Dermott J. Mullan

                     404 Park Circle, Elkton MD 21921; ph. 410-398-3368; e-mail:




The distinction between sickness and health is usually apparent. But it is not always so. Sometimes outward appearances of health are deceptive, and people who seem to be well may actually be seriously ill. For example, shortly after the atomic bomb fell in Hiroshima, certain inhabitants of the city appeared healthy, but many would eventually die from the hidden effects of radiation sickness.


            In the present article, I submit that an analogous situation exists in the spiritual realm among Catholics in America today. A powerful “radiation” of a spiritual nature has spread far and wide, causing serious damage to the spiritual life of Catholics in America. Many Catholics do not even know that they spiritually ill. The “spiritual radiation” can be traced to a certain event on July 30 1968. This event has had such serious consequences that it deserves the doleful title of  “The Catholic Hiroshima”.



                                The Catholic Church in America: then and now


                Some forty years ago, the US Church was healthy, with almost 170,000 nuns, more than 50,000 priests, more than 10,000 brothers, and more than 40,000 seminarians. Sunday Mass attendance was 75%, and 150 thousand people converted per year. But today, conditions are very different. The Official Catholic Directory for the year 2000 lists only 81,000 nuns, 46,000 priests (with 8,000 listed as retired, sick, or “absent”), less than 6,000 brothers, and only 4,500 seminarians. In my diocese (Wilmington DE), statistics gathered in October 1998 and October 1999 revealed that only 30% of registered parishioners attend Sunday Mass. Reports from other dioceses also show typically only 25-30% attendance.


            Widely publicized opinion polls indicate that many Catholics reject certain Church teachings. In 1987, a survey in Time magazine reported that 71 percent of Catholics consider pre-marital sex permissible. A USA Today survey in 1993 showed that 87 percent of Catholics reject Church teaching on family planning.


            In light of statistics such as these, Russell Shaw (for many years an official spokesman for the American bishops) has said: “…the Catholic Church in USA now may be entering an era of institutional collapse. Nearly every indicator of anything that can be measured and quantified suggests as much” (quoted by Ralph Martin in his book “The Catholic Church at the end of an Age” [Ignatius press, 1994], p. 37). In contrast to the healthy condition of the Church in 1960, it appears that a serious sickness has struck the spiritual lives of many American Catholics. 



                        When did the sickness begin?


            Some people claim that the sickness that is now affecting American Catholic life first struck during Vatican II (1962-1965). Now it is true that the onset of the decline in faith can be traced to the 1960’s. But this does not mean that Vatican II is to blame:  the evidence suggests that the decline began in 1968.


To see this, let us look carefully at some statistics of American Catholic life as reported in the Catholic Almanac (CA) for the years immediately before and immediately after the Council.  Between 1962 and 1967 (i.e. a time interval spanning the Council plus two years afterwards), the number of American priests, brothers, and nuns actually INCREASED by 7%, 8%, and 2%, reaching totals of 59892, 12539, and 176671 respectively. As far as the life of the American laity during the conciliar years is concerned, Sunday Mass attendance was a healthy 75 percent.  A statistic of key interest in gauging the health of lay spirituality is the number of marriage annulments. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, this number was not publicized by marriage tribunals, and so the older CA’s contain no annulment statistics. However, CA 1980 later revealed that US marriage tribunals issued a total of only 338 annulments in calendar year 1968. These statistics indicate that, during the years of Vatican II, and for a few years afterwards, not one of the key indicators of the health of the Catholic Church in America showed any significant cause for concern.


In contrast, when we compare data for 1967 with those for 1970, a grimmer picture emerges. Between 1967 and 1970, the numbers of American priests, brothers, and nuns DECREASED by 2%, 8%, and 10%. During the same three years, the number of US seminarians decreased by 40%. There are no public statistics for annulments in the years 1967-1971, but in 1974, US tribunals issued 28918 annulments, a stunning increase (by almost 9000%!) over the figure for 1968. In 1980, the number of US annulments was 63962, almost 20000% greater than in 1968. In the late 1990’s, there are typically more than 40,000 US annulments per year, i.e. more than 12000 percent greater than in 1968.


