Small World: That old time religion


Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

The Pope has come and gone. Many — Catholics and non-Catholics alike — feel a very positive reaction to his messages of brotherhood and care for the less fortunate. Some others think his message was too political, too slanted toward the liberal perspective. The visit led me to reflect on the changes I have seen in the relationship of Catholics with other Americans.

I can recall quite clearly an event in my home in Savannah early in the post-World War II period. We were at the supper table when my mother announced she had a note from Aunt Carrie in Charleston: “Caroline (our favorite cousin) is getting married.” She paused for dramatic effect. “She is marrying a soldier.” We looked up. “He is a northerner.” We gasped quietly. “He is an Italian and a Catholic.” We slumped into uncomprehending silence. That last adjective did it!

(For the record, I should note that Bob, the new cousin, became the leader of the trouble-prone branch of the family — warm, generous, always thoughtful.)

What was it that separated us Protestants from the Catholic community? In large part, I suppose, it was a matter of history, starting with Henry VIII and Martin Luther and their descendants, and continuing through the time of Oliver Cromwell and the 19th century influx of starving Irish immigrants.

In part, it was also local isolation. While among our town’s White majority, Greeks, Jews and other minorities (there were almost no Asians) lived, played and were schooled with us Protestants. Catholics seemed to settle in the older neighborhoods downtown (the gas plant). They had their own 1-12 religious schools and we never met them except when Savannah High School played the Benedictine Academy (BC) each Thanksgiving afternoon — the loser’s coffin being burned in a bonfire. (The parents of unruly Protestant kids were an exception. They would send their sons to BC where the priests were firm and quick with the belt.)

Then, there was politics. It was said, “The Jews own Savannah, the Irish run it and the Crackers enjoy it.” Nobody objected, for the town was fairly well run, corruption was not visible and there was nothing we could do about it anyway. After high school, we got to know Catholics in junior college or at work. But serious relationships rarely jelled.

The national level was another matter, however. It took special charm and looks for the Catholic John Kennedy to prevail in the election of 1960. A Catholic in the White House — impossible to contemplate! Would the Pope in Rome be secretly governing the USA?

Yet, it happened. And, like marital divorce among candidates, most citizens swallowed hard and, after awhile, no one even looked up. America has moved on, beyond religious barriers (except some bigots still holding out against Moslems) and the racial line mainly collapsed, as well.

It used to be that the evangelical church was especially anti-Catholic. Then dawned the slow realization that the two faiths shared important social values. Both opposed abortion and same sex marriages. Contraception was out. Women were in some ways second-class. (There were many exceptions, but I write of the principal values.) Many Hispanics, for example, started out Catholic and moved over to the evangelicals. In recent years, there have been periods of winnowing out: While conservatives grouped together around social issues, liberals and those who opposed Catholic rules on sex or were upset by clerical abuse of children quietly departed the active faith.

Will the Pope lead those who have strayed to return to the fold? Some liberals express disappointment that he did not make stronger pronouncements about their issues or decree, say, that women could be priests. He could have made a number of such decisions and it would have been terribly disruptive to the Church.

For change to happen without instability in an institution as deeply rooted in time and tradition as the Catholic Church, the way has to be carefully prepared. New ideas have to be slowly introduced. Modernization will take time, a lot of it. Only after a very gradual growth in understanding of the need for change will lasting change be possible.

The Church is fortunate indeed to have such a wise leader like Francis at this crucial time at the beginning of the process of change.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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