The Spirit of Vatican II

A History of Catholic Reform in America


By Colleen McDannell

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In 1962 a group of Catholic leaders traveled to Rome, charged by Pope John XXIII with the task of making the gospel of Christ relevant in a modern world. The Second Vatican Council transformed the lives of Catholics through sweeping reforms — yet its effect on the daily lives of practicing Catholics has never been fully understood.

In this illuminating study, religious historian Colleen McDannell presents new insight into Vatican II by shifting the framework of its analysis: from men to women, from urban to suburban, from theory to practice. Using the story of her Catholic mother’s life as a narrative thread, McDannell presents in The Spirit of Vatican II a refreshingly positive portrayal of the state of modern Catholicism — and a testament to the lasting effects of its liberalization.


Advance Praise for The Spirit of Vatican II
"Written in an inviting and accessible style, McDannell's work captures the important movements in the church and American society that preceded (and prepared the way for) Vatican II, the details of the Council, and its unique effects on various parishes. The book underscores the contributions of women whose roles may not have been as public as those of male clerics but which were influential at the local level. Catholics who lived in this era will recognize the history and younger generations will learn the nuances of the history that has shaped contemporary religious experience."
—Chester Gillis, Professor of Theology at Georgetown University and author of Roman Catholicism in America
"Part social history, part family memoir, Colleen McDannell's The Spirit of Vatican II beautifully evokes the dramatic transformation of Catholicism in the middle decades of the twentieth century. The way she entwines her stories of family and church is a breath of fresh air all its own."
—Leigh E. Schmidt, Charles Warren Professor of American Religious History at Harvard University
"In this engaging and compelling text McDannell uses her mother's story to trace the impact of Vatican II's reforms on the everyday lives of American Catholics. Through the lens of family history we come to understand not only the theological, liturgical, and cultural changes the Council set in motion, but gain insight into broader issues such as immigration, family history, gender, class, region, and popular culture. McDannell's accessible narrative makes important contributions to the history of religion in America."
—Judith Weisenfeld, Professor of Religion at Princeton University

Catholics in the Movies, editor
Picturing Faith: Photography and the Great Depression
The Religions of the United States in Practice, editor
Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America
Heaven: A History (co-authored with Bernhard Lang)
The Christian Home in Victorian America, 1840-1900

For Linda Jansen, Lillian Wondrack, Dianne Ashton, and Margaret Toscano, always there

