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)
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But will Benedict's insistence on vocational fitness address the crisis of declining numbers of priests, sisters, and brothers? Even before the abuse scandal, alarms were sounding over what Appleby calls "the dramatic demographics in the decline of ordained priests and the cutting in half of the number of women religious since 1960." As the U.S. Catholic population has risen from about 46 million in 1965 to about 64 million in 2007, the total number of priests has declined during the same time by some 17,000, leaving 3,238 parishes without resident priests. Again, the progressive remedies, in addition to ordination of women and married men, focus on greater lay involvement in the ministry—solutions for which Benedict appears to have little or no regard. Rowden says that it is clearly symbolic that Benedict's mass communion at Yankee Stadium will involve no lay Eucharistic ministers, a decision that suggests a further disconnect with the church in America.

But some see the tide beginning to turn as the church recovers its distinctive identity. Conservative Catholics point to the impressive growth of traditionalist, habit-wearing orders such as Nashville's Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia. Bishop Bruskewitz claims that his and his predecessor's insistence on orthodoxy and "a clarity of ideas," in addition to a concern for fairness and justice, has helped give the Lincoln Diocese a ratio of priests (153) to parishioners (90,000) that would be the envy of many dioceses. So traditional that he refuses to allow altar girls, Bruskewitz points with pride to the number of religious vocations the diocese has produced, testimony, he believes, to the appeal of an institution that knows what it is and what it stands for.

Many Catholics can go along with that view—to varying degrees. Washington, D.C., writer and editor Charlotte Hays is a staunch conservative who hails Benedict for emphasizing the central importance of the mass. A parishioner at St. Mary, Mother of God, a church in the vanguard of a movement to return to the traditional Tridentine mass, Hays says it's not just the Latin but other elements, such as the priest's facing the altar, that help restore a sense of what Catholics call "real presence" to the ceremony.

Sister Patricia Wittberg, a professor of sociology at Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis, casts a skeptical eye on all the hard-and-fast liberal and conservative positions and even the data that can be used to support them. Acknowledging the appeal of traditionalism, she points out that orders like the Nashville Dominicans draw recruits from national pools in numbers similar to what they used to draw from their localities alone. "Conservative Catholicism is more likely to grow in this country than the liberal version," she says, "but there will be a limit to how much [the whole church] will grow if it's only a conservative Catholicism. There should be the possibility of evolving several different flavors of Catholicism that affirm what is good and central to each flavor." At the same time, she says, it is fine if liberal Catholics emphasize social justice and antiwar positions, but when they combine that with the radical individualism of the larger American culture, "you can't get them to unify on anything, which makes them sociologically unstable."

Mixed message. A recent Pew Forum poll emphasized that more Catholics leave the religion of their childhood than do members of any other church, but it somewhat neglected the fact that the church's retention rate is third only to those of Judaism and Mormonism. This mixed state of affairs may partly result from what Catholics, whether active or fallen, have long felt about their church: that it is, in Appleby's words, "something more than an institution but almost a metaphysical reality, an abiding truth." In a strongly secular age, that sense may be less accessible to younger Catholics, for whom the church may seem, as Appleby puts it, "just another institution, which must perform to earn members." If so, is Benedict's emphasis on the fundamentals just what the church now needs?