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The Pope In America: Offering an American Perspective

8 minute read

“I think American Catholicism is in great shape,” said Father Theodore Hesburgh, president of the University of Notre Dame, last week. Hesburgh cited the church’s “openness, its general thrust of concern about deep social problems,” as reason for optimism. “I know the list of issues, ” he added, referring to church division over abortion, contraception, unmarried clergy. “These are not what 90% of the Catholics are concerned about.” Many American Catholics do not agree. The Roman Catholic Church, especially in the U.S., is living through trying times. Last week TIME asked a number of leaders, Catholic and non-Catholic, to comment on the state of the American church and what effect Pope John Paul’s visit may have upon it.

The Rev. Daniel Berrigan, radical Jesuit: What the Pope has on his mind is what I have on my mind, the hideous nuclear arms race. He is not afraid to show his heart in the midst of a heartless world, a world of executioners, of mannequins and robots who coldly calculate the extinction of human beings. The great powers turn their backs. They say, “Aren’t these fine sentiments?” But John Paul spoke to people, not to governments … This is not to say that he sees the mote in his own eye. His views of women are old fashioned, and they are probably not going to change. We can’t have apartheid at the altar.

The Rev. Charles Curran, moral theologian, Catholic University of America: We are seeing a change in the role of the papacy, placing a much greater emphasis on the person and personality who holds the office. Theology has always stressed the office much more than the person. There may be problems ahead with this shift. In the past American Catholics have identified the core meaning of being a Catholic on the wrong issues, on specific practices by which Roman Catholics differed from others: no meat on Fridays, contraception, obey the Pope. The core in faith must always be recognition of Jesus as Lord, the response of the community in Jesus through faith, hope and charity, the recognition of the power of God’s love to ultimately overcome all obstacles, and the promise of the joy and fullness of life.

The Rev. Billy Graham, Protestant evangelist: No other man in the world today could attract as much attention on moral and spiritual subjects as John Paul. He is articulating what Catholic and Protestant churches have traditionally held, the moral values from the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. The country is responding in a magnificent way. It shows there’s a great spiritual hunger. The Pope has reached millions of Protestants. The organized ecumenical movement seems to be on the back burner and ecumenicity is now taking place where Roman Catholics and Protestants share beliefs in matters like the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection of Christ.

Daniel Maguire, theologian, Marquette University, and a former priest: There is a certain amount of what I call “Italianization” going on in this country. The Italians have always tended to wear their Catholicism somewhat loosely. They identify with it, but they are selective in what they take seriously. In America, Irish literalism and doctrinal rigor is yielding to a kind of Italian, easygoing selectivity.

The Rev. Martin E. Marty, church historian, University of Chicago, and a Protestant: The danger is that because of the large crowds John Paul might make the mistake of thinking he could whip everybody into line. In Poland you don’t have to whip. When you have a common foe, everyone is automatically in line. You don’t have that in America. Popes until 30 years ago could act with power because Catholics were afraid of hell, excommunication, social ostracism, the scorn of priests. The modern papacy has no coercive power, only persuasive power. He’s a smart enough Pope, I think, to keep everyone from going home mad. There is a tremendous hunger on the part of liberals today to find their tradition. If he doesn’t crack the whip, he’ll persuade them. Liberals are marvelous adapters.

John T. Noonan, law professor, University of California at Berkeley: Before the Sec ond Vatican Council, the church was focused enough on God to be somewhat neglectful of human social problems. The tendency afterward has been to so focus on the social and human as to forget the transcendent. John Paul seems to me to be perfectly in the center, striking a balance … In America, I see a family-centered, marriage-centered Catholic community standing out, not against Protestants or devout Jews but against a secular society in which the family is increasingly devalued. There’s a real split now between the dominant secular values and the Christian and Old Testament vision.

The Rev. Luis Olivares, president of PADRES, an association of Hispanic priests: The Hispano-Catholic relates to the family, not affluence. Ordaining women is trivia. Birth control or married priests are nonissues. By his presence the Pope can give tangible evidence of the concern expressed in his message about the poor, the alienated, the consumer society. The Pope can also directly appoint more Hispanic bishops in this country. The American hierarchy as a whole fails to recognize the Hispano-Catholic and his values. You cannot alienate people for too long. The Hispanic is a patient and long-suffering soul. John Paul II gives us cause for hope.

Claire Randall, general secretary, National Council of Churches: The impact of the visit is a forceful reminder to those who think religion in this country is dead, passe… The Pope will gain a sense of Catholicism in this country, but he needs to see Catholicism in the context of a non-Catholic country. You have to understand Protestantism just to understand this country. Our historical background is entirely different from that of the Pope. There are hundreds of women clergy here. The Pope speaks as though a woman priesthood could never be achieved. He implies that where sacred things are concerned, women cannot have the same relationship to God man can have, or that God cannot use them in the way he can use men. This is something that I and many men and women, both Protestant and Catholic, cannot accept.

Peter Steinfels, executive editor of Commonweal and author of The Neo-Conservatives: Perhaps the Pope’s visit will finally convince the media that religion is a serious reality, not only in backward places like Mexico and Iran but also in the U.S. Polls show that 90% of Americans believe in God and pray often, but most of the serious observations about this country are made by the other 10%. Nothing has changed since H.L. Mencken in the way that public commentators look at the reality of religious life.

Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, director of inter-religious affairs, American Jewish Committee: We in the Jewish community are deeply impressed with the Pope’s charismatic power, intellectual sharpness and moral persuasiveness. His words at Battery Park were an embrace of love and respect from an international superstar … There was a positive response to his making the tragedy of Auschwitz his point of departure at the United Nations. Among Protestant and Jewish representatives, I sense a feeling that inadequate respect has been paid to America’s pluralistic reality. His itinerary basically ignored the 150 million non-Catholic Americans. America could have been his first papal experience in pluralism.

The Rev. David Tracy, theologian, University of Chicago: American Catholicism, like American society in general, is pluralistic. This means there’s conflict, a sort of family quarrel going on. What you see in the crowds that greet the Pope is a kind of affirmation of this pluralism and of a current resurgence of pride in Catholic identity. I am in very great admiration of this Pope. He’s a believable person, a good priest, a good Pope. At the same time I am troubled by stands he seems to take. I am also troubled by the Vatican document this year that stated that orthodoxy would be a question in granting tenure to theology professors at certain Catholic universities. It may be a very good thing in Poland, but it doesn’t make sense for us.

Garry Wills, columnist and author of Inventing America: John Paul has attracted a large crowd. He doesn’t want to lose it, so there will undoubtedly be some pressure on him toward liberalization. On the other hand, the same pressures were there for Pius IX, Pius XII and Paul VI. The history of the recent papacy is not very promising. Almost all Popes come in as reformers, and all of them get more rigid and not more loose as they stay in office. What signals he has given show that he is quite reactionary, surely as reactionary as Paul VI. The recent papacy has taken very progressive stands on nuclear disarmament and redistribution of wealth, but it hasn’t had much impact because the Pope is shooting down his own troops when he drives out priests and nuns and makes it so difficult for people who ought to be ministers, like women. His theological conservatism undercuts his political liberalism.

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