First Holy Communion, April 1962. Margaret McDannell with daughter Colleen and son Kevin.
I am the last of a generation. In April of 1962 I received my First Holy Communion. That fall, the Catholic bishops of the world traveled to Rome to spend four years debating changes that would alter Catholicism forever.
As an eight-year-old, I was dressed like a bride but wearing white, lace-edged socks. I eagerly awaited receiving the body and blood of Christ. The Holy Names Sisters who taught me at St. Stephen's school did their best to explain the meaning of the Mass. Patiently they translated its Latin texts and deciphered the ritualized gestures. Earlier in the week, I had confessed my sins to our parish priest. Those of us who would receive Communion that day had dutifully fasted for three hours. That the girl kneeling beside me fainted under the stress of the event only heightened the emotional intensity of the ceremony. It was a heady week for a second grader.
That fall would also begin four heady years for the world's Catholic leaders. By early October 1962 over two thousand "Council Fathers" had traveled to Rome to attend the Second Vatican Council. The prominence of this meeting of Catholic leaders also attracted an even larger assembly of journalists, pilgrims, theological advisors, and curiosity seekers.
Dressed in their finest clerical garb, 2,540 men processed into St. Peter's Basilica on the Feast of the Maternity of the Virgin Mary. These Council Fathers came from seventy-nine different countries, with the number of Americans almost equaling the number of Europeans. That total would be matched by those who came from Asia, Oceania, and Africa. The French bishops brought four tons of baggage, but the 239 Council Fathers from the United States traveled far lighter.1
All had arrived in response to Pope John XXIII's call to "open a window and let in a little fresh air" to the Catholic Church. The pope and many of the leaders of the world's Catholics had decided that the Holy Spirit now required the renewal of her people. Four years had already gone into the preparation for such a discussion. Now there would be another four autumns of intense reflection on how to make the gospel of Christ relevant in a modern world.
MY FAVORITE PICTURE from the day of my First Holy Communion has me posing with my mother and brother in our California backyard. Even though I got to wear a veil and my brother sported a natty plaid jacket, it is my mother, Margaret, who steals the show. For this major rite of passage in her daughter's life, she is wearing a feathered hat she made in a "how-to" class, fake pearls, and a mink stole—just the outfit for a southern California spring day.
My mother is also the last of a generation. In 1962 she was in full adulthood, aged thirty-six, having been born just before the Great Depression and marrying during the Second World War. Unlike hers, my generation was too young to notice the end of a particular kind of Catholicism. I grew up after the Second Vatican Council, playing guitar music at English-language Masses. I can remember my father crying in 1963 at the funeral of John F. Kennedy, but I have no memory of the day when priests turned around and faced their congregations. My mother and her generation do.
My parents are now in their eighties. Their generation flourished in spite of the profound challenges of the times, motivating some journalists to anoint them the "Greatest Generation." Theirs is the last generation of Catholics to live half their lives before the Second Vatican Council and half after the Council. My parents hold their religion close to their hearts. Only a serious illness could keep them from going to Mass every Sunday. For the Catholics of the Greatest Generation—those who lived through the Depression, World War II, the sixties, and the terrorist attacks of 9/11—the Second Vatican Council looms large.
"Vatican Two" conjures up the spirit of a defining religious moment. Catholics still talk about what things were like "before Vatican II" or "after Vatican II." Even those who have little understanding of the specific documents of the Council can remember the excitement and turmoil of the period between 1959, when Pope John XXIII announced his plan to convene a worldwide meeting of bishops, and 1978, when Pope Paul VI died. The phrase "the spirit of Vatican II" refers to a constellation of changes that Catholics experienced in their homes, churches, and schools.
For Margaret, the Second Vatican Council stimulated changes that brought her more intimately in contact with the ritual and theological life of her church. Like millions of other Catholics, she was the granddaughter of immigrants. Until she left home, she had attended Mass in a highly decorated church and went to a school taught by nuns who wore equally elaborate habits. After World War II, Margaret's husband took advantage of the GI Bill, and the young couple eventually moved into a newly built suburb in Toledo, Ohio. There they joined a fast-growing parish that relied heavily on the involvement of young families. Suburban Catholicism prepared many Catholics for the changes that would come from Rome in the sixties. However, when Margaret moved to Los Angeles, her California parish had a pastor who showed no interest in altering how Catholicism was practiced. Only after Margaret and her husband moved to Denver, Colorado, did they experience the full implications of the Second Vatican Council. Margaret enthusiastically embraced the "Spirit of Vatican II" at her new "exurban" parish. She joined with other men and women to distribute Communion at Mass, sing folk songs, and call their pastor by his first name. Now retired and living in central Florida, the couple no longer go to a Mass with guitars, but Margaret still enjoys her women's Bible-study group and supports the church's sister parish in Uganda.
Margaret's Catholic life is not unusual, but it has received little attention. In the past ten years, what has stood out in the American Catholic Church has been the sex abuse scandals. Priests preying on boys and young men along with the reluctance of bishops to end this behavior have rightfully grabbed the attention of both Catholics and non-Catholics. This attention, however, plays into an enduring misunderstanding of Catholicism: that the Catholic Church is energized, defined, and determined by the actions of men. Most of the written Catholic history has revolved around men because it is the story of priests, theologians, and popes. Too often women drop out of this history.
Charting the changes of the Second Vatican Council through Margaret (the one in the feathered hat) helps shift the focus away from priests, men, and boys and instead toward nuns, women, and girls. Women's continual commitment to Catholicism—a commitment that, nevertheless, has always had its limits—has been grossly underacknowledged. My mother and her friends welcomed the changes of Vatican II. As for those parts of Catholicism that did not change, like the prohibition of divorce and birth control, they thought about them deeply and then ignored them. This rejection of certain Catholic norms was not invented in the rebellious sixties; parish life has always been constructed out of conflict and compromise. The changes of the Second Vatican Council, however, both amplified and acknowledged lay participation in Catholicism.
Although Catholics are as diverse as America itself, my mother's story is typical of much of her generation. Born into a European immigrant family in the urban Northeast, she quit college to get married to a man who was going off to war; she raised children in the suburbs while her husband worked at a profession made possible by the GI Bill; and when he retired, they moved south. Although she lived near cities, she had little interest in them. Hers was a mobile life, lived mostly in the western United States.
Margaret's Catholic life mirrors many of the changes the nation experienced after World War II. The very iconic character of my mother's life makes her an ideal lens through which to narrate the religious reforms that we call the spirit of Vatican II.

