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September 26, 2006

Slow Death of a Great Church

Roy Meachum

The Roman Catholic Church is dying. It's been happening a long time, since at least the French Revolution. The continuing scandal about sexual preying and the current pope's arrogance make obvious what was not visible in my youth.

Entering Holy Cross College at age nine, I fell under the care of Annunciation nuns who ran the kitchen, the laundry and the infirmary. They had a contract with the Congregation of Holy Cross brothers who presided over the classrooms and playing fields.

The good ladies were chased from their homes by the secular movement, a reaction to the once total political influence exerted by Rome, which chose and toppled rulers. The nuns had fled France before World War I when new laws placed crippling restrictions on churches and permitted no clerical clothes (habits) in public. When they retired or died, there were no more nuns at Holy Cross.

The school itself stands now completely bereft of the men and women in black who raised me. When Katrina wrecked the campus last year, the sole remaining brother picked up his cassock's skirt and ran off to his Texas' mother house. He was the last, according to Holy Cross officials.

The crisis over vocations arose from Vatican II promises unredeemed by the papal curia, among them the clergy's right to marry. I was in Rome, in 1969, for the bishops' synod about the Encyclical on Human Life.

While birth control was the hot topic, 500 to a 1,000 priests showed up, still hoping they would be permitted to take wives; a few already had. In a Saturday sermon, at St. John's Without the Walls, Paul VI destroyed their hopes.

The encyclical's position on contraception resulted, we were told, from the most conservative panel's findings.

Two committees were willing to accept birth control; as long as the link remained between love-giving and life-giving, no sin. With an eye on developing nations, the curia slapped down a veto, forbidding church members to use contraceptives. They wanted more Catholics. Instead, they exacerbated the AIDS epidemic that has been roaring around the globe for years.

The World Health Organization reports Africans tend to ignore contraceptives, even when they're available, making them perhaps good Catholics but adding to the endemic disaster that started on that continent. The international charity AVERTS summarized the United Nations' 2006 Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic in making this statement:

"Sub-Saharan Africa is more heavily affected by HIV and AIDS than any other region of the world. An estimated 24.5 million people were living with HIV at the end of 2005 and approximately 2.7 million new infections occurred during the year."

The weight of the Rome's ruling on birth control largely fell on men and women in industrialized nations, like the United States. And they were disposed to believe, as their Protestant equals, the Vatican had no business in their bedroom. They voted protests with their feet.

And their pockets, as the saying goes.

You've read the stories. Millions awarded to sexual victims are not being replaced in collection plates, forcing dioceses to sell off churches. Boston's cardinal disposed of his magnificent Commonwealth Avenue complex.

While the bishops claim 80 million Americans follow their teachings, surveys report less than one in four attends Sunday mass. Places like Frederick provide exceptions, because of all the recent arrivals. Going to church is a sure-fire way to meet the community, and vice versa.

Established congregations like Libertytown's St. Peter's and Frederick's St John's have frantically scheduled additional services. Underused facilities are bursting at the seams, and St. Katherine Drexell's is being built.

Bulging exurban pews will almost certainly prove to be short-lived, as Pope John XXIII feared. With the hope of engendering new momentum in the church, he summoned the Councils of Vatican II. The pope announced he wanted to bring the church up-to-date: aggiornomiente, in Italian.

Assisted by the remarkable Jesuit Cardinal Augustin Bea, the pope meant to decentralize; he wanted power dispersed in local hands that would be more responsive to local needs. As a former Vatican bureaucrat, he understood the Curia's stifling effect on ideas that come from outside Rome.

Literally midway through the Councils, when proposed policies were still in the debating stage, the man born Angelo Roncalli died and his hoped-for reforms were buried with him. So was future life for the church.

Had John XXIII lived there might have been the sex scandals. But a weakened Vatican bureaucracy would not have been able to keep in power offending bishops. Boston's Bernard Cardinal Law's infamous cover-up added more victims. More than several bishops followed his example.

And Josef Ratzinger might have very well stayed in Germany where he could have wielded more real authority. There would have been no need to tunnel into the Curia to control the apparatus that made him supreme pontiff. The papacy would have lost much of its power, under John XXIII's planned reformation, at any rate.

And certainly a more open Vatican could have prevented Benedict XVI from riling up another major religion to the point that its fanatics burned and killed, opening another chasm between the Catholic leadership and the faithful.

Not counting the church's own fanatics. And they exist.

Going into the weekend, there were accounts of Indonesia's Muslims being driven from their homes, beaten and terrified by Christian mobs, reacting to the executions of three Catholics convicted of killing Muslims in earlier riots. Every machete slash subtracted from the moral right of Rome to lecture to the rest of humankind.

My poor church.

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