Stradlater’s Grin and the Destruction of a Once-Mighty Catholic School System Featured
Written by Kenneth M. Weinig
Manhattan College was where I wanted to go after graduating from Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx. After all, my father and godfather had both graduated from there in 1931, and we had just moved within commuting distance. I had no idea what I wanted to spend my life doing, but my calculus grades and struggle with physics eliminated these fields.
Manhattan’s new liberal arts curriculum attracted me, too, with its four-year sequential, required courses in history, philosophy, world literature, and fine arts. Theology was required for all four years as well, and I looked forward to deepening my Faith re-kindled at Hayes after the previous six years in public schools in another state. My particular interest was in moral theology, the course required in our junior year.
That’s where I first observed “Stradlater.” Some readers might remember this character from J.D. Salinger’s controversial—at the time—1951 novel Catcher in the Rye. Ward Stradlater was the roommate, in an elite prep school, of Holden Caulfield, the book’s hero. Being a bit of a puritan myself, I especially loathed this fictional character, who was a sexual predator and narcissistic jock. Always boasting of his female conquests, when one of them turns out to be a former girlfriend of Holden’s, the two fight. The rest of the novel is irrelevant to my college experience here, but I often privately used this character’s name as a term of opprobrium for obnoxious lechers I met or heard about.
At any rate, I first overheard this Stradlater boasting to a small group about his seductions of both girls and older women when, of all places, we were standing outside of a classroom waiting for our moral theology professor to come and let us in. The teacher, “Mr. Brown” we’ll call him, did not yet have his doctorate. He was a meek little fellow who eagerly told us about the exciting things happening in Rome. It was the fall of 1963. Pope John XXIII had died a few months ago, but the new Pope Paul VI was expected to leave that window open to “let a little air into the Church,” the phrase his predecessor had used. Of course, few knew that there was a hurricane raging outside and that no one would ever close that window.
He began to describe the course, and I was soon disappointed. I had always liked apologetics, at least the way Fr. Boldt taught it at Hayes, with moral “cases,” that were discussed and analyzed in light of Church teaching. Mr. Brown began by trashing “Casuistry,” a Jesuit, outdated, legalistic method of teaching moral values, he said. What was he going to use in place of this? “A radical love ethic,” a new idea being talked about during this new Council, one much closer to the true spirit of the New Testament. I didn’t quite follow where this was all leading, but it didn’t take more than a few more classes to find out.
We were assigned Mauriac’s novel Viper’s Tangle, about a character who was so caught up with the letter of the moral law that he forgot its spirit. He was dubbed a “Pharisee,” and the term “Pharisaical” became one of Mr. Brown’s favorite pejoratives. Although this teacher was not mean-spirited, he frequently made known his disapproval of the Baltimore Catechism and the “good nuns” who had taught the cradle Catholics in the class—mostly Bronx Irish and Italians—the Faith. Actually, the class received his lessons well, because the reading load was light and we did not have to memorize anything. I continued to overhear Stradlater’s conquests outside of class.
The incident I will never forget occurred sometime in October of that year. Brown was on a roll, and he said something like, “…never mind what some outdated, legalistic precepts say…when you find yourself in a moral dilemma, just ask yourself, ‘What outcome will result in the greatest amount of love?’” I then happened to glance at Stradlater, who looked at one of his toadies with one of the biggest grins I had ever seen. I knew exactly what he was thinking. Picture a young man of 20 alone with a woman on a date after having had a few drinks. Then, strip them of all the “outdated moral precepts” condemning pre-marital sex and have them ask what will result in the most “love”!
I didn’t know the term then, but Mr. Brown had just poisoned us impressionable young men with Situation Ethics. Brown had just given Stradlater and others in the class a green light to fornicate without consequences! I also knew that this toxic hypothesis would never result in anything good for the average fallen man.
