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Papal Visit Prompts Reflection on U.S. Catholic Identity

April 15, 2008 at 6:25 PM EST
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Pope Benedict XVI arrived in the U.S. Tuesday for his first official visit -- a trip aimed partly at rallying Catholics still struggling with the aftermath of a clergy sex abuse scandal. Experts on religion examine U.S. Catholicism and how Americans view the pope.
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JIM LEHRER: Now, the pope comes to America. Jeffrey Brown begins with some background.

JEFFREY BROWN: Pope Benedict’s plane, dubbed Shepherd One, touched down at Andrews Air Force Base late this afternoon. Waiting to welcome him were President and Mrs. Bush. It was the first time Mr. Bush has journeyed to Andrews to meet a foreign leader.

The trip, this pope’s first to the U.S., and months in the planning, includes a mass to Washington and a visit to New York City. Thousands of American Catholics have clamored for tickets to these events.

It is Benedict’s eighth foreign trip since becoming pope almost three years ago to the day.

This weekend in Rome, he appealed for prayers for the trip.

POPE BENEDICT XVI, Vatican City: I ask you all to pray for the success of my visit, that there may be a time of spiritual renewal for all Americans.

JEFFREY BROWN: The pope will find an American church at a crossroads. There are about 65 million Catholics in the U.S. today, about one-quarter of the nation’s population.

AMERICAN CATHOLIC: At this time that we have a lot of troubles in this country, and I think it would be very helpful that he would come to offer some guidance, spiritual guidance.

JEFFREY BROWN: Six years ago, the child sex abuse scandal rocked Boston Archdiocese and quickly spread across much of the country.

Some 5,000 victims have come forward, and more than $2 billion has been paid out to them to settle claims. That forced many dioceses to close parishes. More than 800 churches have been shuttered since 1995, most since 2000.

Catholic schools have also been affected.

After departing from Rome this morning, the pope told reporters on the flight he will take steps to ensure pedophiles do not become priests.

POPE BENEDICT XVI: Really, it is a great suffering for the church in the United States, and for the church in general, for me personally that this could happen.

If I read the histories of these victims, it’s difficult for me to understand how it was possible that priests betrayed in this way the mission to give healing, to give love of the God to these children.

We are deeply ashamed, and we will do all that is possible so this cannot happen in future.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the pope is not scheduled to meet with victims during his six-day trip, nor will he visit Boston.

Some survivors of abuse have called this an insult and protesters have pledged to be a visible presence during the pope’s trip.

BARBARA DORRIS, Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests: I don’t want an apology. I mean, words are cheap. I want actions. That’s what I want, action.

JEFFREY BROWN: There are also fewer and fewer American men entering the priesthood. In 2007, there were 456 new Roman Catholic priests, less than half the number ordained four decades ago.

Nearly one in every six parishes in the U.S. was without a resident pastor last year.

According to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, an increasing number of American Catholics have views that conflict with the Roman Catholic doctrine: 63 percent of Catholics believe that same-sex couples should have the same legal protections as heterosexual couples. And 62 percent say abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

The poll also found that 62 percent of American Catholics think the church is, quote, “out of touch,” up 10 percent since 2005 when Pope Benedict became pontiff.

But that same poll found this pope is popular among his American flock, with 74 percent of Catholics holding a favorable impression of him.

The make-up of the faithful is also changing. An infusion of Latino immigrants has offered growth and new vibrancy to the church. According to the Pew Forum, their numbers are expected to grow in the coming years.

REV. J. BRIAN BRANSFIELD, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: If anything, we’re seeing an up-tick in participation, in eagerness, in finding strength in the teachings of the church.

JEFFREY BROWN: The pope will be in the U.S. until Sunday.

Pope visiting a 'sliding' flock

James Carroll
Suffolk University
The set-up piece didn't include a reference to the betrayal by the many, many, many bishops who protected the priests instead of the children. And that failure of authority is a signal of how deep this crisis goes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we take a closer look now at the Catholic Church in America as the pope begins his visit. We're joined by Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity College in Washington, D.C.

