Memories of a Catholic BoyhoodKENNETH L. WOODWARD
We were surrounded by a membrane, not a wall, one that absorbed as much as it left out. It was, in other words, the means by which we became American as well as Catholic.
On the wall of my Newsweek office, I kept a large map, in a mosaic of colors, of the United States. When you are a writer working in New York City, you need something to remind you of what the rest of the country is like: This was mine. There are no place names on the map, only the boundaries of the states, and within them the spidery outlines of each county. It's a relief map of sorts: Any county in which 25 percent or more of the citizens identify with a single religious denomination is shaded in a color representing that tradition. Counties where more than half the people are of one persuasion – more than half the map – are colored more deeply.
At a glance, the map yields a rough religious geography of America. Across the South, where it sometimes seems there are more Baptists than there are people, the counties are awash in deep red. Utah and Idaho are solidly grey: the Mormon Zion. There are swaths of Lutheran green in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Belt high from Delaware to central Kansas, especially in rural areas, the map shows streaks and potholes of blue where the Methodists and their nineteenth-century circuit riders planted churches. Catholic purple blankets the Northeast, the Great Lakes region, the Gulf Coast, and nearly all of California.
When colleagues stopped by my office they'd often stare over my head at the map. "Where are my people?" was the usual question. Some Episcopalians, thinking of all their co-religionists elected to Congress and the White House, assumed the nation's capitol to be theirs. But the District of Columbia is heavily African-American and so it is dyed a deep Baptist red. According to the map, Episcopalians do dominate a half-dozen counties – all of them tribal reservations in North Dakota where the church made converts of the Native American inhabitants. Most Jewish colleagues thought New York City and its environs (home to half the nation's Jews) was surely theirs to claim, but the whole metropolitan area is deep Catholic purple. Jews do own a plurality in one Florida county, Dade, which encompasses Miami.
For me, the map was a visual reminder that religion in America has never been just a matter of personal choice. It has also been about community and connection – to places, to people, and to what religiously convicted Americans have made of the places where they chose to live. Which is to say that religion, as a way of belonging as well as of believing and behaving, is always embedded – in institutions, yes, but also in the landscape. Habitations foster habits.
I grew up in Ohio where, a glance of my office map reminded me, almost every kind of Protestant denomination could claim a town or county as its turf. Even after their children moved on, these immigrants from elsewhere left behind brick-and-mortar evidence of their hegemony in the form of church-related colleges – more of them, when I was college-age, than any other state. The Methodists established Ohio Wesleyan and Otterbein, the Episcopalians Kenyon College, the Congregationalists Oberlin and Marietta, the Presbyterians Wooster, the Quakers Wilmington College, the German Reform Church Heidelberg, English Evangelical Lutherans Wittenberg, the Mennonites Bluffton, and so on. Students at these small liberal-arts colleges not only learned together; they also worshipped together at chapel, and the faculty was hired to ensure that the distinctive character of the founding church tradition was passed on whole and intact.
Catholics, of course, had their own colleges on their own urban turf in cites like Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Dayton. There, as in the Protestant colleges, the goal was to provide an education that included solid formation in the faith. For that reason, if a graduate of a Catholic high school wanted to stay near home and attend a near-by Protestant college, he usually had to forward his transcripts himself because Catholic school officials discouraged journeys beyond the pale.
Which is to say that religion, as a way of belonging as well as of believing and behaving, is always embedded – in institutions, yes, but also in the landscape. Habitations foster habits.
My father was born in the last November of the nineteenth century on what was to become Veterans' Day. He was raised among hymn-singing, family-reunion-gathering, Sunday-dinner-making, small-town Ohio Protestants of Welch and Scotch-Irish stock. An only child, he was never one to talk about his youth. But he did reveal one important detail of his early life: in Youngstown, where he lived, he stepped forward at a revival by evangelist Billy Sunday and at age sixteen declared himself for Christ. It was during the Wobblies' strike against the Youngstown Steel Works in 1916, and the conjunction of these two emotional events, I've always thought, is why he was anti-labor all his life. In any case, my job as a religion writer never impressed him more than when, on a Sunday afternoon while my parents were visiting, another evangelist, Billy Graham, called me – at home – just to have a chat.
