America's liberal Catholics wary of new pope

April 22, 2005|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - The incredible news coverage given to the death of Pope John Paul II and the election of his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, may be baffling to non-Catholics. The papacy, after all, is a religious institution in a world of many religions, and Catholicism is one whose influence today is seriously questioned in this country and in others.

Nobody is heard asking anymore, as Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was said to inquire about Pope Pius XII, "How many divisions has the pope?" Pope John Paul II is widely credited with encouraging the spirit of freedom in his own Poland, marked by the growth of the Solidarity movement and the eventual tumbling of communism in Europe.

At the same time, Pope John Paul was a source of disappointment to many liberal Catholics in the United States and elsewhere for his rigid adherence to church orthodoxy in barring women from the priesthood and marriage for male priests, in categorical opposition to abortion and to the use of condoms in the fight against the AIDS epidemic.

Pope Benedict, who was the church's watchdog on orthodoxy as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under his predecessor, is expected to adhere just as firmly to those positions and the others that cause such chagrin to liberal Catholics in America.

That suggests no diminution of abortion as a political issue here, though polls indicate strong support for abortion rights even among American Catholics. The 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry, as a Catholic, had to deal with sentiment among some priests that he should be denied Holy Communion for being in favor of abortion rights.

Beyond that, the new pope, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, wrote a memorandum to American Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, D.C., during that campaign that appeared to sanction the same denial to any Catholic who supported a pro-choice candidate for that reason.

"A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation with evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion," the German cardinal wrote, "if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate's permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia."

In his homily at St. Peter's Basilica before the conclave of cardinals that later elevated him to the papacy, he warned that the world was "moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as definitive and has as its highest value one's own ego and one's own desires."

Elsewhere, he equated this relativism with Marxism, liberalism and feminism to be shunned by all Catholics. Such utterances may carry weight with some of the faithful, but many others choose to decide for themselves their response to church edicts. The practice of artificial birth control, for example, is widespread among American Catholics though condemned by the church.

The new pope's earlier orthodox statements against homosexuality, gay marriage and reception of Holy Communion by divorced and remarried Catholics also run against the grain of many American Catholics' beliefs and behavior.

The same positions were held by Pope John Paul, leading some communicants to end or diminish their active participation in the church's sacraments and other activities.

For Catholics such as myself who would favor a more resilient approach to church attitudes in the new century and the new papacy, there seems some hope in the comments of other cardinals that Pope Benedict may not be as rigid and doctrinaire as he was as Cardinal Ratzinger.

But the very choice of a 78-year-old man suggests the College of Cardinals wanted the steady hand of a caretaker to give the Catholic Church a breathing spell before facing the challenges of modernity, in America particularly, that clash with its existing standards of behavior and morality.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.

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