David Gibson is a long-time religion writer and author of a new biography of the pope titled "The Rule of Benedict."

James Carroll is a former priest and now distinguished scholar in residence at Suffolk University. He's author of numerous novels and non-fiction, including "Constantine's Sword: A History of Christian Anti-Semitism." It's now a documentary film. He joins us from Boston.

And Helen Alvare, she held several positions on the staff of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. She's now a professor of law at the Catholic University of America.

Welcome to all of you.

Patricia McGuire, how would you describe the American Catholic Church that the pope will encounter?

PATRICIA MCGUIRE, Trinity College: I think it's a church who is eager to see their leader and to hear what he has to say. They don't know this pope very well; we don't know this pope very well.

This is his first visit. And I think Americans are searching for meaning. And I think they're welcoming him with an open heart and an open mind.

JEFFREY BROWN: What should he know about them? Who are they?

PATRICIA MCGUIRE: Well, I think he needs to know that it's a very diverse church. It is an increasingly different church demographically and in terms of who is participating, who is not only just going to church on Sunday, but also who wants to be part of the church.

Many more Hispanics in the population, many more black Catholics in the population, it's a very different church from the '50s, and he needs to know that.

JEFFREY BROWN: James Carroll, what do you see? How would you describe the American church today?

JAMES CARROLL, Suffolk University: Well, as your set-up piece suggests, it's church in crisis. There is a massive departure of Catholics in recent years that the Pew Survey suggests, demoralization among those who remains.

Catholics are devoted people and devout in their observance of their faith and welcome this pope's visit, but we shouldn't dodge the basic fact that the Catholic Church globally, and in a particular way in this country, is in a period of radical transition, something is dying, and something new is being born.

The Catholic sex abuse scandal is an epiphany of that. And it's instructive that the pope just referred to the betrayal by priests.

The set-up piece didn't include a reference to the betrayal by the many, many, many bishops who protected the priests instead of the children. And that failure of authority is a signal of how deep this crisis goes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Helen Alvare, a church in crisis? How would you describe it?

HELEN ALVARE, Catholic University of America: You know, I think a better description would be that Catholics are sliding, not deciding. In order to make...

JEFFREY BROWN: Sliding, not deciding?

HELEN ALVARE: Sliding, not deciding. I think if you're really going to decide for or against something, you have to have a deep knowledge of it.

And it's been my strong impression, from years of traveling around the United States and Europe, and meeting with thousands of Catholics, that they don't have a deep familiarity actually with many of the teachings of the church.

A lot of them in particular, with respect to Benedict, really haven't read his encyclical "Deus Caritas Est." They haven't read the book-length interviews with him, "Salt of the Earth" or others.

And I think what you're seeing with a backing-off, if you will, of regular practice, of committing one's life to the church through the priesthood is more of a fact of Americans -- I don't know what to call it -- an unwillingness to commit to something that's extremely demanding, that's anti-materialistic, anti-consumerist, anti-individualist.

I'm not sure it's strictly a Catholic phenomenon, in other words, that accounts for some of these outcomes.

Church feeling aftershocks of abuse

Patricia McGuire
President, Trinity College
The trust, the community, and all of the related cultural parts of being Catholic, along with the spiritual parts, need somehow to be rebuilt. There needs to be some way to address how we recreate that sense of Catholic community.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Gibson, come back to what Mr. Carroll raised about the sex abuse scandal, because this is the first time the pope has come since then. How much did that change the way Catholics think about their church in their own community?

DAVID GIBSON, Religion Writer: It was really a transforming moment. The epicenter of the whole scandal was up in Boston where Jim Carroll is. And it really spread throughout the country and throughout the world, really. We're seeing this in parts of Europe and in Catholic bastions like Ireland that are really rocked by this.

And it really -- the scales fell from a lot of people's eyes as their views of their bishops and of the church. And that's really one of the things that I think the pope needs to do in this visit, is to kind of build up the sense of Catholic community and Catholic identity with the church, as Helen, I think, referred to.