My mother was from an Irish-Italian family in Detroit. She was the first in the extended Brady-Cauzillo family to go to college – a leap from a one-room schoolhouse to the University of Michigan's vast Ann Arbor campus – and that was the pivotal experience of her youth. When we were kids she used to reprise her sorority song for us: It was a sorority just for Catholic co-eds. Here's the kind of Catholics my mother's siblings were. Her brother, my only uncle, kept copies of the Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis on his desk and passed them out to vendors who called on him for business. It didn't matter whether they were Catholic or even Christian. One sister was a cloistered nun who snuck away from college one day, without my grandmother's permission, and crossed the border to join her friends in a Canadian convent. Two others, both English teachers in mostly black inner-city public high schools and never married, shared a tidy house with a crucifix hung in every room. On a bookshelf they kept a series of books by Catholic intellectuals published by Sheed and Ward. Whenever they drove their car, they paused first to dip their fingers in holy water founts mounted on each side of the garage doorframe. On the road they routinely recited the rosary. Even on short trips to the grocery, they measured distances by how many decades they could finish before they reached their destination.
How my parents met and married across religious boundaries was never explained to us. We did know, though, that the ceremony was held in the parish rectory because religiously mixed couples were not allowed a wedding inside a Catholic Church. At that time, my father pledged to raise the children Catholic, as the church required, and though he never became a Catholic himself, he never wavered in his pledge.
I have ventured this brief family biography for just one purpose. Growing up where and when I did, I want to argue, I experienced an America that was highly diverse, though not in the ways we think of diversity today. What region of the country you inhabited mattered greatly, and so did ethnic background. But the primary source of diversity in those days was religion.
The immigrant communities then were mostly white and European. In cities like Cleveland, the place I knew best, each had its own neighborhoods and social clubs, funeral parlors, corner bars, and restaurants, as well as churches. At home, adults cooked and talked Greek and Italian, Polish and Slovak, just as more recent immigrants now speak Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, or Arabic. They read and discussed newspapers in Ukrainian, Czech, Armenian, Romanian, and Yiddish. Yes, they were mostly Christian, but that only made differences in church doctrine and tradition more pronounced: Muslims and Hindus are intriguing in their obvious otherness, but none of the religions new to America today challenge Christians like other Christians claiming to be the One True Church of Jesus Christ.
Within all these "ghettos" (though no one called them that), religion was free to form individual and group identities through shared "habits of the heart" and acquired sensibilities.
In urban neighborhoods, therefore, no less than in small towns, where you worshipped – and how – said much about who you were. Even the ecumenically inclined and the non-religious observed their social boundaries and kept their social distance. Within all these "ghettos" (though no one called them that), religion was free to form individual and group identities through shared "habits of the heart" and acquired sensibilities. Even in the more open spaces of the suburbs, where I grew up, the families you knew best belonged to the same church. But like the vaccinations doctors gave us to ward off polio, group inoculations against other religions produced various reactions. My parents' marriage was proof to me that the boundaries created by religion could amicably be breached. Nonetheless, among those who took it very seriously, religion remained a powerful symbol system that defined reality for all who lived in its embrace.
The time this narrative covers begins in the middle of the last century. For the record, I was born in 1935 and passed through childhood while the nation was at war. My mother planted a low-yield Victory garden (thin carrots, limp bean stalks, lettuce the size of baseballs) and at the store bought meat and butter with ration stamps. Because he was a salesman, and his car was his living, my father got extra ration stamps for gas. At home, he did civil duty as a suburban air-raid warden: One night a month, when the warning siren sounded, he put a metal helmet on his head and went about making sure the neighbors had turned out all their lights, lest enemy bombers should penetrate the airspace over Lake Erie's southern shore. My older brother and I followed the battles overseas by pasting newspaper headlines in scrapbooks. From inside cereal boxes we collected colorful arm patches worn by the men in uniform, and from strips of balsam wood and glue built models of the airplanes the American pilots flew.
