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For U.S. Catholics, pope may polarize
By Cathy Lynn Grossman
What can one pope, any pope, do for the U.S. church? And what about this pope? Can German-born Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who headed the arm of the church charged with enforcing Catholic teachings, reach the fractious American faithful? For many U.S. Catholics, the pope is a distant figure. Many Americans cheered John Paul II, mourned his passing away and resumed ignoring church teachings. (Related story: Pope's U.S. speeches)
Within hours of the election of Benedict XVI, a USA TODAY/Gallup/CNN poll of 616 Catholic adults found that 74% said they steer by their own conscience, not the teachings of the pope. "It will take an earthquake to change the minds of (baby boomer Catholics) who have already decided on their values," says Cardinal Avery Dulles, who teaches theology at Fordham University in New York.
Signs of indifference, disarray and discontent
U.S. Mass attendance has fallen steadily, with only about a third of Catholics attending weekly. The clergy sexual abuse crisis has cost nearly $1 billion and driven more than 700 credibly accused priests out of the ministry. There's a drastic shortage of priests, a shrinking number of parishes, and three dioceses have filed for bankruptcy. As Benedict XVI is installed in the papacy on Sunday, experts say the American church can expect more polarization, change and surprises.
The responses of moderate, progressive and reform-minded Catholics to Ratzinger's election stretched from polite wait-and-see neutrality to unprintable expletives. Meanwhile, conservative voices have exulted, even "gloated," says the Rev. Richard McBrien, a professor at the University of Notre Dame. He fears this pope will finally drive "some to move to the margins of the church or even outside of it." And yet, says McBrien, the new pope has an astonishing opportunity to be "the peacemaker" that he honored by choosing the name Benedict. "He could make it known to the world outside and to the church inside that he intends, with no compromise of doctrine, to bring about reconciliation and mutual respect within the church," McBrien says. "He could call on those most exuberant about his papacy to be gracious and sensitive to the most demoralized. It would be a marvelous gesture."
Don't bet on it, says William Donohue, head of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. "The malcontents really have to make up their minds now. Are they going to accept the official teachings of the church, or continue their whining, or are they going to walk? Why stay where you're not wanted?"
He recalls Ratzinger's writing that "a smaller church may be a better church." But Dulles, speaking from Rome on Wednesday, said he was sure most Americans will find what they really need most from any pope: "Someone to be a father and to be holy, a loving and reliable guide and protector who unifies them all."
One of the most critical jobs of the pope is to appoint bishops. "Just as all politics is local, all religion is local. People who have a good experience in their own home church will stay with it," says David Gibson, author of The Coming Catholic Church.
Seven U.S. dioceses now await new bishops, and more vacancies loom ahead. Bishops must offer to resign when they reach 75. Donohue says one of the few criticisms even conservatives had of John Paul II was the quality of bishops he chose. Some said he failed to offer sufficient oversight, particularly as the sexual abuse crisis festered while some bishops protected, promoted, even hid abusive priests from discipline.
Many who hope for significant change on hot issues such as women's ordination or abortion will see no change in core doctrine under Benedict. But he may surprise everyone by tackling traditions and disciplines that can be changed with time and cultural shifts. "Celibacy could be discussed. Pope Paul VI put birth control on the table for debate and it was recommended to change the teaching. That pope didn't but this pope might," says Donohue.
"A new pope is the biggest blank slate in all of Christendom," says Gibson. "The papacy is all about new possibilities." Benedict's stands on the involvement of the laity, on the level of authority of national bishops' conferences, and his foreign policy views on war, poverty and the global economy will be closely watched. And his theology will challenge American minds as well.
"Most Americans and Europeans see religious pluralism outside the church and diversity of Catholic identity within the church as a blessing," says Tom Beaudoin, who teaches theology at Santa Clara University. The new pope, he says, "sees both as a danger." "Will we discover a pastoral side in this pope? A vision for the future of a universal Catholicism? If he were someone who truly opened up the conversation, that would be remarkable, that would be powerful. "That's how God would work."