            Another sign of serious sickness in the Church concerns priests who quit the priesthood. In CA’s prior to and including 1968, there was not even one news item, nor even one statistic, concerning priestly departures. But in a story datelined Dec. 15, 1969 (CA 1971), the topic surfaces for the first time: Pope Paul VI is quoted as saying that he has a personal “crown of thorns…a small but conspicuous number of priests and religious abandoning their state in life”. Statistics in CA 1972 reveal that in the 6-year interval Jan. 1963 - March 1969 (overlapping the Council plus a further 3-4 years), 8287 priests made formal requests for dispensation from their vows, i.e. on average 1300 per year. However, in the next 22 months (Apr. 1969 - Feb. 1971), more than 6000 further priests requested dispensations, averaging more than 3000 per year. This is more than double the previous rate. Even more striking are the numbers of priests who deserted their posts without formally requesting dispensations: from 1963 to March 1969, the average of these was about 400 per year (CA 1972). But in the next 22 months (Apr. 1969 - Feb. 1971), a further 22,200 left without formal request, averaging almost 12,000 per year. Thus, following a 6-year period of rather small desertion rates (including 3 years of overlap with Vatican II), the annual rate of priestly desertions jumped by 3000% in the course of 1969 and 1970.


                These statistics point to 1968 (plus or minus one year), as a critical time for the US Church. Something with disastrous spiritual consequences apparently happened at that time, triggering dramatic declines in many areas of Catholic life. It is as if the US Church was subjected to a serious attack around 1968, and is still suffering the after-effects. Can we identify the nature of this attack?



                                    The day the bomb fell


            I believe that the principal attack on the Church in America can be traced to a  press conference in Washington DC on July 30, 1968. The purpose of the conference was to make a public announcement to US Catholics, stating that Catholics need not accept a formal teaching that had just been issued by Pope Paul VI. In an encyclical entitled “Humanae Vitae”, the Pope had reminded the world that God’s plan for marriage is the same today as it has been since the Garden of Eden: “Increase and multiply”. Appealing explicitly to his Petrine authority, the Pope had re-iterated the age-old teaching of God and of the Church that contraception is always mortally sinful. However, at the press conference on July 30, the theologians boldly and openly said that Catholic lay people are free to disregard this teaching.


The press conference was widely reported. The New York Times gave the Washington press conference front-page billing, with a headline in the upper left corner of page 1: “Catholic experts in strong dissent on edict by Pope: 87 Theologians, mostly clergy, say birth-control ban is not binding: Group of Washington clerics give support and see no issue of disloyalty”. Two days later, another front-page article in the New York Times was entitled “Theologians gain support in dissent on birth control”.


With these headlines, a new word entered into the vocabulary of Catholic lay people in America: “dissent”. 


It is hard to overstate the enormity of what happened in Washington DC on July 30, 1968. The press conference was by no means the work of a few “hot-heads”.  The number of signatories to the announcement was initially 87 and this number rose to 172 in a matter of days. Fully one-half of all theology teaching faculty at American Catholic colleges were signatories. Never had American Catholic lay people heard such broad-based and brazen public opposition to the teaching authority of the Church. To be sure, the Church as a whole had occasionally seen dramatic acts of public opposition like this before: the action of a German monk at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517 comes to mind. But for the American laity, the events of July 30, 1968 were a stark awakening to a new sort of world. It was as if a bomb fell on the American laity that day, a bomb such as they had never experienced before.


The publicity associated with the Washington press conference died down after a few days. But that was unfortunately not the end of the affair. There have been after-effects of a long-lasting nature. Why is this? I suggest that dissent affects spiritual life in a way that is analogous to what happens to biological life in the aftermath of an atomic bomb. To appreciate this analogy, let us consider what happened in Hiroshima.