It was a good time to be a child. Despite the separations caused by the war, even young families were remarkably stable. Divorce was rare: Most marriages lasted until the death of a spouse. In the families I knew only the father worked and all the fathers seemed to arrive home in unison by 6:00 p.m. The mothers not only reared the children and did the housework; they also made the schools and churches hum.
Weekends were strung like hammocks between the fathers' Friday evening arrivals and their going off on Monday mornings. In their absence, life on the block unrolled as regular as church ritual. Once a week the iceman delivered a chiseled block to keep our food refrigerated, and cut cold slivers for us to suck; the uniformed milkman delivered full bottles on his scheduled route and took away clinking empties. And when the bread man arrived curbside we rushed inside to inhale the concentrated aroma of fresh-backed jellyrolls and warm pecan buns. Life on the home front was predictable. The war and its restrictions gave even kids a sense of unity and national purpose. Then the war was over.
All of us come from a place we mistake for universal. The place I called home was a suburb that mushroomed a century earlier out of farms and orchards and shoreline summer cottages sixteen miles west of Cleveland. Rocky River, as it came to be called, spread out from a tavern overlooking a river (hence the name) that rolls through a deep gorge on a meandering path south from Lake Erie. It was our Grand Canyon. Rocky River had 22,000 inhabitants then and called itself a city only because it was governed by its own mayor and city council. By my definition, though, a city was place with a choice of movie theaters and Rocky River had only one: the Beach Cliff.
In this way, Catholicism engendered a powerful sense of community – not because it sheltered Catholic kids from the outside world, as sectarian subcultures try to do, but because it embraced our dating and mating and football playing within an ambient world of shared symbolism, faith, and worship.
My earliest memories are of the water. Our first house was three blocks from Lake Erie, which we reached along a sidewalk lined with blackberry bushes and down a plunge of stone steps, more than fifty of them. Mother took the three of us, Nancy, Bill and me, to the beach early on summer weekdays, slathering us with oil against the sun and watching as we paddled in the slowly lapping low-tide morning waters. Every day during the summer, the newspaper posted a polio count and when it was high we knew there would be no beach for us that day.
If our fathers were incipient Organization Men, as social critics later said they were, they never imposed those stringencies on us. Though my best friend was a Boy Scout, we camped out overnight on our own, pitching tents in the woods and warming to fires built and extinguished without the superintending presence of Scout leaders in short pants. Evenings in the fall, we raked leaves to the curbside and burned them, the sweet smell of smoke curling up like incense under street lights, between the houses and above the trees as if in oblation to some benign suburban deity. Our playgrounds were empty lots where we traced out baseball diamonds and football fields like seasoned groundskeepers, and whenever a new house went up we dangled from the risen joists once the workers left; after dark, we pilfered discarded lumber to build tree huts or to cover secret underground meeting places we shoveled out ourselves. For spending money we cut lawns, shoveled driveways, and delivered newspapers. From sidewalks to shoreline, Rocky River was one vast neighborhood and, we figured, it belonged to us.
Suburban life as I experienced it, therefore, was open and unfettered and not at all like the caged dystopia I later read about in books. Nor was it boundaried by religion or ethnicity, as small towns and urban neighborhoods tended to be. Rocky River was white, broadly middle class, and mostly Protestant (Jews collected in the more cultured East Side suburbs, blacks in the central city neighborhoods) with a pronounced Methodist flavor: They tolerated the tavern, which had preceded their arrival, but also sustained blue laws that meant only the Beach Cliff was open on Sundays. Decades went by before the first Catholic, Miss Case, was promoted to principle of a Rocky River public school. The Protestant clergy were none too happy, then, when the Catholics built St. Christopher's church and school, right across from the public junior high. The school was especially galling – a divisive breach of faith in the American system of common education. But as first pastor the bishop wisely sent out a gentle Irish priest who looked like God would if He were a grandfather. And when Father Patterson died in 1947, a quarter-century later, the local Protestant ministers were his willing pallbearers.
