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Pope John Paul II’s Impact on the American Catholic Church

April 4, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: What was Pope John Paul II’s impact on the American Church? And what do we know about the state of U.S. Catholicism in the wake of the pope’s death? To assess that, we turn to the Very Reverend David O’Connell, president of Catholic University; Margaret Steinfels, co-director of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture, and former editor of Commonweal, a Catholic opinion magazine; and Jim Davidson, sociology professor at Purdue University, and author of “The Search for Common Ground: What Unites and Divides Catholic Americans.”

Professor Davidson, the Roman Catholic Church in the United States represents the largest single religious group in the country. In what condition does Pope John Paul II leave that church?

JIM DAVIDSON: The Church is a growing church in the United States, largely due to the immigration of Hispanic people as well as Asians, so the population is growing. Within the Church itself there’s a mixed condition with a lot of good news of lay people assuming leadership roles and participating in the Church and yet there is bad news with regard to trends having to do with things such as Mass attendance and the number of priests and religious leaders.

RAY SUAREZ: Margaret Steinfels how would you take the measure of the U.S. Roman Catholic Church in 2005?

MARGARET O’BRIEN STEINFELS: Well, I think Jim’s put his finger on the main problems or at least some of the main issues we’re going to have to face up to. One is of course the growing church and the other is the declining number of clergy. I guess I would add to that something that we tend to overlook, which is the radically declined number of women religious who were once the backbone of the educational, health care, and social service institutions that the church carries on with lay people in charge. And of course that is a very good thing.

But I think there is a kind of gap here between people really prepared to be fully Catholic in their roles as educators, health caregivers, and social service workers and the professional work they do. And, I mean, this is often described as the problem of Catholic identity. And I think it’s something we all work at and try to bridge that gap. But I think it is an enormous gap and one that the church has probably not fully come to grips with.

RAY SUAREZ: And when you speak of women religious, just to be clear for those who don’t know that term, that’s nuns entering orders, correct?

MARGARET O’BRIEN STEINFELS: Right. Those are religious sisters who took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. And so in that sense we’re like the clergy who gave themselves and gave their lives completely to the care of and education of other people.

RAY SUAREZ: And Father O’Connell, how do you size up the American church at the close of this pontificate?

VERY REVEREND DAVID O’CONNELL: Well I see real validity in some of the comments that have been made already. I take a lot of my sense of things, the pulse of things from the students on the campus at Catholic University and from other campuses with which I’ve been associated.

There’s a great deal of enthusiasm and energy among the young people, among the next generation of Catholics. And part of it really has to do with this man who has occupied the chair of Peter for the last 26 years. There is a great sense of relationship with John Paul, personal relationship. And it’s not just a matter of his charisma; it’s some things that he has said that have anchored these young people that have really caused them to think about the world in which they live.

The one comment that was made earlier about the immigrant populations, however, this I think is a serious concern. We have vast numbers of immigrants moving to the United States, especially those who are of Latino descent or Asian descent. And I fear that the church is not reaching out to them in substantial ways. I think we’re losing that population who ordinarily would be Catholic to more Pentecostal or more evangelical groups. And I think this is something we’re going to have to face in this country and it will be an issue that will come up on the new pope’s agenda.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Father O’Connell you referred to the pope as and his personal popularity with these large numbers of Catholic-Americans. But did that extend beyond the personal link to actually affect, move, change, influence the way they thought about their lives as 21st century people and as Christians at the same time?

VERY REVEREND DAVID O’CONNELL: Oh, I think so. I think the interesting thing is that these young people are products of their generation and products of their time. But they’re searching for something. They’re looking for a moral anchor. They’re looking for answers. They’re looking for truth in a world that doesn’t always present it so easily or so facilely.

And I think the words, the clarity with which the pope has spoken over these years has meant a lot to them in terms of their own personal faith development and their moral development so I would feel that way. And I hear it often from students.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Davidson, the archbishop of Washington, Cardinal McCarrick, summed up his conversations with a lot of people in the last couple of days this way: I’m not sure I agree with him, but oh, I love the Holy Father.

Is there a paradoxical relationship, large numbers of people who disagreed with him on pretty fundamental issues but still had a very personal admiration for him, the man?

JIM DAVIDSON: I think that people really do accept the core teachings of the Catholic Church. All the surveys that we’ve done suggest that Catholics not only believe that issues such as the real presence of Jesus in the sacraments, Mary as the Mother of God, and the concern for the poor are things that are important to Catholic identity. And they agree with those matters.

