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Vintage pamphlets offer a glimpse at the rules of 50s-era Irish Catholicism

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Pamphlets were designed to attract the attention of young Catholics.
Pamphlets were designed to attract the attention of young Catholics. 

You young ones are going to have to be a bit patient with us oldies this week.

Because this week the “Ireland Calling” column is dipping into the past, into a different time in Ireland when everyone not only said they were Catholic but behaved like real Catholics.  And in those days, real Catholics were obedient and unquestioning.

These days, Catholicism is very different. Everything is questioned.

Instead of being obedient, people pick and choose what they want to believe and which rules they want or don’t want to follow.  The church has lost its power, for reasons we all know about.  People have become a la carte Catholics.

When I was a kid growing up in midlands Ireland there was no such thing as a Catholic who treated the church’s set of rules like a menu from which you were free to choose.  You were free, of course, to follow your conscience, but it had to be what the church called an “informed conscience.”

And an informed conscience was one which was educated enough to understand and accept all of the church’s rules and teachings.  So you were free to decide as long as your conscience came to the right conclusion.  A kind of Catholic Catch-22!

A similar deal applied to the fundamental beliefs of the Catholic religion. Let’s say you had trouble believing that the little white wafer and the cheap red wine actually turned into the body and blood of Christ in the middle of Mass.  Or you had difficulty understanding how Mary could have conceived without having sex, or how later on she floated up to heaven through the clouds in a process called the Assumption.

Or you even had a problem believing that Christ had come back to life again after being dead for three days.

Well, there was no need to worry.  In fact there was no need to even think about it too much, because back in the 1950s and ‘60s when I was growing up, thinking too much was the worst thing a “good Catholic” could do.
 
There was no need for it, you see, as long as you had what the church called “the gift of faith.”  Having faith meant that you believed in things that you could not prove or understand, things like transubstantiation (the wafer and wine transformation), the Resurrection, the Assumption and a whole lot of other stuff that defied science, reason and logic.

The “gift of faith” enabled you to believe in these extraordinary things without having to give yourself a headache from too much thinking.  It was a great system, you have to agree.

The Pope was infallible, so he could never be wrong about the beliefs and teachings of the Catholic Church.  Whatever he decided and the bishops and priests relayed down the line to you was all you needed to know.

It wasn’t a matter of proof; it was a matter of acceptance.  If you had a problem with that, you were told to pray for “the gift of faith.”

It was a closed system of total power.  The Islamic ayatollahs these days must admire the total control the Catholic Church had over its followers back then.

This power and control filtered down to the local parish level in Ireland where the priest was rarely if ever questioned on matters of Catholic faith.  This turned many of them into mini despots who would tolerate nothing except absolute obedience to all the rules of the Catholic Church. Especially anything to do with “occasions of sin” when any form of sexual contact, no matter how minor, might be possible!

It was a different time, especially in Ireland where Catholicism and nationalism had been interwoven into the fabric of the new state. Even though many of us saw through the mind control and rejected it early on, it is still extraordinary now to look back and remember what it was like.

Memories of that time were brought back last week when a new book appeared here published by Veritas, the noted Catholic publisher in Ireland.

Anyone who grew up in Ireland in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s -- and even later -- will remember the racks of Catholic Truth Society pamphlets in the foyers of Catholic churches all over the country.  These little booklets were designed to sooth the troubled minds of young Catholics at the time who might be having “problems of faith.”

The covers of more than 100 of these pamphlets -- which were striking because of their outstanding design -- have now been gathered together in the new art book titled Vintage Values which was published last week.   The titles of the pamphlets were unforgettable.
 
The Young Lady Says No!  What To Do on a Date?  Shall I Be a Nun?  Divorce Is a Disease!  Shall I Start to Drink?  The older generation of Catholics will remember them.

The booklet covers -- some of which you can see here -- were provocative, even faintly titillating.  They were designed to be “modern,” to catch the attention of the young faithful, promising to answer their questions about sexuality, spirituality and life in general.

Inside the covers, however, there was the same old conservative message, even if it was sometimes couched in language that tried to be liberal or even “hip”.  Many of the authors were priests, doing their best to be “modern” and usually not succeeding.

One of the most striking covers, The Young Lady Says No!, is on a pamphlet by a priest, Rev. Wm. P. O’Keeffe, C.M.  We’re not told on the cover what question the Young Lady was asked, but you can guess.  But Fr. O’Keeffe, in spite of being a male celibate, had no problem supplying the answer!

Another striking cover is Shall I Be A Nun? This one, believe it or not, was written by another priest, Rev. Daniel A. Lord, S.J.   Presumably Fr. Lord felt able to put himself into the mind of the girl on the cover to answer this question.

The same talented priest is also the author of What To Do on a Date?  Again, how is a celibate priest -- even a Jesuit -- supposed to know anything about what to do on a date?

But my favorite cover of all is on a pamphlet by another Jesuit, Rev. Martin J. Scott, S.J., titled Divorce Is A Disease!  He does not pull his punches with that title (even if, as a priest, we can assume he was never married and therefore knows nothing of any real value whatsoever about marriage or marriage failure and divorce).

The booklets kind of sum up everything that was presumptuous, arrogant and wrong about the Catholic Church in Ireland at the time.  Despite this, they were incredibly popular.  In 1951 alone, one and a quarter million pamphlets were distributed in Ireland, selling at three old pennies each.

Whatever about the message inside, the striking covers on the pamphlets clearly worked.

The best of these covers -- 117 high quality images with notes on the artists -- have been showcased in the new art book. Catholics of a certain age, including those who immigrated to the U.S., will get all nostalgic over them. But the book will also appeal to be those interested in graphic design and comic book art.

Bold, bright and vibrant, the covers rejected the usual symbols of Catholic nationalism in Ireland at the time -- Celtic interlace, shamrocks and harps — in favor of contemporary American showcard art and typography.

The artists who produced the covers were among the best commercial artists of the day in Ireland.  They were more in tune with popular visual culture in America at the time than with European design, and they were using that to get across the Catholic message.

It was a clever strategy by the church, using the same American poster style art to package its message.  It was battling against what it saw as the “scourge” of American and British influence coming into Ireland at the time from films, magazines, dance and music.

The Catholic Truth Society of Ireland, founded in 1899, produced the pamphlets from the 1920s to the early 1970s.  Was there anything like this in America?

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