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TWELVE YEARS ago, after one of Pope John Paul II's visits to the United States, I wrote a column questioning how the Catholic church could expect to survive in an enlightened age, given its views on such issues as contraception and the role of women in the church.
And in came the letters to the editor. Many of them we printed--many of them we could not. The vast majority asked where I get off questioning Catholic tenets that have been in place for centuries and aren't about to change based on a so-called modern outlook.
I learned a lot from that episode, lessons that were reinforced by the recent death of John Paul and the installment of his successor, Pope Benedict XVI. Mostly I learned that when it comes to religion, people use very different guidelines and opinions for determining what is right and what is important. In many instances, change is simply not an option.
While I'm unlikely ever to see eye-to-eye with a church that forbids the use of birth control, that would deny a woman's right to control her own body, and that, in my opinion, generally subjugates women, I understand that for so many Catholics, these are issues beyond discussion. Make the priesthood more attractive by allowing priests to marry? Out of the question.
Analysts of the Catholic church described the new pope, the former German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as very conservative--a strict constructionist, to borrow a term applied to certain Supreme Court justices and nominees. But the observers added that during his tenure, a pope can change his views as he gains experience in the role. Yet while his papacy may evolve in the coming years, Pope Benedict is not likely to champion revision of church law on the issues mentioned above.
More telling to me was the suggestion, by some Catholic leaders, that Pope Benedict's election sends a message to the world that the Vatican is not averse to a smaller church. If there are sizable numbers of faithful disenchanted with the church's direction, the church will certainly not collapse without them. In other words, love it or leave it. If they were anticipating a new pope who might take a more moderate posture, at least they have their answer.
It is a curious position for any organization to take, especially one that thrives on expanding its ministry and increasing its numbers. But perhaps it sees a payoff in the long run--that those who adhere to church doctrine, and those who now join the flock knowing its direction, will make it an even stronger, if more compact, institution.
An alternative strategy is illustrated by The Free Lance-Star's decision to switch to morning publication seven years ago. To prepare for the future, the newspaper decided it must switch to morning publication, even if it meant sacrificing some longtime subscribers accustomed to receiving an afternoon newspaper. Some readers did say goodbye, but in the long run that decision is paying off with growing circulation numbers and a bright future.
For the Catholic church, however, a turnaround of the troubling numbers is not in the forecast. It will instead remain true to its doctrine no matter what.
Conservative columnist and Roman Catholic Patrick Buchanan recently excerpted a book titled "Index of Leading Catholic Indicators: The Church Since Vatican II."
The book reports that since 1965, the number of Catholic priests in the United States has fallen from 58,000 to 45,000. By 2020, there will be 31,000 and half will be over 70.
In 1965, 1,575 new U.S. priests were ordained. In 2002, 450 were.
It also found that in 1958, three in four American Catholics attended Mass on Sunday, but only one in four do so today.
Buchanan notes that an actual dwindling of membership has been avoided thanks to the nation's Catholic immigrant population.
Pope John Paul II presided over the church during much of this period of decline. Nevertheless, with the huge turnout of mourners at the Vatican, coupled with the worldwide adoration expressed for the pope in the weeks after his death, it is clear that an immense core of faithful followers exists.
But if the church insists on pursuing its circle-the-wagons mentality to ward off even fellow Catholics with differing views, the only result can be increased divisiveness.
That's what last year's Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry, found when he attempted to articulate and reconcile his own Catholic faith in light of his votes in favor of reproductive choice and stem-cell research. Many Catholics deemed the position philosophically unacceptable, which helped fuel the religious fervor that marked the campaign and election.
It would be easy to label that as just another of the schisms that have developed and intensified across America, creating political, social, and religious battlegrounds.
Though everyone is offered salvation and forgiveness, it is the rigidity of Catholic doctrine that is so difficult for many people to accept, despite the theology that makes it so.
Similarly, America's Christian right preaches inclusion but proceeds to denigrate and disassociate itself from any individual or group that fails to pass its moral muster.
This is all so curious given the various discussions in the Bible of passing judgment on others.
Any church is at its best when it welcomes with open arms, then uses those arms to reach out and help others in need. Its teachings are better offered as enlightenment than with required adherence.
Whether it does this in the name of a particular God or not is not as important as that it is done in the name of love.
RICHARD AMRHINE is a columnist for the Free Lance-Star.