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At 50, time to take stock of the Christian Family Movement

By Jeffrey M. Burns
University of Notre Dame Press, 286 pages, $25


What happened?

That is the question thousands of former members of the Christian Family Movement have asked one another over the past 30 years. What happened to this energizing phenomenon that gave them perhaps their most vivid experience of being Catholic in the world?

In 1964 the Christian Family Movement involved some 50,000 couples in North America, 30,000 in Latin America and substantial numbers in Asia and Africa. Then almost as suddenly as it had blossomed, the movement declined. Steadily, inexorably, the energy went out of it just as the church was emerging from its post-Vatican II honeymoon. In Disturbing the Peace, Jeffrey M. Burns analyzes the confluence of historical changes that affected CFM and, in the process, he gives a plausible explanation of “what happened.”

But Burns, an archivist for the San Francisco archdiocese, is more concerned about what happened in a positive sense -- about what happened to the couples who participated in the movement, the ordinary couples who became social activists and disturbers of the peace.

Exhilarating effect

“The effect was exhilarating,” writes Burns. “Young, professional couples, whose lives had been dominated by an ethos that extolled material culture” found through CFM “a tool with which to transcend and transform not just the structures of family life but their culture.”

It is these positive benefits that are likely to dominate conversations July 1-4, when great numbers of former Christian Family Movement couples gather at Notre Dame University for the 50th anniversary of the movement.

In the book, Burns traces the origins of the Christian Family Movement from the see-judge-act technique for small groups developed by Canon Joseph Cardijn in Belgium. Following its modest beginnings in the Midwest after World War II, CFM became by 1949 a national institution.

Burns is not reluctant to name names, and hundreds appear in Disturbing the Peace, as he credits scores of groups and individuals. Four names are especially prominent: Holy Cross Fr. Louis Putz, Pat and Patty Crowley, Msgr. Reynold Hillenbrand and Burnett (Burnie) Bauer.

Putz, a tireless advocate of the Cardijn method, helped launch the first groups and remained an important adviser. The Crowleys became the Johnny Appleseeds of the movement, trekking around the world, organizing and encouraging. Their tempermental opposite was Hillenbrand, the national chaplain, whom Burns characterizes as “autocratic, ill at ease with women and at times downright cranky.” Yet Hillenbrand, who spoke with Moses-like authority, provided the intellectual underpinnings of the movement for more than 20 years.

Bauer, who has long insisted it was he, not the Crowleys, who started the first CFM-type couples group, appears sporadically throughout the saga as a contrarian voice disputing the organizational approach of the Crowleys. Bauer has always insisted that the movement should have put its emphasis first and foremost on improving the family life of its members, not on changing the world.

Yet even in its earliest years, CFM groups were viewing the family in relation to parish, local community, nation and world. CFM groups in the 1950s sponsored visitors to the United States, housed refugees from Cuba and Indonesia, sponsored volunteer missionaries and went on mission vacations themselves to Appalachia.

In the 1960s the priority turned to race as CFM members invited black families into their homes, fought for fair housing laws and backed neighborhood integration; groups from New York City, Chicago, San Francisco and other cities participated in the famous Selma to Montgomery civil rights march and in other demonstrations in the South.

The movement leaders took Vatican II’s call for improved ecumenical relations seriously and literally. They invited Protestants into their homes for living room dialogues, saw the movement take root in Episcopal churches and even offered a Eucharistic service presided over by an Episcopalian priest at one of the national conferences.

The Christian Family Movement was a major force in raising the consciousness of its women members about their own roles in society, reports Burns. At a 1967 meeting, veteran leader Madelyn Bonsignore told the women, “Christ seemed to think active, involved women were fine. ... So take courage, you are firmly within the fold if you feel more useful at a city council meeting than at a bridge event, though you may never get chosen Catholic Mother of the Year.”

Inevitably, such ideas led CFM members to question women’s role in the church itself, and gradually the solidarity between the lay members and their clergy chaplains was sorely tested.

As Burns shows, many of CFM’s most significant achievements carried within themselves the seeds of controversy. Not every Catholic was open to integration, ecumenism and political activism; not every Catholic relished CFM’s openly liberal stance. The movement appeared to many to be pushing the envelope, interfering with the hierarchy in their usual, measured, cautious oversight of the church.

And after 1964 the movement shrank: from a high of 50,000 couples in the United States and Canada to 32,000 in 1967, to 16,000 in 1968, to 4,313 in 1974, to an all-time low of 1,100 couples in 1980.

Burns carefully separates the multitude of factors at work here: In its ecumenical enthusiasm the Christian Family Movement got ahead of the institutional church and lost the support of many bishops; in its unwavering commitment to racial justice and alleged lack of attention to internal family affairs it alienated some veteran members; in its disciplined and slow approach to formation, CFM seemed too old-fashioned to many young, potential members who wanted action now.

Burns also notes that the widespread emergence of women in the work force had an especially debilitating effect on the movement because women, who had always taken responsibility for the lion’s share of organizing and implementing action, no longer had the time they previously devoted to these tasks.

In addition, many avid CFM members, both male and female, were drawn after Vatican II into activities directly related to the church -- into parish councils and education and liturgy and a myriad of other lay ministries that hadn’t existed before. The old commitment to issues in the larger world suffered.

Finally, Burns cites “the malaise that affected Catholics, particularly liberal Catholics in the early 1970s. CFM did not decline in a vacuum. The church in the United States was in decline everywhere.”

Shattered hopes

The decline was severely exacerbated by Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae banning all forms of contraception. “The encyclical shattered the hopes of many that the Catholic church could change,” writes Burns, who stoutly denies that the Crowley’s well-known, personal dissent from the encyclical was itself a cause of CFM decline.

Despite everything, the Christian Family Movement has survived, albeit in truncated form (with about 2,000 families in the nation), according to CFM co-director Kay Aitchison of Ames, Iowa, in a brief look at the past 25 years at the end of the book. The thrust today is toward family and parish activities, with matters of political and ecclesial controversy relegated to the background.

It is impossible to read about the Christian Family Movement’s first sweeping 25 years without wondering: What would it take to unleash again such a torrent of creative energy in church and society? And where is this new locus of energy gestating -- awaiting the moment of birth? What would it take?

Burns does not speculate. He merely quotes Patty Crowley’s simple explanation of how it all happened the first time: Great things occurred within CFM because “some CFM leader wanted them to take place.” In the movement there was “the freedom to experiment, to try the untried, to take a fling at something that may never have worked before. Over these years we shudder to think of ... the ambitious projects that began and were never finished. But some of them were. And they were finished because there was an atmosphere in CFM that said, ‘Let’s go to it. Let’s try it.’ ”

For information about the Christian Family Movement’s July 1-4 golden jubilee celebration at Notre Dame, contact CFM, P.O. Box 272, Ames IA 50010. Phone: (515) 232-7432.

Robert McClory writes from Chicago.

National Catholic Reporter, June 4, 1999