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U.S. sees effect of late pope

Mary Kate Malone | Thursday, April 7, 2005

Pope John Paul II was nothing less than an international globetrotter. When he visited the United States for the first time in 1979, Americans granted him unprecedented celebrity status for a religious figure. Despite his enormous popularity, the U.S. Church and the pope have had a complicated relationship from the beginning.

Under John Paul II, the Church saw an increase in the number of Catholics on a global level, a reinvigoration of Catholic conservatism and a new appreciation for the youth of the world. But the late pope also leaves behind him a struggling Church in the United States, a church that clashed with the Vatican over John Paul II’s firm control of church leadership and refusal to compromise with American Catholics seeking a more democratic approach.

Some church experts, such as law professor Cathleen Kaveny, attribute the tension between the United States and the Vatican to a natural result of the coexistence of two hugely powerful global institutions.

“There’s always going to be tension between the American Church and the universal Church because [the United States] is the only empire left in the world,” she said. “The Vatican is about caring for the whole world and that’s going to create tension in terms of the perspective of our nation.”

The U.S. Church, though united in its mourning of the pope, is struggling with internal problems.

In 2002, the sexual abuse crisis and the revelation that many predatory priests had been relocated rather than removed caused many Catholics to desire a greater voice in choosing local church leaders. The Vatican refused to change its policy.

As a result, many Americans turned their anger toward Rome. Kaveny said the empowerment of local leadership could have helped ease the minds of concerned American Catholics.

“We need to empower our local bishops to address the situation in their own diocese, and I think the pope was a model of the universal Church,” Kaveny said. “The next call will be working out a fruitful relationship between the local and the universal Church.”

Many have said John Paul II breathed new life into the priesthood, inspiring new American priests to follow in his conservative footsteps. The work of these young priests, many of whom are more conservative than their elders in the priesthood, will play a key role in shaping the Church.

But the number of priests is shrinking. Worldwide, their ranks have dropped by more than 15,000 during John Paul II’s pontificate.

Associate professor of history professor Robert Sullivan said, in response, that it is important to note the decline in the number of priests in America under John Paul II’s reign is not an indicator of an unstable relationship with the U.S. Church. The shrinking numbers are apparent all over the world and are not characteristic of Catholicism alone, Sullivan said.

“The decline in vocations is a worldwide problem; it is not confined to United States,” Sullivan said. “[The U.S. Church] not doing that badly relatively speaking. There has also been great difficulty trying to find rabbis in any number.”

Pope John Paul II’s firm stance on issues such as birth control, euthanasia and capital punishment sparked debate in the United States and encouraged more non-Catholics to give the Church’s views on such issues some of their attention, Sullivan said.

“There has also been a kind of movement in the public sphere toward a greater willingness to entertain the Catholic position on a range of life issues,” Sullivan said. “Political data suggests a slight increase in the number of people toward the Church’s side.”

Kaveny said John Paul II reigned during a time when the U.S. Church faced issues that rocked its foundation. She also said dignity needs to be restored to the priesthood and its authority.

“I think that Pope John Paul II has shown that moral authority is really incredibly important in our media age,” Kaveny said. “Not just the appearance of authority, but authority rooted in holiness.”

John Paul II’s effect on American Catholics is only beginning to become apparent, and the force of his impact is yet to be seen though it will likely play out gradually, parish by parish, according to the Associated Press.

“In our relationships with God it’s one soul at a time rather than mass movements,” Sullivan said. “In his words and prayers he was able to strengthen the spiritual lives of individuals and that’s the most anyone can hope to do.”