Taking the pulse of American Catholicism after its annus horribilis, the New York Times’ veteran religion correspondent offers a diagnosis of how the Church wound up in intensive care.
Though sex-abuse scandals have dominated the headlines, problems in the Church run deeper, as indicated by falling “Catholic indicators” such as church attendance rates, knowledge of faith, and ratio of priests to parishioners. “If the sex abuse scandal had never occurred, the Catholic Church in the United States would still face a crisis,” comments Steinfels (Neoconservatism, 1979, etc.), former editor of the liberal Catholic journal Commonweal. Many of the Church’s difficulties, he observes, stem from two transitions occurring simultaneously: the passage from a pre– to a post–Vatican Council generation and from clerical to lay leadership. With great subtlety, the author traces how these transitions will affect worship, spiritual life, religious education and formation, leadership, and the Church’s vast network of hospitals and social services. Men ordained during John Paul II’s papacy, he suggests, might be more involved with priestly roles than with organizational and administrative tasks that would require lay participation. Moreover, the declining number of parochial schools requires greater stress on “catechetical programs” (the new phrase for religious instruction) that often add little to children’s understanding of their faith. The author’s mastery of material enables him to provide unexpected insights. For instance, he warns like many others that without large-scale changes in vowed or religious life, the Church will never have enough priests or nuns to keep up with population growth. But he offers a different reason than most: Vatican II’s recent recognition that the call to holiness in marriage and the family is as rewarding as the life of the celibate—a change that not even John Paul II is prepared to reverse.
A refreshingly balanced perspective often missing from both conservative (Michael Rose’s Goodbye, Good Men) and liberal (Garry Wills’s Papal Sin) jeremiads about the troubles in this venerable institution.