A decisive John Paul confronts challenges to his papal authority.
Reprinted with permission from TIME Issue of February 4, 1985
On a gray and misty morning late last week, Pope John Paul II arrived at a $ Rome airport in a Mercedes-Benz limousine, quietly bade farewell to Vatican aides and boarded an Alitalia DC-10. Once again the Pope was airborne, setting forth this time on a strenuous twelve-day “pilgrimage of hope” to Latin America. Arriving at Caracas’ Simon Bolivar Airport under a warm afternoon sun, the Pontiff, his white robe flapping in the soft Caribbean breezes, was greeted by Venezuelan President Jaime Lusinchi. Waving to the crowd, the Pope traveled in his converted Land Rover Popemobile along a twisting hillside road into the capital.
Meeting with Venezuela’s bishops that evening, John Paul issued decisive marching orders. He called upon the region’s hierarchy to correct errant Catholic thinkers “with charity and firmness.” Too many theologians, said the Pope, “proclaim not the truth of Christ but their own theories,” a theme that may recur during the current journey. By the end of his 18,500- mile trip, John Paul will have flown from Venezuela to Ecuador to Peru to Trinidad and Tobago, delivered 44 other speeches, lunched with steelworkers, met upcountry Indians and visited a sector of Peru rife with Maoist guerrillas.
Indeed, one of the most enduring images of this pontificate is surely the white-garbed figure of John Paul descending from an aircraft, his arms spread wide, the familiar smile bestowed on a welcoming crowd. In his six years as Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, he covered 210,000 miles during the 24 foreign voyages prior to his current trip. No other religious leader has ever traveled so extensively or been seen in person by so many millions of people. No previous Pope, moreover, has placed such a determined emphasis on the unifying message that John Paul II has proclaimed as the reason for his travels: to assure each local congregation, no matter how remote, of its important role in the universal church.
The 1980s mark a historic turning point for Roman Catholicism. Beneath all of the gloss and spectacle of the papacy, beyond the wealth, power and influence of the Holy See, a profound struggle is taking shape, one that is of crucial importance to the church’s 810 million members–and to many not in its fold. At stake is the future direction of a strong, dynamic, yet deeply perturbed institution.
In recent centuries the church has apportioned a substantial part of its energies to battles against external enemies–skepticism, nihilism, secularism and atheism. Today Rome finds itself under a strong challenge from some who & profess to be loyally Catholic. Latin America, a region that the Pope is visiting for the sixth time, grapples with such problems as poverty, unemployment, crowded housing and political turbulence. The church hierarchy is divided over the growing influence on the area’s 338 million Catholics of a radical movement, partly influenced by Marxism, that is known as liberation theology. In the U.S., the papacy confronts restiveness and even anger among sisters and laywomen who are unhappy about the church’s rigid stands on abortion, birth control and an exclusively male priesthood (see following stories). In Europe as well as in the U.S., the Pope and his aides face challenges from theological scholars whose reinterpretations of traditional dogma verge on what Rome considers heresy. In the Third World, notably black Africa, where Catholicism is flourishing, there are large and puzzling problems of what to do about “inculturation,” the desire to adapt the church’s rituals and procedures to local customs.
A fundamental issue underlies these concerns: the authority of the papacy. In a pre-Christmas address to the Curia (Vatican bureaucracy), John Paul applauded “wholesome pluralism” within the church. But he warned against the dangers of “isolationist” and “centrifugal” forces that threaten the unity of Catholicism. The mission of the Pope and the Holy See, he said, “consists precisely in serving . . . universal unity.” The center, in other words, must remain the center: Rome must decide what is Catholic and what is not.
There are, however, dissident church members who believe that in a democratic age Catholics should have the right to decide troublesome issues for themselves. The challenges occur in several crucial and overlapping areas: worship, the claims of national and local autonomy, issues of family life and morality, discipline among priests and nuns, and doctrine.
Although papal authority has emerged as the overriding issue, there are also important debates about church involvement in contemporary social matters. John Paul has led the way, denouncing economic injustice and insisting on the rights of the downtrodden. Taking their lead from the Pontiff, American bishops are issuing strong moral stands on their nation’s nuclear arms strategy, the U.S. economic system and the evil of abortion. Bishops in Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Uganda, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and other lands have boldly denounced human rights abuses by their governments. In South Africa, white Archbishop Denis Hurley will go on trial in February because of his public protests against police brutality toward blacks in Namibia.
