. His latest book is Life In Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine (Riverhead, 2010). He currently teaches religion and food writing at the New School and New York University. Read his tumblr at lifeinyearone.tumblr.com.

This article is part of The Revealer’s series on the John Jay report, “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010.”  Read additional commentary by Frances Kissling, Elizabeth Castelli, Amanda Marcotte, Scott Korb, Mary Valle and others here.

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