Beyond the Miniskirt-Wearing Nun: What Catholic Reform Looks Like

What inspired you to write The Spirit of Vatican II? What sparked your interest?

Several years ago, the Catholic church my parents go to in Florida decided to renovate their sanctuary. What had once been a spare, modernist space was transformed into a traditional one with the addition of a large crucifix, statues of the saints, and Stations of the Cross. It seemed to me that I was witnessing the disappearance of “Vatican II Catholicism” even before scholars had clarified what it was that was disappearing.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) was perhaps the most important event in twentieth-century religious history. While there are many fine books about Vatican II, they focus either on the session debates or on the ideas contained in the Council documents. What I wondered about was how Vatican II influenced the lives of average American Catholics. What was parish life like before and after the Council? Did Vatican II really change anything?

It really is impossible to speak of “the American Catholic,” because of the ethnic, class, and regional differences. So, I decided to use my mother as the narrative thread to look at how certain Catholics negotiated the changes of the past century. I wanted to shift the discussion to girls, women, nuns, and parish life because the sex abuse scandals had yet again reduced Catholicism to a story of boys, men, priests, and bishops. I also thought that it was about time that religious historians take seriously mobile, middle-class life in the suburbs, especially in the western United States.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

In spite of efforts to downplay the significance of the Second Vatican Council, for many American Catholics it provided the theological justifications to demand sophisticated religious education, to engage ritually in the sacraments, to be accepting of non-Catholics, and to uphold cultural pluralism. It gave Catholics permission to publicly and constructively express disagreement and dissent, and most importantly, it created an atmosphere of spiritual and social flexibility essential to meeting the challenges of the twenty-first century. The reception of the reforms was quite uneven across the country, and so we need to be careful in describing what actually occurred.

Anything you had to leave out?

I visited every parish I discussed in the book, beginning with my great grandparents’ ancestral villages in Germany and ending with Blessed Trinity in Ocala, Florida. Hours were spent in local libraries and interviewing parishioners. Frequently what I thought provided colorful historical background merely served to distract the readers from the story of the reception of the Council. Since The Spirit of Vatican II is not a memoir, the family details often got the axe.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

Frequently assumptions are made about what happened after the Council without actually doing the social history necessary to make accurate descriptions of what occurred in parishes. Conservatives cite the mythical nuns-wearing-miniskirts but they neglect to interview Catholics of the “Greatest Generation” who actually lived through the transitions. Something called “the Sixties” gets blamed for all the problems in Catholicism, but the nitty-gritty scholarship has not been done to legitimate pointing fingers. Catholic history still is very much intellectual and institutional history.

Consequently, I think we have underestimated the importance of the spirit of Vatican II, especially for Catholic women. Even though the documents themselves did not expand women’s roles in the Church, women took it upon themselves to call for a greater presence in Catholic rituals and institutions. I also wanted to challenge the model of a frivolous “cafeteria Catholicism” that occurred after the Council by pointing out that historically Catholics have always challenged authorities and struggled to express themselves religiously. I prefer the image of a big dining room table where people think about what they eat while simultaneously talking with other people.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

I wanted to write an accessible history that would make sense to readers who were not Catholics. At the same time I wanted to engage Catholics, especially those who had lived through the transition. I had both my Mormon undergraduates in mind and my mother. I wanted to produce a pithy text for a course on American religions or maybe the one “religion” book for a class in twentieth-century US history. On the other hand, I wanted to write a book that might be used in parish religious education courses.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?

I am hoping to correct the impression that the spirit of Vatican II was something trivial. Even though the modernist architecture of the era is disappearing, the empowerment of the laity is strongly felt on the parish level. Hopefully, I have captured something of the enthusiasm and optimism that many Catholics felt during the Council years. I wanted to put a real, human face on institutional change.

What alternate title would you give the book?

The working title of the book was “My Mother’s Parish: Living Vatican II.” This title, however, did not capture the scope of the book, which is really about the history of Catholic reform in America. I also decided that I wanted to reclaim the phrase “the spirit of Vatican II,” as something positive and meaningful. My book is not simply about the Second Vatican Council documents but it is about the wider ranging zeitgeist of the era—zeitgeist not simply experienced by youthful rebels but by middle-aged suburban mothers.

How do you feel about the cover?

Deciding on a cover was one of the most difficult things we had to do. I didn’t have any image in mind. Staff at Basic Books would send me a photo and say, “How about that one?” and I would point out that behind the guitar playing teens was a sign that said, “St. Mary’s Episcopal Church” or that the nuns were wearing pre-Vatican II habits. I just had this horrible feeling that the cover would be an example of Catholic modernist kitsch. Then I suggest that the art people look at the lithographs of Sister Corita Kent, one of the individuals I discuss in the book. That was all it took to come up with what I think is a striking cover that captures the strength, color, and conviction of the era without being trite.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?

Any book by David Sedaris, with the exception of Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk (I just don’t get the fable genre). I’m envious of his ear for dialogue and his engaging storytelling abilities. He tells quirky family history without malice.

What’s your next book?

I can’t think about anything until I get the kitchen renovated.

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