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As the twenty-first century begins, the Catholic Church finds itself in the midst of turmoil and crisis. Though the recent sex scandals are a significant setback for the Church, the despicable acts of a few bad priests have magnified a broader problem. Most American Catholics increasingly put more faith in society's values than they do in the Church's values. Many Americans still identify themselves as Catholics. However, the spirit of Catholicism is rarely found in contemporary American society. In the twilight of his life, Pope John Paul II faces enormous challenges and overwhelming pressure. The Catholic Church has seemingly lost its spiritually-transforming effect in the United States and throughout the modern world. The crisis is relatively clear-cut: There is a basic lack of commitment among Catholics to the teachings of the Church. Specific hot-button topics can illustrate this point. However, the crisis must be analyzed from a more general perspective in order to fully grasp the real problems. Americans simply put more faith in society's values than they do in the Church's values.
The issues of birth control and abortion can be used to illustrate the basic lack of commitment among Catholics to the teachings of the Church. The Church's official position on birth control is very clear. In Humane Vitae, Pope Paul VI states, “Consequently, it is a serious error to think that a whole married life of otherwise normal relations can justify sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive and so intrinsically wrong.” It is also clear that many Catholics openly reject the birth control teaching of the Church. In Sounding Board, Kathy Coffey provides surveys and letters to demonstrate this point. One survey reveals that 81% of Catholics believe that married Catholic couples have the right to follow their conscience in deciding whether to use artificial means of birth control. Another survey shows that 75% of Catholics disagree that in order to uphold the teaching of the Church, it's important not to reverse the official teaching on birth control. Many Catholics feel that the Church has tightly held to its teaching on birth control without considering the views of most lay people.
The Church's official position on abortion is also very clear. In Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II emphatically states, “I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being.” However, similar to the issue of birth control, many Catholics disagree with the Church's stance on abortion. In Abortion: What Americans Really Think and the Catholic Challenge, James R. Kelly reveals that many Catholics are actually personally opposed to abortion for non-medical reasons. However, few Catholics identify themselves as pro-life. As Kelly observes, “So strong is the American resonance for the term 'choice' that 47 percent of all Catholics (and 49 percent of Protestants) say that they can be called “pro-choice.” The Church fails to reach many Catholics on the issue of abortion. The official stance of the Church regarding abortion is viewed as too rigid, since it does not distinguish situational differences that bring women to choose an abortion. Many Catholics feel isolated by the Church on the issue of abortion and look to more dynamic pro-choice leaders for guidance. As Kelly points out, “The survey found no right-to-life leader (Mother Teresa is much admired) or organization evoking the deep and widespread respect social movements require to attract at least the latent support of a confused public.”
There are historical causes that help to explain why many of today's American Catholics fail to follow the teachings of the Church on the issues of birth control and abortion. For centuries, the Catholic Church had strongly rejected modernism and the entire Enlightenment movement. Therefore, many Catholics felt isolated and shunned by American society. When John XXIII was appointed Pope in 1960, he felt that the Church needed to become more in touch with the modern world. An ecumenical council was called, and Vatican II lasted from 1962-1965. Vatican II was one of the most important events in the history of the Church. The Church restructured its philosophy in order to become a more inclusive and open organization. In the mid 1960's, most American Catholics viewed Vatican II as a positive event. They were hopeful that the Council would strengthen the Church and unite Catholics throughout the United States.
Two important events occurred after Vatican II that led to a decline in Church authority among American Catholics. Number one, a liberal intellectual group emerged within the Church after 1966, and called for even more radical reforms based on modern and democratic principles. Vatican II confused many American Catholics. A large group of loyal Catholics followed the new practices of the Vatican II Church without understanding the theory behind the new practices. This chaos allowed the radical liberal group to form. Eventually, many Catholics returned to pre-Vatican II practices, and the Church was separated into three distinct groups: those who followed the pre-Vatican II philosophy, those who followed the Vatican II philosophy, and those who followed the radical liberal philosophy. Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) was a fairly weak pope and allowed the liberal group to take charge of the Church. Thus, many Catholics in the sixties and seventies viewed the increasing liberalist tendencies of the Church as an indication that Church doctrine was changing toward more modern and American principles. In fact, Church doctrine was not changed, and the authority of the Church was greatly undermined.