Some flamboyant manifestations of this activist spirit disturb more traditional Catholics. To protest nuclear arms spending, Seattle’s Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen flatly refuses to pay half his income taxes; the Government has garnished his salary. In Arizona, two priests and three sisters in the “sanctuary” movement face federal charges of harboring illegal aliens from Central America. In Latin America and the Philippines a scattering of priests have taken up arms with Marxist guerrillas. Father Conrado Balweg of the Communist New People’s Army, on the most-wanted list of the Philippine military, proclaims that liberation from oppression is “the essence of the Mass.”
The roots of much of this tumultuous activity were planted two decades ago during the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Such an ecumenical council is a policy-setting meeting of the world’s bishops presided over by the Pope. In a surprise announcement last Friday, Pope John Paul II said that he was summoning an extraordinary synod of bishops from around the world next Nov. 25 to Dec. 8 to re-examine the changes made by Vatican II. The gathering will involve patriarchs of the Oriental Rites and the presidents of the 101 national and regional conferences of bishops. The purpose: to clarify what the council said and how its decrees are to be interpreted.
The changes wrought by Vatican II were the most radical in Catholic life in centuries. The council decreed that the central act of worship, the Mass, could henceforth be celebrated in the language of the people rather than in Latin. Against centuries of tradition in heavily Catholic countries, it declared for freedom of religious belief without interference from the state. Along with greater social concern, the council urged work toward unity with other Christians and closer relations with Jews. There was to be a greater involvement of the laity in church worship and work.
In terms of the authority of the hierarchy, however, Vatican II decrees were essentially conservative. They enhanced the role of bishops in governing along with the Pope in accordance with “collegiality.” They continued to declare that in matters of faith and morals, members were to show “religious submission of mind and will” to their bishops and especially to the Pope. The old magisterial structure emerged substantially intact, although harsh abuses in the exercise of authority were to be eliminated.
John XXIII, who called the council, was succeeded by Pope Paul VI (1963-78), who completed its work, implemented its decrees and then suffered in anguish while the church seemed to begin eroding at the edges. Legions of priests and nuns in the West quit their vocations. Paul’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, reaffirming the church’s ban on artificial contraception, was attacked by theologians and largely ignored by married Catholics. Says Neoconservative British Author Paul Johnson: “The fear grew that there was no tenet of the faith of ordinary Catholics that was now immune to reinterpretation . . . or indeed outright abandonment.”
When Pope Paul’s successor, John Paul I, died after only 33 days in office, the Cardinals’ second conclave of 1978 produced a surprising choice for the papacy: Poland’s Karol Wojtyla, who took the name John Paul II. He was something new to the church. A onetime actor and factory hand who had dated women before discovering his priestly vocation, he wrote poetry and loved skiing and folk singing. Above all, he had the presence of a religious superstar, and his magnetism attracted not only Catholics but millions who did not share his faith.
To be sure, some Catholics were quick to notice limitations. Although the Pope comes from bourgeois stock, he is, says Chicago Sociologist William McCready, something of a “peasant intellectual Pope. He understands the life of a peasant, whether in the Third World countries or European countries like Poland. But he doesn’t understand urbanized, pluralistic societies.” Sister Amelie Starkey, an archdiocesan official in Denver, says that the Pope’s Polish anti-Communism gives him a “horrendous bias.”
Within John Paul, there is unquestionably a fierce, determined belief in the lessons learned from his early life. During the days of Hitler and the Stalinists, the young Polish priest concluded that the church is strong only when individualism makes way for the requirements of unity. Indeed, Catholicism has thrived in Poland as in few other places, making its church both inspiring and atypical.
Early in his pontificate, a new Vatican strategy took shape. Unlike the cautious, introspective Paul VI, John Paul decided to strengthen his authority over his flock, and he was unafraid to apply punitive sanctions when necessary. He laid out crystal-clear lines. The ordination of women was beyond discussion. Priests and nuns must get out of political office. Religious orders must regain lost discipline. Bishops were expected to uphold Rome’s policies. Meanwhile, a re-energized Curia began questioning theologians who strayed too far from official teaching. Disillusionment has been building ever since among progressive Catholics who want a more flexible church. Swiss Theologian Father Hans Kung, an early target of the papal crackdown, charges that “a new phase of Inquisition” has begun. Says Kung: “The present Pope suppresses problems instead of solving them.” One renowned U.S. commentator on the Vatican, Redemptorist Father Francis X. Murphy, pronounces this Pope “very dictatorial.” Some Protestant ecumenists say the papacy does not look as attractive as it used to in the decade or so after Vatican II.
