Catholic conservatives typically blame the liberalizing Second Vatican Council for the current widespread Catholic resistance to the Church's teachings on sexual and related matters. They're wrong: The real mistake the Church made--one of its biggest ever--occurred about 20 years earlier, when the Church began encouraging Catholic women to attend college in large numbers after the end of World War II. Church-supported colleges for women had existed since the late 19th century, and after the war they exploded in growth along with other institutions of higher learning as Catholics moved upward en masse into the middle class. Many of the problems of dissent and disagreement the Church faces today would not exist if it had kept Catholic women of the immediate post-war generation from pursuing higher education--and then passing on to their Vatican II-era children the independent-mindedness they had learned in college.

I reached this conclusion after I began wondering whether it was really fair to hold Vatican II responsible for forces that might have been at work in the Catholic Church long before Pope John XXIII convened the council in 1962. After 1945, the year of the war's end and the axial year of this century, the educational level of Catholics increased dramatically. If you permit people to attend college and learn to think for themselves, however poorly, then they are likely to want to make their own decisions and not simply obey when they are told what they can do and cannot do.

I tested this hypothesis with two sets of data--the Catholic Schools Studies of the 1960s and 1970s, and the National Opinion Research Center's survey of social attitudes during that time. The studies showed no correlation between the level of education of the respondents, who had come of age around the time of Vatican II, and their attitudes on such matters as premarital sex and homosexuality. So it first appeared that my hunch was wrong. But then I looked at the schooling levels of the respondents' parents, who had come of age as World War II ended. First, fathers. Again, there was no correlation between the amount of education the respondents' fathers had received and the sexual attitudes of their offspring. Again, it seemed my theory was wrong.

But when I turned to the respondents' mothers, I discovered that the level of their education did correlate strongly with their children's dissent from official Catholic teaching on sexual matters. Both men and women whose mothers went to college were substantially more likely to be dissidents than those whose mothers' education had stopped with high school. So it clearly had been a mistake to let Catholic women learn how to think for themselves.

Looking beyond the Church to the more general social changes of the 1960s and 1970s, it is safe to say that there probably would not have been either a feminist movement or a civil rights movement if access to college had been restricted to white men during the immediate postwar years. Education is a dangerous thing, especially for women and blacks. Both groups tend to get uppity when they've had some schooling. And by 1960, just before the Second Vatican Council, women were as likely to graduate from college as men, just as blacks were attending college in substantially increased numbers.

Church leaders used to pretend--and many of them still do--that feminists were only a tiny minority of their flocks. The women that priests knew in the old days--mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, nieces--were the still the good, solid, obedient Catholic laywomen they had always known, weren't they? Those women didn't want women to be ordained priests, did they? They weren't feminists, were they?

One does not hear that response so often these days. Now, only priests who are blind and deaf doubt that many Catholic women tend to be very angry at the all-male church leadership that presumes to tell them what to do, whether that leadership be in the local parish or at the Vatican. My research suggests not only that better-educated Catholic women are more likely to be dissidents, but that they transfer their dissidence to their sons and daughters. Mothers are the primary teachers in the family, Church leaders have always said--in the comfortable assumption that mothers were on the Church leaders' side. In his 1995 letter to women, for example, Pope John Paul II described the mother as "the anchor as the child makes its way along the journey of life." Now, it seems that mothers are still the primary teachers, but they're on the other side.

The traditionalist view of this state of affairs--exemplified by Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Defense of the Faith--is that these women have simply lost their faith. Otherwise they would obey the Church. However, most of them would reply that their faith is as good as the cardinal's, and that when it comes to the sexuality of women, he and the other men who run the Church don't know what they're talking about.

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