By then, Santorum had come to embrace a version of Catholicism far removed from the one he knew in the early 1970s, when church rituals were relaxing, when Catholic kids were being taught to see moral complexity, and when Santorum, a young teenager then, developed a rapport with a freewheeling Franciscan priest who spoke of Catholicism in terms of moral shades of gray.
Shades of gray
Santorum’s introduction to faith came while he was growing up in the hilly, working-class town of Butler, at a time when parishes were embracing the historic new policies of the Second Vatican Council, which sought to make the church more relevant to a changing world.
Priests who had said the Mass in Latin with their backs turned began facing the congregation and saying it in English. Folk Masses became common. Even God appeared gentler: In one Butler church, a parishioner recalled painters erasing thunderbolts alongside a portrait she understood to be the Almighty and replacing them with a blue sky and angels.
At the veterans hospital where Santorum’s parents worked and his family lived, change came in the form of the Rev. Alex Mullaugh, a priest who was assigned to the chapel on the hospital grounds, where Santorum was the only altar boy. Father Alex, as he was known — a tall figure in sandals and a brown robe — made an impression, said Santorum’s younger brother, Dan.
“He was just a younger, cooler guy,” recalled Dan Santorum. “He’d sometimes come over to the pool. You didn’t think of a priest going swimming, so it was just different.”
A neighbor, Ray Stierer, said Father Alex and his childhood friend “just hit it off.”
“He was always there,” Stierer said, referring to Santorum’s friendship with Mullaugh. “It just came out of nowhere.”
In a recent interview, Mullaugh said he “pushed the envelope” of church tradition, roaming up and down the chapel aisles giving sermons that aimed to “stir people up.”
“I remember saying that there were gray areas,” recalled Mullaugh, who left the priesthood in 1975 and is now a retired computer salesman living in Pittsburgh. “I remember saying that there are a lot more letters in the alphabet than A and Z and we need to use all of them.”
Santorum heard similar lessons at the Catholic school he attended until the eighth grade. In religion classes there and at St. Paul church, where he was confirmed, young priests, some wearing jeans and longer hair, talked about morally complex situations.