FROM THE ARCHIVES (Daily Nebraskan columns)
Catholicism at the Crossroads
Jeremy Patrick (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Daily Nebraskan
January 22, 2001
"The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse."
-- Edmund Burke
We can usually best judge the measure of a man by what he does, not what he says or thinks. The same holds true for religions. Although the doctrines of each religion are equally irrational, the fascinating differences between them lie in how they affect society (and in turn are affected by it).
By such a measure, the Catholic Church has become largely indistinguishable from the Southern Baptist Convention. The modern Catholic Church spends most of its time condemning homosexuals and abortion, issuing proclamations about how it offers the only full means to salvation, actively influencing political elections and generally stifling dissent from within or without.
Of course, it wasn't always this way. In the early 1960s, Pope John XXXIII brought new approaches "in the fields of ecumenism, religious liberty, the liturgy, Scripture studies and social action." (Mead & Hill, 1995) He believed passionately that religion could bring about freedom instead of oppression and hope instead of hellfire and damnation. Priests of the "Vatican II" worked fervently to achieve social justice: They helped feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, secure civil rights for blacks and more.
Unfortunately, some leaders of the modern Catholic Church have returned to the mind-set that brought about the Crusades, the Inquisition and the trial of Galileo.
The Archdiocese of Omaha and its head, Archbishop Curtiss, provide the perfect example. In the United States, there are only 42 archbishops: Curtiss is one of the most conservative of them all. In the recent debate over Initiative 416, Curtiss sent a flier to several thousand Catholic households in Nebraska urging them to vote for 416; the fliers included a picture and quote from the pope. Not an unexpected action, but what happened next was.
When 12 Catholics (including a retired priest) signed a full-page ad in the Omaha World-Herald urging citizens to vote against the initiative, Curtiss reacted angrily and promised to personally contact each of the Catholics who signed it. Later that same month, Michael Kelly of the World-Herald wrote a column about Vincent Mainelli. Mainelli, probably the most prominent Catholic priest in Nebraska, was a pastor at St. Cecilia, one of the 10 largest Catholic cathedrals in the country. However, Mainelli decided to retire from the priesthood and get married, citing his dissatisfaction with the Church's movement away from social justice teaching as the main reason for the change.
A World-Herald investigation showed that Mainelli wasn't the only one. Of all the priests ordained by the Omaha Archdiocese since 1956, between 14 percent and 20 percent have left the priesthood entirely. "Many had questioned church teaching on birth control, divorce and remarriage, the need for celibacy among the clergy and the ban on female priests." (OWH 12-17-00)
Did Archbishop Curtiss listen to Mainelli's concerns or try to open a dialogue? No. He simply compared Mainelli's actions to a husband breaking his marriage vows and said that "(Columnist) Michael Kelly, who is supposed to be a Catholic, should have lamented the fact with all of us who love the priesthood and love our archdiocese."
Curtiss caused another furor by proclaiming that Catholics should not vote for any candidate who supports abortion rights. (i.e., most Democrats). Why didn't Curtiss tell voters not to vote against any candidate who supports the death penalty (i.e., most Republicans), an equally noxious practice under Catholic doctrine? Governor Mike Johanns also is "supposed to be a Catholic" and eagerly supports sending inmates to the electric chair. Perhaps Archbishop Curtiss is too busy calling lay Catholics who signed the advertisement against 416 to find the time to call the Governor who supports having people killed.
Most recently, Curtiss "said he would probably publicize the names of Catholic university theologians who don't obtain his approval as being in accord with the teachings of the church." (OWH 1-07-01) The mandate is part of a document issue by Pope John Paul II.
Many Catholics, including Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, don't believe the mandate is enforceable, and they do believe it threatens the religious and intellectual freedom of Catholic theologians. Curtiss, speaking with respect to Creighton, is not dissuaded: "I'm just saying that if I declare that this person doesn't have a mandate to teach Catholic theology in this university, (it's) going to have some impact."
The Catholic Church has come to a crossroads. Its leadership is increasingly conservative, yet its membership is increasingly liberal. A 1999 Gallup survey for the National Catholic Reporter showed that 53 percent of Catholics believed that a person could be a Catholic and support abortion rights (up from 39 percent in 1987), 72 percent believed Catholics could make birth control decisions contrary to the Church's position (up from 66 percent), and 63 percent supported allowing women as priests (up from 48 percent): an issue Pope John Paul II said is closed to debate. Another poll showed that 75 percent of Catholics believed priests should be allowed to marry. (OWH 9-03-00)
The Church's membership also is changing. The Church is now facing a drastic shortage of priests, while enrollment in its seminaries and private schools is down. One study found that of nearly 7,000 active priests, nearly 20 percent left between 1966 and 1985. The Omaha Archdiocese itself is in trouble. In 1960, there was one priest for every 798 Catholic members. Today, there is only one priest for every 1,449 members.
If we measure religions by the effect they have on the world, the verdict is still out on Catholicism. Lay members and some priests still work hard on social justice issues.
In Nebraska, Catholics like Reverend Zuerlein of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church advocate for immigrants; others work building houses for Habitat for Humanity or operating battered women's shelters. Yet, how long can they continue without active support from leaders who seem concerned only with abortion or homosexuality?
"We haven't left the church. The church has left us," said Mainelli when he quit the priesthood. The Catholic Church, or what's left of it, must soon decide whether it believes in compassion, freedom and social justice - or hegemony, intolerance and obedience.
It is increasingly clear that if Archbishop Curtiss gets his way, the latter view will prevail.