UPI, Dec. 8, 2002
By Uwe Siemon-Netto, UPI Religion Correspondent


(Part of UPI’s Special Report reviewing 2002 and previewing 2003)

WASHINGTON (UPI) — After a year full of troubles but also excitement, the cliché about a glass being half-empty or half-full applies magnificently to the Roman Catholic Church.

Viewed from a narrow North American perspective, the vessel’s contents may sometimes seem unsavory. Rome’s despisers would have you believe that the world’s largest Christian denomination is a rotten haven of pedophile and homosexual fiends. According to this stereotype, they are overseen by men more interested in the corporate buddy system than in souls and presided over by a twitching old man who is drooling from his mouth and may soon have to be buried.

Like every stereotype, this one contains some truths and many falsehoods.

This writer, not a Roman Catholic, finds this widespread caricature of a 2,000-year old institution repugnant. For one thing, to quote the Rev. John McCloskey, director of the Catholic Information Center in Washington, only 6 percent of the world’s Catholics live in America, where most — though not all — of the headline-grabbing sex scandals have taken place.

What about the other 94 percent?

And the scandals in the United States occurred in most cases decades ago, when American religious life was thoroughly corrupted by secular concerns. This applied to Catholicism as much as to mainline Protestantism, many of whose pastors also succumbed to sexual temptations proscribed by Scripture, and failed to uphold marriage, an order of creation, in their own lives.

To be sure, the crisis will continue to plague American Catholicism in the new year. As Richard John Neuhaus, president of the New York-based Institute on Religion and Public Policy says, some dioceses will be bankrupted by lawsuits seeking compensation for the abusive behavior by priests.

“We may even expect some fireworks due to criminal charges against bishops, who failed in their office of oversight,” Neuhaus allowed.

But Neuhaus and McCloskey agreed with the assessment by prelates in the Vatican that as a consequence of these scandals the Catholic Church has actually grown stronger, or is in the process of doing so. “The tide of radical dissent in Catholicism has been turned back,” said Neuhaus, who pointed to a new “no-nonsense sobriety about the Church’s teachings and discipline on the part of the bishops.”

“This thing is over,” agreed McCloskey.

The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, a canon lawyer in New York, is a little more cautious. “The Church will grow in strength if the root cause of the crisis is addressed,” a predicted. Murray, too, pilloried the past “culture of dissent from the Church’s teachings on sexuality. Priests felt it was not that bad to commit sexual sins.”

Murray, pastor of the parish of St. Vincent de Paul near Ground Zero in New York, added, “in future bishops must defend the integrity of the Church by removing immoral priests.”

The lawsuits, bankruptcies of dioceses, and perhaps new revelations of abuse cases make the Catholic glass look half empty. But then, Murray, Neuhaus and McCloskey declared, this would mean disregarding impressive developments in the American Church.

“God does provide strong, heroic, dynamic, orthodox and virile men for the priesthood. Now it’s time for them to be promoted to bishop,” Murray insisted.

Where this has happened, the American Church is faring well and has no dearth of highly good seminarians. Most often mentioned in this context are the bishops of Lincoln and Omaha, Neb., Denver, Atlanta and Arlington, Va.

It would be absurd, however, to judge Catholicism solely by its performance in America. A worldwide renewal movement is attracting young men to the priesthood, Neuhaus noted. “The decline of new vocations stopped five, six years ago.”

In some countries, though, the shortage of priests has reached appalling proportions. In France, once called the “first daughter of the Church,” there are less than 25,000 clerics left, and their average age is 68. Some are looking after 30 and more parishes.

Yet at the same time, all religions in France report a new spiritual curiosity among the young — a curiosity the Church cannot accommodate sufficiently.

In Germany, “the problem among the clergy is not so much sex as alcoholism,” said Claus-Peter Clausen, editor and publisher of a Catholic newsletter. “Even more alarming is the way New Age and the occult are creeping into the Church in the form of unauthorized exorcisms, faith healing and the veneration of alleged apparitions the Vatican has not recognized.”

If there is one common negative thread in the assessment of the current state of Catholicism worldwide turmoil is most frequently mentioned. This is where in these last years of the current pope’s pontificate the Catholic glass is clearly half empty.

On the positive side, however,John Paul II is universally revered by Christians across denominational lines for having brought holiness into the world. “He has played his role as an apostle in a very fruitful way,” Murray said.

Few serious theologians — Protestant or Catholic — deny his accomplishments as a sublime prophet — to the point that some Lutheran bishops in Europe even suggested recognizing him as a spokesman for all of Christianity.

Theologically, no other man on Peter’s throne of church history has achieved as much as this Pole. He has written more than half the magisterial texts penned by popes in almost 2,000 years.

All this makes the Catholic glass appear filled to capacity. Even John Paul’s failure in trying to fulfill his greatest vision — the unity of Christendom — can hardly be held against him.

He was up against the ethnocentric intransigence of some Orthodox churches, especially the Russian, which is the strongest of all. And there was little he could do about the virtual implosion of the anthropocentric and theologically wobbly World Council of Churches, which left him without a credible vis-à-vis on the Protestant side.

But even this pope, perhaps the most dynamic and beloved in history, has one great weakness, most Vatican insiders and other prelates interviewed for this article said. He is not an executive. He could not maintain order among what must be the most quarrelsome power structure in the world — the Roman Curia and the global episcopate.

This is why it is widely expected that a hands-on manager — most likely an Italian — will succeed him; the name of Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, archbishop of Milan, is currently most often mentioned. But nothing is for sure. “In this business you simply cannot look into the crystal ball,” Neuhaus said.

At age 82 and suffering from Parkinson’s, John Paul is said to be mentally extraordinarily vibrant and intellectually active, though. Nobody who knows him well dares to predict when is pontificate might end — and with it the tenure of his most important theological collaborator, German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who himself had serious health problems, including apparently a temporary blindness in one eye.

But when the end comes, the Rev. McCloskey in Washington assures us, one great legacy of this pope will remain — a laity re-evangelized by John Paul II who attracts hundreds of thousands of young people wherever he goes, even as a sick old man.

And this, churchmen are certain, will continue to reinvigorate the church long after John Paul II is gone.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Friday December 13, 2002.
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