                        Radiation sickness in Hiroshima


On August 6, 1945, Hiroshima was subjected to an atomic bomb, a weapon that was fundamentally different from any that had previously been used in warfare. To be sure, some of the effects of this bomb were similar to those caused by conventional explosives. There was the usual loud bang, and the usual blast wave rushed out in all directions from ground zero, shattering windows and knocking down buildings.


But the Hiroshima bomb had an insidious property that set it apart from all others. Unlike a conventional bomb, where one can see the damage as soon as the dust settles, the atomic bomb had hidden after-effects that were not immediately apparent to the human eye.


These gruesome after-effects occurred because of the very nature of an atomic bomb: as a by-product of the nuclear reactions that give the bomb its power, it is inevitable that radioactive nuclei are created. Now it is a law of physics that radioactive nuclei survive for a certain length of time (roughly the “half-life”), and then they must disintegrate. Some nuclei survive only for a few seconds or minutes, while others persist for years or centuries. In the process of disintegration, the nuclei give off a variety of mysterious and penetrating types of radiation.


Because of this distinctive aspect of an atomic bomb, the effects of the nuclear weapon in Hiroshima were far from complete after the last rumbling echo of the bomb blast faded away on that sunny morning in August 1945. Quite the contrary. Once the dust from the explosion settled, the stage was literally set for a type of horror that was altogether new in the history of the world.


Eventually, at the times appointed by the laws of physics, the mysterious radiation began inexorably to emerge from the fallout, and proceeded to perform its hidden and deadly work. As a result, the survivors’ bodies came under attack although the victims themselves were at first completely unaware of this.


As the days passed in August 1945, strange and serious symptoms began to appear among certain survivors. Some of the case histories make for eerie reading. Many people who felt slightly ill immediately after the blast, would report improvement in their general condition for a week or more. But then a sudden and inexplicable worsening of their situation would occur: a day or two later, they would be dead. A new and terrible phrase entered into human language: “radiation sickness”.


On August 6, 1945, although the survivors in Hiroshima did not know it at the time, radiation sickness had reduced many of them to mere shadows of their former selves. To be sure, they went through the motions of everyday life, but these “shadow people” were actually in such weakened physical shape that even the slightest illness could kill them. In the months and years after the explosion, tens of thousands of these “shadow people” succumbed to the mortal damage of radiation sickness.


The physiology of radiation sickness is such that the mysterious rays cause maximum damage to cells during replication, when the cell’s interior is temporarily exposed. As a result, the cells that are most susceptible to radiation damage are the rapid growers, such as blood cells. Once this was recognized by medical personnel, massive blood transfusions became the order of the day in order to restore at least some of the Hiroshima survivors to a modicum of health.


Eventually, in the months following August 1945, the government of Hiroshima  began to make plans for the re-building of their city. Repairs to roads, bridges, and buildings were scheduled, as well as restoration of essential services. But who would do the work? The survivors were in many cases too weak for the task ahead. The city needed a massive infusion of outside workers in order to restore normal living. Restoration was a long and difficult process.



            Hiroshima in the Catholic Church


Now let us return to the events in Washington DC on July 30, 1968. We have already described the press conference of that day as equivalent to a bomb being dropped on American Catholics. The principal tragedy is that the effects of this bombshell of dissent were not confined merely to the day of the press conference.


Dissent is not simply something that makes a big splash in the media on the day of a carefully orchestrated publicity event. Dissent also has hidden effects which, over the course of time, silently and remorselessly attack the most vital organs of a Catholic’s life.


Ever since July 30 1968, many US Catholics have been unknowingly suffering from a mysterious spiritual sickness. It is as if  “spiritual radioactivity” was unleashed on an unsuspecting public. For this reason, I regard the events of that fateful day as a sort of “Catholic Hiroshima”.



                        Why does dissent lead to spiritual sickness?


To see why dissent leads to a weakening of spiritual life, let us make an obvious point about dissent: by its very definition, dissent involves the opposite of assent. Now the key question is this: is assent important in a Catholic’s life? The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) teaches clearly that the answer is a resounding Yes (No. 142-143):   


“By His Revelation, the invisible God, from the fullness of His love, addresses men as His friends, and moves among them in order to invite and receive them into His own company. The adequate response to this invitation is faith.

