US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Opposites Distract

By Bob Zyskowski | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

IT'S A PRIZE FIGHT-progressive Catholics against traditional Catholics,liberals against conservatives. But while the boxers slug it out inthe ring, who is paying attention?

Does anyone care about the outcome? Do the people in the stands-er,pews-even identify with the factions in the church in theUnited States? Does it matter to ordinary Catholics that their churchis polarized? Should it matter?

Caught in the middle

JULIE FRENCH, 44, WORKS ASa restorative care aide in a nursing home in the northeast Montanatown of Scobey, population 1,000. French does funeral preparation inher parish, is a leader in the parish women's group, and this yearwill be taking classes to preside at weekend services on those two orthree Sundays a year when there is no priest at St. Philip Church,which is 17 miles from the Canadian border.

French has the pulse of her community, and her assessment is that Catholicsin Scobey don't seem to be directly affected by the verbal sparringof Catholics from the left and right.

"Ithink the polarization in the church concerns Catholics here," saysFrench. "But what we see are these two factions going at one another,and we're caught in the middle."

The major issues that cause polarization are no secret:

-Should priests be allowed to marry?

-Should women be ordained?

-Should the church relax its stand on birth control?

-Should Mass be a celebration of community or a solemn occasion ofpersonal prayer?

-Should inclusive language be the norm in worship?

-Should the laity and local churches have more authority?

ASDIVISIVE AS THESE ISSUES ARE,for the most part, average Catholics don't seem to worry much aboutthe opposite poles in their church, for several reasons:

-They are ignorant of the issues and the potential impact they mayhave on their own faith lives. In one survey of 1,000 Catholics, 73percent said they were unfamiliar with the term inclusivelanguage.

-The issues of importance to one generation of Catholics are of noreal importance to another younger generation-"Bring back the LatinMass? What's that?"

-The American culture has moved some of the issues beyond the in-houseCatholic debates. For example, the question of whether marriedcouples should be able to use contraceptive methods to control thenumber of children they have is beyond the vaguest comprehension ofmany young people. "Would that were the question for them!" says a30-something Catholic, who notes that the struggle among teenagers isnot about whether to use birth control but when they should becomesexually active.

-The church has been talking about some of these issues for a longtime. Nothing has changed and it isn't likely to in most adults'lifetimes. Why continue arguing if all it is going to do is divideus? What more can be said? What new insight will make adifference?

-If you don't like the style of one parish, in most cases you can findone nearby that will suit your tastes, especially in a metropolitanarea.

-People have much more important things to do with their time, likelearning how to apply the gospel to their daily lives and passing ontheir faith to their children.

-People have so much stress and pressure in their daily lives thatwhen they have time for personal spiritual enrichment, they wouldrather not be involved in legalistic arguments.

Beyond the labels

TO SOME CATHOLICS,however, the church is in crisis. A relatively new, right-of-centermagazine is named Crisisand subtitled "Politics, Culture & the Church." Anotherpublication is simply titled Dissent.

Nationallydistributed newspapers feed the fire. The Wanderer,the standard bearer of ultraconservatives, continues to blast away,scolding bishops, priests, religious, and laity alike who dareimplement creative solutions to the pressing issues of the day. TheNationalCatholic Reportercriticizes from the other side of the aisle, deriding Vaticandecisions and questioning the use of papal authority.

Bill Yacullo, a business executive from Glenview, Illinois, says he doesn't see polarization causing a crisis in his parish. Active for many years in men's ministry on the parish and diocesan level in Chicago, Yacullo says he was amazed recently at all the people in church for a weekday Mass.

"It was our anniversary, so my wife and I went to 6:30 a.m. Mass," says Yacullo. "She goes all the time, but I usually don't during the week. There were 200 people in church that morning. I think that's incredible."

Yacullo says he occasionally attends Old St. Patrick's Church in downtown Chicago, a once-tired parish that was given new life with the infusion of ministry to young adults. "I get energized going to Old St. Patrick's-seeing all the young people. And there are a lot of other churches in the Chicago area that are thriving in that way. There's a lot of great stuff going on in the church."

