Pope’s Visit Seen As Pivotal–Immigration, Clerical Authority Among Key Issues, Experts Say

Pope's U.S. visit seen as pivotal
Immigration, clerical authority among key issues, experts say

By Manya A. Brachear and Margaret Ramirez
Chicago Tribune reporters
12:12 AM CDT, April 14, 2008

Shortly after he sets foot on American soil this week, Pope Benedict XVI will strive to set a tone of compassion and reassurance for a church haunted by the sins of sexually abusive priests.

In Washington the pontiff will remind U.S. bishops of their mission to serve God by easing victims' pain and tending their flock. And in New York he will deliver a message of “trust and hope” to clergy in an effort to restore confidence in the church in his first visit to the United States as pope.

But some scholars think that whether the pope also addresses other key issues facing the U.S. church could determine how much his flock heeds what he has to say.

Though the sexual abuse scandal dominated headlines and damaged the church, it also underscored greater challenges that have been simmering for 40 years. These include an exodus of “cradle Catholics” and their replacement by waves of immigrants, dissent over church teachings on sexuality, and heated debates over clerical authority and lay leadership fueled by a crippling priest shortage.

“The way that the pope can connect is by speaking pastorally to a church that has gone through some very difficult times and is now trying to find its way again,” said Robert Orsi, religion professor and chair in Catholic studies at Northwestern University.

There is no consensus about the best way forward. Some believe the pope should recognize that the church has entered an age when it must grant more power to the laity.

“If he has come to reimpose a model of clerical authority that sees priests as presiding over laypeople, that's going to be very harmful,” Orsi said. “He will alienate American Catholics and they will not hear him again.”

Others would welcome a stern lecture to bishops they believe let the church down by giving in to assimilation with modern American ideals and taking Vatican II reforms too far.

On his five-day visit to Washington and New York, Benedict will be balancing his roles as a world leader and as vicar of Christ for 1 billion Catholics, 67 million of whom reside in the U.S.

He will meet with President Bush, Catholic bishops and other religious leaders. He will urge educators gathered at The Catholic University of America to bolster their Catholic identity and share his vision of the priesthood at a rally for young people. He will call upon the UN General Assembly to foster a universal moral consensus, and he will pray at Ground Zero, the site of terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

“This is not just any foreign trip. This is his whole papacy in miniature,” said John Allen, a Vatican analyst and author of two books on Benedict. “This is an opportunity to synthesize what he thinks are the key themes of his pontificate at a global level.”

His desire for dialogue with other traditions will be on display at a meeting with Eastern and Western religious leaders of different faiths at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington. The pope also will attend an ecumenical prayer service and visit a synagogue in New York.

But many American Catholics will be watching to see how well the pope understands the trends shaping the future of their church.

The president and vice president of U.S. bishops, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago and Bishop George Kicanas of Tucson, said Benedict will address Immigration during his tour. With anti-immigrant sentiment increasingly visible, U.S. bishops have lobbied forcefully for reform, riling some parishioners who aren't convinced their leaders are in the right.

“It would be fabulous if the pope were to take a stand as the [American] bishops have done, on behalf of immigrants, which is a very important issue for American Catholics,” Orsi said.

A papal mention would indicate Benedict grasps the role immigrants play in shaping the mission and face of the U.S. church, Orsi said.

Studies show the nation's Catholic population has held steady by attracting converts and absorbing immigrants, most of them Hispanic. Now, almost one-third of U.S. Catholics are Latino. In the Chicago archdiocese, 44 percent of 2.3 million Catholics are Latino, and 149 of 363 parishes offer a mass in Spanish.

The influx of immigrants counterbalances an exodus of about 100,000 baptized Catholics each year, said Russell Shaw, an author and former communications director for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The pope should invite lapsed Catholics back to the church, but curbing the decline will also require frank talk with church leadership, Shaw said.

“Let's skip the triumphalism and happy talk on this occasion,” he said. “It's still possible to turn things around and bring American Catholicism back to a state of reasonable health. But in order to do that, you've got to acknowledge the existence of the problems that are really there.”

Those seeking reform said one way to reinvigorate the church is to encourage laity who, amid the priest shortage, are fulfilling roles normally carried out by clergy. Some said a papal affirmation of lay ministry would be a hopeful sign.

University of Notre Dame history professor R. Scott Appleby said that in the last 40 years, the number of lay Catholics entering ministry studies and working in diocesan ministry is equal to the number of men entering seminary and the priesthood. That is also true in Chicago, where separate vocations directors oversee seminary recruitment and lay ministry, and equal numbers of men apply for both.

Though U.S. bishops issued a document three years ago affirming lay ministry, Rome has not followed up with its own affirmation, and many think the pope prefers to emphasize the priest's traditional role. One sign of this disconnect, they said, is that no lay Eucharistic ministers will distribute communion at the pope's U.S. masses, though laypeople will play other roles.

“The church has yet to fully endorse a theology of lay ministry that makes sense of lay ministry on its own terms, not just as assistants to the priests or a stopgap measure,” Appleby said. “As a result . . . there's no viable career choice to be married and serve the church, which needs pastoral ministry now more than ever.”

Rev. Richard Neuhaus, author and editor of the monthly journal First Things, said criticizing the limited participation of lay members at papal masses is absurd. He said people often forget the proper title is “extraordinary Eucharistic minister.”

“This means in extraordinary situations where there simply aren't enough priests and the crowds are huge, then laypeople may assist in serving Holy Communion,” he said.

Some scholars said U.S. bishops have lost clout because they ignored widespread disregard for church teachingsfor example, some priests reprimanded people who used contraception, while others looked away.

Before 1968, the year Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the church's opposition to artificial contraception, fewer than 50 percent of Catholics said they practiced birth control. Today, more than 80 percent of U.S. Catholics admit to it.

“The birth-control issue is kind of a microcosm, [a] symbolic as well as a real threshold that was crossed, when the teaching authority of the pope and the bishops lost some of its clout, some of its authority. And the bishops have been reeling ever since,” Appleby said.

Neuhaus said Benedict does not fault the flock but blames bishops who did not uphold doctrine.

“It's not the fault of someone who has never heard why contraception poses a moral problem,” he said. “Here the bishops and priests of the church with notable exception sounded a very uncertain trumpet. As the prophets said, when you sound an uncertain trumpet, people don't rally to the cause.”

Rev. Tom Reese, a Jesuit priest ousted from the helm of America, a weekly Catholic magazine run by the order, shortly after Benedict became pope, said silencing voices is not the answer. A 21st Century church must be willing to experiment, he said.

Can Benedict's visit possibly bring together such divergent views?

“People are going to come out in droves. They are going to be happy to see him; he's going to be well-received,” said Reese, now a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center. “At the same time, what will be the long-term impact is always the question.”