U.S. Church Polarized, Adrift In Pope’s Wake

John Paul II certainly has energized sectors of the church with his charisma, his travels and his teaching; but he also leaves behind an American Catholic community that is deeply polarized ideologically and seemingly adrift in terms of governance. The sexual abuse crisis of 2002 is the most recent and dramatic eruption of these underlying structural realities. American Catholics have rarely been as angry with the leadership of their church, and therefore as angry with Rome, as they are today. Polling, even before the crisis, suggested that a substantial block of Catholics in the United States regarded the institutional dimension of their faith, especially the hierarchy, as increasingly irrelevant.

Unless one is willing to discount the opinion of American laity simply because they are not ordained, then the reasons for the poll numbers are a serious matter. While those reasons have hardly been explored, it is not too great a leap to surmise that the sense of hierarchical irrelevance stems in no small way from the pope's appointments and the pope's expectations of those appointments. Loyalty, not leadership, has been the hallmark of this pope's bishops : loyalty furthermore to an agenda that brooks no questions and demands that certain topics of great interest to some in the church be eliminated from discussion. The result has been that bishops, laity and the priests in between often get the sense that they have been shackled. Pastoral instincts are submerged under the need to adhere to a growing list of rules and to be cautious of increasing sanctions from on high.

It is heartening to note that in the recent round of cardinal appointments, the pope has seen the wisdom in other parts of the world to appoint even some vocal critics of current Vatican policy. However in the United States the same drumbeat drones on. It would have been hard to find a pastoral line in the resume of Archbishop Justin Rigali before he took over the St. Louis archdiocese. He hardly distinguished himself there, but that was no barrier to his being appointed to Philadelphia and named a cardinal. He was, and remains, by all accounts, very loyal.

The consequence of the attitude of the laity has been a de facto loosening of ties with Rome. This tendency was given a turbo charge by the crisis. A poll last May in the Boston Globe found that 39% of Catholics in the Boston area would support the creation of an American Catholic church independent of the Vatican. The news is actually worse because among Catholics ages 18 to 39, the proposal for cutting ties with Rome rises to 50.9%. Granted that attitudes in Boston are undoubtedly sharper than elsewhere, this finding nevertheless has to be alarming for anyone concerned with the communion that should exist between American Catholicism and the universal church as embodied by the Holy See.

To be clear, a schism in American Catholicism is improbable. Church history suggests that formal schisms are triggered by bishops prepared to lead American Catholics in rebellion against the Vatican. But there is no Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre of the Catholic reform movement in the United States. But if present antagonisms fester, what may result is a body of American Catholics more and more hostile to any exercise of authority from Rome, and an administration in Rome increasingly irritated with American exceptionalism and assertiveness. The ground is being prepared for a cycle of recrimination and misunderstanding that could last a generation, producing a sort of undeclared rupture such as the Catholic world has already seen in Holland, Germany and Austria.

If John Paul II has unquestionably been a terrific pope for Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and much of the developing world, his accomplishments in Europe and North America are far more in question. Women, theologians, lay ministers, educators, overworked rank-and-file clergy and moderate-to-progressive bishops are among the constituencies in American Catholicism that have tales of woe to tell of their experience of the last 25 years. These are not loose cannons on the ecclesiastical avant-garde; they are the very heart of the American church. They are the ones who week in and week out do the work of the church. If their alienation grows, the church will have a problem that goes well beyond the bounds of local ecclesial politics.

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