Old Liberals, Young Liberals, and the Breakdown of the Family

Why and how the rejection of "Humanae Vitae" made all the difference among Catholics

A recent study by the Pew Research Center finds significant differences between younger and older liberals, differences that are not encouraging either to orthodox religious believers or to the older liberals.

The Next Generation Left (NGL) are at one with older liberals on the social issues, notably abortion and homosexual marriage, and it is primarily those issues which hold the Democratic constituencies together. But the NGL is notably less liberal on economic issues. Only nine per cent of older liberals think America’s economic system is fair, while 36 per cent of the NGL does. Over 8o per cent of older liberals think the government should help the needy, as opposed to only 39 per cent of the NGL, 32 per cent of whom think the poor lack initiative and rely on handouts.

As R. R. Reno of First Things says, the Pew study seems to show that the NGL “…marry free market individualism with an affirmation of lifestyle freedom unhindered by and sometimes antagonistic to religion, morality, and social solidarity.”

Older liberals vs. younger liberals

These findings ought not to be surprising, given the meritocratic nature of elite education in America. Intense competition has formed the NGL and confirmed for them that they have arrived at success through hard work and personal merit and have nothing to apologize for.

There is some unease over this among older liberals. Universities still celebrate students and alumni who are successful in worldly terms, but in their publicity they feature equally those engaged in various kinds of social service. At every commencement ceremony speakers congratulate the new alumni on their accomplishments but urge them not to forget the less fortunate. Being involved in social action of some kind is a good career move both before and during college, but how many graduates—burdened by sometimes overwhelming debts—remain committed is doubtful.

The NGL are not eager to sacrifice even for what they consider to be the common good, a small but telling statistic is that, while the NGL consider themselves environmentalists, many also favor the Keystone XL pipeline. Recently, the New York Times had to print a retraction of an article claiming that the “Millennial” generation are extraordinarily generous and unselfish. The original Times report had gotten the statistics exactly backwards—the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, Teach for America, and other such groups all report a significant decline in the number of volunteers.

Most of the “proof” for the Times’ original claim consisted of what Millennials said about themselves. On this as on most things having to do with “social awareness” the data mainly consists of opinion polls, and it is primarily the right opinions that contemporary liberalism requires of people—the politically correct are seldom examined as to their lifestyles or asked how much of their time and treasure they actually give to the needy.

Among Catholics too there is no systematic information about works of charity. Are liberal parishes more likely to provide generous help for the poor? Are liberal laity more likely to adopt children? Many pro-lifers—sneered at even by Catholic liberals and impeded by the liberal state—do heroic work on behalf of pregnant women and their new-borns, although a favorite liberal canard is that pro-lifers care only about the unborn.

Organized care of children, the sick, and the elderly was for centuries the work of nuns, few of whom now seem to be involved in those ministries. The Little Sisters of the Poor, harassed by the Obama administration, continue to fulfill that historic vocation, while the Nuns on Bus, whatever they may be doing, are not helping the needy in any apparent way.

At this crucial moment in history, when it is dramatically obvious that the breakdown of the family is the single greatest factor in the persistence of poverty, both older liberals and the NGL agree that it should not be a major concern, that it is in fact a distraction. Classical Catholic social teaching, to which Catholic liberals claim fidelity, makes the family the fundamental basis of a good society, but that is something to which Catholic liberals are now reluctant to pay even lip service.

Why there should be a dichotomy between concern for the poor and concern for the family is never explained. Is it some simplistic notion of rationing energy—spend less time demonstrating against abortion and more time in food pantries? At a minimum it means less defense of the family and more effort to promote the welfare state, even when the welfare state promotes abortion. In practice it means always voting Democratic.

During the Second Vatican Council (1962-5) would-be Catholic reformers (not all of them liberals) hoped to bring about a transformation in popular Catholic attitudes, a change from a morality that allegedly placed too much emphasis on personal, primarily sexual, behavior and not enough on social relations.

The most effective exercise in American history of the Catholic Church’s prophetic moral authority was the successful conversion of many hearts and minds to the ideal of racial justice during the Civil Rights Movement. Studies at the time found that the single most important factor in changing people’s attitude about race was their hearing sermons on the subject.

The rejection of Humanae Vitae

There is an old adage that it is easy to make water run down hill but much harder to make it run back up again. During the Civil Rights era the Church was able to make water run up hill, in the sense of persuading Catholics to accept a teaching that went against both their personal instincts and centuries of social custom. It was an achievement made possible because the Church had, over the same centuries, instilled in people a fundamental docility towards its teachings.