On the other end of the ideological spectrum, however, there is celebration. James McFadden, editor of New York’s scrappy, right-wing Catholic Eye, says that under Pope Paul VI “the realization that the leadership wasn’t there led many conservative Catholics not to give up, but to cease fighting. These people have been reinvigorated by this Pope. They believe that something can be done.” Encouraged by the new signals emanating from the Pope, conservative Catholics have flooded the Vatican with letters of complaint about all manner of alleged infractions by U.S. bishops, priests and sisters.
Some moderates worry about the impact of the conservative lobbying. Says one Italian theologian: “Even if the Pope does not intend it, certain actions encourage conservatives who have been waiting 20 years to roll back the effects of the council. This creates a climate of anxiety and distrust.” Vatican observers say that in his own mind, John Paul is totally a man of Vatican II. Yet he does insist upon holding to the letter of what the council said, despite liberals who contend that the “spirit” of the council inspires openness to further changes not specifically endorsed by it. Confusion over this point is precisely the reason the Pope called next fall’s special synod.
In the face of criticism that the Pope is turning back the clock to precouncil days, one of his closest advisers declares that this is a misinterpretation of papal aims. John Paul, says this observer, looks to the future, viewing his mandate in terms of three core concepts. They are integrality, identity and clarity: the integrality of the Christian message; the identity of the priests and nuns who present it; and, above all, clarity that will let everyone know exactly what the church stands for.
Integrality is a concept that explains what to some is a paradox in John Paul’s vision of the church’s mission. One common interpretation categorizes the Pope as liberal on social issues but conservative on doctrine. Says a close Vatican adviser: “Such talk is totally incomprehensible to Pope John Paul. To him, Christian doctrine is one unified whole, a package deal that doesn’t break down into social and theological, this-worldly and otherworldly. There is a social message in the Eucharist, just as there is a doctrinal basis for social action. In fact, he sees the Eucharist as the primary social action, a moment when all people are unified with each other and with Christ, when division and class struggle are impossible.”
The second of John Paul’s concepts, identity, explains his concern about restoring firmer discipline among priests and sisters, and distinguishing their role from that of the laity. One of his first decisions as Pope was to tighten up on official approval of requests to leave the priesthood, a process known as laicization. He quickly followed with a worldwide letter to priests stating that celibacy is a lifelong commitment. Turning to priests in religious orders, the Pope reproved the leader of the Jesuits, the largest and most influential of male orders, because its members were too frequently challenging church policy. He later installed his own temporary administration at Jesuit headquarters. Though the order is on its own again, it is not yet clear how much new Superior General Peter-Hans Kolvenbach will bend the society to the papal will. John Paul’s strictures do not seem to have discouraged vocations: six years ago the worldwide total of candidates for the priesthood was 61,000; in 1982 it had risen to 73,000.
All of John Paul’s actions are part of a strategy leading toward a high- profile identity for priests, brothers, sisters and nuns (in technical usage, nuns are a distinct category of sisters who take solemn vows). Explains one Vatican staff member: “You wonder why a man would bother to take holy orders if he is going to do the same job he could do as a layman.” Rome has ordered a study of all U.S. seminaries, and a principal reason for this, says the Vatican source, is to guarantee that these institutions “are not turning out psychiatrists and social workers in collars.” For similar reasons Rome, concerned that women’s orders could vanish if sisters appear little different from laywomen, is investigating the orders in the U.S. and requiring distinctive garb and community life.
The same principle explains the Pope’s controversial demand that priests and sisters give up political careers. The effects in North America: Jesuit Father Robert Drinan of Massachusetts left the U.S. Congress; Father Bob Ogle is no longer a member of the Canadian Parliament; and, in a reverse decision, Sister Arlene Violet decided to quit her order to serve as Rhode Island’s new attorney general.
Some critics accuse John Paul of undercutting his own call for social justice by limiting the roles of priests, brothers and sisters. Others say that he seems to be applying a double standard, in light of the church’s active political role in Poland. He believes he is consistent, however, in wanting bishops and priests to preach social justice. It is probable that never before has Catholicism been so engaged in this crusade as under John Paul, who continually hammers away at the themes of peace, poverty and human rights.