The rest of the year is now pretty much a blur, but I do remember making the mistake on one of my exam questions of using a phrase that Fr. Boldt had taught us in high school: “Charity warms justice.” Brown didn’t like that, nor did he have much use for the analogy of the vine and the trellis to describe the relationship of love and justice. To him, apparently, the vine didn’t need any trellis. My friend Pete urged me just to “give him the answers he wanted,” but I found it difficult to write with a shovel. Throughout the year Brown dropped names of people he admired and I had never heard of, like Congar, Suenens, and Schillebeeckx . Years later, many of his heroes were identified as radical dissenters, if not outright heretics. I probably ended up with a “C” in the course.
Now the early 1960s were halcyon, many people forget. Music was still melodic and fairly innocent, late doo-wop and all that, and the “end” of dating was, for most of us, matrimony (“Goin’ to the Chapel and we’re… gonna get ma-a-aried”). Ed Sullivan was still popular, and most respected his earlier decision not to show Elvis’ rotating hips. Only a few years before, a Catholic bishop, Fulton Sheen, had actually led the prime-time television ratings! The first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, had just been elected, and the media shielded this popular hero from his sexual misdeeds. I hung out with a small group of campus conservatives, having earlier read in Fr. Blust’s American history class at Hayes Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative. That common-sense little volume hooked me and others for life, and we actually looked forward to registering—had to be 21 then—and voting out Lyndon Johnson. This didn’t happen, of course, because of the massive liberal trashing of his candidacy. A year later, we were even more delighted to vote for the Conservative Party’s candidate for mayor of New York City, William F. Buckley, who, to our disappointment, did not undertake his own campaign with the proper…ah…gravitas. People had a hard time taking seriously a candidate, who, when asked by a grinning liberal reporter, “What will you do if you win, Mr. Buckley?” actually said, “Hang a net outside the window of the editor of the New York Times.”
Those innocent years ended, historians say, when JFK was killed. I remember this clearly not only because of the sad event itself, but because a stranger on a New York City street actually spoke to me. I was walking to work at a Bronx A&P supermarket when a teary Irish lady confronted me and said, “Did ya hear they shot the President?” From here, the 1960s went downhill; all Hell broke loose, and not just figuratively, with growing opposition to the Viet Nam War’s being used as an excuse to justify everything from burning draft cards and campus buildings to “never trust[ing] anyone under 30.” The Beatles changed rock music and hair styles, the drug culture flourished, and cities were arsoned in the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination and the Kent State Killings.
I learned another political lesson then, too. My brother and I worked the midnight crew stocking shelves in various grocery stores. Two of our co-workers were Dave and Anselmo, respectively black and Hispanic. When I expressed some solidarity with their people’s poverty and discrimination that—I thought—caused the Harlem riots, they laughed at me. Why? “Because tomorrow night [Dave said] we’re gonna hit an electronics store and get a new t.v.” I guess some of their motives were less ideological than venal.
The years 1962 and 1968 were, culturally, more like 60, not 6, years apart. As a small example, during all my years at Manhattan nearly every student wore a coat and tie to class. Yes, there were one or two who did not, but they were considered beatniks—or just slobs. On the other hand, my brother was only three years behind me there (Class of 1968), and he asserts that the one or two students who did wear coats and ties were considered “members of the establishment”; nerds.
My senior year theology course was even worse. I had had an excellent freshman course with Brother Adalbert James, then an average sophomore course with another brother, who tried to explain to us some Thomistic writings to support the Catholic religion. Then came Mr. Brown, as discussed above. After him, I figured I could only be exposed to someone better, but I was wrong.
On the first day of our fourth-year class we were introduced to another layman, whose name I have forgotten. He surprised us by not wearing a suit, the first instructor there I ever remember dressing casually. He slumped in his chair, trying to appear “cool,” threw some papers on his desk, informed us he had just returned from some lectures in Rome, and announced, “I just had the honor of being taught by Karl Rahner [Who?]; these are his notes.” He then proceeded to mumble some excerpts from the papers, most items unintelligible to us. For the next class he was nearly 15 minutes late, and we nearly left before he strolled in; this truncated class was about the same, readings from Rahner’s notes. He never made it to the third class, and the dean sent us a note saying that we would have a new teacher as soon as possible.