The second event that occurred after Vatican II that led to a decline in Church authority was an increasing inclusion in American society among Catholics. Catholics assimilated into American society in the post-Vatican II era. More Catholics became college-educated and increased their social status in society. Catholics took part in the social movements of the sixties and seventies with other Americans and gained respect and admiration. Non-Catholic Americans viewed Vatican II as an acceptance of American values. By the mid 1970's, Catholics no longer felt ostracized by American society. Therefore, the radical liberal group within the Church duped Catholics into believing that doctrine had been changed, and the Church had adopted a modern philosophy. Outside of the Church, American society had finally embraced Catholicism.
By the time that John Paul II became Pope in 1978, many Catholics had more faith in the American way of life than they did in the teachings of the Church. However, John Paul II has proven to be a strong Pope. He has re-asserted the traditional teachings of the Church in order to faithfully adhere to the original principles of Vatican II. He has spoken out against birth control and abortion in a firm and unwavering manner. However, many contemporary Catholics have adopted American values. America has legalized abortion and promoted birth control as a positive and effective way to eliminate problems that may stem from unexpected pregnancy. Sexual standards have loosened, and many American Catholics have taken part in the sexual revolution. Thus, a crisis has emerged in the Church with regard to the issues of birth control and abortion. The Pope has adamantly declared both abortion and birth control “gravely immoral.” A large majority of Catholics in the United States are not committed to the Pope's teaching on birth control and abortion because they find American values more appealing than the values of the Church.
However, an analysis of the crisis in the Catholic Church using specific examples such as birth control and abortion would be incomplete. Issues such as birth control and abortion reflect larger and deeper problems. A conclusion that American Catholics have completely rejected the Church would be incorrect. Instead, the crisis must be analyzed from a wider perspective in an attempt to more fully understand the conflict between American Catholics and the institutional Church. The fact remains that Catholics, and Americans in general, have not eliminated religion from their lives. A recent Gallup poll shows that nearly all adult Americans identify with an organized faith, and more than half say religion is very important in their lives. Indeed, roughly 25% of Americans identify themselves as Roman Catholics—the largest percentage of any religious group in the United States. While the influence of official Catholic teaching has declined, most Catholics still hold high regard for the Church itself. Therefore, most American Catholics still view the Church as “a good thing.” However, they are not ready to commit themselves to the teachings of the Church. For many American Catholics, though the Pope may be a “nice old man,” it is not necessary to exactly follow what he says in order to be a good Catholic and a good person.
Therefore, the crisis of American Catholicism is not about a rejection of the Church. Rather, Catholics find more meaning in secular society than they do within the Church. Religion is not a high priority for most American Catholics. It is not a driving and transforming force, which gives people a passion for living life. As a result, following official doctrine and teachings is not really an important part of life for many Catholics. We want the fruits of faith, but not the obligations. Another Gallup poll asks people to rank a list of nineteen social values. Following God's will is eighth on the list, trailing happiness and satisfaction, a sense of accomplishment, and five other values. Happiness, satisfaction, and a sense of accomplishment are all distinctly American ideals. Many Catholics have decided that reaching those ideals would bring about a better life than would following Church teaching.
There are two groups of American Catholics who place greater importance on society's values than on Church values. One group views the doctrine of the Church as an authoritarian list of rules and regulations. Those who follow the rules are the “good” people. Those who do not follow the rules are the “bad” people. This is a superficial way to view the Church. Clearly, the essence of Catholicism is more profound and complex. Reducing the Church to a moral mediator clearly strips Catholicism of its heart and spirit. However, it is obvious why those who view the Church in this way would place a greater emphasis on American values. America stands for openness, liberty, and free will. For some Catholics, the Church represents constrictions and limitations.
