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Pope Struggles to Reverse Church's Ebbing Influence : Religion: In visiting the Americas, he will face the issues that are undermining his moral authority. Can Catholicism develop a human face?

August 08, 1993|Tad Szulc | Tad Szulc, who will be traveling with the Pope this week, is writing a biography of John Paul II for Macmillian Publishing Co.

ROME — Pope John Paul II will arrive in the Americas this week at a time when the Roman Catholic Church faces one of the greatest crises in its history and when the international scene presents ever-rising dangers to peace and stability.

This week's visits, starting with Kingston, Jamaica, on Monday, and including Denver, constitute his 60th trip abroad. It is also his fourth voyage this year, following tours of three Islamic nations in Africa as well as Albania and Spain. The Pope conveys the impression of a man who fears he may be running out of time.

His foremost task is to portray a "Catholicism with a human face," in the words of a Vatican adviser, to the faithful of the Western Hemisphere--notwithstanding his unswerving opposition to any form of artificial birth control, ordination of women as priests, marriages of priests and any relaxation of the ban on celibate behavior by the clergy. Ironically, the Pope's inflexible stands on these very issues is largely responsible for the continuing loss of the church's following in Latin America and the United States to Protestant denominations and native cults. His challenge is to arrest these trends without compromising his personal principles, a formidable undertaking.

The 25th anniversary last month of the "Humanae Vitae" encyclical letter, which forbids artificial contraception, served to reopen the church debate on the issue, with clear indications that the prohibition is widely ignored by Catholics worldwide and deplored by a significant segment of the clergy. John Paul II is no doubt aware of this fact on the eve of his Americas trip.

Curiously, it is Mexico that provides the Pope with all the conceivable symbolisms on his third visit to that country, his second stop this week.

John Paul II's first trip abroad, in January, 1979, was to attend the Latin American Episcopal Conference in Puebla, Mexico. It was there that the freshly elected Pope first came face to face with the deep split within the Latin American church over "Humanae Vitae." From the start, he tended to align himself with the conservatives on matters of doctrine.

In 1979, as well as in 1990, when the Pope made his second trip, the Catholic Church lacked legal recognition in Mexico, which had been withdrawn under the 1917 revolutionary constitution. Diplomatic relations were severed in 1865. But whether or not anti-clericalism persists among Mexicans (nearly 90% of whom are nominally Catholic), the Mexican Parliament, prodded by President Carlos Salinas do Gortari, restored most of the church's rights, along with diplomatic ties, last year. This time, the Pope will be received with full official honors when he lands in Merida.

Still, Mexico's recognition is something of a paradox: Large numbers of Catholics are converting to Protestant denominations, with evangelical and ecstatic Pentacostal groups the favorite spiritual destinations. A Mexican government spokesman remarked that the country "is moving toward unprecedented religious pluralism."

At least 50 million Latin Americans--more than 10% of the region's population--regard themselves as Protestants. The percentages are much higher in Brazil (the world's largest Catholic country), Chile and Peru. These Protestant--again mainly evangelical--gains are steadily mounting, with the result that Latin America is no longer a dependable Catholic fortress.

Perhaps the most convincing explanation for this denominational shift is that evangelicals have succeeded in giving their worshipers a sense of direct participation in their local religious and civic affairs--along with a disciplinary code and work ethic--at a time of rising poverty and want. The church seems to have failed in this respect, concentrating too much on remote hierarchical control and imposing doctrinal precepts.

John Paul II will find similar tensions in Denver, where he will preside over World Youth Day ceremonies. A quarter-million young Catholics from all over the globe are expected to attend. Making his first U.S. visit in six years, the Pope will confront the reality that the Catholic Church in America, including among Latinos, is also losing territory to evangelists, or to simple indifference. For example, between 1970 and 1990, the number of Catholic baptisms dropped by 10%, notwithstanding normal Catholic population increases. The American clergy, the best educated in the world, has serious theological and intellectual differences with the Vatican hierarchy, and the Pope has had to intervene with U.S. bishops to defuse the disputes. Only one in 10 of the 58 million American Catholics agrees with "Humanae Vitae."

Members of women's religious orders in the United States are particularly disappointed with the Pope over his refusal even to consider ordination of women and over what they consider to be their second-class citizenship in church affairs. They are planning respectful protests during his Denver appearance.

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