ONE OF THE REASONS that the Catholic middle in the U.S. may not be enamored with the jabbing of church liberals and conservatives may have been uncovered by Father Andrew Greeley in a recent sociological study. Greeley's results show that Catholic polarization around the issues of sexual morality, the role of women, divorce, and abortion has actually declined since 1972 and is less than the polarization found in the rest of U.S. society. In other words, while Catholic thinkers tend to be consistently liberal or conservative, most people in general are not.

Take Julie Drake, for example. An active prolife advocate, this Florida realtor identifies herself as a conservative. But is she? She doesn't see anything wrong with the use of inclusive language in the liturgy. On the issue of married priests, Drake says, "I think we will probably see married priests some day. That possibly might be something I would support because we've lost a lot of good priests."

While the Wanderer sees anyone who does not support its views as belonging to the heretical "Amchurch"-meaning: not really Catholic-Drake says, "It's not for me to define what a good Catholic is." And while some conservative Catholics tell those working for change in the church that if they don't like the church as it is they should leave, Drake says, "I certainly wouldn't kick anybody out of the church, but through persuasion, I'd try to bring them over to our side."

When these differences were brought to her attention, Drake corrected her self-identification: "I guess I should have said I'm conservative on prolife issues."

Rather than debate other issues, Drake lives out her faith by lobbying in the Florida state legislature on behalf of prolife legislation. She is also active as an advocate of women's leadership in the church, business, and community, particularly with the Council of Catholic Women.

Drake says she doesn't see polarization necessarily harming the church, butthe lack of unity does trouble her on issues that are close to herprolife interests.

"Theone issue that divides most Catholics who are prolife is capitalpunishment. That's a very touchy subject with most prolife people,"says Drake. "On some issues I'm willing to look at the other side,but we certainly must go by the teachings of the church. We have theCatechism and Pope John Paul II's encyclical TheGospel of Life.We have to uphold the sanctity of life."

More people don't express their opinions on issues "because they don'twant to get involved," says Drake. "Even priests shy away from takinga stand because they don't want to offend anyone."

ON THE OPPOSITE COAST,Joan Higgins says she doesn't see much in the way of polarization atSt. John the Evangelist Parish in San Francisco.

"Maybeit's the circles I walk in," says Higgins, a 60-year-old retirededucator. The issues that are important to the left and the right inthe church are "rarely discussed in casual conversation."

Higgins,who has a master's degree in education administration, says, "I knowthe issues, and I'm in support of some of them. But I'm not going togo out there and fight for them. The issues matter to me, and I feelthat in time they'll be resolved. But at this point nothing's goingto happen-probably not in my lifetime."

Higginssays she would rather see the church put more energy into attractingyoung adults and more effort into helping people pass their faith onto their children.

UPIN MONTANA,Julie French recommends that a little less finger-pointing and alittle more humility may go a long way to bringing the extremescloser together.

"EverydayCatholics seem to get caught up in labels attached to groups," shesays. "As Catholics, if we are going to find common ground, we'regoing to have to get away from the labels. When push comes to shove,we agree on more than we disagree. And when we do disagree, we haveto realize that neither way is right or wrong. We need to remember weare all church and we are all learning to live out church."

Life goes on

SCOTTAPPLEBY HAS BEEN MAPPINGthe preferences and opinions of U.S. Catholics as part of hisresearch as director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of AmericanCatholicism at the University of Notre Dame. He makes thisobservation:

"Onthe one hand, there are the ideologues bickering away, theintelligentsia, theologians, journalists, and professional pastoralleaders. What they are talking about is removed, on a certain level,from what goes on in the parish.

"LocalCatholic parishes, on the other hand, are a very vital and vibrantreality. The local Catholic community has its own issues, and at basethey are sacramental and developmental. There's a rhythm to thatlife. You can be part of that life and not be aware of the latestcontroversy. Parishes are affected in a more remote way by what goeson at the two ends of the spectrum."

Applebyrecalled visiting his parents and attending Mass with them at theirparish in suburban St. Louis. It happened to be a Sunday when thelectionary called for the reading of the infamous passage from SaintPaul's letter to the Ephesians in which the evangelist says women areto be submissive to their husbands.

Noone stood up to protest. No one walked out of the church. "I heard alittle snickering," Appleby says, "but that's all."

INTHE NEWS AT THE TIME,too, was the rumor that the pope would name the Blessed Mother aco-mediator with Jesus. Although the story was on the cover ofNewsweek,there was no mention of the controversy at all at the parish.

