Thursday, April 17, 2008

Pope Benedict and American Catholicism: On The Titanic's Deck

Susan Jacoby

The most significant fact about modern American Catholicism appears in a recent report on the changing U.S. religious landscape by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Although 31 percent of Americans were raised as Roman Catholics, only 24 percent consider themselves Catholics today. One in ten adult Americans--a stunning figure--have left the church for another religion or have abandoned organized religion altogether. The saying, "Once a Catholic, always a Catholic," a favorite maxim of the nuns in the parochial schools I attended, is no longer true.

In 1960, 5.4 million children attended American Catholic schools. Today, the figure is down to 2.4 million and falling. More Catholic schools close every day. Two-thirds of Catholic seminaries have closed since 1965; during the same period, the number of young men training for the priesthood dropped from 49,00 to 4,700. There were nearly 180,000 nuns in 1965; today, there are fewer than 67,000.

Without Hispanic immigration, the situation of the American Catholic Church would be even more dire. But the majority of Hispanic children do not attend the declining number of Catholic schools, and, if the history of immigration is any guide, the attachment of Hispanics to the church of their parents and grandparents -- a critical part of immigrant survival -- will diminish in direct proportion to their assimilation into American life.

There are also many liberal Catholics--they are sneeringly called "cafeteria Catholics" by the Catholic right--who go to church but ignore the church's strictures on contraception, divorce, and other sexual matters. These Catholics bear no resemblance to the Catholics of the 50s, who accepted the Church's teaching authority. These "cafeteria Catholics" also want the church to allow priests to marry and to admit women to the priesthood--a move that would eliminate the priest shortage overnight. But the old men in Rome who fancy themselves the rightful heirs of the twelve male apostles have simply ignored the wishes of the laity.

Then there is an aggressive right-wing minority of American Catholics who still believe in papal infallibility. These are the Catholics--Supreme Court Justices John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito are among them--who have formed a political alliance with Protestant fundamentalists. They are a minority within their church, but they are often the public face of the church in America--thanks to ignorant members of the news media who still think of Catholicism as a monolith.

There is absolutely nothing that Pope Benedict can do to reverse the decline of his church's l authority over American Catholics. Don't be deceived by the television coverage of the pope's visit, which will surely emphasize the positive--the crowd that will show up at Yankee Stadium for the pope's public mass, the platitudes about religious pluralism that will emerge from everyone's mouth as this man who considers himself infallible in matters of faith and morals pretends to be open-minded and tolerant.

The reasons for the degeneration of the Catholic Church in America are complicated, and anyone interested in this subject would be well advised to consult the works of Gary Wills (who is a practicing Catholic).

I was brought up as a Catholic in the 1950s and early 60s, as the child of an Irish Catholic mother and a father who was a Catholic convert from lapsed Judaism. My parents were not particularly devout or particularly strict in their interpretation of Catholicism and they, like many American Catholics, became less and less observant in the 60s. I probably would have become an atheist regardless of the church in which I was raised, but the extravagant claims of Catholicism--in particular, concerning the infallbility of the pope--certainly hastened the development of my skeptical side.

During the early 60s, the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, under Pope John XXIII, aroused the hopes of many Catholics who wanted the church to abandon its strictures against contraception and divorce, who wanted priests to be able to marry, and who later wanted women admitted to the priesthood. When John died, and was replaced by increasingly conservative successors, it became clear that those hopes for liberalization and reform would not be realized. At that point, many young nuns and priests abandoned their religious vocations (though not always the church itself). Had the church allowed priests to marry, I am certain that many more would have stayed.

Nearly three decades later, the scandal of priestly pedophilia finished the work that the disappointments of the sixties had begun. The church tried to stonewall at first. When that failed, and an angry laity took its case to the press (both Catholic and secular), the church began to try to hush the victims of sexual abuse with financial settlements. What the church did not do was acknowledge its moral culpability as an institution and try to repair the lives that its priests, in many cases with the full knowledge of their ecclesiastical superiors, had devastated. I don't think anything that Benedict could possibly say, at this late date, could restore the kind of faith that makes even many former Catholics say, with nostalgia, "It was the only THE church."

As an atheist, I do not, of course, share this nostalgia. Claims to the possession of absolute truth are dangerous--to individual minds, societies, and the entire world. The pope is nothing more--or less--than a fallible man "elected" to his office by a rather small group of other fallible men. He holds some reasonable views (on peace and poverty) and a host of other anti-rational views about the supernatural. My deepest wish--one that will certainly go unfulfilled--is that no American politician will address the pontiff with the ecclesiastical sobriquet, "Your Holiness."
(And didn't like it when the Dali Lama was addressed that way either.) Pope John XXIII also hated that title, and that is probably why he has not been canonized by Their Holinesses, his successors.

I should say, by the way, that I hold no more animus toward the Catholic Church than I do toward any other religion that claims to possess absolute truth. These are questions about the pope, so my answers naturally address themselves to Catholicism. Fundamentalist Islamists, ultra-right Orthodox Jews mired in 17th-century thinking, fundamentalist Protestant evangelicals, Hindu nationalists--take your pick--are all a menace to free inquiry and free thought. As for openminded people of every religious faith--those whose beliefs do not impinge on the lives and thoughts of others--come, let us reason together.

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