| Miracles. In the old days, Catholics readily believed in stories of miracles. And not just miracles that happened in famous places like Fatima and Lourdes, but miracles that happened in one’s neighborhood or in one’s family. And Catholics loved to be in close physical proximity to holy pictures, holy statues, holy candles, rosary beads, miraculous medals, holy water, etc.
Laws – lots of them that had to be obeyed, some of them God-made, some Church-made. You had to avoid meat on Fridays. You had to abstain from food and drink (even water) after midnight on a day in which you intended to receive Communion at Mass. You had to go to Confession before receiving Communion.
Chastity. If unmarried, you had to abstain from fornication. If married, you had to abstain from contraception. Of course, the Catholic Church still officially considers fornication and contraception sins –mortal sins. But among younger American Catholics, fornication has been demoted from the rank of mortal sin to the rank of venial sin, if not non-sin. And among married Catholics contraception has been kicked out of the category of sin altogether. It is now a virtue.
Community. And then there was the importance of staying as much as possible inside the Catholic community – the “ghetto” as it was often called. You should go to a Catholic school and college. You should read Catholic magazines and books. You should join Catholic social clubs. Above all, you should marry inside the Church. Don’t marry Protestants or other non-Catholics. And if (God forbid) you do, the wedding won’t take place inside a church; and the non-Catholic will first have to promise to bring up the children as Catholic.
Well, those were the “good old days” – and now they are gone, gone with the wind. Will they ever return? It’s awfully hard to believe they will.
But unless it once again becomes something like the old thick religion, American Catholicism will continue to shrink and shrink and shrink. It will become less and less important in American life. A religion that was once on the verge of becoming the single most important religious factor in our national life will become little more than a hole-in-the-corner religion. It will never be able to flourish if it continues to be what it is now, a “thin” and “easy” religion. If it is ever to flourish in this country, it will once again have to become what all flourishing religions are, both “thick” and “hard.”
Am I hopeful? Yes. One must never give up hope.
Am I optimistic? No. One must be realistic.
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David Carlin is professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.