"Itwas not addressed from the pulpit, and people weren't talking aboutit in the back of church after Mass," Appleby says.

Whatdo the middle-ground U.S. Catholics care about if they don't careabout these so-called hot topics?

"Themiddle portion of U.S. Catholics are more concerned with how thechurch supports family life and how it sacrally ritualizes theimportant times of passage in their lives," Appleby says. Among thecore parishes he has studied, a few are trying to stay au courantwith the polarizing issues. These are more susceptible to discussingthe debates going on among the elites, Appleby says.

"Theywill want to experiment with liturgy, for example," he says. "Theprogressive or liberal parishes where there is a strong core such asthis are a relatively small percentage of Catholic parishes acrossthe nation. To the extent that you have active lay participation andprofessional pastoral leadership, you may have greater awareness ofthe cutting-edge issues.

"ButI don't mean to say parishes are immune from thecontroversies."

The circuit riders

THECONTROVERSIES THAT KEEP Catholics from the opposite corners of the ring bobbing and weavingare fed by what Appleby called "circuit riders"-theologians,experts, and intellectuals who make a living going from diocese todiocese for speaking engagements.

Somepunch from the left, some from the right.

"Thereis a percentage of these who are trying to stay ahead of the curve,"Appleby says, "and another group who would have you think Vatican IIdidn't happen."

Notthat their motives aren't pure, he adds, but "it is in their bestinterests to keep the controversies going and take them in a way themainstream doesn't want to go."

Headds, "A lot of the invective is fairly specialized and technical,too," and of interest only to a small niche of scholars.

Buteven the scholars who are part of the Catholic Theological Society ofAmerica are not at the point of creating a schism and breaking awayfrom the church, Appleby notes. When this past summer at their annualconference in Minneapolis they once again questioned the church'sreasoning in the Vatican decision that bars women from ordination,the members of the CTSA in their paper, in sum, said, we should keepdiscussing the idea of women priests. "Which means they are stilllistening to the hierarchy," Appleby says, "which indicates they aremoderate."

WHAT HAPPENS IN BOTH CORNERSo f the ring is "demonizing" of the other, Appleby says. "If youconfine yourself to reading or listening to Frances Kissling (aliberal) and George Weigel (a conservative), you can come away withthe impression that the Catholic Church is irreparably split.

"Theneoconservatives have a mindset that says if you don't like what thepope and the bishops teach, get out of the church. If you readNCR[NationalCatholic Reporter]and listen to the Call to Action types, you get a very differentsense of church.

"Whenyou go into the parishes, what you come away with is a much morevital or harmonious situation."

Whilesome blame the media for focusing on the extreme points of view atboth ends of the ideological spectrum, Appleby disagrees: "The mediadid not create the problems. There are real, substantive differences,and it is basically differing interpretations of Vatican II," hesays.

Manypeople thought those issues were settled, but the lingeringdivisiveness trickles down to a level that touches peoples' lives,primarily in the areas of liturgy and church governance, Applebysays. "We've not found a way yet to bridge the differences."

One body


"Thecentrality of the Eucharist," Appleby replies. "That is our source ofunity. People will come together at Mass, normally. There is a verybroad middle that includes conservatives, liberals, andmoderates."

Unfortunately,there is not a discourse yet among that broad middle, a way forCatholics at the parish level "to talk together and draw on ourstrengths: the Eucharist, belief in Jesus Christ, respect for thechurch," Appleby says.

Itis one reason the 40-year-old researcher wants to see the CommonGround Initiative work. He sees the high-level conversations amongCatholic elites from both left and right as providing a model for howchurch people can conduct themselves in civil discourse.

Apple by counsels that persuasion and conversion-not authoritarianmeasures-may convince today's Catholic of the correctness of churchteaching.

"Standingon authority and expecting people to obey, that ain't the way itworks anymore," Appleby says.

"Teaching has to generate a free response from people. Even Jesus didn't comedown and say, `Obey me because I'm God.' Jesus continued to persuadeand convert."

MARY KAYE MEDINGER THINKS everyday Catholics are being harmed by the divisiveness in thechurch. The Minnesotan says she has felt the pain of peoplediscounting one another's faith.