On the other hand, as the Pope understands Vatican II, the church should let the laity work out policy details and fill public offices. The Pope has praised and encouraged lay organizations that attempt to put Catholic ideals into practice in everyday life. Two of his conservative favorites are Opus Dei, a tightly disciplined international organization of 74,000, and Comunione e Liberazione, a less structured group with about 60,000 adherents in Italy and growing numbers in Europe and Latin America.
Clarity, the third theme, may be the most important. John Paul seems determined to make it plain that there should be unquestioning allegiance where basic church doctrine is concerned, which critics see as a denial of intellectual freedom. Asks the Rev. Richard McBrien, chairman of Notre Dame’s theology department: “Are we back to book bannings, blacklistings, suspensions, expulsions and even excommunications?”
To the Pope, the important question is, rather, whether the church’s teachings are accurately presented and clearly understood by the laity. Says a person who often chats informally with John Paul: “The Pope believes that the youth of today demand a crystal-clear presentation of the Christian message and resent it when their bishops try to accommodate them by watering down that message.” New York Archbishop John O’Connor says that in appointing bishops, John Paul looks first and foremost for “a very clear articulation of church teaching.”
This expectation extends to theologians. The dissenting Hans Kung, who has questioned the personal infallibility of the Pope, among other dogmas, has been denied the right to teach as a Catholic theologian, though he remains a priest and is still a professor at the University of Tubingen in West Germany. John Paul combats the radical strains of Latin America’s liberation theology, even while endorsing some of the terminology, because he believes Marxist concepts like the class struggle conflict with the message of the church. One liberationist, Brazil’s Leonardo Boff, has been asked to justify his views.
One long-running dispute between Rome and a dissenting theologian has resulted in a partial settlement. The subject: Belgian Dominican Edward Schillebeeckx’s 1980 book, Ministry, which argued on historical grounds for a more democratic church that to some looked suspiciously like Protestantism. The Vatican announced in January that in his next book the liberal theologian will declare support for the church’s teaching that only validly ordained priests can celebrate the Mass. Schillebeeckx insists he is not retracting his views under Vatican pressure; he simply changed his mind. In the ongoing quest for clarity, perhaps the most controversial aspect since Vatican II has been the family and personal morality, particularly the stricture against birth control. Last year John Paul drove home this teaching in a series of weekly sermons delivered at his general audiences in Rome. The widespread rejection of that papal view by lay Catholics in Western nations is the most glaring instance of what U.S. gadfly Priest Andrew Greeley calls the arrival of the “do-it-yourself Catholic.” Father Charles Curran of the Catholic University of America, a frequent critic of the birth-control tenet, could well be the next theologian summoned to Rome for questioning. Curran says only that he is “in correspondence” with the Vatican. John Paul is not budging on other issues. In his 1979 U.S. tour and since, he has condemned abortion, divorce and remarriage, homosexuality and all sexual activity outside marriage.
Opposition to abortion, a burning issue in the U.S., is one of the most deeply held commitments in Catholic tradition. There was consternation when 28 , U.S. sisters, priests and brothers signed a New York Times advertisement that countered what the ad called the “mistaken belief” that the abortion stance of the Popes and bishops “is the only legitimate Catholic position.” The Vatican response: Retract or face expulsion.
The Catholic condemnation of homosexual behavior underlies Archbishop O’Connor’s resistance to a New York City executive order demanding that the archdiocese, as a contractor receiving city funds for child care, must pledge nondiscrimination against homosexuals. The church hires “homosexually inclined” people, O’Connor says, but wants the right to do so on a “case-by- case basis, to find out whether an individual would be able to operate in a Catholic agency within the strictures of Catholic teaching.”
In asserting control over doctrine and discipline, John Paul’s Vatican often runs up against a striving toward more freedom for local and national expressions of Catholicism. In Africa’s churches, problems involving the inculturation of Christianity range from the kind of dancing and drumming to permit during Mass to ways of dealing with polygamy. If Vatican officials have trouble with Latin America, says Simon E. Smith, an American Jesuit missionary, “they will be infinitely less able to understand and accept the developments under way in Africa.” He warns, “Excessive interference in legitimate and responsible inculturation projects could provoke schism.” For the most part, Rome so far has gingerly handled the young African churches, whose growth rate is among the fastest in the world.
