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Progressive faithfulseek to save church page 2
John Gehring's op-ed column on the aftermath of Vatican II

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Date published: 11/25/2012


In the years after the council, however, the church retrenched. The next pope, Paul VI, ignored the majority report of his own theological commission when in 1968 he declared birth control to be an "intrinsic evil" even for married couples. The charismatic Pope John Paul II (1978-2005) cracked down on "liberation theology" movements in Latin America led by priests and nuns standing with the poor in the face of oppressive right-wing governments. He also offered stinging critiques of unfettered capitalism and made historic steps to improve Christian-Jewish relations. But his 27-year papacy was largely defined by a conservative sexual theology, a staunch defense of the all-male priesthood, and blindness to the clerical sexual-abuse crisis that engulfed the church.

Now Pope Benedict XVI's doctrine office has cracked down on an organization called the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents most U.S. nuns. A scathing report from the Vatican in April blasted the group for "promoting radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith." It chided the nuns for largely focusing on social justice at the expense of speaking out against same-sex marriage and abortion. The Vatican appointed Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain to oversee the conference.

The Vatican's tone-deaf scolding of self-sacrificing nuns is just the latest sign that church leaders may be dragging Catholicism, known for social justice and intellectual rigor, into the reactionary arms of fundamentalist Christianity. On the same day the Vatican sought to rein in American nuns, it reached out to reconcile with the Society of St. Pius X, a traditionalist group founded by the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre that broke with the church in the wake of Vatican II.


Yet puritanical Catholicism that fixates on policing sexual morality and claims to be the victim of a godless secular culture is unlikely to help the church flourish. Nearly 10 percent of U.S. adults are former Catholics, which makes them the third-largest U.S. "denomination."

Even some bishops are sounding the alarm. Cardinal Carlo Martini of Milan, in a final interview before his death this summer, lamented that the church is "200 years out of date" and so focused on lecturing about sexuality that its leaders are in danger of being perceived as a "caricature in the media."

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Catholicism's fate: A Roman version of moral majority?

John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, and a former assistant director for media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.