Medingeris founding director of Wisdom Ways, an ecumenical resource centerfor spirituality in St. Paul that is cosponsored by the Sisters ofSt. Joseph of Carondelet and by the College of St. Catherine.

Shesays she has seen how the stereotypes of left and right come betweenCatholics and cause them harm in the parish, among ministers, and inthe spiritual direction she does now.

Medingersays she doesn't use terms such as conservativeor liberal"because that puts people's spiritual lives in a stereotypedcolumn."

Medinger,51, has master's degrees in catechetics and liturgy, has taught inthe St. Paul public-school system, and has been involved in ministryas a parish religious-education director, as a teacher in thearchdiocesan permanent diaconate formation program, and now works inadult spiritual faith formation.

"Ithink it's a cop-out to use that language of liberal andconservative," Medinger says. "It's so easy to dismiss the other sidethat way. I find it so painful when people discount one another'sfaith or question the integrity of their faith.

"Itharms the spirit of the body of the whole when people just write eachother off. That sense of just dismissing a person or group bylabeling them is so contrary to the gospel. I don't think that iswhat church is about or what the gospel is about."

Medingernotes that the differing perspectives of Catholics might moreproperly be understood by comparing the different styles of prayerthat suit different personality types.

"Takean introvert and an extrovert," Medinger says. "The prayer that ismeaningful for one is a waste of time for the other. Where people arein their life journey may dictate their needs or their perspective.It depends on how one views church, one's personal relationship withGod, how the community fits in with social teaching. It's not just meand God."

Generational differences

THE ISSUES THAT POLARIZE those who remember the church before 1965 can seem to be less thancutting edge to younger Catholics.

RhodeIsland native Cathleen Kaveny, 36, has a Ph.D. in ethics from Yaleand is an associate professor of law at the University of NotreDame.

"Idon't mean to say the issues the older generation is talking aboutaren't important and worth talking about. It's just that, based onour own experience of church, we see other things as being much moreurgent and pressing, from our own perspective. We grew up in a very,very different context."

Theolder generation, formed in the pre-Vatican II church, had a firmthought structure, a clear worldview. "You knew where you stood,"Kaveny says.

"Somepeople experienced this as very repressive, unopen to change andvarying insights of history, and too legalistic. Conservatives feltit conveyed a welcome certainty. For me and my generation, the churchwas ever-changing. First it was Confession, then Penance, then thesacrament of Reconciliation. They kept changing all of the things.Nobody knew what was what. That led to an utter tentativeness to whatwas being taught.

"Atthe same time, the entire society was falling apart," Kaveny says."There was the Vietnam War, the divorce rate was exploding, nuns andpriests were leaving the church in droves, and we were getting verylittle help from CCD to deal with this."

KAVENY SAYS THE ON GOING debate about the use of contraceptive methods by married couplespales to the problem she saw when she was in high school, where sexwas prevalent. "The argument about whether or not married couplesshould use birth control is not exactly on today's cutting edge ofthe debate. I wish it were," she says.

"There'sa sense that maybe some of the debates have played themselves out,"she says. "There's not much more that can be said. As a scholar I'mgoing to try to look at other issues."

Forher, the pull has been to work on the issue of assisted suicide,"where the church has something to add to the national debate inemphasizing the equal dignity of all human beings," Kavenysays.

Whatelse would the younger generation have the church work on?

"There'sthe whole question of moral formation of teenagers, how to help themthink about issues," Kaveny says.

"Howto integrate prayer life with moral decision-making. Teaching peoplewhat it could possibly mean to follow the way of Christ."

Shesays she finds herself asking, "What kind of person do I want to be?I need to find out how to have a spiritual life, how to think throughmoral issues in a complex way."

Kavenyacknowledges that the post-Vatican II generation of Catholics wasn'tcatechized well, as she put it. "Hopefully the new Catechism willremedy that," she says, "but we're all confronting situations thataren't even covered in the books, such as genetics.

"Wesee the tradition as a source of great wisdom, but that tradition haslots of strands in it, and different people are going to finddifferent aspects of the tradition useful.

"Mygeneration is hungry for the richness of tradition. We really wantthe tradition and the training, but that doesn't mean we're going toaccept the debate of the prior generation."

A place to pray

PAUL ROCHEFORD WOULD FITKaveny's image of the typical 30-something Catholic. A 34-year-oldattorney, Rocheford lives in the Minneapolis suburb of Edina but is amember of St. Olaf Parish in downtown Minneapolis, a church near hisoffice.

