Talks test US-Vatican culture gap

Cardinals convene in Rome, with agenda complicated by American social traditions.

When the American cardinals sit down with the pope and his close advisers today, they'll be grappling with one of the most wrenching crises ever faced by the Roman Catholic Church.

But as they try to set policies for dealing with sexual abuse and consider how to restore credibility among churchgoers, they'll also be grappling with a cultural clash that has challenged relations between the Vatican and the American church throughout their history.

On the one hand, is a church rooted in a democratic society that clamors for transparency, accountability, and a voice for the people. On the other, is an ancient hierarchical institution that values confidentiality, control, and authority based on a sense of divine anointing. Tensions have persisted between the two since the 19th century, when Pope Leo XIII felt compelled to issue a condemnation of "Americanism."

The culture clash is complicating the understanding of the current crisis and what it will take to find a genuine solution. US church leaders find themselves caught between allegiance to their conservative pontiff and rising pressures from the pews.

Last week from amid the trenches, Archbishop Roger Mahony of Los Angeles boldly said he would push for a discussion of obligatory celibacy and women's ordination at the meeting – issues roiling the American laity. Other leaders agreed.

"These people of unquestionable loyalty sense that the severe crisis gives them the opportunity to raise issues that need to be raised without appearing disloyal to the pope," says R. Scott Appleby, director of the Cushwa Center for American Catholicism at Notre Dame.

Yet John Paul II, who has scarcely spoken a public word on the sex-abuse problem, didn't even wait for today's meeting to rebuke them. Instead, over the weekend he strongly affirmed priestly celibacy and cut short expectations that a real discussion might ensue. He acted after an American cardinal at the Vatican said that celibacy, homosexuality, and the role of women would be added to the meeting's agenda.

Clearly, the Vatican has finally grasped the gravity of the sex-abuse scandal – it's being confronted with cases on almost every continent. Yet officials are also irritated by what they perceive as particularly American aspects of the situation.

"What they see as American is the overheated atmosphere that is one part the genuine problem and another part an overly aggressive and negative press, dissenters stoking the crisis to grind their particular axes, and perhaps an element of financial hustle on the part of lawyers," says John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.

And they are not about to feed that. During a Vatican press conference on the pope's letter to priests mentioning sexual abuse, Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos gathered written questions from the media and, after glancing at them, refused to answer any, apparently irritated by those from US reporters.

"We're used to living in a society with open debate on issues," says the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of America magazine and author of a book on the Vatican. "A lot of people in the Vatican just didn't grow up with that kind of experience."

Yet one attempt is under way to accommodate American openness. Contrary to usual practice, the Vatican will hold two press conferences daily during this week.

US law vs. canonical law

The culture gap also figures directly in the main task at hand – defining sex-abuse policies and procedures to be adopted by US bishops. The Vatican has definite fears which top its agenda for the meeting, Mr. Allen says. These include policies demanded by the US public and legal system that Rome sees threatening its operations as a church. Two examples are automatic-reporting policies requiring a bishop to pass any credible allegation to law enforcement officials, and the practice of going public with names of priests facing allegations, which the Vatican sees as violating canon law.

"The notion is that once you legalize things and have iron-clad policies, it's no longer handled in a community and from a spiritual point of view," Allen explains.

From the perspective of American society, canon law seems to have shortcomings. For example, it treats sex between clergy and adult women as more serious than molesting minors, and emphasizes restoring wrongdoers to active priesthood over removing them. The prelates may have their hands full just resolving these issues.

Yet the clash most affecting the long-term health of the church is over responding to the concerns of the laity. John Paul II has appointed enough US bishops to bring the hierarchy in tune with his conservative views, but liberal American theologians and people in the pews have gone about redefining their faith within the context of the American experience.

It's a practice with a long history that often antagonized Rome but has also had a beneficial impact on the church at large.

In the 19th century, for example, the Vatican deplored the pluralistic milieu of US society; a papal encyclical to the American church in 1895 warned that religious freedom and church-state separation were to be viewed as expedients, not Catholic principles. As late as 1955, the most important US Catholic theologian, John Courtney Murray, was silenced by Rome for advocating church-state separation. Yet a decade later, his work was instrumental in a major achievement of the Second Vatican Council – the church's embrace of the principle of religious freedom.

Reform ideas on the table

With their pluralism experience, says Father Reese, US Catholics then became a leading force in ecumenism and in improving ties between Catholics and Jews.

The clergy-abuse scandal is galvanizing many outraged Catholics for a new reform effort. While some of their concerns are supposedly on the meeting's agenda, few expect more than very limited discussion.

"This meeting does have the potential to be quite historic," says Dr. Appleby. "If the issues festering underneath the surface of American church life" were simply taken seriously, even without action, "it would be monumental."

And having leaders like Archbishop Mahony willing to speak out is significant. Some say it may be the beginning of a conversation that deepens during the next papacy, a conversation other countries may want to join.

"One may not be optimistic about change now, but all this is a prelude to the next papacy," says Chester Gillis, assistant professor of theology at Georgetown University. "Bringing these ideas to Rome and putting them on the table plants seeds for the future. It puts them in the minds of those electing the next pope."

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