chapter one
Before the epoch-defining Vatican Council of the sixties, the Catholic Church was a very different institution. Since the Enlightenment era, European rulers, politicians, and philosophers had struggled against religious control. Catholic leaders fought to hold on to political power while simultaneously reinforcing religious influence in the affairs of home and family. Rejecting innovations in philosophy that stressed individualism and in science that promoted rationalism, Catholic theologians portrayed a world based on fixed truths defined by supernatural realities. In order to understand the Catholic reforms that culminated in the second Vatican Council, we must get a feel for the Catholic culture of the era of the first Vatican Council that took place in 1870. This Catholicism—defined by the Council of Trent and upheld by Vatican I—was to be renewed and updated at the Second Vatican Council.
In the United States, European immigrant families and their American-born children defined American Catholicism during this period. Their piety was shaped both by experiences in the old world and the realities of the new world. The religion of Margaret's grandmother and mother, as well as that of her own childhood, was a volatile mix of the hopes of immigrants and the fears of their religious leaders. It is the Catholicism of the immigrant church and not the suburban church of the fifties that was most altered by the reforms of the sixties.
After World War II, the Catholicism of the long nineteenth century began to slowly change under theological, ritual, and artistic reforms. Margaret was one of the millions of grandchildren of immigrants who would leave the ethnic neighborhoods of their families and move to the growing postwar suburbs. She would marry a non-Catholic. Regardless, however, her commitment to and knowledge of Catholicism was formed in the neighborhoods of her youth.
WHEN WE IMAGINE Catholic immigrants settling in America's cities, we see Irish and Italian faces. Movies and television shows have told us time and again that Catholics are Irish and Italian. From James Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces to Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York and The Departed, Irish American men have always defined ethnic Catholicism for Americans—and the primacy of the Irish is challenged only by the Italian representation of the same story. Even the recognition of the Spanish-speaking Catholic in the contemporary Church is only slowly changing the widespread assumption that urban Catholics are either of Irish or Italian heritage.
Although the Irish did dominate the Catholic hierarchy and the Italians cultivated a lively popular piety, German Catholics are the ones who filled the church pews. In 1866 more than 50,000 German immigrants had entered the United States through New York harbor alone. A few years later the number grew to over 117,500 migrants from the various states that became Germany in 1871. Although determining religious commitments is difficult, scholars estimate that after 1860 approximately 35 percent of German immigrants were Catholic.1 Between 1865 and 1900 over 700,000 German Catholics arrived in the United States. Not long after this mass movement began, the number of Germans equaled the number of Irish who had arrived a generation earlier. It was not until the turn-of-the-century's influx of large numbers of Italian Catholics that Germans no longer comprised the majority of the Catholic foreign-born.
Although many German Catholics moved to the farming regions that lay within a triangle defined by St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati, others moved to the country's growing cities. Germans settled in Pennsylvania and all along the shores of the Ohio River and the Great Lakes. Such was the case with Margaret's grandmother and grandfather. In 1879 Angelika (nicknamed "Annie") Froess, along with her sisters Anna and Katie and their brother Joseph, emigrated from the village of Bechenheim. Census enumerators noted on their forms that they were all born in the Grand Duchy of Darmstadt-Hesse, not far from the city of Mainz. The siblings ended up in Erie, Pennsylvania, a well-established manufacturing city on an active waterfront. Single and eighteen when she arrived, Annie was twenty-one when she married Louis Liebel, a local butcher. Louis was also from southern Germany, his family bringing him to America from Leimersheim in 1866 when he was six. Annie and Louis would do what immigrants have done since the settling of the United States: They brought over the rest of their family and supported them.
AS AN OLD WOMAN, long after the death of her husband, Annie Liebel developed a special relationship with her granddaughter Margaret. Annie lived with her daughter's family, and Margaret helped her cook and keep house. When Margaret asked her why her family came from Germany to the United States, the answer was not for the good jobs in a growing industrial city. Annie explained to her granddaughter that her father, Margaret's great-grandfather, wanted to keep his sons from being drafted.
The Froess's family concern was a real one.
