Ratzinger told The Times that while he appreciates the "spirit of spontaneity" visible in the church in America, he cautioned U.S. Catholics to heed their "responsibility to the teachings of the church."
Yet, not a few American lay Catholics as well as clergy have expressed fear that the Vatican's actions to enforce doctrinal orthodoxy will backfire.
A leading American archbishop, Rembert G. Weakland, recently criticized the CDF actions against Curran, Hunthausen and others in columns he wrote in the Catholic Herald of Milwaukee.
Under the title, "The Price of Orthodoxy," Weakland said that the desire to preserve doctrinal purity in the church must "avoid the fanaticism and small-mindedness that has characterized so many periods of the church in history--tendencies that lead to much cruelty, suppression of theological creativity and lack of growth."
Referring to efforts to roll back the liberalizing trends of the Second Vatican Council, Curran said in an interview: "In the end, I just don't see how it can be successful. You just can't put the paste back in the tube."
Surveys show that large numbers of U.S. Catholics hold views that differ sharply from official church teaching on such subjects as women's ordination, celibacy for priests, divorce, abortion and artificial birth control. A CBS News poll last year found that 80% of respondents said they felt that they could disagree with official church pronouncements on such issues as contraception and still be loyal Catholics.
Weakland warned that American Catholics may either leave the church in a widespread exodus, or simply ignore much of its moral teaching as impractical or irrelevant to contemporary life. This happened on a large scale among Catholics in the Netherlands during the 1970s, the Milwaukee archbishop pointed out.
A high Vatican official, asked about that danger, admitted that "estrangement and lack of coherence" had already occurred in the American church.
'Many Are Confused'
"The continued estrangement of some is probable," he added. "But many of the faithful have been estranged by the introduction of alien elements into the church--like the dissent over abortion. Many are confused and persuaded that the church no longer is a reliable source of moral knowledge."
To supporters of Ratzinger and the Pope, the church is a divine mystery, not a humanly constructed institution that can be freely changed according to the requirements of the moment.
"There is a profound conflict of values (regarding) a church which believes in revealed truth which needs to be preserved and transmitted," said Russell Shaw, the chief press spokesman for the U.S. Catholic bishops. "That conflicts with the conventional wisdom of a highly secularized society that neither recognizes nor cares about the possession of revealed truth."
Ratzinger himself has made the point perfectly clear: "You know neither the church nor the world if you think they could meet without conflict or that they could even coincide."