It sounded easy. What could be simpler than accepting an invitation to write about my loss of faith, the first hints of which may have begun during my years as an editor of Commonweal (1961–1967)? It turned out not to be so easy. I was in my early thirties then, nearly sixty years ago. My memory is full of fragments of my former religious life, bits and pieces of sharp memories mixed in with large blanks and lingering questions. There was no eureka moment, no sudden insight, just a slow movement away from religion over at least two decades in my early middle age. I will try to reconstruct that journey, but it began with a strong and solid work within the church. During my early thirties it was a rich mix of personal piety, my marriage, and my professional work.
To begin at the beginning, I was born in Washington, D.C., and my parents were both Catholic. My father’s ancestry was all Irish, my mother’s Irish and English. Unlike many other cities, Washington had no ethnic neighborhoods, save for a rigid segregation of black people. There was no St. Patrick’s Day parade. My father, a journalist, was erratic in his church attendance, and my mother more solid. But now and then she was capable of some critical comments about the church. I was sent to the local parochial school, notable for some unpleasant nuns, but then transferred to St. John’s High School, an all-male military academy run by congenial Christian Brothers.
My main accomplishment at St. John’s was to captain the swim team. A friend of my father helped me get into Yale, which then had the best team in the world. I was not, however, even close to my teammates, who broke many world records in my distance events. I quit at the end of my junior year.
The Brothers at St. John’s had not been happy that I chose Yale, worried that I would “lose my faith” at such a secular place. And William F. Buckley Jr., who overlapped with me at Yale, began his career with an attack on Yale’s secularism titled God and Man at Yale. I did not notice any hostility to religion as such, but I could not miss the dominance of Protestant prep-school graduates from affluent families. Catholics and Jews were distinct minorities.
I did not lose my faith at Yale; it grew stronger. A surprise was waiting for me: the discovery of my future wife in my junior year. Sidney deShazo, then a student at Bryn Mawr, was a religious searcher, Protestant by background, and moving about from church to church. Meeting me was her introduction to Catholicism, to which she soon converted, a religious as well as a coming marital bond.
Shortly after my Yale graduation in 1952, with the Korean War winding down, I went into the army for three years, got stationed at the Pentagon, and married Sidney. Not long after, she graduated from Bryn Mawr “magnum cum baby,” as she liked to call it. That birth was the first of our seven children (one died). She combined the duties of motherhood with a leading role in the nascent feminism of the 1960s.