In the fifties half of all American Catholic kids attended parochial schools, a figure unequalled before or since. Nancy and Bill and I were three of them. First grade was more than just the beginning of formal education. It was above all an initiation into a vast parallel culture.
As I have already noted, every religious group formed its own subculture, some more closed to the outside world than others. Lutherans, Adventists, and some (mostly Orthodox) Jews also operated their own religious schools, and in Utah, as in much of the South, Mormon and Southern Baptist majorities effectively determined the religious ethos of public classrooms. But at mid-century only Catholics inhabited a parallel culture that, by virtue of their numbers, ethnic diversity, wide geographical distribution, and complex of institutions mirrored the outside "public" culture yet was manifestly different. We were surrounded by a membrane, not a wall, one that absorbed as much as it left out. It was, in other words, the means by which we became American as well as Catholic.
Catholic education was the key. Through its networks of schools and athletic leagues, the church provided age-related levels of religious formation, learning, and belonging that extended through high school and, for some of us, on into college. Church, therefore, always connoted more than just the local parish: kids experienced it anywhere, including schools, where the Mass was said. In this way, Catholicism engendered a powerful sense of community – not because it sheltered Catholic kids from the outside world, as sectarian subcultures try to do, but because it embraced our dating and mating and football playing within an ambient world of shared symbolism, faith, and worship. In my adolescent years, for example, St. Christopher's transformed its basement on Saturday nights into the "R Canteen" where teenagers from all over Cleveland's West Side danced to juke-box music; a muscular young priest from the parish roamed the premises to prevent fights and keep the drunks at bay. Yes, Catholics felt like hyphenated Americans, but nothing in human experience, we also came to feel, was foreign to the church.
In 1971, I looked back on that Catholic parallel culture and tried to capture for the readers of Newsweek the contours of a world that was already by then receding into history:
There was a time, not so long ago, when Roman Catholics were very different from other Americans. They belonged not to public school districts, but to parishes named after foreign saints, and each morning parochial-school children would preface their Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag with a prayer for Holy Mother the Church. When they went to Mass – never just a "Sunday service" – they prayed silently with rosaries or read along in Latin as if those ancient syllables were the language Jesus himself spoke. Blood-red vigil candles fluttered under statues and, on special occasions, incense floated heavily about the pews. Kneeling at the altar rail, their mouths pinched dry from fasting, the clean of soul were rewarded with the taste of God on their tongues – mysterious, doughy, and difficult to swallow. "Don't chew the Baby Jesus," they were warned as children, and few – even in old age – ever did.
The Catholic Church was a family, then, and if there were few brothers in it, there were lots of sisters – women with milk-white faces of ambiguous age, peering out of long veils and stiff wimples that made the feminine contours of their bodies ambiguous too. Alternately sweet and sour, they glided across polished classroom floors as if on silent rubber wheels, virginal "brides of Christ" who often found a schoolroom of thirty students entrusted to their care. At home, "Sister says" was a sure way to win points in any household argument.
Even so, in both church and home, it was the "fathers" who wielded ultimate authority. First, there was the Holy Father in Rome: aloof, infallible, in touch with God. Then there were the bishops, who condemned movies and sometimes communism; once a year, with a rub from a bishop's anointing thumb, young men blossomed into priests and Catholic children of twelve became "soldiers of Jesus Christ." But it was in the confessional box on gloomy Saturday nights that the powers of the paternal hierarchy pressed most closely on the soul. "Bless me Father for I have sinned" the penitent would say, and in that somber intimacy, sins would surface and be forgiven.
There were sins that only Catholics could commit, like eating meat on Friday or missing Sunday Mass. But mostly the priests were there to pardon common failings of the flesh, which the timid liked to list under the general heading of "impure" thoughts, desires, and action. Adolescent boys dreamed of marriage when it would be okay by God and the fathers to "go all the way." But their parents knew full well that birth control was not included in such freedom. Birth control was against God's law, all the fathers said, and God's law – like Holy Mother the Church – could never change.