By faith, man completely submits his intellect and will to God. WITH HIS WHOLE BEING, MAN GIVES HIS ASSENT TO GOD THE REVEALER. Sacred scripture calls this human response to God, the author of revelation, ‘the obedience of faith’.” (emphasis added).


This passage indicates that assent is at the very heart of a Catholic’s faith life. And faith is not something peripheral to our life as Catholics: on the contrary, it is essential. “Without faith, it is impossible to please God…without faith, no-one has ever obtained justification” (CCC No. 161).


Since assent is at the heart of faith, dissent involves nothing less than a direct attack on the most vital organ of a Catholic’s life with God. And just as radiation in Hiroshima inflicted mortal damage on the vital organs of some survivors, so dissent can inflict lethal damage in the spiritual life of a Catholic.


 The consequences of this “spiritual radiation sickness” are serious. Once a Catholic refuses to assent to a formal teaching of the Church (such as that contained in Humanae Vitae), such a Catholic is actually rejecting Christ Himself (Luke 10, 16). And apart from Christ, spiritual life dries up (John 15, 6).


To be sure, someone who dissents from a teaching of the Church (especially a teaching concerning contraception) may feel good for a while. Such a person may think to him(her)self: “Now I no longer need to be bothered about that particular teaching of the Church: I can get on with living my life the way I want to.” But no matter how good the feelings are, such a person actually resembles one of the “shadow persons” in Hiroshima during those deadly months in late 1945. Such a “shadow person” may feel good for a while, but the slightest attack of a spiritual nature may be enough to kill spiritual life altogether.


Victims of spiritual radiation sickness often do not even know they are sick: and so, they see no particular need to go to Mass or to turn to the medicine of the soul that Christ provides in Confession. Even a casual observer can see that Confession lines in Church today are much shorter than they were 30-40 years ago. 



                The casualties of dissent: “spiritual fallout”


The spiritual casualties that have spread among American Catholics in the wake of the Catholic Hiroshima are grim indeed. Not surprisingly, the effects show up most vividly in the area of life which was directly addressed in “Humanae Vitae”, viz. marriage. The statistics cited above show that for the past 25 years, the annual rate of marriage annulments in America has remained at levels that are 100-200 times greater than those prior to 1968. As more and more Catholics have dissented from Church teaching on contraception, the statistics show that divorce and re-marriage have become more and more widespread among Catholics. It appears that contraception in effect has the power to kill marriages.


The effects of dissent have been particularly virulent among the young. Just as biological cells are most vulnerable to radiation damage during the growth process, so, too the minds of Catholic youth are especially susceptible to the attacks of dissent when those minds open up to grow in knowledge. Because so many dissenting theologians in 1968 were on faculties of Catholic colleges, they were strategically located to inflict maximum “spiritual radiation damage” on the faith life of young Catholics. Since 1968, increasing numbers of American parents have watched in appalled frustration as many of their children lose the faith while attending nominally Catholic colleges.


The most intriguing of the after-effects of dissent were those that appeared among a segment of Catholics who, on the face of it, should have been entirely unaffected, namely, celibates. After all, the dissent against Humanae Vitae was specifically aimed at a Church teaching which pertained to marriage. Why then should celibates be affected at all? Perhaps the celibates (who were in the majority among the signatories on July 30 1968) reasoned that they could dissent on Church doctrine concerning a sacrament that they themselves had not received without affecting their own vows. But this reasoning has turned out to be flawed. In the aftermath of the Catholic Hiroshima, almost 100,000 priests and nuns have left their calling. Dissent apparently has lethal effects not only on marriages but also on priestly vocations.


The “spiritual radioactivity” that was unleashed by the “Catholic Hiroshima” is still “hot”, and still damaging to spiritual health even after 30 years. No matter how “good” dissent may make someone feel in the short-term, the long-term effects are destructive. How long will the radioactivity last? No-one knows. Unlike the radioactive nuclei in Hiroshima, there is no obvious way to measure the “half-life” of spiritual radiation. It may be centuries: after all, we are still suffering from the fall-out of a similar event that occurred almost 500 years ago in Wittenberg.



