Pope faces diminishing Catholic faith in the West

Believers offer variety of solutions for key issue

April 24, 2005|By Robert Little and Janice D'Arcy | Robert Little and Janice D'Arcy,SUN STAFF

VATICAN CITY - John Paul Sonnen brought an American flag to St. Peter's Square last week to celebrate the election of Pope Benedict XVI, a banner that the 26-year-old theology student from St. Paul, Minn., waved back and forth to show the new pontiff that many Americans were "supportive of the church."

But he might have saved his effort, for the dearth of U.S. flags here the past three weeks - and of flags from any Western nations - was indicative of an issue that has affected the church worldwide and altered the Vatican's course.

Church officials, Vatican observers and lay Catholics in Rome for the papal transition this month made clear in dozens of interviews that the apparent secularization and declining faith in the United States and Western Europe have emerged as perhaps the most vexing and consequential issues that the German pontiff will face.

The solutions offered were as varied and contradictory as the believers who proposed them.

Some said women must be invited into the church's leadership for it to be taken seriously in the 21st century. Others said the church has to solidify and enforce its policies excluding women.

A student from the United States longed for a place where his objections to abortion and homosexuality are welcomed and promoted. An activist from Germany called the church's prohibition of condoms unrealistic and dangerous, saying it is killing people in the developing world.

Others sought procedural changes, including the Jesuit professor who thinks local bishops need more freedom to tailor their messages and the seminary rector who believes the church must reinforce a single, universal message throughout the world.

Although there is little agreement on the best way for the church to reach out to its declining constituency in the West, Catholics who pondered the issue called it the most important question of their generation. And all agreed that Pope Benedict XVI's solution would probably determine the efficacy - and the legacy - of his reign.

"When we think of the Catholic Church, we tend to imagine just the kind of images we've been seeing on television the last two weeks: elderly men in red robes shuffling around with organ music playing," said Lawrence S. Cunningham, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

"But the true role of the church is as the bearer of the gospel, something that takes place in the parishes and the missions, and in the streets with the poor and the prostitutes.

"How can the church operate successfully in a climate that is antagonistic to the Gospel? That will be a central question for this papacy."

`Quite worried'

The new pope long recognized the problem, in his writings and speeches before taking the name Benedict, the patron saint of Europe. And he addressed it again this week when he pledged to "work tirelessly toward the reconstitution of the full and visible unity of all Christ's followers."

"He's quite worried about Germany, I know, his own country," American Cardinal Avery Dulles said. "The whole Western European situation is dismal from his point of view."

The pope has given some indication of his proposed solution. In an address to church leaders before his election, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger urged his colleagues to reject efforts to conform church teachings to modern sensibilities. To soften the church's opposition to such matters as birth control and homosexuality to fall into vogue would be dishonest and destructive to the church's history and beliefs, his supporters said afterward.

That conservative, hard-edged approach to evangelism might alienate people and cause a further decline in membership in some parts of the world, they acknowledged. But it will leave the church with a tighter, stronger core of followers, better able to attract the disenchanted, not with concessions but with the power of the church's message, they said.

"It is important that we have a person who understands the contemporary world, the world in which we are living, that he understands the music, the legislative currents, the artistic currents, that he is fully immersed in the modern and post-modern world," said Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, 72, an American cardinal who works at the Vatican.

Just as important, Stafford said, "we need a person who is in touch with the great traditions of the Catholic Church."

That complexity and dichotomy of the church's relationship with everyday life is displayed in nearly every answer to the question of how far the church should go to make itself more relevant and necessary.

Sonnen, the flag-waving theology student, said he believes from reading the Bible that abortion and homosexuality are wrong and that he takes comfort in a church that refuses to change that viewpoint to appeal to people who believe otherwise.

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