In the U.S., progressive Catholics tend to talk about disagreements with Rome in terms of their own democratic culture. They demand civil rights within the church, often sounding like “Don’t Tread on Me” revolutionaries attempting to overthrow the rule of Europe. Says Sister Monica Asman (known as “the mosquito nun” because she teaches entomology at the University of California at Berkeley): “In Rome they don’t understand us as Americans, that we have democratic roots.” The untitled leader of the U.S. hierarchy, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, handles the question of national vs. universal Catholicism rather cautiously: “I think the American experience is very important and that the church can learn from us–and we can learn from the rest of the church too.”
A difficult challenge to Rome on the autonomy issue has arisen in The Netherlands, which John Paul will visit next May. For many years the bishops there followed a live-and-let-live policy, as activists in the parishes tested liturgical novelties, ignored Vatican dictates on matters like interfaith communion and called for married priests. A close adviser to John Paul calls it “our worst-case scenario in Western Europe. A whole generation has been lost there.” But there has been a recent slowdown in dissent, he thinks, and the Pope’s activism is the reason. Meanwhile, the Pope has appointed several conservative bishops who have called a halt to much of the experimentation. One result of the clampdown, however, is that large numbers of liberal Dutch Catholics are so discouraged that they do not bother to deal with the official church any more, much less attack it. An influential progressive, Ton Crijnen of the Catholic weekly De Tijd, says, “Young people are turning away from the Catholic Church in huge numbers. The church has split down to its foundation.”
Since Vatican II, national bishops’ conferences have gained considerable power, coming to share the role of mediation and communication with Rome that was formerly played exclusively by the Vatican’s diplomats. Some U.S. bishops are privately wary of the accumulating power of the hierarchy’s national agencies, while liberals say that Vatican officials prefer to deal with individual bishops, rather than with a more powerful national phalanx.
The American bishops have had to fight a series of minibattles with Rome over liturgical details. Last year, in one decision dealing with worship, one Roman congregation appeared to violate Vatican II’s concept of collegiality. This was the decision to allow a carefully restricted use of the traditional, or Tridentine, Latin Mass, which was suppressed after the council. The decision went against the preference of 98% of the bishops, according to a worldwide survey.
Despite these marginal squabbles, the Mass remains, as always, the powerful unifying center of Catholic life. Says Gerald Costello, editor of Catholic New York: “I think the average Catholic is very impatient with all these debates. He’s much more concerned with his church as a place of worship: ‘I want to be inspired. I want to be reassured. I want instruction. I want a place to pray.’ ”
In light of that, there are significant revelations in an ongoing large-scale study by the University of Notre Dame of 1,100 American parishes two decades after the Vatican Council. More than 85% of respondents in the survey felt & that their own parish did a good job in meeting their spiritual needs. A hefty 24% of the adult laity were involved in Bible studies, catechism classes or spiritual renewal and prayer groups. Most accepted the changes in the Mass. On the other hand, Gallup polls show that only 51% of U.S. Catholics attend Mass in a typical week, down from 74% in 1958. And the situation is far worse in parts of Western Europe (30% in West Germany, 20% in France).
The challenges are huge, but in the effort to solve the controversies of his far-flung dominion and give it a sense of direction and purpose, John Paul can employ not only his personal gifts but also considerable institutional powers. “In the Roman Catholic system, it’s very hard in the end to buck the Pope,” says Dale Vree, editor of the conservative New Oxford Review, and a convert from the latitudinarian world of the Episcopal Church.
In fact, Catholic canon law and tradition give great potential authority to the Pope. To help apply his program, John Paul has gradually been building a Vatican Curia with a core of tough disciplinarians who will play a key role in future events. Remarks one Vatican observer: “If the Pope wants an iron hand, he’s got the team that will provide it.”
Without doubt the most influential man in John Paul’s Curia is Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, 57, the German-born prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Pope’s theological watchdog. Though Ratzinger and John Paul are not close personally, they see eye to eye on theological orthodoxy, and the Pope respects the onetime professor’s intellectual skills. Extremely hard working, articulate and reserved, Ratzinger was a progressive adviser at Vatican II. Disillusioned with its aftermath, he turned conservative, and now says, “Not all valid councils have proven, when tested by the facts of history, to have been useful.”
