The grand tradition of urban U.S. Catholicism understatedly referenced in our previous post was on resplendent display at a panel discussion at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus Tuesday evening, especially in the persons of Father Edwin Leahy–who in the early 1970s resurrected Newark’s St. Benedict’s Prep from the ashes of that city’s devastating 1967 uprisings (or riots)—and Tom McCabe, who has brilliantly reconstructed that story as part of a much broader social and urban history of both the city and the school.

Father Edwin is an Irish waterfront kind of guy in the Pete Corridan tradition, as he himself noted. But he’s a Benedictine priest not a Jesuit, so I was astounded to learn that he did his theology at Woodstock seminary just prior to becoming the headmaster at the newly reopened St. Benedict’s. Woodstock on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, that is, where the Jesuit theologate had been relocated from rural Maryland in one of the boldest experiments in the history of U.S. Catholic priestly formation.

It slowly dawned on me this was the missing piece of my mini-narrative on the two Woodstocks (really three: two seminaries and one festival); that in fact the Jesuits’ dramatic engagement with ‘the world,’ rugged late 60s West Side incarnation, highlights the deeply problematic nature of the U.S. bishops-sponsored study of the ‘causes and contexts’ of the sex abuse scandal and ensuing, ongoing crisis in the church. This historic engagement of Jesuits and community was wholly mutual; these young scholastics and faculty did not require insulation from the culture and/or counterculture; indeed in their own way they helped shape the latter just as older Catholics had been doing since the mid-40s if not earlier; as to the former, well as my colleague Daniel Soyer and I hope, come next autumn Fordham students will learn that NYC was a largely Catholic and Jewish city for one very long time.

Woodstock as seminary-in-and-of-the-great metropolis was finally scuttled by intra-church politics not scandal, though the slightly salacious tone of journalist and erstwhile Jesuit seminarian Garry Wills’ highly publicized, conflicted and ambivalent take on the experiment surely did not help (everything Wills has written on Catholicism is conflicted and ambivalent, which I find highly appropriate, in sharp contrast to the crystalline clarity and analytic brilliance of his ‘secular’ works including such classics as Nixon Agonistes).

As I tried to hint in the previous post, by the time Crosby, Stills, and Nash made their August, 1969 debut in the presence of 400,000 gathered at Bethel, New York (not at semi-nearby Woodstock as originally planned), the church’s self-defeating insularity had long since been challenged by the likes of John Courtney Murray, S.J. Murray’s experimentation with LSD at the dawn of the ‘Woodstock decade’ was but one sign of contradiction to that legacy of militant separatism much more intimately linked to the sex abuse and cover-up disaster than the putative tainting of priestly vocations by free love and flower power (and I cannot overstate how this brief episode in Murray’s life pales before the grandeur and prescience of his writings on church-state relations).

A Midwestern bishop found guilty of serial sexual abuse tried to put an even finer point on this sorry ‘blame it on Woodstock’ gambit years ago, citing the works of non-Catholic sex therapists Masters and Johnson as the true source of his transgressions! Yet as Jeffrey Kripal—a former Benedictine seminarian no less—showed in his magisterial study of Big Sur’s Esalen Institute and the human potential movement, one of the Jesuits who shared an acid trip with Father Murray promptly left the order and the priesthood and went on to become a prominent sex therapist, integrating spirituality in his teachings alongside a mature understanding of human sexuality.

Catholic fingerprints are all over the counterculture; to me its one of the glories of our tradition, and has absolutely nothing to do with the abuse of children and adolescents. For the ‘causes and contexts’ of that cataclysm we need to look much more deeply into the codes of silence and violence that sustained the ‘church militant’ far beyond the days of its usefulness or legitimacy.

Not that silence is always and by nature a bad thing. The Benedictines continue a rich tradition of elected silence observed during communal mealtimes, a silence broken only by the sound of one individual reading aloud to the community. I always thought the chosen literature was strictly devotional in character, but Father Edwin informed me that On the Irish Waterfront was recently featured at dinnertime at the abbey in Newark. I was rendered speechless by that revelation, and indeed managed to remain unusually quiet while sharing the panel with Father Edwin and Tom; a pair of wise and warm men with much to say about both history and the present day, especially where the city of Newark and the world intersects with the the ever-resilient and renewing monastery and school on High Street.


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