In a sense, Catholics are becoming more like everyone else out there in the religious world in America. It's about believing, not belonging. And it's not necessarily about believing the things that someone like the pope would want them to believe.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, we heard him say today -- we just heard him say he was "deeply ashamed," was the words he used. Would you expect him to address the scandals more in some way? Or what is the church looking for or the community here looking for?

DAVID GIBSON: The community is really looking for -- even though Benedict himself has a highly favorable impression, made a highly favorable impression on American Catholics, and Americans as a whole, the pope is always popular.

I mean, he's our pope. He represents this 2,000-year tradition. He's always a, you know, he's always welcome to the United States.

But they want to hear him say something, I think, about responsibility of the hierarchy, accountability of the hierarchy. There's been a lot of focus on priests, and really priests themselves have taken the brunt of this. It's not just these abusers we're talking about. It's also the shadows cast on the priests.

People want to hear him say something about the accountability and responsibility of the hierarchy. Again, he's got these high favorable numbers, but the number of people who are still upset with the way the church has handled the crisis has continued to go up. The payouts have continued to go up, to $2.5 billion.

JEFFREY BROWN: What would you add to that, in terms of the...

PATRICIA MCGUIRE: Well, one of the things that I think is very important is for the pope and the bishops to recognize the breach of trust that occurred through the child abuse crisis.

In fact, I think many people who are pillars of the church -- I know many women who are pillars of the church, the women who used to iron the altar cloths and go to sodality -- the mothers of young men, in particular, who were altar boys, whether anything happened to their sons or not, suddenly this breach of trust made them wonder, "Did something happen to my son?"

What has gone on here? I used to trust in father; I could put my children under the care of father. And suddenly that whole trust relationship was breached.

That along with the obvious crisis in the priesthood, which has led to a deterioration of the parish structure, so the parishes used to be home. That was a cultural context, not just a religious context.

The trust, the community, and all of the related cultural parts of being Catholic, along with the spiritual parts, need somehow to be rebuilt. There needs to be some way to address how we recreate that sense of Catholic community.

More Vatican II-style reform needed

Helen Avare
The Catholic Univ. of America Law School
This is not a top-down, bureaucracy change only. Individual Catholics and Catholic communities and parishes have got to respond. I think he effectively calls out to those groups, and I think he'll do that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Carroll, how do you think that should happen? That poll we cited suggested various types of disconnections that Americans -- many of the American community seem to feel with their church. And yet there is a kind of vibrancy still there; there is a love for the church.

JAMES CARROLL: Well, the vibrancy is powerful. Anyone who goes to Catholic mass sees vital, engaged, devoted people nurturing their faith. The glorious tradition of the mass goes on, although it's challenged now by the collapsing priesthood.

But let me just say that this priest abuse scandal was a manifestation of a collapsed moral authority of the whole hierarchy. The Vatican, beginning at the Vatican and coming right down through the bishop structures in most dioceses, there was a deliberate attempt at first to deny what was happening and then to reserve for the church's adjudication systems the criminal behavior of priests.

And as I said before, the bishops consistently protected the secret and the abuse of priests rather than children. What this lays bear is a fundamental structure of authority that is in serious need of reform.

And that's reflected in the way in which the ability of bishops to influence the ways in which Catholics think about great moral questions has been undercut in these years. So the numbers that were on your poll data are another telling example of the same thing.

We need a reform of the church, a continuation of what began with Vatican II, a further democratization of the church, power structured broadly through the people, the ordination of women, a reform of the clerical structure, raising questions about celibacy, about the ordination of women.

There are very basic issues that simply not being addressed. There is a massive denial and a wish that all of this would go away.

And with all due respect to the arrival of Pope Benedict, one of the things I think he'll sense in this country is it's not going to go away. None of this is going to go away.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let me ask Ms. Alvare. Does the church -- do you think the church sees it that way that Mr. Carroll described it? And what is the pope bringing it, in that sense, in terms of potential for change?

HELEN ALVARE: Just a couple of things to offer here. One, I headed up a commission that investigated clerical abuse in a diocese. For an entire year, every day I worked on it.

