Tuesday, 12 March 2013

The Pope's relevance has dwindled in US

As the Cardinals gather in the Vatican and prepare to elect a new Pope, is the Papacy still relevant in modern times?

Pope Benedict XVI with George W. Bush
by Monsura Sirajee 

Since the surprise resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, the international press churned out story after story speculating who the next pope will be. Will he be Latin American or African? Liberal or conservative? In favour of or opposed to female leadership?

But there is another question that is on many minds but few lips - is the pope even relevant?

For many American Catholics, the answer seems to be 'no'.

On key "Catholic issues" such as celibacy, birth control, abortion, and female ordination, there is a gap between the official Church position and the unofficial positions of individual Catholic Americans, and this divide is only widening as second-generation Latino-Americans, the largest ethnic group of the American-Catholic Church, tend to be more liberal than their parents.
In a New York Times/CBS News poll released last week, nearly two-thirds of American Catholics favour letting Catholic priests marry and another two-thirds favour female ordination. Meanwhile, only 23% believe that abortion should be forbidden, while nearly four out of every five U.S Catholic favour the use of contraceptives. In other issues, such as the death penalty and same-sex marriage, American Catholic opinion tends to deviate from the Catholic hierarchy.

So does this mean American Catholics are going to hell?

From the perspective of the global Catholic community, maybe. Like their American-Muslim, Jewish, and Protestant counterparts, American Catholics have the luxury of being able to selectively choose which parts of their faith they would like to follow when it suits their tastes. While this cafeteria-faith may be no faith at all according to the global Catholic community, for American Catholics, selective appropriations of the faith is as much a part of the American experience as a suspicion towards higher authority. In one of the most revealing questions of this new poll, respondents were asked whether they are more likely to follow the pope’s teachings or their own conscience. 73% said they would follow their own conscience, while only 13% said the pope.
Catholic demographics worldwide by percentage of population
It is worth noting that for much of American history, Vatican leadership did very much matter - and not just for Catholics. Throughout the 19th century, Protestant feared the Pope and his American Catholic followers were plotting to take over the United States and replace the U.S Constitution with canon law (this sounds strikingly like the recent anti-shariah law campaign occurring throughout the US). As recently as 1960, then- presidential candidate John F Kennedy felt it necessary to promise that he would not be taking orders from the pope should he be elected as president. Although it is more likely that these alleged "fears" of a papal takeover were motivated primarily out of American nativism, since Catholics tended to be immigrants, rather than genuine fear, there was at least the sense that Catholics were attached to the Vatican in some way. The same may not be true today.

So what has changed?

Undoubtedly the sex abuse scandals have severely damaged the Catholic Church in the US. A recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that Catholics in the United States tend to view the scandal over sex abuse by clergy as the most important problem facing their church today. Nearly one-in-ten US Catholics say the church faces a lack of credibility or trust.

Arguably, a loosening of the papal stronghold is the Vatican’s own doing and began before the 2001 exposure of sex abuse cover-ups. In October 1962, Pope John XXIII called Catholic bishops across the globe to the Second Vatican Council, opening the windows of reformation. The results of Vatican II were groundbreaking: Mass was now permitted to be celebrated in local languages instead of only Latin and ecumenical bridges were built especially in Christian-Jewish relations. Perhaps most importantly, the church was more expansively defined as 'the people of God'. Vatican II gave lay Catholics a new role to play in the church. As lay people took on a more active stance, the axis of power no longer lay in the church hierarchy.

With that being said, a more lay-centric, cafeteria-Catholicism does not mean American Catholics do not care who the next pope is. Most American Catholics hoping for a more progressive pope. However, as the College of Cardinals leans towards a more theologically conservative stance, it is unlikely that American Catholics will see the changes they want. For American-Catholics, at least, this may mean another irrelevant pope. @newreligionEU


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