In a reshuffle in the Vatican last year, John Paul installed two other key hard-liners. Jean Jerome Hamer, 68, a Belgian, was dubbed “the Hammer” during his years as No. 2 man at the doctrinal congregation. He was John Paul’s choice to replace the indulgent Eduardo Cardinal Pironio and keep a tight rein on the congregation that supervises religious orders. Hamer, now enmeshed in the crucial test of wills with U.S. nuns over the abortion issue, is deemed by some leading sisters to be uncommunicative and insensitive toward women. Augustin Mayer, 73, a German workaholic, was for years the top aide to Pironio, handling the tough jobs that his boss had little stomach for. He now runs the congregation that regulates liturgy and the sacraments.
Silvio Cardinal Oddi, 74, the Italian member of the in group, runs the congregation that deals with priests not in religious orders, managing, for instance, the crackdown against priests in politics. Affable and highly conservative, he is a friend of John Paul’s; the Pope enjoys his dry humor and no-nonsense air. Another Italian, Agostino Cardinal Casaroli, 70, is nominally the Pope’s top aide, but has little influence on internal church affairs: he is now largely restricted to temporal and diplomatic matters, in which the Pope recognizes his supple mastery.
Besides his Vatican appointments, of course, the Pope names all new bishops, and, says one of the leading figures among the U.S. bishops, “He’s trying to change the makeup of the hierarchies so he will have more control.” Some liberals question whether papal authority can be so easily imposed. Father Greeley points out that U.S. Catholics no longer constitute an immigrant culture, and are far more likely to attend college than are Americans as a whole. Says he: “The American hierarchy and the Vatican simply haven’t realized that we have a well-educated population out there whom you cannot coerce or talk down to.” Joseph Pichler, an active lay Catholic and president of a retailing chain, agrees: “People won’t stand for getting nailed any more. The risk the Pope runs is that in exercising his authority, he may lose it. People will quietly engage in spiritual disobedience.”
Still, it is obvious that John Paul sees no choice but to clarify and unify the church’s public voice and preserve its heritage, although it is not certain what further disciplinary measures he might impose to achieve that goal. Like most previous Popes, he is planning strategy not for tomorrow but for the centuries. His church has experienced persecution, wars, internal venality and schism, and yet survived and thrived. It is quite possible that John Paul II, who is only 64, will see Catholicism into the third millennium, a calendar point to which he often refers. He looks to that day mindful of the words of Jesus Christ to St. Peter that the powers of death and hell will not prevail against the church, and convinced that his own program of consolidation will help to secure that promise.
Women Demand New Role
Religion: Women: Second-Class Citizens
Reprinted from TIME February 04 , 1985
By: Otto Friedrich; J. Madeline Nash/ Chicago with other bureaus.
“The Pope doesn’t understand American women,” says Donna Quinn. “This is our church, and we are not going to let a few men who work at the Vatican make it un-Christian.”
“There was a time when the church sanctioned slavery and cheerfully burned heretics,” says Maryann Cunningham, “and the patriarchal church still does not see that there is anything to be sorry for in its treatment of women.”
“The bishops are all hunkering down in the grass like a bunch of guinea hens,” says Margaret Traxler. “Wait a minute, I don’t want to insult the hens. They (the bishops) don’t stir a feather because they fear for their own tails.”
These passionate outpourings of indignation come from dedicated women religious of the Roman Catholic Church, to which they have pledged lives of poverty, chastity and obedience. They are among the 24 sisters who signed a statement that ran as a full-page ad in the New York Times last October, in the midst of the election-campaign dispute over abortion between Democratic Vice-Presidential Candidate Geraldine Ferraro and New York’s Archbishop John O’Connor. Declared the ad: “A diversity of opinions regarding abortion exists among committed Catholics.”
The Vatican soon struck back. The Sacred Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes charged that the religious signers were “seriously lacking in ‘religious submission’ ” and must publicly recant their view or be expelled from their orders.* Of the four priests and brothers among the 97 signers, three have recanted. But so far not one of the sisters has backed down. On the contrary, at a strategy meeting in arctic Chicago last week, they considered an array of countermeasures: another ad soliciting support for free speech, a series of nationwide prayer services, counterhearings to coincide with the bishops’ planned hearings in Washington in March on the role of women. “This is a pivotal moment in the history of the church,” says Maureen Reiff, one of the lay signers of the ad. “We all feel that the attack on us appears to be a rescinding of Vatican II.”
*The first actual disciplining took place in Los Angeles, where Catholic welfare officials were instructed to cease referring anyone to a shelter for the homeless run by Signer Judith Vaughan.
