Pope, young Catholics to meet against backdrop of changing moral standards

August 09, 1993|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Staff Writer

The meeting of young Roman Catholics with Pope John Paul II this week in Denver promises to test tensions between the religious leader's vision of his church and widely accepted standards of American morality.

For example, Maryland teen-agers Debbie Moody and Jamie Berry share a strong Catholic faith as well as their excited anticipation of the pope's pilgrimage to Colorado, which is expected to attract 170,000 other young Catholics from around the country and around the world.

But Ms. Moody of Middletown in Frederick County and Mr. Berry of northeast Baltimore, both 17, also share a belief that the 73-year-old pope is too rigid on at least one moral issue -- birth control.

The pair are two of the more than 450 teen-agers and young adults from the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore who will arrive in Denver tomorrow for events culminating next Sunday in the World Youth Day '93 outdoor Mass to be celebrated by the pontiff.

AMs. Moody and Mr. Berry are not alone in their beliefs concerning the pope's rigidity on some topics.

Surveys show that most Catholics in the United States differ as much with their conservative pontiff on sexual morality today as when he visited this country in 1979 -- a year after his election -- and in 1987.

Teachings reinforced

Both times, he reinforced strict church authority and unpopular teachings: mainly his opposition to artificial birth control, abortion, sex outside marriage, married priests and the ordination of women. He is expected to do so again during his four days in Denver.

"Obviously, the church is not as well supported on everything as it used to be," said Ms. Moody, who will be a senior this fall at Middletown High School.

While she admires the pope's emphasis on traditional morality and doctrine generally, she blames him for some of the erosion of Catholic loyalty.

"On certain things, like the place of women in the church and birth control, I wish he would change, I wish he would be more modern," she said.

It is not the view of an outsider.

Active church member

Ms. Moody describes herself as "actively involved with the church." She is a member of the Youth Council of Holy Family Parish in Middletown.

She is excited by the prospect of being with "thousands of other young people who are interested in the church, who are interested in more than the typical high school things like sports."

Whether John Paul's popularity has dropped is of little concern to her. "He seems very far away," she said. "The events surrounding his visit are more of a draw than the pope himself."

Mr. Berry, who graduated from Loyola High School this year and will enter Marquette University in Milwaukee in the fall, does not entirely agree. "To tell the truth, I think the pope is the central thing," he said. "There's sort of a presence about him. I expect to feel the faith coming off of him in Denver.

"It's a big highlight for me, a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

But like Ms. Moody, Mr. Berry is disappointed by what he sees as the pope's intransigence on some religious and social issues.

"Times are changing, and there's a new breed of Catholic," the Shrine of the Little Flower parishioner said. "The church can preach and preach and preach that contraceptives shouldn't be allowed, but if some people can't afford to have children, and yet are married and are faithful to Catholic ideals, why shouldn't they allowed to have sex?"

He said he is "strongly against abortion because it's taking a life," but even on that issue there needs to be some Catholic flexibility. "In extreme cases, such as incest or rape, it might be justified," he said.

The World Youth event is a biennial international gathering of Catholics, ages 13 to 39, started by the pope eight years ago in Rome. His subsequent World Youth celebrations were in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1987; Santiago de Compostela, Spain, in 1989; and Czestochowa, Poland, in 1991.

The pontiff is scheduled to arrive in Denver Thursday after stops today and tomorrow in Kingston, Jamaica, and Wednesday in Merida, on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

Pope John Paul regularly uses his world travels -- this week's will be the 60th trip of his 15-year papacy -- to focus on what he sees as social, cultural and moral questions specific to the country he is visiting. His rousing speeches about democracy in Chile in 1987 were considered a powerful influence in the peaceful stepping aside of dictator Augusto Pinochet.

The Vatican denied reports last week in Europe that the pope might use his trip to the United States to issue the encyclical -- the papal teaching document -- on morality that he has been preparing for at least three years. But there has been speculation that his speeches in Denver will draw on its text to reaffirm once again the unpopular Catholic ban on artificial birth control and to curtail theologians' dissenting writings on this and other moral questions.

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