Sink or Swim: Catholicism in Sixties Britain through John Ryan's Cartoons

The illustrations of John Ryan (1921-2009) are popularly known to many Catholics, especially to those of traditional inclinations, perhaps without evening knowing his name. John Ryan was the illustrator behind so many of the iconic illustrations that graced the covers and works of the famed liturgical historian and polemicist, Michael Davies. Ryan's work went beyond these iconic illustrations, however, often appearing in the Catholic Herald (not to mention children's books).
John Ryan was born in Edinburgh, the son of a diplomat, and attended Ampleforth College (a Catholic boarding school) where his artistic beginnings took root. He continued his artistic career into his adult years, working for the BBC, and it was Ryan's elder brother, Fr. Columba Ryan, O.P., who created the connection between him and the Catholic Herald where his work would be featured weekly for the next 43 years. 

Ryan's extraordinary work was recently captured in an exhibition, "Sink or Swim: Catholicism in the Sixties through John Ryan's Cartoons" which was curated by Dr. Alana Harris, lecturer in modern British history at King's College in London, and Isabel Ryan, John Ryan's daughter. The exhibition covered not only the Second Vatican Council and its liturgical changes, but also those related to ecclesiology and morality -- though it is the former which is our focus here.

LAJ is pleased to present some excerpts taken from the exhibition programme as well as a selection of Ryan's works -- many of which will be unfamiliar -- with the kind permission of Dr. Harris and Isabel Ryan. 
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The Barque of St Peter: The Catholic Church on the cusp of the 1960s

When Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council (also known as Vatican II) on 25 January 1959, few could anticipate the monumental changes it would inaugurate through its sixteen foundational documents. 

Tasked with considering ‘the condition and updating (“aggiornamento”) of the Church’, particularly after the dislocations of World War II, this assembly of over 2,000 bishops and a vast entourage of religious observers and laity met over four sessions at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome from 1962-1965.

It was an unprecedented media event – warranting front-page commentary and intensive coverage from print and television news outlets around the world. John Ryan, under the auspices of the Catholic Herald, sketched the ‘doings in Rome’ in September 1965. His (unpublished) humorous vignettes of prelates and laity, speeches, Roman sights and spaghetti offers an alternative vision of the ‘everyday’ Council; it complements the theological sparrings of ‘progressives’ and ‘traditionalists’ narrated by others, such as The New Yorker correspondent and Redemptorist, Xavier Rynne. 

In the years following, wranglings over the legacy of the Council and its ‘spirit’ raged. Flare-ups related to the reform of the curia8 and canon law, the writings of well known theologians and their wranglings with the CDF, and the place of women within the church. These were encoded references to one’s stance on the post-conciliar church – the balance between change and continuity. In a British Catholic context, this played out particularly in attitudes to contraception, the ‘new morality’, religious teaching and catechetics. This was epitomized through the controversial, then closed-down Corpus Christi College, Westminster, and through debates about female ordination and church renewal.

Choppy Waters: Implementing the Second Vatican Council 

The reforms inaugurated by Vatican II had different effects throughout the Catholic world. For the Catholic Church in England and Wales – a minority denomination of around 10% of the population compared to the Established Church of England – the legacy of Henry VIII’s Reformation and the witness of the Elizabethan martyrs remained central and defining four centuries on. Identification as a ‘recusant’ (refusing) church, and attachment to markers of difference – the Tridentine Latin Mass, devotion to Mary and the Saints, the habits of nuns and women religious, and polyphonic music – were all features of distinctiveness. 

The movement from Latin to the vernacular (in our context, English) was particularly contested in Britain from 1964-1970. This took the form of the laylead Latin Mass Society, who campaigned against any ‘capitulation to Cranmer’, ‘betrayal of the 40 martyrs’ and a fresh ‘stripping of the altars’  Traditionalists decried the reorientation of the altar and new styles of music. A more minimalist church architectural aesthetic became fashionable, necessitating the removal of many statues. 

In 1971, a number of prominent Catholics (and non- Catholics too), worried about the loss of cultural heritage in an ancient Christian ritual, wrote to Pope Paul VI to seek permission for continued use of the Latin Mass. The so-called ‘Agatha Christie’ indult – unique before a universal imprimatur was granted in 1984 – extended permission for the occasional celebration of the liturgy in Latin.

‘Withdrawing Roar of the Sea of Faith’? Secularization 

Liberal theologians andsociologists of religion proclaimed ‘the secular city’ and the advent of ‘man come of age’. For others – clergy and laity alike – the changes in the religious landscape of Britain were a portent of the churches’ loss of institutional standing and the declining ‘public salience of religion’. [...]  The penny catechism was jettisoned, and religious education increasingly drew on post-conciliar tenets and new, child-centred theories of education. 

Moving into the 1960s, the Catholic church in England and Wales had been confident and complacent – buoyed by remarkably high convert rates (doubtless powered by the prohibition on ‘mixed marriages’) and impressive Mass attendances in performance of one’s ‘Sunday obligation’. These (institutional) markers of strength – which had differentiated Catholicism from the other Christian denominations – did not persist into the late 1960s. Use of the sacraments, especially confession, was falling; there was a sharp drop off in convert numbers (perhaps linked to ecumenism), and notable defections of clergy (to marry, or prompted by Humanae Vitae opposition). Pessimistic headlines pronouncing fewer people in the pew were taken as proof of secularization and the ‘dechristianisation’ of British culture... Some blamed the Second Vatican Council – urging the episcopacy to ‘put the clock back’.  John Ryan’s cartoons surveyed all this territory...

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