As these transformations began to surface, I held tight to my spiritual anchor. When I was interviewed for admission to the (September, 1966) entering class at Yale, I told the interviewer that my greatest fear of going to that college was losing my faith.
Sure enough, I gained admission and my fear came true. By my sophomore year I was no longer attending Mass or going to confessional booth where as a young boy I would kneel almost weekly and unburden myself of my sins of thought or deed, to the closed eyes and attentive ears of a priest.
Those college days were a time when I and some other lapsed black Catholics at Yale (don’t worry, brothers, I will not say your names!) were replacing Holy Communion with a certain Sacred Herb.
There was much in my own transition that was broadly reflective of the 1960s Church and the reaction of young Catholics to it. For many of the impulses that drove me from its bosom were fairly common to that era.
One factor, for sure, was the Church’s dogmatic position regarding sex, particularly the insistence on priestly “chastity,” which I, as a still hormonally growing teenager, increasingly came to feel was simply unnatural.
Then there were doctrines such as the belief in the “Immaculate Conception” of the Virgin Mary, which struck me and others of that (so we liked to believe) enlightened generation as indefensible.
But, without a doubt, being a black American had quite a lot to do with my cooling to the old Church.
For the American Catholic Church – while correctly declaring that its literal name means “universal” – was historically the church of Irish, Italian and Polish immigrants, who (especially in the case of the 19th century Irish in New York, who were in large part violently opposed to the war against slavery) showed little feeling of common cause with American blacks.
What’s more, there was a strong background of segregation in the early U.S. Catholic Church. In the mid-1900s, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn where I grew up, there were two Catholic parishes located virtually across the street from each other, one (St. Peter Claver) for blacks and the other (Nativity) for whites.