To many leaders in the church hierarchy, the sisters’ activity is misguided and muddleheaded. Any support of abortion, which the Second Vatican Council branded an “unspeakable crime,” is “not a debatable view or opinion,” according to a pastoral letter by Philadelphia’s John Cardinal Krol. “When it comes to speaking about the doctrine of the church, we are not free to make up our own minds,” says Archbishop John May of St. Louis. “For a sister or priest to deny the teaching of the church is a scandal . . . a flagrant, flashy and deliberate affront.”
The sisters’ public fight for a more liberal policy on abortion is only one of several such controversies between the church’s hierarchy and Catholic women, both lay and religious. No less emotional is the issue of birth control; no less deadlocked is the question of whether women may be ordained priests. Underlying these disputes is a disagreement over the basic role of women in the church and in the world at large.
“The major issue facing the Catholic Church in the U.S. is how it deals with women,” says Eugene Kennedy, a former priest who teaches psychology at Chicago’s Loyola University. “A fair argument could be made that the Catholic Church in this country is what it is because of women. The whole parochial school system was built by women. So if you lose women, you sustain a loss that you can’t make up.” That is exactly what is happening in women’s religious communities now, says Pat Reif of Immaculate Heart College Center in Los Angeles: “Women are voting with their feet. It’s a sharing of power we’re after.” The statistics, however, are ambiguous. The number of sisters has fallen from 180,000 to 120,000 since 1966, but the drop leveled off in 1978, and the total has even risen slightly since then.
Women represent, of course, about half the nation’s 52 million Catholics, and their feelings about their place in the church are of great importance to its welfare. The signing sisters’ strong views are far from shared by all women religious, or even by Catholic women in general, but there is a growing conviction among large numbers of U.S. Catholic women that they are second- class citizens in the church–and that something must be done to correct that situation soon.
This view has taken strong hold among a significant segment of women religious, who are in the vanguard of the drive for fuller rights for women. American women religious have changed greatly since they began shedding their wimples and bibs and emerged from the convents into the streets. For one thing, many are now highly educated, even more so than their bishops. Sixty- five percent have master’s degrees, and 25% have earned doctorates (vs. 24% and 10% among bishops). They are also more mature; most became novices after age 24. And their social views have changed. Says Sister Marie Augusta Neal, who has polled tens of thousands of other sisters as a sociology professor at Boston’s Emmanuel College: “If you asked what the primary mission was in 1966, most would have listed their work. If you ask the sisters that today, they would say the mission of the church is justice and peace.”
Such shifts reflect the changes in U.S. society. According to one poll taken in 1982 by the National Opinion Research Center, 41% of Catholic men and 57% of Catholic women could be considered feminists. Among Catholics ages 18 to 30, 42% of men and 47% of women approved of women priests. The Rev. Andrew Greeley, whose writing ranges from pop novels (The Cardinal Sins) to detailed sociological surveys (The American Catholic), believes the figures indicate that hundreds of thousands of young women are not attending church regularly because of discrimination against females. “For a church that has spoken repeatedly in recent years about the need to ‘evangelize,’ ” Greeley writes, “this very large number of alienated young women represents a significant evangelistic challenge.”
Many parishioners prefer the old traditions, however, and so do perhaps one- third of the nuns. Sister Mary Helen of Boston’s Daughters of St. Paul is editor of a religious monthly. She wears a black habit, devotes three hours daily to prayers and believes that a Vatican decision means “it’s a finished issue, and to keep hacking over it is like digging up somebody after they’re buried.” Says Sister Claire Patrice Fitzgerald, principal of a Catholic parochial school outside Los Angeles: “The Mother herself was obedient to her son, Christ. The authority of the church comes from Christ, who gave it to St. Peter and his successors, the Popes. If we truly believe that’s the origin of authority, how can we challenge the Popes?”
They cannot, according to the Vatican. Officials in Rome tend to regard the American women’s criticisms as a peculiarity of U.S. society; they hear relatively few such complaints from the rest of the world. The church’s new code of canon law, which took effect in December of 1983, spells out the rules for all orders, down to such details as living in “their own religious house” rather than an apartment and wearing some kind of religious clothing “as a sign of their consecration.” The constitutions of all 300-odd U.S. orders of sisters must conform to the new code. “The issue is simple,” one official in the Vatican says of its rulings, “either (the sisters) accept the church’s teaching or they don’t. Either they are in or they are out.”
