April 2, 2005


Catholics in America: A Restive People (LAURIE GOODSTEIN, 4/03/05, NY Times)

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 The pope before that, Paul VI, spent his last years melancholy and withdrawn, his accomplishments overshadowed by the uproar over Humanae Vitae, his encyclical affirming the church's ban on contraception.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.

His successors will allow priests to marry--not least because it will aid in bringing Protestants back to the fold--but the rest of his legacy seems likely to endure.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 2, 2005 8:40 PM

I will predict that his successors will not allow priests to marry. Women will not get to be priests either. The explanation is long and involved, but this issue is bigger than one or two Popes.

Posted by: Neo at April 3, 2005 12:15 AM

Plus, it's a stupid idea anyway.

Posted by: Slider at April 3, 2005 4:17 AM

No women priests, but marriage is already allowed in several ways.

Posted by: oj at April 3, 2005 9:35 AM

In the eastern faith, priests may marry before they become priests, but not afterwards and married priests may not aspire to higher positions in the church like bishop, etc. These priests have very little status and are seen only as local tenders of the very marginal sheep.

Doubtful this will change because married men have families and domestic considerations which would interfere with the way the Catholic church operates. Unlike Protestant and Jewish congregations and probably Muslim ones as well, the Catholic church owns and operates all the churches. Congregations have no say in hiring their pastor or really in any church functions down to the bingo games. Everything comes from above, literally from the local priest through the hierarchy to the pope.

My husband is a CPA and as a young man he worked for one of the big accounting firms which did the audit of the Diocese of Brooklyn an enormous area of New York City. That audit opened his eyes to the church's financial practices and he went from a desultory practicing Catholic to a complete agnostic.

The pope may have been a good man and holy, but he had little to do with the end of world communism and the Catholic church has had little to do with helping the plight of the poor and downtrodden around the world and I'm not sure they should be concerned with their congregants temporal welfare. It's their souls the church ministers to, not their bodily needs.

And if I have my druthers, I'd leave it at that.

Posted by: erp at April 3, 2005 11:10 AM

He delegitimized the Iron Curtain, which the rest of the West had accepted as inevitable even good, and energized the Poles who led its downfall.

Posted by: oj at April 3, 2005 11:18 AM

Why would financial mismanagement by a diocese -- Brooklyn is and has been for many years a disaster anyway -- make one an agnositic? Are priests and bishops supposed to be financially infallible? It is a mistake to assume that churchmen need be perfect to prove God's existence, or the Catholic Church's position as the church founded by Christ upon the rock of Peter. (Such a position is more or less the Donatist heresy that Augustine soundly thrashed.)

I'll add that sometimes the needs of body and soul intersect -- particularly in totalitarian states like Poland under communism.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at April 3, 2005 12:32 PM

They need to allow married priests in order to rid themselves of homosexuality in the church leadership. If they don't manage that, they'll continue to lose moral heterosexual parishoners.

Posted by: ray at April 3, 2005 4:38 PM

When I was at Our Lady Of Perpetual Help School, we were taught that the Church had all the answers, they were all right answers and we should check our brains at the door and do what we were told.

If the Church changes, it will end up full of really stupid people. Everybody who was paying attention will do what erp's spouse did.

The Church will change, though, when American Catholics decide to stop financially backing whatever regime is in Rome. Doesn't matter which direction American Catholics go -- left or right -- the Church will follow the money.

It always has.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 3, 2005 5:10 PM

The Church has all the answers, but only to meaningful questions.

Posted by: oj at April 3, 2005 5:14 PM

Harry, will you be going to Rome this week?

Posted by: Phil at April 4, 2005 1:43 AM
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