Our replacement instructor was a saintly-sounding priest with some distinguished degrees, but he had a rather thick foreign accent and spoke haltingly. He was also a Scripture scholar, the first I had ever encountered, and he made me suspicious of this breed thereafter. As he walked us through several books of the New Testament, the class got the distinct impression that one of his key purposes was to debunk most of the miracles, trying to provide natural explanations for them. We couldn’t argue or question him, of course, because he would tell us what the original Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic word meant at the time, or that the expression was hyperbolic, etc.
He stopped short, however, of telling us that there was no literal Resurrection. He wasn’t Hans Kung, thankfully. Many years later, when my own children related some statements made by religion teachers in their supposedly Catholic high school, I heard echoes of this class. My private name for many Scripture scholars is “Termites,” who, purposely or not, undermine the Faith by half-truths and sayings such as “Whoever the writer of the Luke Gospel was.”
I truly felt that my first two years at Manhattan had strengthened my Faith, but the last two weakened it. Many of my classmates just gave up. Please understand that my college years here all took place before Vatican II’s end, before any of the Council documents had been published. This is the reason for the hedge in my title here: the theology instructors here and, I’m sure, at other Catholic colleges of the time, were teaching on the basis of what they hoped and/or wanted the Council to say! In fact, well after the Council, from the late 1960s on, Church teachings and rules were often based on the lethal “spirit” of the Council, as Remnant readers know. Many Catholics today actually believe, for example, the falsehoods that Vatican II banned the Latin Mass and the Baltimore Catechism. I only took English courses, during my graduate year at Fordham, but I knew many of the theology majors. They were positively giddy about the “new Dutch Catechism” coming out, like groupies at a stage door.
Now I’m going to fast-forward some years. I moved out of New York City, got a teaching job in a public school and doubled my salary, bought a home in suburbia, and later helped to found an independent school where I was the headmaster. I continued to read and receive the alumni mailings from Cardinal Hayes High School, Manhattan College, and Fordham University. I skimmed their magazines’ pages and dutifully sent in my annual alumni gifts, sometimes responding to requests for special gifts, too. What I did not notice until much later was the increasingly secular content of all these publications. I expected to see, of course, the cover story about the rich guy, hugged by the college president, who just gave a million dollars for the new gym. Fair enough. But what I did not see were stories about things Catholic. Were there any vocations among the recent graduates or alumni ranks? Missionary activities? Moving stories about conversions to the Faith? Coverage of the schools’ participation in the annual March for Life? Successful “saves” due to abortion-clinic picketing? Any prominent pro-life lawyers? Nope. The non-secular stories were mostly about community organizing, literacy programs, and re-cycling.
What I also did not know about then was the disastrous Land of Lakes Conference in 1968, instigated by the President of Notre Dame, which essentially sold out the Catholic identity of nearly all Catholic colleges in exchange for federal money. This betrayal, resulting in the stripping of crucifixes and other religious icons from classroom walls and often changing the governing control from religious orders to boards of laymen, combined with the internal rot caused by the cultural decline and the Council’s “spirit,” obliterated the “Catholic” from most of the roughly 225 formerly Catholic Colleges. In Manhattan’s publications, when there rarely was mention of the few Brothers of the Christian Schools left, I could not even recognize their names. Brother Adalbert James, my fine freshman theology teacher, became “Brother Jim Law,” I finally learned. The brothers, probably still trying to figure out why their order was drying up, had shed both their saintly names and their clerical garments. However, I still didn’t fully “get it.”
What started to awaken me were news items I began to read in the Catholic conservative papers and on websites. I learned that Fordham allowed a club for open homosexuals, gave an award to pro-abortion Supreme Court Justice Souter, and allowed in its theology department a blatant nun-dissenter. When my letter of protest resulted in a silly form letter, I had my name removed from the mailing list there.
The Cardinal Hayes drift into secularism was even more disappointing, since this school had a sterling record of academic and spiritual excellence in the South Bronx. When my former colleague and excellent teacher Fr. Robertson died, his obituary was given a quarter page in the alumni magazine. Across from it was a full-page, color tribute to the passing of comedian George Carlin, who had attended Hayes for one year before being kicked out for disciplinary reasons. When I complained, no answer.