Many dissenting U.S. women Catholics, however, feel the Pope is out of touch. Joan Leonard, who teaches theology at Emory University in Atlanta, recalls meeting John Paul at a philosophy congress in Switzerland. “We were wearing slacks, and he was having difficulty with that, I could tell,” she says. “He tried to ask us about it in a very light, offhand way, saying something like, ‘Do all sisters in the United States wear slacks?’ I told him that we sometimes did, at least when it was appropriate, on campuses. He didn’t seem pleased by my answer. I remember that we were both drinking wine and looking at each other across a small table, when it dawned on me that he simply didn’t understand the dynamics of the American church, much less American women. We were from two different worlds, and we both knew it.”
Leonard is not the only one who blames the disagreements about women partly on the Pope’s personal background. “He thinks of nuns as a servant class,” says Rosemary Ruether, professor of theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. “He brought nuns with him to Rome to cook his sausages. All his statements about women have only one thing to say: motherhood.” The Pope got a taste of such criticisms on his visit to the U.S. in 1979. Sister Theresa Kane, then president of the Sisters of Mercy of the Union, declared in his presence that the church should ordain women; John Paul remained unmoved. “The joke went around,” says Suzanne Hiatt, an Episcopal priest, “that he had been told he should step on the ground and kiss the women, and instead he kissed the ground and stepped on the women.”
The demand for ordination is perhaps the most fundamental conflict between the church’s hierarchy and its militant women critics. “It is the central issue because without it, there is no route to power within the church,” says Mary Gordon, a lay activist and author of the novel Final Payments. Arlene Swidler, who teaches religion at Villanova, says simply, “Ordination remains the central issue because it includes everything.”
Church officials insist that the matter of ordination has nothing to do with discrimination. Says Archbishop John Foley, president of the Pontifical Commission for Social Communications in Rome: “The ordination of women (is) not a concept emerging from sociological considerations. Jesus clearly did not ordain women to the priesthood, nor did he authorize the church to do so.” As for further discussion, another Vatican official says categorically, “The verdict is in. It is simply not worth discussing for the duration of this pontificate.”
More than 1,000 American women have publicly declared their ambitions to become priests, and some of them plan to gather later this year to discuss their goal. “The people who feel some kind of call have an obligation to witness to that call,” says Kathy Larson, director of religious education at a parish in Roswell, N. Mex. She has wanted to be a priest since childhood. She worked at an Episcopal church but felt thwarted: “I know in my bones that I am a Catholic, and I always will be. I feel that I have an obligation to witness within my own church.”
One trend that aids such an ambition is the acute shortage of priests. Already thousands of women fill in by doing chaplains’ work, counseling, Bible readings, indeed, all the tasks of a priest except consecrating the Eucharist, hearing confession, confirming members and administering last rites. Some feminists complain that such assistants are underpaid and exploited, but the more important criticism is that they are still forbidden to conduct the central rituals of the faith.
Some Catholic women have responded by organizing religious ceremonies of their own. In an apartment 88 floors above Lake Michigan, 13 women in slacks and sweaters sat in a circle last week and sang, “Lean on me, I am your sister.” They read the passage from Luke in which a group of women told the Apostles that Christ had risen, and the Apostles did not believe them. Then, although the women do not regard such ceremonies as Eucharists, they passed a loaf of French bread and two pottery mugs of wine. “We share this wine now,” one of them prayed, “knowing that we are walking with a lot of people in their lives of joy and pain . . .”
Despite the seeming impasse, a number of thoughtful bishops are trying to find ways to respond to women’s cry for dignity in the church without weakening church doctrine. “What we need today is a very frank exchange on religious life,” says Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago. San Francisco’s Archbishop John Quinn has already been assigned by the Vatican to undertake a major study on the future of all religious orders, and Sister Margaret Cafferty, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, credits him with providing “a forum for the religious to sit down with the bishops and talk about change.” Bishop Joseph Imesch of Joliet, Ill., is planning a meeting with both church leaders and women’s groups in March to begin drafting a bishops’ letter on women in the church, a major project that will take until 1988. “I think the leadership realizes that it needs to listen to people,” says Imesch.
Listening and “dialoguing” are commendable, but they have limits. Says one authoritative conservative, Notre Dame Philosophy Professor Ralph McInerny: “The idea that we have moved into a populist church, that doctrine should be arrived at by consensus and dialogue, is wrong. That’s not how it is at all.”