Much of the dissent that we hear about and the disagreement between the Vatican, the pope and the American people is around issues that the laypeople in this country tend to think of as being more peripheral or optional to their faith. So, for example, with regard to the Church’s stance on unions or its views with regard to celibacy and the ordination of priests, most laypeople would say that is not as central as believing in the resurrection or believing in the incarnation of Christ or the real presence of Jesus in the sacraments.

So there’s a tendency for many people to exaggerate the differences or to feel that the differences are on core teachings when in fact I don’t think the laity see it that way at all.

RAY SUAREZ: Margaret Steinfels, do you agree with those definitions of core and peripheral as Professor Davidson just put them?

MARGARET O’BRIEN STEINFELS: He’s the pollster. And I’ll accept his data. I think what might be missing a little bit from the polling data is the current and I think continuing crisis that has followed the sex abuse scandal. I think that in many ways the American bishops are stymied or paralyzed or are still in their own diocese working very hard to deal with the victims, deal with the cases, deal with the money problems that that has created.

I guess as someone who grew up and was a young adult in the ’60s, I feel the Church, despite its growth and despite, no doubt, its vibrancy, it is drifting and I think it is drifting because it lacks leadership that has real authority and I think laypeople could have real authority in the Church; they don’t. And I think the diminishing number of clergy and I think bishops more beholden to the Vatican than to their own people has created this sense of drift and sense that no one is really looking at the issues on the ground.

RAY SUAREZ: Father O’Connell, you just heard Margaret Steinfels refer to a sense of drift. At pew level, did the life of American Catholics, did they see what was changing about the way the Church was governed as this pope tried to reestablish authority from Rome, reestablish a kind of not “go your own way” kind of governance policy for the Church?

VERY REVEREND DAVID O’CONNELL: I really don’t believe that at the pew level that this was a really significant issue. I’m thinking of my own parents and my parents’ generation who were used to a different style and also lived through the second Vatican Council to a new and different approach to church life and church governance.

I don’t think this is a burning issue. It’s an issue, I find, within the academic world and in some circles of the clergy and more educated members of the laity. But I think in general, as you say, at the pew level, I don’t think it’s that significant an issue.

RAY SUAREZ: And what about the after-effects, the shadows left by the clergy abuse scandal?

VERY REVEREND DAVID O’CONNELL: The clergy abuse scandal, no question, has been a horrific chapter in our experience here in the church in the United States. And I think it left people reeling. And I think we’ll continue to feel the effects of this scandal for sometime to come.

But there are signs of hope and signs that the – that we’re ready to start to move beyond, to move toward healing. The situation was so terribly horrific and so different than anything any one of us could have imagined or all of us could have imagined, but I think now that the shock is over, it’s time for us to heal. and I think people have that sense and have that feeling and have that desire.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you think the pope recognized the magnitude of the problem?

VERY REVEREND DAVID O’CONNELL: Two things I think as far as that’s concerned: Number one, we have to recall that this pope, given his Polish background and his traditional background, had an absolute love for the priesthood so for him and in his mind, that priests could be capable of these things was an incredible thing. And I also think the pope wasn’t given a great deal of the information early on.

So, it prevented him from responding in a way that people were waiting for and listening for. But once the information was before him, the first thing he did was summon those responsible, the cardinals of the United States to the Vatican, to ask them about the – confront them on that and to ask them to make a change in the way things are going in the United States.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Professor Davidson, in your opinion research, what part do you see the recent clergy abuse scandals playing in people’s ideas about their own church?

JIM DAVIDSON: When we recently polled American Catholics, we asked them what they thought of about 12 different problems in the church and asked them to rank them. It turned out that the sex abuse scandal was the number-one issue in their mind both the behavior of priests who abused the young children but also the way the bishops responded to the problem.

And two other problems that emerged at the top of the laity’s list was the priest shortage and what that means for the future of the Catholic Church, and the other one has to do with what is perceived to be as the under representation or lack of involvement of young adults in the life of the Church today.

RAY SUAREZ: And Margaret Steinfels, how do you work forward from this very briefly before we go?

MARGARET O’BRIEN STEINFELS: Well, obviously a new pope will have a very large impact on the church, but of course the church is very big and want to say something like the pope is dead, long live the pope. That gives you this sense that the church goes on in many ways with the pope as the head and in the unifying person in the Church.

And so I think Father O’Connell is certainly right to point to students who are enthused and searching for spiritual and moral values. On the other hand, I worry about all the kids we don’t see in church and that don’t go to Catholic University. I think the numbers of Mass attendance, of people who don’t get their kids baptized is something to worry about. It’s the non-attenders and the non-responders to the opinion polls that I think we need to look at. And I presume a new pope will be eager to look at them as well.

RAY SUAREZ: Guests, thank you all very much.