Although the state of Prussia was powerful, until 1871 there was no central German state: Germany as a country did not exist. The bulk of the Catholic population lived in two areas, the southern region of Bavaria and the lands to the west of the Rhine River. Both the Froess and the Liebel families made their homes near the Rhine. Although Bavaria was relatively secure because of Austria's protection, Catholics with homes bordering the Rhine had the misfortune of living in a highly contested territory. Because France had historically sought to extend its borders to one of Europe's greatest waterways, those living by its west bank often found themselves caught between warring states.
In the spring of 1793, under the enthusiasm of the French Revolution, the lands to the west of the Rhine fell under French rule. The French then plundered villages to support the troops. They also brought their revolutionary reforms into the area: Serfdom was outlawed, civil records were kept, and new technologies were introduced. The French also came with the innovation that every citizen should be a soldier and every soldier a citizen. After the Revolution died, Napoleon embraced the idea of universal conscription, and eventually other European rulers saw the potential of a national draft. As a result, the state of Prussia required military duty from every citizen (only reinforcing the notion that women were not citizens). This enabled Prussia to mobilize a large number of relatively well-trained men for their successful 1870 war against France. Five men from Louis Liebel's village of Leimersheim died in that war.
The next year, Prussian Count Otto von Bismarck became chancellor of a new, unified Germany. Bismarck was determined to make Germany a strong military and industrial state. The draft continued, and higher taxes were instituted to support the army. Bismarck's government hoped that a stint in the army would instill in the farmer from the provinces an orderly, disciplined, obedient, and patriotic life geared toward the good of the whole nation. In 1903 a German official noted that men leaving for America were "mostly strong, healthy persons, with habits of cleanliness, which they derived from their service in the army."2 On a practical level, avoiding the draft made sense for the safety of the family's sons. On a symbolic level, avoiding the draft meant trying to preserve a modicum of self-sufficiency and independence in a rapidly changing Europe.
For rural families like Annie's, modernization brought many problems during the last decades of the nineteenth century. As competition stiffened, agricultural prices fell. Cheap, mass-produced goods threatened the livelihoods of village artisans. German immigrants looked to the United States as a place where they might maintain their connections to the land, their trades, and their families.
However, Catholic families had additional worries. When Bismarck came into power, he started what was called the Kulturkampf—the "struggle for true culture." The new government sought to ensure that Germany's fragile national unity would not fragment into competing regional or religious loyalties. The state had to be the people's highest authority, and the Catholic Church couldn't be allowed to compete.
Many European thinkers and politicians of the time were trying to promote an Enlightenment model of life. They hoped to restrain religion within a limited, private sphere of personal piety and morality while insisting that the public sphere fall under the control of the state. European leaders, who historically had to negotiate power arrangements with Catholic bishops and the pope, wanted to strip religious organizations of their public influence.
The Catholic Church resisted, and doing so placed it on a collision course with both politicians and philosophers. From the French Revolution onward, Catholic leaders struggled to maintain their political authority, and Bismarck made matters no easier. Believing that the Vatican would stand in the way of German nationalism, Bismarck and the Reichstag, the general assembly of the German empire, enacted a series of laws in 1873 to limit the educational and ecclesiastical power of Catholicism. These "May Laws" prohibited papal authority over German Catholics and abolished religious orders. They stipulated that the education of Catholic clergy was to be overseen by the state and that bishops could not discipline their priests or appoint pastors without the government's approval. Church property was to be handed over to lay trustees, and religious instruction in elementary schools was to be conducted by teachers acceptable to the state. Bishops who resisted were put in prison, and some Catholics soon found that no priests remained to say Mass nor nuns to teach school.
The Kulturkampf backfired. A fledging German bureaucracy failed at enforcing its mandates, and Vatican ecclesiastical authorities were able to work around problematic state officials. Most importantly, rank-andfile Catholics refused to abandon their religious leaders. Rather than cultivating fear of the state, the Kulturkampf caused anger and resentment that frequently broke out into stubborn resistance and informal dissent. Some families emigrated, whereas others stayed home and became more aggressively Catholic. Catholic newspapers flourished, and parishes learned how to survive without state funds by charging for religious rituals. Lay men and women created societies to promote a Catholic community life that excluded Protestants. Because German nationalism appeared to abandon Catholics, Catholics looked to the institution of the Church to defend their religious traditions.
