On weekend pope was to visit, meetings point up split in church

October 23, 1994|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Sun Staff Writer

This is the Sunday that Pope John Paul II was to have spent in Maryland. And in downtown Baltimore yesterday, the papal visit that didn't happen occasioned forceful expressions by Roman Catholics of sharply opposing views of their church.

Health considerations forced Pope John Paul to cancel his trip. But even without his presence, his uncompromising theological leadership was the point of divergence between Catholic liberals and conservatives meeting here separately.

At an all-day convocation at the Omni Inner Harbor Hotel, a succession of Catholic lay leaders with national reputations agreed with Thomas P. Melady, the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican from 1989 to 1993, who affirmed that "our teachings are set forth by those authorized by Catholic tradition to teach" -- the pope and bishops.

"There should be no confusion about what Catholic teachings are," Mr. Melady said.

George Weigel, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., reminded the 400 conference participants of what Josef Stalin once asked derisively about a previous pope, Pius XII: "How many divisions does he have?"

The decisive answer came when communism fell in eastern Europe under Pope John Paul II, Mr. Weigel said. "We should feel proud and humbly grateful to be counted among that pope's divisions," he said.

Developing the theme of the conference -- the perceived need for the Catholic laity in the United States to defend Catholic principles more openly -- Mr. Weigel said, "We are all called to be witnesses to the truth." And in that effort, he said, "We have no surer guide, no wiser counselor, than John Paul II."

The event was arranged by Catholic Campaign for America, which was founded to influence public policy and counter Catholics who regularly challenge the pope and the hierarchy on such issues as abortion and birth control, the celibacy required of Catholic clergy and the ordination of women. Plans for the conference had been made before last month's cancellation of Pope John Paul's visit.

Also planned before the cancellation was a "prayer service for healing" nearby, sponsored by several Catholic dissident groups.

Preaching at the service at Old Otterbein United Methodist Church, Fred Ruof told a congregation of about 40 that today's Catholicism is afflicted with "the disease of rejection and exclusion."

Mr. Ruof, an ordained Catholic who is not permitted to function as a priest in his church because he is married, said "John Paul has turned his back on a vast proportion of the Catholic, Christian people." Among excluded Catholics, he said, are married priests like him self, women who want to be ordained, people who believe women have a right to an abortion, and homosexuals.

He recalled the pontificate of Pope John XXIII in the 1960s and said, "Remember when our leadership was truly Catholic, truly embracing, not fearful?"

The service was co-sponsored by the Baltimore affiliate of Call To Action, a national organization of Catholic liberals; Corpus, an organization of married Catholic priests; Dignity, a group of Catholic gays and lesbians; and the ecumenical Federation of Christian Ministries.

Before the service, Mr. Ruof denounced what he said was "out-of-line repressive action" by the Archdiocese of Baltimore last week.

An archdiocesan official disciplined a Baltimore County lay woman advocating the right to an abortion. Susan Hughes Gray was told she may not hold a leadership position in her parish until she "publicly recants."

"Personally, I deplore abortion," Mr. Ruof said. "I especially denounce abortion when it is casually used as a form of birth prevention."

But he also said, "I affirm free choice."

A very different view of abortion was expressed at the Catholic Campaign for America conference.

There, the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, a former Lutheran

minister who is now a Catholic priest and theologian, expressed optimism about the conservative leanings of "a new generation of Catholics" and dismissed an older generation of Catholics and other Christians who favor abortion rights. "We wear their enmity as a badge of honor," Father Neuhaus said.

Democratic Gov. Robert P. Casey of Pennsylvania was roundly applauded when he decried "the human carnage of abortion in our society" and declared, "The unborn child is at the center of our cultural debate."

The governor, Father Neuhaus and Mr. Weigel were among a dozen high-profile Catholics who spoke in support of the pope's vision for his church. They included former Bendix Corp. Vice President Mary Cunningham Agee, former Education Secretary William J. Bennett, Domino's Pizza President Thomas S. Monaghan and author Michael Novak.

"If every one of the 60 million Catholics in America lived their faith, voted their faith, they would transform this country," Mr. Bennett said.

In a brief interview after his talk, he was asked if he had any objection to the dissident Catholic group holding its meeting nearby. "It's a free country," he replied.

Then he added with a laugh, in a reference to his co-existence in the same church with a Democratic senator who supports the right to an abortion, "Look, I'm in the same parish with Ted Kennedy."

On one point, there was agreement between the traditionalist Catholics at the Omni and the liberals meeting at Old Otterbein. Both groups said they wanted "private Catholicism," the core beliefs of people in the pews, to become "public Catholicism."

They simply differed markedly in their understanding of the prevailing "private Catholicism."

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