The church, of course, did change, which is why it is worth recalling what it was like before the reforms of Vatican Council II took hold.
To be a Catholic child in the fifties was to imagine yourself at the center of concentric circles of belonging. They included not only the other Catholics that we knew, not only, even, all the Catholics we saw at other parish churches when traveling, but all Catholics who ever were or would be on the face of the earth – plus quite a few saints we knew by name who were now, we believed, with God in heaven but still close enough to talk to because they were always watching over us like grandparents looking down from high front porches.
In other words, the religious identity we acquired in childhood was a primal identity that absorbed and conditioned all the others. This communal formation began, almost imperceptibly, with the transformation of the seasons.
Like the public grammar school a block away, St. Christopher's celebrated the diurnal cycle. In fall, we traced autumn leaves on the schoolroom windows; in winter, snowflakes, and come spring tulips and other icons of budding nature. But for us October and May were also the Virgin Mary's special months when we prayed the rosary daily. November signaled the arrival of Advent, as well as of Thanksgiving, and so began the liturgical preparation for the birth of Jesus. Lent with its challenge – what should I give up? – followed all too soon in February, and in April the hymns we sang all anticipated the gravity of Good Friday – for me, still the most solemn day of the year – followed by the triumphal music of Easter Sunday and the end of Lenten austerities. In this way the seasons were subsumed into the liturgical cycle, and our narrative of time recast. And then the cycle recessed for the summer, like school itself, only to resume all over again in fall.
Whatever the season, God was never far away in grade school. St. Christopher's was structured like a U with the two classroom wings connected by the church. The church was not much larger than a chapel and to get from one wing to the other we had to pass through its silent, sacred space. Each time we entered and departed we blessed ourselves with holy water and genuflected briefly toward the altar. There, behind small gold doors and in the form of Eucharist bread, we knew, Jesus was always present. It was an intimacy easily assumed and not easily forgotten.
But it was in the confessional box on gloomy Saturday nights that the powers of the paternal hierarchy pressed most closely on the soul. "Bless me Father for I have sinned" the penitent would say, and in that somber intimacy, sins would surface and be forgiven.
During Lent and Advent, we attended Mass each morning before school, marching class by class to our assigned pews. On cold days we heaped our coats and metal lunch boxes on the hissing radiators, and before the mass was over the odor of warming bananas, fruit tarts and bologna, egg salad and peanut butter sandwiches permeated the church. Whenever the parent of a classmate died, we all attended the funeral. The casket was always open and one by one we all passed by, glancing sideways at the cushioned body. At funerals, the priest wore black vestments symbolizing death. On martyrs' feast days he dressed in red, the color of spilt blood. White and gold expressing joy were reserved for special "feast" days like Easter. Otherwise, the priest appeared in green, the color of that quotidian virtue, hope. In class, we memorized mantra-like the questions and confident answers printed in our small blue Baltimore Catechisms. But it was from images and sounds and colors that we developed our specifically Catholic sensibility.
Mass of course was said in Latin, a language only priests understood. By fourth grade, however, the boys at least were let in on the secret. In order to assist the priest at Mass, his back to the congregation, we were taught the Latin responses to the priest's prayers; later we followed the entire Mass in our own missals, which provided the prayers in Latin on left-hand pages and English translations on the right. But the Latin I remember best, and still sing sometimes in the shower, were hymns like Panis Angelicus and the Dies Irae and the Pange Lingua we mastered as members of the boys' choir. I have always thought the Church's worst disservice to women was not the bar against ordaining them, but the failure to teach young girls church Latin.
In every other way the experience of Catholic grade school was shaped by women. It was the sisters who taught us what to believe as well as how to write script that others could decipher, how to read and do math, and after class how to clap erasers and make black marks disappear from schoolroom floors with scouring pads. They were the ones who knew us, graded us, and then stood aside when the pastor came into class every quarter to hand out the salmon-colored report cards that they had carefully marked with lower-case a, b, c, or d.
