U.S. Catholicism can't go on like this, four analysts say but there the agreement ends

Posted: Friday, July 25, 2003

The roiling sex abuse crisis of the past 19 months has gravely worsened already existing problems for the Roman Catholic Church in America, triggering urgent discussions about the future of the faith.

Out of the tumult, four authors of varying stripes have arisen to proclaim in unison: Catholicism simply can't go on like this. Problem is, there's not much else they agree on, which underscores the church's plight.

Still, the writers are thoughtful, articulate Catholics, whose books move beyond the current tensions to take a broad look at their faith, presenting visions for the church that are notable in how much they diverge. They are:

James Carroll, a one-time priest and Boston Globe columnist, in ''Toward a New Catholic Church''.

George Weigel, the pope's biographer, in ''The Courage to be Catholic''.

David Gibson, former Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger religion writer, in ''The Coming Catholic Church,'' published this month.

Peter Steinfels, formerly both editor of the liberal lay magazine Commonweal and New York Times religion writer, in ''A People Adrift,'' on sale this week.

All four are laymen, which is fitting since parishioners occupy an important place in reform efforts between such grass roots movements as Voice of the Faithful and the more prominent National Review Board, which on Tuesday will review its first year of working to end abuse.


David Gibson, author of "The Coming Catholic Church," poses for a portrait at the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary church where he is a parishioner, July 13, 2003, in New York. Gibson is the former religion writer for the Newark (N.J.) Star Ledger.

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

Carroll, on the radical left, and Weigel, a staunch traditionalist, establish the ideological poles of the debate, while Gibson and Steinfels each fall somewhere between.

Carroll champions the perennial agenda of liberal Catholics. He says it's time to loosen up on divorce, women clergy, priestly celibacy, birth control and so on. But that's just for starters.

He also advocates a Third Vatican Council, with non-Catholics and lay Catholics included, that would abolish ''the whole system,'' establishing a democratic church in which people are free to believe and say what they wish.

Beyond that, he wants fundamental changes in central Christian beliefs about Jesus Christ as the savior, the church as God's instrument, the Bible as a sacred text, even the idea that religions can directly have knowledge of God.

The church's absolute certainty about its theology, he says, has made it arrogant leading to the clergy's misdeeds, condescension toward the laity and religious oppression.

Carroll recognizes his agenda seems unrealistic. But he says moves in the church since World War II have been ''breathtaking, far beyond what Catholics of my generation were told was possible,'' and he's convinced ''radical change is ahead of us.''

Weigel, the conservative, considers Carroll anti-Catholic.

In his view, the current scandals are indeed the worst problem in U.S. church history, but they are a ''crisis of fidelity.'' So Catholicism should simply shore up all the policies Carroll would abolish.

He thinks ''incompetent or malfeasant'' bishops not only coddled sinful clergy but allowed dissent to flourish, failing to defend the morals and disciplines of ''classic Catholicism.''

His remedies focus on U.S. seminaries, which are now awaiting a Vatican investigation. He advocates seminary instructors who will defend all contested church teachings and training that will ensure that priests can maintain celibacy. If a candidate for priesthood is gay, he should commit to supporting the church's opposition to same-sex activity or leave.

Wiegel also accuses the bishops of making the abuse crisis worse by engaging in cronyism. He says competent clergy and lay advisers have been shut out, while bishops rely on a tight circle of friends. The same syndrome shows up in the narrow consultations when the Vatican picks bishops.

Gibson and Steinfels reject both the Carroll and Weigel platforms, and often agree with each other.

But as their book titles indicate, Gibson is somewhat more optimistic that positive changes will occur. Perhaps that's because he chose to embrace Catholicism as an adult he was raised in a Plymouth Brethren chapel a factor that makes his book especially intriguing.

He primarily wants to understand how the abuse scandal occurred, and how future disasters can be prevented (also topics of a forthcoming National Review Board report).

His main conclusion: The most urgent priority is to ''loosen the bonds of clericalism, which is a central cause'' of the abuse scandal. By clericalism, he means a ''caste mentality'' in which a privileged fraternity of priests stands above the laity.

He wouldn't reduce priests' role in leading the sacraments, but rather make them collaborators with the laity on other matters. ''It won't be easy,'' he admits.

On one crucial point, Gibson joins the liberals: ''A married priesthood was coming before the crisis; now it is inevitable.'' Mandatory celibacy as such doesn't cause child-molesting, he says, but it reinforces clericalism and shrinks the ranks of priests.

Gibson gives considerable attention to the knotty issue of gay priests. Though most abuse victims are boys, Gibson thinks banning homosexuals from seminary is impractical and would only drive problems underground.

Yet he draws complex conclusions about gay priests. ''The growing gay subculture in the priesthood, which may soon border on the dominant culture, is threatening the internal cohesion of the priesthood,'' he says.

He thinks ''the dark heart of the current scandal'' is that many gays who become priests aren't psychologically healthy, and haven't come to terms with their sexual orientation. ''That too often leads to harmful, inappropriate and criminal behavior.''

While Weigel promotes loyalty to Pope John Paul II and the Vatican, Gibson (a onetime Vatican Radio newsman) notes that the bishops who created the problems were mostly hand-picked by this pope. He also says John Paul fosters ''an obsession with conformity'' that breeds secrecy and authoritarianism, the very things that created the crisis.

Lay Catholics have been notably loyal to the church through years of turmoil, Gibson writes. But they ''are in no mood for excuses. Another scandal or, just as bad, institutional inaction, and the long predicted exodus may finally happen.''

Unlike Gibson, Peter Steinfels is a born-and-bred Catholic and veteran participant in church debates. He wrote much of his book before the scandals hit and takes a sweeping look at U.S. Catholic culture.

Steinfels sees monumental changes just ahead because the leaders shaped by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) are disappearing, and the shortage of priests and nuns is giving new prominence to lay workers.

Even before the abuse crisis worsened everything, Steinfels asserts, Catholic identity was eroding at church-related colleges and agencies, fewer youths were joining the priesthood, parishioners showed flagging involvement, Masses were often sloppy, and religious illiteracy was becoming widespread. Conservatives share such worries.

But Steinfels aligns with liberals in deeming papal teaching against artificial birth control theologically vulnerable, and figuring that it was a ''self-inflicted wound'' on the church's moral authority.

A serious gap has also developed between official stands on heterosexual and homosexual behavior and ''the lived reality,'' he says. A joke sums up the situation, he says: ''You pretend to teach, we pretend to obey.''

At the same time, the strong move toward women's equality compounds the church's credibility problem, he thinks. Steinfels predicts that ultimately women will be ordained because the arguments for current policy are weak. He would like Rome to test out change by allowing women deacons and giving lay women more decision-making roles.

Celibacy? Steinfels believes it should be a permanent part of church life for some, but to require it of all parish priests conflicts with the church's modern teaching on the holiness of marriage.

Like Weigel and Gibson, Steinfels wants the process of bishop selection opened up. But the prospects for better leaders, ''for the time being, do not look good.''

Steinfels believes the American church ''is on the verge of either an irreversible decline or a thoroughgoing transformation.'' But without ''an energetic response by Catholic leadership, a soft slide into a kind of nominal Catholicism is quite foreseeable,'' he says.

He warns: ''At the outside, there is even the possibility of a sudden collapse, in a single generation or two ... of what appeared like a virtually impregnable Catholicism.''

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