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We met in 1963 and were married the following year. Sociologists describe that era as a golden era for the country, when the USA was at the top of its game. Our economy was in high gear and still supplying the world with goods that World War II had denied it. As a nation, we were widely respected. People admired our culture, or what they called at the time, "the American way of life."
As a national community, America had an exceedingly high level of cultural and moral consensus. Half of the respondents in a 1963 survey reported that they went to church at least once during the preceding seven days. Only 1 percent answered "no preference" to the question about their religious affiliation. Figures are lacking, but we estimate that among Catholics, weekly Mass attendance was around 90 percent.
Marriage was a near-universal phenomenon in 1963 and the divorce rate was in the low single digits. Only 20 percent of America's married women with children were in the work force.
"The Pill" that went on sale in 1960 was still a rarity, particularly among our co-religionists. The sexual revolution was still five or 10 years away. Our few unmarried friends who were sexually active and became pregnant did what most other Americans did: They went to the altar, married and worked to make a happy home for their child. As far as we've been able to tell, they have lived fulfilling and productive lives.
In the early 1960s, abortion was widely seen as a disgraceful, back-alley affair. Doctors who performed abortions were looked upon as murders and were considered pariahs by their colleagues and the average person on the street.
Catholics were very much in the American mainstream during those years, reflecting as we did the wider American consensus of values and behavior. More than that, we were admired (as Mormons are today) for our large families and our boot-strap educational achievements. So too for our balanced loyalty to our Church and our country.
We had recently overcome the distrust and prejudices of our Protestant neighbors who 35 years earlier had rallied to crushingly defeat the nation's first Catholic presidential candidate, Al Smith. Indeed, three years earlier in 1960, our fellow citizens had turned over the White House to a Boston-bred Catholic.
This "American Moment" in the world, was also the "Catholic Moment" in America. Our priests like Father Flannigan of Boystown and movie priests, like Bing Crosby and Barry FitzGerald, were seen as icons of virtue and exemplars of Americanism. The silent service of our nuns in caring for the sick, educating the young and tending to the poor was widely admired. With the happy and avuncular Blessed John XXIII in the Vatican and "one of our own" in the White House, we had a sense that Catholics had finally arrived.
Then both men died and the Furies were let loose: a tragic, costly war in Vietnam; race riots in our cities; an historic Vatican Council that promised revitalizing change, but with no clear vision to the faithful; authority from the living room to the classroom became suspect and carelessly questioned; recreational sex and drugs gained a lasting foothold in American life.
Looking at both our country and our Church from the lens of 1963, clearly some positive changes have been made, such as in the economic and educational opportunities of minorities and women, in health and longevity, and in our material comforts. On the other hand, the power and prestige of the country has been greatly eroded. Our once robust economy appears stalled and slipping into uncertain waters. Our public schools, now preparing 90 percent of America's youth, are academically weak, but quite effective in promoting in students an anti-Christian, secular world view. Our media world, with its enormous capacity to uplift and educate, feeds young and old with a heavy diet of explicit sex, violence and human depravity, all under the tattered banner of "Freedom of Speech."
The story of the American Church, particularly over the last three decades, is a story of scandal, leakage and decline. Recent research shows that currently only 37 percent of Catholics state that they are "strongly affiliated" with their Church versus 56 percent of evangelical Christians reporting "strong affiliations." It seems that the scandalous misdeeds of a relatively few clerics became the last straw for millions who were finding the message of Christ too binding, too limiting. Currently, over 30 million Americans, 10 percent of the U.S. population, are members of the "Church of Lapsed Catholics."
Besides the havoc all this has reaped on our souls, the political consequences have been punishing and promise to become even more serious. The Church has been muscled out of the adoption business. Many Catholic schools are closing yearly because parents can no longer afford the tuition on top of the heavy taxes they pay to support public schools. As George Weigel reported in these pages two months ago, there is a gathering storm of protest against the Church's "hate crime" of not performing marriages between homosexuals.
Then there is the coming storm over the White House's and HHS's demand that Catholic institutions -- that is, hospitals, colleges, and organizations such as Catholic Charities -- must provide as "benefits" to all employees contraceptive, sterilization and abortion pills, in direct opposition to Church teaching. Such contemptuous disregard by the political leadership for the faith of 25 percent of its citizens is a measure of many things. High among them is the government's sense of the Church's vulnerability.
A distinguished Catholic scholar recently said that we should brace ourselves for the coming tsunami of attacks on our religious liberty. The prediction brings to mind Thomas Jefferson's statement that "the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."
A young mother we know is convinced of the coming persecution. She is convinced, too, that the coming struggle will strengthen the Church. Such a battle will strengthen her children's faith and demonstrate to them the preciousness of the faith. Her strong and defiant battle cry is, "Bring it on!"
Kevin and Marilyn Ryan, editors of "Why I'm Still a Catholic," worship at St. Lawrence Church in Brookline.