Then, on the cover of the next issue were photos of two African-Americans who apparently had become basketball stars after graduation. I read the inside article, the usual story of young men rescued from the terrible neighborhood public school and saved by the superior private school, but no mention was made of their conversions to the Faith or even of their current religious values. Naïve me!
Throughout the rest of the magazine, the stories were all secular: renovations, athletic successes, scholarships (many to secular colleges), donations received, etc. Did the school even have a pro-life club? March participation? Abortuary picketings? When I again wrote a rather long letter to the school president, I only received a computer-generated form letter. Scratch Hayes, too.
Manhattan was my last alma mater to be dumped. What triggered it was a news story I read, perhaps on Life Site News, a very worthwhile source.
It seemed that my college was sued by a group of adjunct professors who sought bargaining rights through the National Labor Relations Board. Now religious schools were traditionally exempt from NLRB lawsuits, but this case was successful! Why? Because the investigating federal panel visited the college, audited classes, examined the credentials of the faculty, and found that Manhattan did not show signs of being a religious school at all, let alone a Catholic one!
Holy cow, the emperor had no clothes!
When I read more commentaries about this case, I found scandalous gems like an open, tenured lesbian in one of the departments. Some of the depressing information I learned from a very reliable organization, the Cardinal Newman Society, whose mission is to restore Catholic identity to our colleges [Note: If you don’t have their Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College, get it!]; however, this group’s position was one of opposition to the lawsuit, arguing against the federal government’s interference with religious, or “religious,” schools. I saw their point but still wrote to them a note of minor dissent, urging them to back off and let be legally and publicly exposed those colleges whose Catholicity has been abandoned. Perhaps some affluent and traditional Catholic alumni might notice and throw some of their power to good use.
Now I end my little rant here. Readers probably already knew most of the dismal story of what has happened to Catholic colleges in the last 50 years. We should be cheered by the green shoots of newer, truly Catholic institutions of higher learning like Christendom (VA) and Aquinas (CA). We should shift our financial support, too, from the dead “Catholic” schools to the newer Catholic ones, letting our alumni societies know exactly why we are doing so. Money can talk. Remind them that the proper hierarchy of educational priorities should be soul-mind-body, in that order. How many schools get it completely backward, glorifying first athletics; next, academic/financial success; and finally omitting things that pertain to the soul, such as conversions and vocations. Stories about helping the inner-city poor are inspiring, but remind college magazine editors that Feeding the Hungry is still a Corporal, not a Spiritual Work of Mercy…and where are their stories about the latter? It’s reassuring to read about colleges like our flagship, the Catholic University of America, that are aware of their eroding identity and are taking steps to restore it. But in contrast, we have Notre Dame, which defiantly honored our pro-abortion president.
When I look back on Vatican II after a half century, I honestly have to ask, “Cui Bono?” What good things came therefrom? It has been called a “pastoral” council, meaning that no new doctrinal or moral pronouncements were made. Vicious hyenas like ex-priest Gary Wills (Bare, Ruined, Choirs) portray the Church under Pius XII and other pre-conciliar popes as some kind of toxic boil that Vatican II had to lance, but loyal lions like Dietrich von Hildebrand and Michael Davies, in their numerous writings—as well as mice like me—believe otherwise.
Whatever we might say of the Vatican II’s actual documents, ambiguities notwithstanding, I think its penumbra has been worse. The occurrence of this important event in the history of the Church at the same time as the 1960s cultural upheaval gave the perception that Catholics somehow “blinked,” that the rock of Peter revealed some cracks into which entered trickles of dissent.
I don’t think I’ll live to see Catholic educational institutions restored to their previous glory, but maybe the Holy Spirit will give us some signs of renewal here and there. Pray for this. Maybe, too, even in this age when the verbs “date” and “fornicate” not only rhyme but are often synonymous, we’ll see a revival of chastity that will wipe some of the grins from the faces of the Stradlaters of the world.