The blue nuns, as the sisters at St. Christopher's were known informally because of the color of their habits, were nothing like the dominatrix caricatures of Off-Broadway plays: only once did any of them apply a ruler to my hands. On the playground, these women with their starched wimples and huge rosaries wagging from their waists organized games and comforted homesick first graders by enfolding them in their voluminous skirts. Of course we wondered what color hair they had under their tightly wrapped headdresses, and if they had breasts like other women – who could tell? The blue nuns were wonderfully warm teachers and I cherish nearly every one of them.
Because St. Christopher's fielded teams in a parochial school league, we were the envy of our friends in Rocky River's public grammar schools, which had no athletic teams. Occasionally in winter we staged impromptu snowball fights between the "Catlickers" and the "Pubstinkers," but in summer neighborhood friendships resumed. One summer, against my vigorous protestations, my parents even abandoned me to a YMCA camp for two weeks. There, around the campfire we sang songs with lyrics right out of a Baptist playbook:
Yes that's the book for me.
I stand alone on the word of God
There was no Latin translation.
In the spring of eighth grade, most of the boys at St. Christopher's took the entrance exam for St. Ignatius High School, where my brother was already a junior. The stakes could not have been higher. Ignatius, a Jesuit school, was for decades the only Catholic high school for boys on Cleveland's West Side; not to go there was, in Catholic circles, to risk standing forever on the intellectual sidelines. Besides, my father, a Protestant, had promised to send his children to Catholic schools, as he reminded me, so I had better pass the exam. I did.
More than my leaving home for college, entering St. Ignatius was a major rite of passage. It meant traveling ten miles every morning to a working-class neighborhood where families lived in small frame houses with no grass to cut. The hulking brick gothic building, erected as a college in the nineteenth century, was full of classrooms and not much else. There was no auditorium, no cafeteria. The school gym was a small, sweaty box where we played basketball every day and at lunchtime we milled about on a gravel schoolyard like jailhouse inmates. We loved the place.
In a city where Eastsiders seldom met or talked to Westsiders, Ignatius was the only institution west of the Cuyahoga River that drew students from both sides of this civic divide. They came from blue-collar neighborhoods as well as wealthy suburbs, and included migrants from ethnic parishes named after saints I'd never heard of. We were all Catholics, of course, and we were all white. But ethnically and economically, the student body was far more diverse than that of any suburban high school. No one talked of money and those who had it dared not flaunt it. For four years, St. Ignatius was in many ways the church to us and our shared identity as Catholics provided the commonality without which a diverse student body is just a crowd.
If grade school passed in the company of women, studying under the Jesuits was a thoroughly male experience. Their reputation as educators came pre-sold, though not all of them were effective in the classroom. Besides the priests, the faculty had dedicated laymen who worked second jobs so they could teach at St. Ignatius, where their salaries were much lower than those paid public school teachers. I remember the embarrassment I caused both of us when I sought out my much-loved French teacher, Mr. Thomas, at the store where on Saturdays he sold men's cut-rate suits.
What these men offered us was the challenge to do whatever we did in later life "Ad Majoriam Dei Gloriam" – for the greater glory of God. They did this most effectively by recounting Jesuit lore: right away we were conscripted into a kind of bloodline of Jesuit martyrs and missionaries who had engaged the world on its own terms in order to transform it. The Jesuit mindset is active rather than monastic. No priest ever asked me if I wanted to join the Jesuits, nor did they slip us holy cards suggesting that Jesus might be calling us to the priesthood – as the blue nuns sometimes did. They relied instead on the their example of the Jesuit way of life to provoke our interest. This was enough to make me think through carefully why that calling was not for me, and for that exercise in imaging a totally different trajectory in life I've always felt grateful.
