Pope Reaches Out to American Catholics

Benedict XVI to visit Washington, D.C., and New York City in April.

The Church, by the numbers (continued)

Many of those differences amount to a kind of ongoing debate on the value and meaning of Vatican II. The church's 21st ecumenical council, Vatican II (1962-65) was launched with the overarching goal of renewing the church. Its leaders and architects (including the dazzlingly brilliant theologian Joseph Ratzinger) believed that a more sharply defined understanding of the nature of the church and the roles of its hierarchy would help restore Christian unity and open up a dialogue with the contemporary world. Some 40 years later, many American Catholics firmly believe the changes that came out of Vatican II were mostly for the better, whether the vernacular mass, nuns in civilian clothes, reconciliation with Judaism, or ecumenical gestures toward other Christian denominations.

Some council supporters even wish that the modernizing spirit had gone further, permitting married clergy or allowing women to enter the priestly ranks. And the nearly two thirds of American Catholics who oppose the ban on condoms tend to view the church's inflexible stand on birth control as a betrayal of the council's spirit.

At the same time, of course, an equally passionate chorus of Catholics rues the council, or at least what it views as the sloppy, overly liberal application of the council's principles. To these Catholics, Vatican II was responsible for destroying the traditions, the discipline, and even the distinctive identity of the church. And, not surprisingly, they see the causes and possible solutions to the church's current challenges in a very different way from those on the other side of the Vatican II divide.

Take the most dramatic challenge, the still-festering wound of the priest sexual abuse scandal. With an overall cost in legal fees and settlements of around $1.5 billion and six dioceses in bankruptcy, the scandal has eroded the moral authority of the clergy and continues to raise doubts about the ability of the bishops to ferret out offenders and prevent further abuse. "The toll in financial and social capital is enormous," says Notre Dame historian Scott Appleby.

Progressives tend to see the problem in terms of a fundamental lack of realism on the part of the hierarchy, particularly the continued insistence on a celibate clergy. Many also think greater lay participation in church governance would help. One recent poll shows that some 44 percent of American Catholics approve of the idea of parishes choosing their own priests. And some Catholics want to have a say in the selection of bishops. In the view of Robert Rowden, a regional coordinator of the lay activist group Voice of the Faithful, which has led the fight to end the coverup of abuse in the church, the biggest disconnect between Benedict and the church is his "failure to recognize the full impact of clergy sex abuse on the victims."

Some would call that an ungenerous judgment. After all, even as Cardinal Ratzinger, Benedict approved the U.S. bishops' plan to address the abuse scandal, a plan that many Vatican officials and bishops feared would be so aggressive that its costs would crush the church. Ratzinger stood by the U.S. bishops. And if the costs have proved staggering, they attest to a willingness to clear out the rot and make amends. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and the instruments for its enforcement, including annual diocesan audits, have even caused some American bishops to think that they have gone too far. Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb., sees no need for more than one audit. "I am not sure how effective it is," says the bishop, who can boast of no new allegations of abuse in his diocese during the 16 years of his tenure. "If the bishop is untrustworthy, the bishop should be dismissed."

It is clear that conservative Catholics, whether lay or clergy, see the abuse problem more as an outgrowth of the permissiveness that was pervasive in America in the '60s and '70s and even permeated the church. To them, the spirit of Vatican II weakened discipline within the vocational ranks and allowed sexual and moral license to flourish in seminaries, parishes, and religious institutions. They believe that Benedict's clarity on moral teaching and his insistence on more rigorous examination of candidates for religious vocations, including the exclusion of those with even homosexual leanings, address the real problem. They also point to a new cadre of bishops who are generally thought to be stronger than John Paul II's appointees.