I had someone who was a victim on my commission. We met with victims. I had sex abuse experts nationally recognized, commissioner of police, and a couple of things were true.

One thing that I concluded as a summary at the end was that the church didn't really seem to understand how deep the horror was for a family. And I'm a mother. And it wasn't just that, but I met with these victims. That was one side of it.

The other side was this: No matter what positive steps were taken in the ensuing time -- and I've been looking at a lot of the news coverage leading up to Pope Benedict -- one never sees the very vast program the church has laid out to really control, to cut back on any risk factors here.

And I had an experience which really brought this home to me. Two weeks before I was to issue my report in this diocese, an e-mail that was not supposed to come to me from a victims' group said, "We're waiting for the report. You trash it this way; you trash it this way; you trash it this way." The report was not public.

There is an unwillingness -- and I agree, they didn't acknowledge the depth of the horror -- but there was also an unwillingness to acknowledge any good that has been done since.

How would the pope speak to this? Again, for those who are familiar with what he says about the church, with his attempt to characterize who we ought to be, we have to be the reform.

He says in his first encyclical, am I asking you to give every human being in your path the look of love they crave, and charity, and to live in an austere way, and to share not just with your family, but the broader society, to love in a self-sacrificial way? He says, "That's what I'm demanding of each of you."

This is not a top-down, bureaucracy change only. Individual Catholics and Catholic communities and parishes have got to respond. I think he effectively calls out to those groups, and I think he'll do that.

Reviving 'cafeteria Catholics'

David Gibson
Religion Writer
The problem in the United States is so many people really, religiously speaking, would prefer to be spiritual and not religious and don't really want to, you know, make their spiritual home in a church like the Catholic Church.

JEFFREY BROWN: In terms of other things, aside from this scandal, where there the disconnectedness shows up between American practices and the teachings of the church, does the church look at this as a kind of pick-and-choose?

Is that how American Catholics think about their religion, pick and choose what we want from the teachings? And how does the church respond? What does the pope say?

DAVID GIBSON: That we're all cafeteria Catholics, essentially, you know, and that has been kind of the label that's been applied to Catholics in the United States. And I think it's fair enough.

It's kind of a pejorative label, but I think people, also, from left to right, to use those kinds of crude labels, I think people do pick and choose to a great degree the teachings that they want to emphasize.

They'll listen. The pope is going to come again and he's going to give a very broad-ranging message on the wide-ranging teachings and traditions of the church. And people are going to hear, to a degree, what they want to hear or what resonates with them.

And they're going to disregard what they don't want to hear, be it on immigration and the death penalty, be it on abortion, euthanasia, stem cell, et cetera.

That's always been a difficulty for the Vatican; it's a difficulty for any religious leader, frankly. You're always coming and presenting a very high ideal and a wide-ranging tradition and one that goes very deeply. And that's just always a tension, frankly, that's going to be there.

And I think we have to understand that, that there's -- you know, we're always talking about the tensions between Rome and the American church. And they exist. And there are bad tensions and there are good tensions.

But when you're part of any tradition in any community like the Catholic Church, those are always going to be there. And it depends how people, if they feel that they have a community and a church in which they can work out those tensions and those -- you know, if they can find the path to grace, to put it in that way.

The problem in the United States is so many people really, religiously speaking, would prefer to be spiritual and not religious and don't really want to, you know, make their spiritual home in a church like the Catholic Church. And that's the job that he has to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, we just have a minute, but how do you see this accommodation?

PATRICIA MCGUIRE: I think we have to look at our language. We're the church. We keep talking as if the church were over there vested in the pope and the bishops and we the faithful are somehow subject to that in a way that is unhealthy.

I think Helen was talking about this. We're the church. It is up to us to make this a vibrant faith.

And, yes, the moral teachings of the church, which are neither left nor right -- they are moral teachings. They should not be cast in political terms. We need to understand that, and then we need to address the need to take this church to a new place.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Patricia McGuire, James Carroll, Helen Alvare, and David Gibson, thank you all very much.