I wasn't at Ignatius very long before I learned that God is unfair in distributing talent. We all studied Latin for four years, but after sophomore year we had to sort ourselves out on separate tracks according to another foreign language. The most promising students were expected to take the Classics Course and study Greek. Next in assigned rigor was the Academic Course, which required French. For those who wanted neither there was the General Course, which featured Spanish. My Latin teacher, who also taught Greek, was close to tears when I told him I had elected French. But twenty years later, I discovered, he became deeply immersed in Latin American liberation theology. I trust he learned his Spanish.
This mix of social taboo and personal inhibition, was enormously freeing for adolescents, as all good social conventions tend to be.
In any case, English was my favorite subject and in this I found a mentor, Fr. Burrell, who had changed his first name from Myron to Ignatius when he became a Jesuit. He made me his project senior year, giving me his Master's thesis to read on the poetics of T. S. Eliot. After hours, with the winter light fading early over the cityscape, he also led me in private study of another poet, the Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins. Fr. Burrell thought I should be a lawyer – not just any kind of lawyer, mind you, but a "lawyer for Christ." But the fire he lit in me was for poetry.
Mostly though, what I thought about in high school were girls. Far from limiting our access to them, being a student at Ignatius only multiplied our opportunities. Cleveland had half a dozen or so Catholic academies for girls and for most of them appearing at an Ignatius dance or football game on Friday nights, plus the beer-drenched parties that followed, was a command performance. At public school dances, Ignatius students were like wild cards in poker, free to turn up anytime. While we imagined the public-school girls were "looser" than the academy girls, the guys in public schools were convinced that Catholic academy girls were lustier because more "repressed." We all talked more than we knew.
On the subject of sex, the thumb of the Church pressed heavily on our adolescent consciences – and for good reason: Sexual sins were the only kind that really held our interest. Even the most tentative explorations in erotic stimulation, it seemed, could imperil our immortal souls. For that reason, the nuns enforced modesty of dress on Catholic schoolgirls (no strapless gowns at proms) and on dates they were to be in charge of controlling libidinous males. Because of this, I fear, some of them entered marriage thinking sex was a nasty business to be endured only for the sake of having children. But for boys like me, the mortal dangers attached to sexual excitement only made the mysteries of our rising sap that much more intriguing. The only question that mattered to us was: "How far can you go?" My parents left it to the Jesuits to explain these delicate calibrations, and were probably relieved to do so.
Even so, I don't think Catholic adolescents were all that different from most others who were raised in mid-century America. Though they may have spent Sundays in different churches or none, most adolescents in the fifties were raised to observe certain sexual limits – just as lovers did in the movies from which we took our cultural cues. Like them, we kissed and groped in the back seats of cars, or at night on the beach, but hardly anyone I knew had intercourse. The thrill of the erotic, we learned, extended all along a line that still fell short of "going all the way."
This mix of social taboo and personal inhibition, was enormously freeing for adolescents, as all good social conventions tend to be. It allowed us to date as adults did, two by two, and to explore our sexuality without "having sex." It also encouraged the serial ritual of "going steady" and breaking up so that by the time we were old enough to marry we had a pretty good idea of the kind of mate we wanted. A generation later, as I watched my own teenagers ripen, adolescents socialized in groups, in large part because by then there were few social taboos or ingrained inhibitions that dating couples could readily count on. Without them, the experience of adolescent sexuality was reduced to intercourse in a game of all or nothing at all. President Bill Clinton thus spoke a sixties truth when he said of his White House affair with Monica Lewinsky, "I did not have sex with that woman." We fifties kids knew better.
Kenneth L. Woodward. "Memories of a Catholic Boyhood." First Things (April, 2011): 21-27.
Reprinted with permission from the author, Kenneth L. Woodward.
This essay is adapted from the first chapter of a lived history he is writing on American religion since the 1950s.
Kenneth L. Woodward, a contributing editor at Newsweek, was for thirty-eight years the magazine's religion editor. His books include Making Saints and The Book of Miracles: The Meaning of the Miracle Stories in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam.
Kenneth Woodward lives in Westchester County, New York.
Copyright © 2011 Kenneth L. Woodward