The second group of American Catholics, who place greater importance on society's values than on Church values, has a more accurate and profound view of Catholicism. These Catholics recognize that the message of the Church goes beyond a list of “do's” and “don'ts.” They realize that at the heart of Catholic doctrine lies the authentic message of Jesus. However, for many Catholics, the true message of Jesus does not correspond with the values of America. Jesus urged His followers to be in the world, but not of the world, as the Reign of God in the next world will bring justice and righteousness. America greatly rewards achievement and accomplishment in this world, and rarely emphasizes a world beyond our own. Jesus envisioned a world based on community and togetherness. The American ideal encourages individualism and consumption. Most importantly, Jesus promised fullness and meaning. America promises happiness and success. For many Catholics in the United States, following the American way of life is clearly a better option than following the way of Jesus. Therefore, finding acceptance and recognition in American society becomes a priority. Adhering to the teachings of the Church, from birth control and abortion issues to simply going to Church on Sundays, is of secondary importance.
There are no easy solutions to this crisis within the Catholic Church. The American way of life is quickly becoming the global model that teaches people throughout the world how they ought to live their lives. The Church confronts tremendous obstacles in its attempt to persuade people that following the message of Jesus is the right path. One method that the Church should not use is a return to the pre-Vatican II philosophy of hierarchy and obedience. In the pre-Vatican II culture, Catholic individual conscience was nonexistence. Catholic laypersons were forced to accept the external authority of the Church. Allowing freedom of conscience so that the Church has an authentic connection with the people is one of the most important aspects of Catholicism. During the pre-Vatican II days, the institutional Church failed to relate to its members, and the meaning of Catholicism was diminished.
The Church should also not completely dismiss the American way of life. The United States is the greatest country in the world. Immigrants have consistently flocked to America to escape oppression and cruelty. Freedom is not an imagined ideal in the United States; it is a concrete reality. This article has focused on the crisis of Catholicism in America. However, if the topic broadened to include Catholicism throughout the world, one would see how freedom does not exist for much of humankind. Many Catholics in poorer countries faithfully practice their religion amidst brutal violence and warfare. These people literally survive each day, hoping that they will not be victims of senseless bloodshed. In other countries, Catholics must practice their faith secretly, as tyrannical governments throughout the world have outlawed Christianity. Some countries are so poor that the majority of people are not concerned about religious affiliation. They simply want to eat so that they do not starve to death. Clearly, the United States offers hope and independence to people all over the world. The recent events of September 11th made many Americans realize how incredibly awful conditions are for many people throughout the world.
Despite its many positive facets, the United States is not a perfect or ideal country. From slavery to Columbine, the American way of life has proven to be full of inadequacies and contradictions. The United States is a powerful and successful country. However, as Woodrow Wilson observed once, “There has been something cold, and heartless, and inhuman in our desire to succeed and be great.” The de-humanization that often accompanies American ideals is the greatest flaw of the American way of life. At the heart of Catholicism is an emphasis on humanity. By outlawing abortion and birth control, the Catholic Church does not intend to limit and restrict people. Instead, the Church wants to free people, so that they can experience the fullness of humanity. However, most American Catholics fail to fully grasp this concept of freedom, and understand freedom more in the context of the American way of life. Understandably, happiness and success sound better to most people than does freedom to fully experience humanity.
The Church should not attempt to compete with the American way of life. This crisis is not a contest to see which option is better. Nor can the Church adopt the American way of life as its philosophy. The Church should stay committed to its teachings and doctrines, even if its members are not. Perhaps the best option for the Catholic Church is to emphasize values that the American way of life cannot provide for American Catholics. Success is fleeting and happiness is elusive. Jesus does not promise His followers either in the Gospel. However, Jesus does promise peace and courage. By following the way of Jesus, people can experience the fullness of life—the ups and the downs, the happiness and the sorrow, the joy and the suffering—with grace and dignity. By following Church teachings, American Catholics can make peace and courage a reality in their lives.
-- by George O'Brien
Copyright 2003 by George O'Brien