But the reformist Catholic project was upended by the transformation of secular liberalism that took place around the fateful year 1968. The rebellion of “the Sixties” (more accurately 1966-73) began as the New Left—a political movement that claimed racial justice and the Vietnam War as its issues but soon metamorphized into the Counter Culture—promoted a rejection of all authority in the name of personal liberation.

After 1968 the principal form of that liberation had to do with sex. Feminism was the first and the chief of these movements, followed by “gay rights” and other demands for sexual freedom. Abortion inevitably became a non-negotiable demand. Economic issues continued to be part of the liberal agenda but were pushed farther and farther back in a continually unfolding series of causes.

The rejection of Humanae Vitae made all the difference among Catholics. The encyclical was issued by Pope Paul VI in 1968, the year when the New Left and the Counter-Culture reached the peak of their influence, and its rejection allowed Catholics to join in those movements in their own way, to strike a distinctively Catholic blow for sexual liberation.

Liberal Catholics began measuring moral “progress” on the basis of how much of the sexual revolution Catholics would accept (in time they accepted virtually all of it), assuming that concern for social justice would increase proportionate to a decrease in interest in personal morality. At one point a Jesuit rejoiced publicly that young Catholics in Washington—eager to “make a difference” politically—no longer paid attention to Catholic sexual teaching.

Paradoxically, the rejection of Humanae Vitae, which was soon followed by a rebellion against other Catholic teachings as well, took place only a few years after both Catholic and secular liberals praised those bishops who threatened to excommunicate segregationist politicians. But after having first been solemnly warned that Catholic doctrine required them to support the goal of racial justice, Catholics were almost immediately told that they need not take the teachings of the Church seriously, that indeed they almost had an obligation not to. By 1968 all exercise of disciplinary authority was condemned as tyranny.

The rejection of Humanae Vitae, and everything that followed, in a perverse way proved the success of the new religious education. In numerous ways—classroom instruction, sermons, retreats, publications—Catholics after Vatican II were told to follow their own inclinations on moral issues, that docility towards Church teaching was actually a betrayal of faith. In short, “reformers” discovered how easy it was to make water run down hill, to give the faithful permission to take the line of least resistance.

The reformist Catholic program now came simply to be equated with the secular liberal program. To Catholic liberals there remained two unresolved moral issues—war and poverty – but many Catholics remained “super-patriots” and bishops were condemned for not condemning the Vietnam War. Collectively the bishops supported the War on Poverty, but many lay Catholics started voting Republican.

Fidelity to Catholic social teaching required a synthesis of what came to be conflicting liberal and conservative positions—the welfare state on the on the hand and the pro-life and pro-family movements on the other. The Democratic Party, in which Catholics had for so long been a major force, was the natural agency for working out such a synthesis. Instead prominent Catholic Democrats, almost without exception, readily accepted the secular liberal agenda and pro-life, and pro-family Catholics gravitated towards the Republican Party, which had previously not attracted them.

Liberal Catholics emphasize the “lived experience” of the laity as a check on formal Catholic doctrine, a check that has, supposedly, demonstrated the rightness of contraception, homosexuality, and other things. Catholics today, it is claimed, are highly educated and can follow their own well-formed consciences.

But this is applied to sexual morality only. Businessmen who believe in the free market, for example, or soldiers who believe in the righteousness of the wars they fight, are accused of placing their own “lived experience” above the teachings of the Church. They are in effect guilty of heresy.

Liberal Catholics now see the sexual revolution, especially homosexuality, as itself a matter of social justice, at least as important as poverty and racial equality. Thus homosexuals are at present the poorest of all, with divorced people and would-be women priests not far behind, since “the poor” are those who feel themselves to be treated unfairly by society. Reno says of the NGL’s that they are “far more likely to be outraged when they hear of two gay lawyers in Atlanta who can’t marry each other than when they encounter a homeless person pushing a shopping cart with all his worldly belongings.”

Catholic liberals are now frustrated by the failure of so many of the laity to espouse the liberal understanding of economic justice. But it was the liberals themselves who brought this about, apparently not concerned that their celebration of “freedom” and “maturity” in sexual behavior would inevitably influence the sense of obligation to others. Altogether it might be said that the liberals set about killing the moral sense of the laity in order to save it.

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About James Hitchcock 0 Articles
James Hitchcock is a professor of history at St. Louis University.