Catholics In America

Sunday, April 03, 2005

John Paul II’s teachings on social issues resonated with the conservative shift in American opinion in the 1980’s and 1990’s. He celebrated a World Youth Day Mass in Aurora, Colo., in 1993.

Catholics in America: A Restive People


IT is hard to remember now that when Pope John Paul II was elected 27 years ago, the church he inherited was destabilized and dispirited.

His immediate predecessor, John Paul I, had been found dead in bed one morning after only 34 days in office. The pope before that, Paul VI, spent his last years melancholy and withdrawn, his accomplishments overshadowed by the uproar over Humanae Vitae, his encyclical affirming the church’s ban on contraception.

To many Roman Catholics in the United States, in particular, the church seemed to have lost its moorings. Some felt the church had betrayed the promise of Vatican II, the watershed church council of the early 1960’s, to be more responsive to the laity and to modern life. Others felt the opposite, that Vatican II had betrayed the church’s heritage by discarding too many traditions and teachings, like replacing the Latin Mass with guitar-strumming priests.

Then John Paul II strode onto the scene. He reasserted order and discipline, spoke out forcefully on vital issues and gave the church a clear direction again. But many American Catholics are deeply unhappy with that direction, which has proved to be more conservative and inflexible than they had hoped. As his papacy ends, he leaves behind an American church that he energized but that remains restive and divided.

The nation has more Catholics now than ever before, some 65 million and growing, fed by a steady flow of immigrants. Many who attend Mass regularly are passionately engaged in their parishes. But many others have drifted away, and Mass attendance has fallen steadily throughout John Paul II’s papacy. Fewer families are sending their children to Catholic schools every year.

The pope has inspired men to join the priesthood, but a nationwide shortage of priests has nonetheless grown so acute that many parishes have none of their own. At the same time, many priests and bishops quietly complain that the Vatican has centralized authority more than ever, leaving less able to respond flexibly to the concerns of American parishioners. And the church continues to reel from the effects of the clergy sex-abuse scandal, with more priests accused of molestation nearly every week and with the mounting cost of compensating victims driving several dioceses to seek bankruptcy protection.

Despite the troubles within his church, Pope John Paul II has had a profound impact outside it, in American politics and culture. His articulation of an ideal society based on a "culture of life" has been embraced not only by American Catholics, but by non-Catholics who have invoked it in their opposition to abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research, cloning and the death penalty.

On a visit to St. Louis in 1999, the Pope spoke of a conflict in America "between a culture that affirms, cherishes and celebrates the gift of life, and a culture that seeks to declare entire groups of human beings – the unborn, the terminally ill, the handicapped and others considered ‘unuseful’ – to be outside the boundaries of legal protection."

"Because of the seriousness of the issues involved, and because of America’s great impact on the world as a whole, the resolution of this new time of testing will have profound consequences," he said.

A handful of American bishops tried to bring their moral authority to bear directly on elective politics last year, suggesting that Catholic politicians who have supported abortion rights could not receive communion – a step that many other bishops and priests viewed with deep misgivings.

To the Roman Catholic church in America, John Paul II has been both a heroic, loving father and a strict disciplinarian. When he became pope, "he was relatively young as popes go, charismatic and vigorous, and very self-confident," said Russell Shaw, the Washington correspondent for Our Sunday Visitor, a Catholic magazine, and a former spokesman for the American bishops. Within a year, John Paul II was captivating crowds in Yankee Stadium and Madison Square Garden, and Time magazine featured him on the cover under the headline "John Paul Superstar."

"Whether you like what he did or not, he turned the whole leadership deficit around," Mr. Shaw said.

For a church still vacillating over how to implement the revolution that was Vatican II, he drew clear boundaries on issues small and grand that have affected every priest and churchgoing American Catholic, not always comfortably.

"You could tell he loved his priests, and then there would be policies that would come out that would be very difficult for the priests," said the Rev. Robert Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils. "It was almost a love-hate relationship."

Most Catholics’ experience of their church comes primarily through their local parish and their parish priest. During the papacy of John Paul II, the shortage of priests has become nothing less than a crisis. There are just under 24,000 diocesan priests on active duty today, down by one-fifth from 1990, and many of those active priests are well beyond retirement age. Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate reckons that more than one-quarter of American priests are now over 75, and in five years the figure will be nearly 40 percent.

