A traditionalist looking back at the 1950s sees a golden age of American Catholicism--fish on Friday, confession on Saturday, seminaries full and John Kennedy on the road toward the White House. The liberal (or lapsed) Roman Catholic may have a different take: sexual repression, nuns and priests perched like crows above the cowering innocent, Sister Nutcase brandishing a ruler. Now, in the waning days of the papacy of John Paul II, and particularly after the 2002 priest scandals, the contradictions have, if anything, hardened. Conservatives work to institutionalize their resistance, and liberals wait wistfully, hoping that they have time on their side.
Who'll win? Two first-rate new studies line up more or less on the side of time and the liberals. Peter Steinfels' A People Adrift (Simon & Schuster; 392 pages,) and David Gibson's The Coming Catholic Church (HarperSanFrancisco; 350 pages) are both thoughtful, moderate in their judgments and worried. "If the church does not change," says Gibson, "Catholicism will hardly disappear. But it will face the sadder fate of a slow-motion enervation."
At this point, necessity seems to make better arguments for change than ideology can. In the 1950s there was one priest for every 650 American Catholics. By 2005, according to one survey, there could be one priest for every 2,200. Many American priests are overworked, demoralized by loneliness and scandal, underrespected. According to Gibson's statistics, more than 3,000 (out of 19,000) U.S. parishes are without a resident pastor, and about 2,400 are forced to share a pastor. In the meantime, the exodus from nunneries has been spectacular.
In response, lay Catholics today participate in parish life in numbers--and exert an influence--unimaginable a few generations ago. For the church, that is good news and bad--the bad news being that the muscle tone of the institution suffers when numbers of American individualists feel free to do it themselves, as they have long since done in regard to contraception. The American form may become a sort of Shinto Catholicism--a mild form of Sunday theater.
Facts on the ground seem to argue for the ordination of women and for allowing priests to marry. But beyond such sexy controversies, the deeper question is how the inherently authoritarian leadership of the Catholic Church--in many ways sclerotic, brittle, self-defensive in the manner of all aging bureaucracies--can preserve what is best and permanent, what is sacred, while letting in fresh air and new life. Can what is changeless be preserved only by the intelligent application of change? --By Lance Morrow