In the summer of 1963, a friend of mine she was just 11 at the time drove with her family to visit her sister, who had married and moved away to Birmingham, Ala. They stopped for gas in a small Alabama town on a Sunday morning.
When her father asked where they could find the local Catholic church, the attendant just shrugged and said, “We don't have any of them here.”
The family finished gassing up, pulled out of the station and less than two blocks away, they passed the local Catholic church.
Most people my age remember the '60s in the South as a time of intense struggle for civil rights. Along with pervasive racial discrimination, Southern culture often harbored a suspicion of Catholics, Jews and other minorities. Catholics were few and scattered. In the Deep South, like Alabama, being Catholic often meant being locked out of political and social leadership.
Today, much of the old South is gone. Cities like Atlanta and Raleigh-Durham are major cosmopolitan centers. Time, social reform and migration have transformed the economy along with the political system. The South today is a tribute both to the courage of civil rights activists 40 years ago, and to the goodness of the people of the South themselves.
Most people, most of the time, want to do the right thing. And when they change, they also change the world they inhabit, which is one of the reasons why the Archdiocese of Atlanta can now draw thousands of enthusiastic Catholic participants to its Eucharistic Congress each year in a state where Catholics were once second-class citizens. It also explains how a practicing Catholic, William H. Pryor, can become Alabama's attorney general something that was close to inconceivable just four decades ago.
I've never met Mr. Pryor, but his political life is a matter of public record. He has served the State of Alabama with distinction, enforcing its laws and court decisions fairly and consistently. This is why President Bush nominated him to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and why the Senate Judiciary Committee approved him last Wednesday for consideration by the full Senate.
But the committee debate on Pryor was ugly, and the vote to advance his nomination split exactly along party lines. Why?
Because Mr. Pryor believes that Catholic teaching about the sanctity of life is true; that the 1973 Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision was a poorly reasoned mistake; and that abortion is wrong in all cases, even rape and incest. As a result, Americans were treated to the bizarre spectacle of non-Catholic Senators Orrin Hatch and Jeff Sessions defending Mr. Pryor's constitutionally protected religious rights to Mr. Pryor's critics, including Senator Richard Durbin, an “abortion-rights” Catholic.
According to Senator Durbin (as reported by EWTN), “Many Catholics who oppose abortion personally do not believe the laws of the land should prohibit abortion for all others in extreme cases involving rape, incest and the life and the health of the mother.” This kind of propaganda makes the abortion lobby proud, but it should humiliate any serious Catholic. At a minimum, Catholic members of Congress like Senator Durbin should actually read and pray over the ” Catechism of the Catholic Church” and the encyclical Evangelium Vitae before they explain the Catholic faith to anyone.
They might even try doing something about their “personal opposition” to abortion by supporting competent pro-life judicial appointments. Otherwise, they simply prove what many people already believe that a new kind of religious discrimination is very welcome at the Capitol, even among elected officials who claim to be Catholic.
Some things change, and some things don't. The bias against “papism” is alive and well in America. It just has a different address. But at least some people in Alabama now know where the local Catholic church is and where she stands even if some people in Washington apparently don't.
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput is head of the Denver Archdiocese.
(This article originally appeared in the DENVER CATHOLIC REGISTER.)