Though the priest shortage is a worldwide phenomenon, the pope has reaffirmed that the church will not consider allowing priests to marry or the ordination of women as priests. Though popular with traditionalists, this policy has disappointed many American Catholics, priests included, who have petitioned the church to open the issue for discussion.

One researcher estimates that one priest in five is now circuit-riding to two or three or four churches each weekend so that parishioners may participate in the sacrament of the eucharist, which only a priest can provide.

Deacons and lay Catholics have stepped into the void, taking up as many parish responsibilities as they are allowed. Last year, for the first time, lay parish administrators outnumbered priests, and the practical reality is that many United States parishes are effectively being run by female parish administrators.

Lay movements of all kinds are proliferating. Opus Dei, a conservative movement of clerics and laity, has been gaining in numbers and influence in the United States with the help of the pope, who declared it a "personal prelature," making it answerable only to Rome. Meanwhile, the sexual abuse scandal and the hierarchy’s secretive handling of it have given rise to the Voice of the Faithful, a mobilization of Catholics who have demanded greater public accountability and more lay input in church affairs, so far to little effect.

Sister Christine Schenk, director of FutureChurch, a Cleveland-based group that advocates opening ordination to women, said, "There is a sense of people feeling dispirited – not only the laity, but twice as much by the bishops – because so many of those bishops are caught in the middle," dealing daily with problems in the priesthood but powerless to make any significant changes.

In his role as law-giver, clarifying church teaching in the post-Vatican II era, John Paul II issued a record-breaking number of encyclicals, apostolic letters, rules for liturgy, a revised code of canon law and a new Catechism of the Catholic Church – many of them cutting off innovations that had been gaining popularity in the United States.

"There had been various experiments going on in the American church in worship, priests saying Mass without using liturgical vestments, people advocating the use of sake and rice cakes instead of bread and wine," said Msgr. Robert J. Wister of Seton Hall University. "He has sought to restabilize. He has clarified church teaching in a range of areas."

The overall message has been that it is up to Rome, not the national churches, to set the pace. "What this pontificate has done is given the church the keys to interpreting Vatican II," said George Weigel, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a papal biographer. "Vatican II was not intended to set off a 40-year cat-and-dog fight about who’s in charge. It was intended as a great spiritual renewal for the church to prepare the church for its mission, which is evangelization."

Several times, initiatives advocated by many American bishops were shot down by the Vatican. The most telling episode was the struggle over the English-language version of the revised catechism. Its release was delayed for years because the Vatican rejected language favored by most American bishops that included both sexes.

Pope John Paul II also exerted an influence in American seminaries, sometimes by punitive means. The Vatican evicted the Rev. Charles Curran, a Catholic theologian, from his position at the Catholic University of America for criticizing the church’s ban on contraception. A later directive issued by the American bishops at the Vatican’s insistence required all theologians at Catholic institutions to sign a pledge of orthodoxy.

The turn toward traditionalism, not only in seminaries but in the church as a whole, has produced a new generation of more conservative priests, said Father Silva, of the federation of priests’ councils. Now there is an unfortunate divide in the American priesthood, he said, between "Vatican II priests" who were trained before this papacy and "John Paul II priests" who are more orthodox in their orientation. Each tends to blame the other for the church’s problems.

When John Paul II inherited the throne of St. Peter, "the church was looking for direction," said David Gibson, the author of "The Coming Catholic Church" and a religion journalist. "He provided it, and whether you liked it or not, you knew where you stood."

Perhaps because of his firm hand, perhaps in spite of it, Pope John Paul II energized the American church. Parishioners made pilgrimages to see him in St. Peter’s Square and touch his "popemobile" as it went by. Young people flocked to Denver for World Youth Day in 1993 to receive the pontiff’s blessing. In seven trips to the United States, speaking in English and Spanish and Polish, he made many American Catholics proud to be Catholic.

"It was like having Kennedy as president," Mr. Gibson said. "Whatever you thought of his policies, he was John Paul Superstar, the head of your church."

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