|Daniel and Sidney Callahan|
The Callahans attended the finest schools in the land. While carving out brilliant careers, they raised a large family an hour north of New York City.
Daniel was a pioneer of biomedical ethics, and was sometimes called the most influential Catholic layman of the 1960s. He evolved into an atheist who defended abortion rights.
The Second Vatican Council finished its work in late 1965. Its unintended message to millions of the faithful: everything is up for grabs.
Today alienated Catholics do not gently "lapse" or nostalgically "fall away," they decisively and definitively leave for good. Forget "once a Catholic, always a Catholic" or a "Come Home for Easter" campaign. Every poll shows the nonreligiously affiliated—now called "nones"—increasing in number. That number includes all my grown children. But it wasn’t always this way.
In 1967, my husband Dan and I, along with our five sons and one daughter (all born between 1955-65), could be found each Sunday at Mass. Everyone was baptized, the three oldest confirmed. I had been teaching in the CCD program for seven years. We were a full-court-press Catholic family, members of the Christian Family Movement (observe, judge, act), Catholic Worker enthusiasts, and eager advocates of Vatican II reforms. Dan was an editor of Commonweal and we both wrote for and participated in exciting Catholic intellectual circles. Forty-six years later, I sit alone in the same pew on Sundays, and have been doing so for decades. I remain a grateful Catholic convert, while everyone else in the family is long gone from the church.
I date 1968 as the onset of the cultural hurricane that beset our family and New York City suburb. One year we were a ’50s-style American family with suits, ties, and dancing lessons; the next we were battling countercultural chaos and hippie mayhem. The ’60s’ swirl of riots, protests, assassinations, promiscuity, drug use, and dropouts could not be held at bay. This produced predictable disasters. My children’s classmates died from drug overdoses, jumped out of windows on LSD, and got arrested for smoking pot in the woods. Quite a few were carted off to jail, rehab, and mental hospitals. The schools, police, church, and most middle-class families were not prepared for this youth revolt. Certainly, our ordinary and relatively conservative parish could not cope.
As each of our children got older they were captured in turn by the counterculture, stubbornly refusing to cut their hair, dress properly, work in school, or attend church. One son, a devotee of Nietzsche, departed from our CCD program with a Nazi salute and a “Heil Hitler, I quit.” No more Catholic Family of the Year after that! I was deeply shamed by this out-of-control adolescent behavior, but I was even more frantic and fearful for their physical and mental survival. To this day that era’s walking wounded can be seen around town. Many never recovered. Thank God our children, like most others, came through alive, but that was only after years of struggle.
Our parental battle was to fight against the moral relativism and permissiveness of the youth culture. I still loathe Jimi Hendrix. Using every stratagem at our command, we urged dropouts to go back to school, others to stay in school, and all to stay away from addicted and aimless peers. We devised ways to expose our children to attractive young adult worlds and included them in our own work activities. Our affectionate family bonds were strengthened by frequent celebrations, trips, and happy vacations. But church was a lost cause. Since my husband’s faith had faded, he wasn’t worried over the religious defections of the children. In fact, he wanted all of us to leave the church when he did. Now he hardly remembers all the grief he gave me for staying, and those long-ago arguments about Catholicism have gradually evolved into a general détente. Mom is the designated believer in the family—and that is that. Let’s all just love, support, and be grateful for one another every day.
When it comes to Catholicism and my children, I have learned humility from parental failure. But I have also learned about hopefulness. Hopefulness, patience, and perseverance are now at the top of the list of the virtues I esteem. If death or permanent damage at an early age can be avoided, disasters can be turned around, rifts healed, and weaknesses overcome. Today my middle-aged children are happy, morally upstanding people. Our five grandchildren are blessed with super parents. Our children all love and help one another and seem devoted to their old parents.
Here, amidst the remains of the day, we who believe are confronted with the mystery of faith. Clearly, no one can answer God’s call for someone else. But social and cultural factors can play a part in nurturing faith. In hindsight, I can now see how crucially important Catholic peer groups are for faith development. In our town the educated professionals were mostly secular or Jewish, the Catholics mostly working-class people. Going through the excellent public schools, none of my children had a close Catholic friend or peer group that could support his or her faith. Did we choose the wrong town, the wrong parish, and the wrong schools?
Looking back I see that there was no structured way in our parish for my children to get what I had gotten in my intellectual journey to the Catholic faith. I always had access to the sophisticated historical, intellectual, and theological dimensions of the faith. I’ve always known exemplary, magnetically attractive Catholics who inspire me. With these wellsprings of truth and joy, the faith and the Sunday liturgy sing. But I can’t seem to communicate such religious experiences to my skeptical family and friends. For many of them the church remains a medieval, male-dominated, and authoritarian institution that’s focused on unintelligible rituals. Worse still, it is repressive, corrupt, and power-hungry. Needless to say, the horror of the sexual-abuse crisis has confirmed such anti-Catholic attitudes among many people.
Fortunately, despite their rejection of religion, my children have continued to develop in moral sense and sensibility. With the aid of providence, conscience and morality can still flourish outside religious communities. Reason, experience, and goodwill generate good people. Through trial and error persons discover for themselves that virtuous commitments to love and work do indeed lead to happiness. The Holy Spirit continues to transform the hearts and minds of believers and nones alike. Where love is, God is. As the gospel says, "A bruised reed he will not break and a smoldering wick he will not quench."