Theaccessibility of the church is one reason he's found a spiritual homethere, Rocheford says, but he's also comfortable there becauseideologically St. Olaf is "pretty moderate," he says, "and becausethere are a lot of people there who are my age. There's lots ofenthusiasm there."

Rocheford,who is married, describes himself as a cradle Catholic whose faithwas nourished by attending St. John's University, a Benedictineschool in Collegeville, Minnesota.

Hesays the debates that polarize some in the church aren't big issuesfor him. "A lot of my contemporaries, especially women, have a realissue with some of the things they see in the church," he explains."A lot of the women are firm on women being priests or having a moreactive role in the church. Some of my friends go to St. Joan of Arc,"which has the reputation as the most progressive parish in the TwinCities.

Rochefordsays ideology wasn't a factor in his choice of a parish. "I never sawa Latin Mass," he explains. What he appreciates are opportunities toserve, having been on the parish board, and he continues to lector ata Mass each week. The most significant factor in his choice of churchis that he has found St. Olaf a place to pray.

"St.Olaf is great for me, because working downtown, I can have a time outfrom my work there when I need one," Rocheford says. "The mostimportant factor for me is that it offers an opportunity to goprivately and have my reflection time."

A new tribalism?

ONEOF ROCHEFORD'S POINTS SHOWS UPin other conversations, too. People who find a parish too liberal ortoo conservative for their taste just pick up and find one that iscompatible with their ideology. They vote with their feet.

Butthat's also one of the reasons dialogue is not happening at theparish level between left and right.

"It'swhat Vaclav Havel calls the `new tribalism,'" says Father JamesBacik, an adjunct professor of humanities at the University ofToledo, pastor of Corpus Christi University Parish, and a campusminister for 28 years.

"Peopletend to cluster with those of kindred spirit," Bacik, 60, says. "Whatwe see in the church is a mirror of the culture as a whole, withliberals wanting to be with liberals and conservatives withconservatives.

"Thenew global sense we have-the global village notion and all we knowabout different cultures today-has produced this reaction that isaptly named the new tribalism." Bacik says another factor that hesees coming into play is the busyness and complexity of the world,and people recoiling from that.

"Peoplehave a lot of stress and pressure in their daily lives," he says."When they have time for personal enrichment, they don't want to beinvolved in arguments and fighting and attacks and defenses."

BACIKACKNOWLEDGES THAT HIS UNIVERSITYsetting might be atypical of the average parish, and that squabblesover some polarizing issues do occur.

"Inmany parishes you don't have those kinds of fights," says the priestof the Toledo diocese. "They are of secondary importance to people.There's something more primary about being Catholic: gathering aroundthe Eucharist and an incarnational sense of life; putting intopractice the scriptural lessons they hear in the liturgy.

"Theywant help for their families, guidance on how to live their dailylives, how work connects with faith, how to pass on the heritage totheir children, the best ways of educating theirparishioners."

Whilesome parishes tend to draw an ultraliberal or ultraconservativecrowd, most parishes do not, Father Bacik pointed out. They buck thetrend of the new tribalism by being a home for everyone.

"Youknow, the Elks go with the Elks, but parishes aren't like that," hes ays.

"Weput together young and old, different ethnic backgrounds. That's the beauty of our Eucharist. Conservatives and liberals approach thetable together. Charismatics and people more traditional in theirpiety hear the Word together.

"TheMass is a great catalyst for bringing people together," he added."There's a fundamental quality around the Eucharist. We really shouldcapitalize on that."

FACE-TO-FACEENCOUNTERSbetween two people who see things differently can also help insounding the bell for the end of the fighting among Catholics.

Montana'sJulie French says talking and listening to an East Coast conservativewho is also active in the National Council of Catholic Women helpedthem both.

"WhenI told her of my experiences and she told me her experiences, we cameto respect one another's opinions," French says. "That's all we cando."

Medingersays she watched similar understanding happen among permanentdiaconate candidates from both ends of the ideologicalspectrum.

"Itwas a most amazing thing," the Minnesotan says. "As they came to knowone another's stories and the things that had influenced them, theycame to see there are many ways to be Catholic and remainfaithful."