The Church in America: the need for restoration


Can Catholics in America ever recover spiritually from the effects of the Catholic Hiroshima? Can the healthy statistics of Catholic life in the early 1960’s be restored? It is hard to say. A first step towards recovery will require Catholics at all levels of the Church in America to face the dismal truth to which Russell Shaw has alluded: the US Church is near collapse. Nothing worthwhile can be gained by denying the severity of the situation. If we continue to close our eyes to the spiritual radiation sickness associated with dissent, then there will be no incentive to seek a remedy.


What is to be done? At the very least, it is necessary to return to the instructions that were offered by Vatican II to protect Catholics in the overall war against evil. The Vatican II documents provide a sure means of protection in this mortal struggle. In this regard, Catholics have an advantage over the former inhabitants of Hiroshima.


To see why this is so, it is worth recalling a little known, but true, story about how the municipal government of Hiroshima worked to protect its citizens in the weeks leading up to August 6 1945. In a book called “The Day Man Lost”, published in Japan in 1972, it is reported that during the summer of 1945, a certain rumor had gained widespread support in Hiroshima, namely, that the Americans were planning to flood the city by destroying some large dams nearby. To their credit, the municipal government took this rumor so seriously that they prepared kits for bamboo life-rafts, and distributed 200,000 kits to their citizens. Considering the wartime conditions, this was a feat of truly astonishing proportions. Unfortunately, the rumored attack on the dams did not materialize: the attack, when it came on August 6, was of a totally different nature. The bamboo life-rafts turned out to be pathetically inadequate.


In contrast, the Vatican II documents describe in detail the tools that can help us  deal with the Catholic Hiroshima and the spiritual radioactivity that followed in its wake. For example, Vatican II offered this to married couples: “Whenever Christian spouses in a spirit of sacrifice and trust in divine providence carry out their duties of procreation with generous human and Christian responsibility, they glorify the Creator and perfect themselves in Christ. Among the married couples who thus fulfil their God-given mission, special mention should be made of those who…courageously undertake the proper upbringing of a large number of children” (GS 50). Vatican II also invited us to go to Mass where “Christ Himself speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church” (SC7), and where the renewal of covenant “draws the faithful and sets them aflame with Christ’s insistent love” (SC10). And just as Catholics had in the past found Christ in their devotion to the Real Presence, so too Vatican II invited us to a “new impulse of spiritual life…from increased veneration from the Word of God” (DV26). And the key teaching that would protect a Catholic from the horrors of dissent was spelled out explicitly: “…loyal submission of will and intellect must be given in a special way to the…Roman Pontiff, even when he does not speak ex cathedra…” (LG25).


No bamboo life-rafts here! The instructions of Vatican II are highly effective as  protection against any and all spiritual onslaughts. In light of this, there is no exaggeration in the words of Vatican II: “…the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained through Christ’s Catholic Church alone” (UR3).


Unfortunately, the instructions that are in the Vatican II documents were only beginning to be implemented by Catholics in America when the “spiritual atomic bomb” fell on July 30 1968. As a result many Catholics were caught with their defenses down on that fateful day, and we are still living with the after-effects of this lack of preparedness. Statistics suggest that the “shadow-persons” who suffer from “spiritual radiation sickness” may now be in the majority in the Catholic Church in America. The result is apparent to all but the most wishful thinkers: dissent has led to a disaster of catastrophic proportions.


The disaster has persisted now for more than 30 years, and it has struck at the very heart of Catholic life. Its effects are especially obvious in relationships where people are called to the life-long commitments that are meant to mirror Christ’s lasting love: marriage and religious vows. American Catholics have curtailed their family sizes despite being wealthier than any country in the world, they have divorced and re-married, or they have left the priesthood, and can no longer receive the sacraments. These people are cut-off from the life-blood of the Church. It is impossible to exaggerate the sickening shadow that has been cast over Catholics in America because of dissent.


