Failing America's Faithful: How Today's Churches Are Mixing God with Politics and Losing Their Way
By Kathleen Kennedy Townsend
During the course of writing this book, one week stands out. Twice that week I was asked if I was a nun. The first time was at a funeral, and the nun who asked thought she remembered me from a convent experience years before. In fact she had simply seen me over and over on television while I was running for governor of Maryland. The second time was on a plane. My seatmate noticed that I was reading a book about Catholicism. She was a fanner from Texas, wearing bathroom slippers, about sixty years old. She grew up Roman Catholic, she told me. The Church had "helped me be good," she said, but explained that she was "not the confessing type" and had left the Church because it had not been good to her. It had made her feel guilty, like God was always looking down on her from His perch in heaven, judging her, making her feel inadequate. "Who needs that?" she said.
I told her that no, I was not a nun, but I was a Catholic because the Church had been good to me. In recalling our exchange a few days later, I thought my answer had been too reflexive. Why am I a Catholic? Why had I said the Church had been good to me? I could just as easily make the opposite case. Certainly the Church had attacked me, tried to isolate me, and generally tried to make me feel unwelcome. This could be said of many otherwise loyal Catholics who have been angered and alienated by the Church's aggressive stance on birth control, divorce, abortion, but my complaint was more specific: The Church's attacks had been personal. I had been criticized because I am from a prominent Catholic family and took a pro-choice stance on abortion when I ran for political office Priests preached against me from the pulpit. My own archdiocese blacklisted me from speaking. And when I did speak at Catholic events, I was picketed-called "baby killer" and greeted by signs asking, "How can you call yourself a Catholic?"
The first time this happened, I felt as if members of my own family were attacking me, trying to deny my kinship and my faith. But over the years, my perspective has changed. I no longer focus on individual opponents, and as a result I no longer lake the Church's attacks personally. Instead, I see the problem lies with a Church intent on protecting its own powers and privileges from the outside world rather than living out Christ's message of truth, forgiveness, and love. And if those "outside" elements include Catholics who desire change-Catholics like me-then the Church is determined to keep us out as well.
I believe this cannot be God's will. God's Church should be a welcoming Church, not a rejecting one. Even if we people of faith disagree on some political and scientific questions, are we not supposed to hunger and thirst for justice? My Church is in need of reform and I pray that it comes.
So why did I answer that the Church has been good to me? Because it has been my spiritual home. It has nurtured my faith in God and shaped my understanding of why we are on earth. And it has transmitted to me four valuable, intertwined messages: that we are loved by God, that we must fight evil both in ourselves and in the world; that we are connected in a mystical way to all humanity and are therefore obligated to seek out and repair the suffering of our fellow human beings; and that we must pursue justice, especially for the poor. By teaching that we are all children of God, that I am my neighbor's keeper, the Church taught me that I must make an effort to know my neighbors and to be open to their struggles, their sufferings, their hopes and dreams. I am called to seek justice and in that cause to be prepared to sacrifice myself for others. My faith gives me the determination to act with integrity, and the humility to know that there is always more to learn and to do.
It is the intertwining of those messages that I most love about the Church: its pursuit of personal salvation and its recognition that we neither suffer nor are saved alone. This has made many Catholics into good citizens, and it has made the Church itself into a good global citizen, pursuing social justice, human rights, and peace. The fact that today it has strayed from those roots does not change the moral strength it has given to me and to the world.
I grew up the oldest of eleven children at the most marvelous moment in our country's history for Catholics. The old stereotype of Catholics as ignorant and superstitious was being put to rest. My uncle John F. Kennedy had become the first Catholic president, thus overcoming the prejudice that many Protestants harbored against Catholics-that we could not think on our own, that we were subservient to the Pope, and that we were not real Americans. At the same time, Pope John XXIII was reaching out to a welcoming world with the launching of Vatican II. He would show that Catholics endorsed freedom of religion, democracy, and political freedom.
Perhaps because I grew up at a time when being Catholic was something to be proud of, I have always accepted Catholicism as part of who I am. I am a Catholic in the way that I am a member of my family or an American. Just as my family raised me, shaped me, taught me, provided me with a sense of rootedness, so has Catholicism. And just as being an American means being part of a nation born of great hopes and often devastating mistakes, so, too, Catholicism has a muddled history that evokes both pride and a determination to reform.
Religion was very alive to us. This faith grew from the experiences of my grandmothers. My mother's mother, Ann Brannack Skakel, was a devout Catholic, fascinated by the saints and the cloistered monks at Gethsemani. She passed her strong faith on to her children, whose homes were filled with images of Our Lady, statues of the suffering Christ, and an abiding commitment to the Church. My father's mother, Rose, went to Mass daily during the week and twice on Sundays. She described how her faith helped her get through the tough times in her life by saying she believed that God would never give you something that you could not handle. Her Catholicism also had a strong cultural component. She would describe how even when her father was mayor of Boston, the Protestant powers never respected Catholics-thought them boozing, womanizing roughnecks.
Like Grandmother Rose, my mother went to Mass every day. During the summer, when most children played ball or at least slept in, she took along the oldest five or six of us children to 8:00 Mass-every single morning. We went to St. Francis Xavier in Hyannis-about a five-minute drive from where we lived. It was packed on Sundays, but during the week there were usually fewer than twenty other worshippers. We were generally late. It wasn't easy to rouse us from bed morning after morning, get us all dressed in decent outfits, and pile us into the convertible along with the dogs. But to make up for the time we missed my mother would stay to say more prayers after the Mass ended.
I liked going to Communion, and I liked the feeling that Jesus was with me and would protect me throughout the day. St. Francis was a lovely church, with its heavy oak pews, rough-hewn stone walls, soaring ceilings, and stained glass windows depicting stories from the Bible and the Stations of the Cross. The Mass in those days was still in Latin, the priest mostly had his back toward us, and the ritual was full of mystery. Even before I could read and follow the Mass, I would stare at the windows, feel the warmth of Our Lady looking down on me, wonder at how incredible it would be to walk on water, and shiver at the thought of Jesus enduring His suffering and torment.
As a Catholic girl in a family of eleven children the issues that would prove challenging in my adult years were far away. We were not conflicted in our faith. We carried it with us everywhere. My mother infused our home with Catholic spirit. Each bedroom had a special holder for holy water and a statue of Mary or a picture of the crucifix. The room that my brother Bobby (Robert Francis) shared with David and Michael had fifteen pictures depicting the life of St. Francis. It turned out that Francis was an appropriate middle name for Bobby. By the age of six he could name a hundred reptiles, and he would grow up to become a prominent environmentalist.
My parents insisted that we pray each morning, and before and after even-meal. At night we gathered for evening prayers, either at my parents' bed or at the top of the stairs. We recited the traditional nighttime prayer, "Now I lay me down to sleep," then prayed for all the members of our family, said the Rosary, and asked that John Kennedy be the best president and Daddy the best attorney general ever.