Sixty years ago with enactment of its law allowing towns to provide bus transportation to church schools, legislation that was contested almost as bitterly as a holy war, Connecticut began its transformation from a Yankee, Protestant, and Republican state to a Catholic, Democratic, and immigrant one, if one that somehow had a Jewish governor. Three years later the state helped elect the country’s first Catholic president.
Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s the archbishop of Hartford was heard in the halls of government with the most solemn respect, though he never quite achieved his main objective, government support for church schools. With its rulings in favor of contraception in 1965 and abortion in 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court spared Connecticut two more religiously based political conflicts over legislation even as Catholicism became the state’s most professed religion.
But in the last several decades the trend has changed. The hold of the church on the third, fourth, and fifth generations of those immigrant families loosened, faster than the Congregational Church’s hold on the Yankee generations loosened.
Now, of course, Connecticut’s Catholic Church seems to be collapsing as its bishops struggle desperately with a shortage of priests and a decline in parishioners, summoning priests from abroad, consolidating parishes, and closing schools, even as many of those schools are superior. What’s left of the church increasingly is based on recent Hispanic immigrants in the cities.
What happened? Why did so many fall away from Catholicism, just as so many fell away from Protestantism?
Certainly to many people, including Catholics themselves, the church’s sexual theology seems backward - the proscription of recreational sex, homosexuality, women in the priesthood, and abortion, though the latter proscription evokes the highest moral justification, a reverence for life no matter how difficult the circumstances. Also alienating many has been the church’s concealing sexual predation by priests, a scandal that is fading only slowly.
Indeed, many and perhaps even most Catholics in Connecticut, including the Hispanics, are cultural or “cafeteria” Catholics, adhering more to their family traditions than to all the theology, which they accept when agreeable and disregard otherwise.
Some fervent secularists who exalt abortion and who, if they had any religion themselves, would consider the pope to be the anti-Christ may celebrate the church’s decline. Blinded by their own ideology, they don’t see that the church’s decline signifies a profound loss not just of spirituality but also of community and education.
That’s because every shuttered church is one less mechanism for reminding people that there are moral and social obligations (not that any church gets them completely right) and one less mechanism for building connections among people and assuring them support, comfort, and shelter against life’s storms. Every closed church school is a blow to literacy, education, competence, and decency, a blow that Connecticut cannot afford while it operates its public school system by social promotion and without any standards but self-esteem, a system that awards diplomas to illiterates and sets them up for lifetimes of ignorance, hardship, and unhappiness.
Yes, people can live perfectly successful and decent lives without any church. Even when gravely afflicted, many still can look into the void and laugh rather than appeal to God. But unless something comes along to replace at least the longstanding civic functions of the church, Connecticut risks becoming a barren place.
So it is better to hope for the church’s recovery somehow, to hope that the poet, parliamentarian, and Catholic apologist Hilaire Belloc was right to have faith in its divine origin, because “no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.”
Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.