What is to be done for the “shadow persons” who have been infected by the spiritual radiation sickness of dissent? Is there any treatment that leads to a cure? Following the example of the survivors of Hiroshima, one of the approaches to a cure involves massive blood transfusions. The Blood of Christ in Confession will wash away all sins of those who repent and return to the teachings of the Christ. And the Blood of Christ in the Eucharist will bring new life to the soul, strengthening the soul for a vigorous life in the Church.


Another approach to a cure for radiation sickness involves turning to the Blessed Mother for help. The remarkable story of a certain Jesuit priest has a bearing on this. Father Hubert Schiffer SJ was actually present in the city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 when the atomic bomb fell. He and his Jesuit companions lived about half a mile from ground zero. Although houses were destroyed in all directions around them, the Jesuit house remained standing, and not one of the Jesuits was harmed. I was blessed to see and hear Father Schiffer at the Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia in 1976. He informed the congregation that all of his companions were still alive, 31 years after the bomb, and that none of them had suffered any radiation sickness. How did these Jesuits manage to escape radiation sickness? This is a question that was of great interest to  American engineers who arrived in Hiroshima after the war. Why, these engineers wanted to know, had the Jesuit house been able to withstand the bomb blast? No satisfactory answer emerged from their engineering data: they could detect no essential structural differences between the Jesuit house and surrounding houses which had been destroyed. Father Schiffer claimed that the differences were spiritual: the Jesuit house was the only house in the neighborhood where the Rosary was recited every day.


This suggests that by staying close to Our Blessed Lady, we can find protection from the effects of  “spiritual radiation sickness”. The last words of hers which are recorded in scripture remain as valid and forceful today as they did when she first spoke them, regarding her Son: “Do whatever He tells you.” And how do we hear in our day and age what her Son is telling us? By listening to the words of the Pope and the bishops whom He has appointed to govern the Church with the gift of infallibility. This means at least reading the actual words of Vatican II with attentiveness and taking them to heart.


The task of re-building the Church in America will not be an easy one. The sickening effects of dissent have seriously weakened many Catholics. Just as Hiroshima needed to bring in outside workers to help in recovery, it may be necessary for the Church in America to bring in outside workers from communities where there has been no dissent from the teachings of Humanae Vitae. Where will such workers be found? Some may come from countries in Africa or Asia. Others may come from non-Catholic communities within America: in this regard, it is encouraging to witness the unprecedented spate of conversions of prominent non-Catholic clergymen to the Catholic faith in the past decade. These converts, who have not been exposed to the dangers of dissenting seminary professors, have provided the Church with speakers of great talent and persuasiveness. Moreover, the new converts are unabashedly grateful for the gift of infallible teaching that Christ left to His Church. In this, they stand in marked (and welcome) contrast to the dissenters.


But there is one aspect of restoration that seems absolutely crucial: without it, no long-term re-building will ever be possible. The key involves a return in spirit to the day the bomb fell. On that day, the destruction of the Church in America began with an act of defiance to the legitimate teaching authority of the Vicar of Christ. Restoration of the Church in America can begin only if that historical act of defiance is nullified by a public act of submission to the Pope’s teaching authority.


I have seen the positive effects that derive from accepting papal authority. In my parish, there used to be rancorous conservative/liberal debates in the 1980’s. But when a new pastor arrived in 1990, and took a public oath of fidelity to the Ordinary Magisterium of the Church, life in the parish changed for the better. Moreover, in our parish men’s group, when papal teachings about marriage and contraception are taught openly and honestly, the consequences are amazing. A typical reaction is “Why did no-one ever tell us about this before?” One of the men in the group was so struck by the teaching that he and his wife decided to reverse the sterilization process that they had gone through some years previously.


Thus, I can testify that the power of assent to papal teaching is life-building. But the effects of dissent are devastating: at the end of the day, there is nothing to show for dissent but broken commitments and broken hearts.