The Kulturkampf's ramifications would be enduring. The importance of being a Catholic was passed on to the children of German immigrants—children like Margaret. This was not the case for all Catholic immigrant groups who traveled to America. Southern Italians, for instance, were very skeptical about their parishes' priests because in Italy the priest often sided with landowners against the peasants. Thus, immigrant Catholics saw their religion through the lens of what they had experienced in the Old Country. For many German Catholics this meant commitment to parish life.
CATHOLICS WHO SETTLED IN America's growing industrial cities tried to create neighborhoods that resembled European villages. When Annie and her family arrived in Erie, it was a patchwork quilt of various ethnic and religious communities. The Scots-Irish attended several Presbyterian churches. Episcopalians built a brick church in 1834 and opened a much larger Gothic edifice in 1866. A third, "The Church of the Cross and the Crown," became a parish in 1872. There were three Methodist churches for whites and one for blacks. German Protestants had their choice of attending either a Baptist or a Lutheran congregation, and German Jews founded Anschai Chesed Reform Congregation, which met in each other's homes until they built a synagogue in 1882. The Universalists had a church whose land was donated by one of the city's prominent judges. Unlike in Europe, where nationalists ridiculed religion as superstitious and challenged the authority of the clergy, patriotic Americans supported their houses of worship. All of the proper citizens in the town went to church.
In the United States after the Civil War, religious tensions were more pronounced within the churches rather than between denominations or the state. This was particularly the case with Catholics because different immigrant communities had unique worship styles and attitudes toward the clergy. Catholics brought their local saints, healing traditions, and ways of celebrating along with them when they came from Europe. At times those practices came into conflict with Church leaders. Immigrant Catholics, many of whom had left their own homelands because they felt they could not practice their religion as they wanted, resented such interference.
In 1868, two years after Louis Liebel arrived in America, Tobias Mullen became the bishop of the Erie diocese. Mullen had come to the United States from Ireland as a young seminarian, initially settling in Pittsburgh. He was one of the many Irish men who dominated the Catholic hierarchy in the United States. Mullen's appointment as the Catholic "prince" of Erie would span thirty-one years. However, almost immediately after his installation, a crisis erupted: The Irish bishop would have a run-in with the German parishioners of St. Joseph's over the construction of a cemetery.3 The family of Louis Liebel went to this parish, and fourteen years later, the young butcher would marry Annie in St. Joseph's Church.
Whereas priests provide the sacrament of the Last Rites to Catholics, burial is under the auspices of the laity. Finding a proper place for the dead is not easy. During the wet season in Erie, the graves of one Catholic churchyard filled up with water, so occasionally the coffins had to be weighed down by stones piled on top of them. When Bishop Mullen arrived, he decided to address this problem by buying land outside of the city for a cemetery to be used by all of the parishes in his diocese. In addition, the bishop intended to charge burial fees to pay for a new cathedral.
From Bishop Mullen's perspective, both the cemetery and the cathedral would reflect the unity of the city's Catholics—bringing together all ethnic groups under the banner of faith and thus demonstrating the enduring truth of Catholicism. Throughout the nation, bishops were proclaiming the permanence and authority of Catholicism by making their churches grand spaces of prayer. Mullen was carrying out the wishes of the Vatican in its desire to strengthen the international church by ensuring that local or national customs never interfered with Catholic unity.
The German parishioners of St. Joseph's Church thought differently. The cemetery would be five miles from their church and it would take at least an hour and a half to walk there. Hiring wagons to transport the dead and their families was costly. Back where they came from, even the smallest town had its own cemetery tended by local women. They reasoned that if they were working hard to build their own church, why should they have to support the building of a cathedral? Consequently, even though some men had voted for the new cemetery, a group of women from the St. Joseph's rosary society bought a plot of land for their own burial ground. Their pastor, Father Joseph Stumpe, approved of the idea because the revenues raised from burial fees would go back into his church. A cemetery, not unlike a church supper, could provide a steady stream of income to the parish. Father Stumpe and the rosary society women were thinking in terms of local parish needs.


On Sale
Mar 1, 2011
Page Count
304 pages
Basic Books

Colleen McDannell

About the Author

Colleen McDannell is a Professor of History and Sterling M. McMurring Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Utah. Her books include Heaven: A History and Picturing Faith: Photography and the Great Depression. She lives in Salt Lake City.

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