And then there was the new rite of the Mass. At its inception it was better described, as one forgotten wit put it, as "the participation of the laity in the confusion of the clergy." Compared to the old Latin liturgy, I found the new version about as moving as a freight train. Silence was now a liturgical vice, conscripted congregational responses the new regiment of worship. In a pale imitation of the early Christians' kiss of peace, there was now a scripted pause. I remember vividly the funeral of the great Catholic apologist Frank Sheed at St. Patrick's Cathedral: Swinging round to shake hands with whomever was behind me, I found only a pair of hands holding a limp missalette at arm's length. One middle finger was extended. I shook the finger -- there was nothing else to grab -- and looked into the disdainful eyes of William F. Buckley Jr. "You S.O.B.," I wanted to say, "I don't like this Rotary Club routine any more than you do."Then, this telling conclusion:
Buckley's National Review, a magazine produced mostly by Catholics, had responded to the Church reforms with a question on its cover: "What, in the name of God, is going on in the Catholic Church?" Good question. Defecting priests and secularizing colleges did not affect me directly, but the new liturgy did. In place of my much-loved Latin hymns and chants, the new liturgists bade us sing old Reformation anthems like Martin Luther's "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." I could not bring myself to join in when the chosen hymn was "Amazing Grace" -- in fact, I still refuse to do so. It's a lovely piece, all about getting one's self individually saved, Evangelical-style, but theologically it has no place in the corporate worship of the Catholic Church.
What the liturgists didn't borrow from Protestant hymnals, they conjured up by themselves. Mostly, it was folk music sung to plucked guitars with relentless upbeat lyrics about how much a nice God loves us and aren't we fortunate to be his chosen people. There was no awe, no hint of the biblical fear of the Lord in this music, only the mild diuretic of self-congratulation. Our children loved it: It matched the treacle they were learning in Sunday school classes, which is why my wife and I pulled them out to teach them the fundamentals ourselves. The Church's failure to pass on the faith, through the liturgy or through the classroom, would eventually snip two generations of young Catholics from their own religious roots.
In 1971, Newsweek again polled American Catholics for the cover story -- "Has the Church Lost Its Soul?" -- that, with copious charts, went on for seven pages. What we found was a once apparently cohesive community in disarray: As one liberal monsignor bluntly told us, "The Chuch is one god-damned mess." Nearly as many American Catholics, for instance, said they now looked for spiritual guidance to evangelist Billy Graham as did those who still looked to the pope. By "soul" I meant "an integral Catholic subcultue with its own distinctive blend of rituals and rules, mystery and manners" which, as I saw it then, "has vanished from the American scene."
Had I that cover story to write all over again, I would have added that the membrane that once separated Catholics from other Americans had been finally rent. The assimilation of Catholics -- a quarter of the population -- into mainstram American culture and society had been accomplished, though at heavy cost to the institutions of the Church. And after Humanae Vitae and its fallout, the internal boundaries by which Catholics had differentiated themselves from their neighbors gradually receded.
Most Catholics clung to their faith and said they expected their children to do the same. In closing the story, I tried to lay a journalistic finger on the reasons why. For that I had to look inside myself, and this is what I wrote: "When the Catholic faith runs deep, it establishes a certain sensuous rhythm in the soul, a sacramental sensibility that suffuses ordinary things -- bread, water, wine, the marriage bed -- and transforms them into vehicles of grace. In these spiritual depths, doctrine and Church laws fade in importance."
In focusing on the idea of religion as a distinct sensibility, formed through a set of communal practices based on a comprehensive religious worldview, I was trying to understand how -- and for how long -- any religious tradition might persist without the sociological protection provided by geographic, ethnic, and other socially constructed boundaries. The reforms of Vatican II may have hastened but certainly did not cause the collapse of those boundaries by which Catholics, like all minority groups, had maintained their identity. That was the work of other social forces. I was in my early thirties at the time, but already I could sense that these forces would affect not only the Catholicism of my children but of my children's children as well.