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Americans saw pope differently

Sun., April 10, 2005

When Pope John Paul II died on April 2, tens of thousands of people in Rome, Latin America and other parts of the world fell to their knees and wept.

That wave of emotion, however, didn’t sweep across Catholics here in quite the same way. In fact, when news of the pope’s death spread throughout the community last Saturday, crowds didn’t flock to the churches for prayer.

For many American Catholics, John Paul was a deeply spiritual man, but he was hardly the focus of their faith. For some, he was merely a figurehead, one they disagreed with on a number of issues including married clergy, artificial birth control and the role of women.

“I’m not Catholic because of the Pope,” explained Linda Kobe-Smith, a member of St. Ann’s parish in East Central Spokane. “The center of my Catholicism is a God who is very much sacrament, a constant, outward, invisible sign of grace. The people who keep me Catholic are the everyday people of my life.”

In the same way she was encouraged by John Paul’s message of peace, Kobe-Smith also finds inspiration among women and men who work silently and tirelessly on behalf of the poor, mothers who raise their children and care for their elderly parents, people who have the courage to face hardships in their life.

John Paul “was another Catholic on the journey,” she said. “While being a good man, he was not the center of my faith.”

While the late pope was revered like an icon in predominantly Catholic countries such as the Philippines and Mexico, a growing number of American Catholics didn’t necessarily agree with the teachings of their church’s leader.

“We just must be a different breed,” said Barb Hutchison of Spokane, one of the founding members of the local Voice of the Faithful, a group of lay Catholics whose goals include supporting victims of clergy sexual abuse and involving the laity in church governance.

“Americans love the Holy Father – he was so spiritual and a leader in the modern world,” said Hutchison, whose Polish ancestry made the late pontiff more endearing to her. At the same time, however, “he could not grasp the importance of birth control and women’s rights.”

A CBS News poll conducted in April 2002 found that a majority of American Catholics – 71 percent – favored the use of artificial birth control. That same poll, taken at the height of the child sex abuse scandals, also found that seven in 10 Catholics favored letting priests get married.

A growing number of Catholics in this country also want women and laity to have a greater role in the church.

While it’s usually the more liberal folks who are deemed “cafeteria Catholics” – the ones who pick and choose among the church’s many doctrines – some people who consider themselves conservative and more in line with the Vatican’s teachings also disagreed with the pope on issues that include capital punishment and the war in Iraq.

Because of the schism between their views and those of their church’s leader, some Catholics saw the pope more as a ceremonial leader like the Queen of England instead of a spiritual pastor. A Fox News poll conducted last month found that only 29 percent saw the pope’s role as a “moral example.” Half of them described him only as a “religious leader” and 18 percent said both.

In the United States, John Paul’s influence was felt most strongly among the clergy and in the seminaries, said Pat McCormick, a religious studies professor at Gonzaga University. As a result, younger priests today tend to be more conservative than older ones.

John Paul’s message of peace and social justice rang true among the laity and American Catholic theologians, but his position on women’s ordination “became less understandable and less persuasive,” McCormick said.

Catholics in the Inland Northwest continue to hail the way John Paul opened his arms to Jews, Muslims and people of all faiths. Both young and old were touched by his courage and moved by his charisma.

But some also were disappointed with the way he centralized authority in the Vatican and his opposition to the left-leaning politics of “liberation theology” – the belief that the Christian Gospel demands “a preferential option for the poor,” and that the church should be involved in the struggle for economic and political justice.

Some groups – including gays and lesbians and victims of clergy sexual abuse – felt left out in the cold.

Still others were insulted by his unwillingness to discuss women’s ordination. Although some would argue that John Paul promoted women in every area possible, the late pope did not believe women could be priests because Jesus Christ and his apostles were all men. Admitting only men to the priesthood is an “infallible” church doctrine.

Mary Lee Gaston, a member of St. Aloysius Church, found inspiration in John Paul – “I love this pope,” she said. But she wished he could have done more for women besides bless them and promote motherhood.

A widow and a mother of eight who is adamantly against abortion, Gaston said the Catholic Church must respect and value its laity just as much as the clergy.

Gaston has a master’s degree in religious studies and graduated from Gonzaga’s Ministry Institute in 2000. Some of her male classmates are now ordained priests or deacons. Only one woman from her class became a priest – but she had to join the Episcopal Church.

Although she never felt called to ordained religious life, Gaston would like to be able to preach and say homilies at Mass. But because she’s a woman, she’s not allowed to fill that role. She wishes the church she loves so dearly would acknowledge her experience, her passion, her gifts.

“We’ve been ordered off the altar,” Gaston said.

While some, including McCormick at Gonzaga, are “cautiously hopeful” that John Paul’s successor will be more open to dialogue, others, like Gaston, aren’t as optimistic. The Vatican will maintain the status quo, she said, simply because nearly all the cardinals who will vote for the next pope were handpicked by John Paul.

The new leader of the Roman Catholic Church will have to wrestle not only with globalization, poverty and Christianity’s co-existence with the Muslim world, experts say, but also must address issues that continue to plague Catholics in the United States, including the fallout from clergy sexual abuse.

American Catholics, after all, contribute about 25 percent of the Vatican’s annual budget, according to a report on Beliefnet. With 61 million baptized Catholics, the United States has the world’s third largest population of Catholics.

“What are the critical components of a Christian and a Catholic?” asked Hutchison, a longtime member of Assumption in north Spokane who now attends St. Al’s. “If it’s going to be their views on abortion and contraception instead of the message of Jesus Christ, then there’s going to be a chasm (between the Vatican and American Catholics).”

For Gaston, the church’s hope doesn’t lie in the next pope alone.

“The laity will create the future church,” she said.


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