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U.S. Catholics and Vatican Face a Cultural Chasm in Coping With Sex Scandal


VATICAN CITY — A month ago, long after clerical sex scandals had mushroomed in the United States, the Colombian cardinal overseeing the worldwide Roman Catholic priesthood fielded a barrage of questions from reporters here over how the Vatican would respond.

Defensive and irritated, Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos portrayed the scandals as the product of an American "culture of pansexuality and sexual licentiousness" and noted sourly that most of the questions were in English. "This by itself is an X-ray of the problem," he said.

Today, when 12 American cardinals lay the sex abuse crisis before Pope John Paul II and his top aides, what the Vatican had long viewed as an "American problem" will become its own.

The Americans' immediate goal is to persuade the Vatican to authorize the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to impose unprecedented binding procedures on all 195 U.S. diocesan bishops for addressing clerical sex abuse.

But more fundamentally, the extraordinary two-day meeting here is an opportunity to bridge a cultural gap between the Curia--the central Vatican bureaucracy that is dominated by Italians and, to a lesser extent, by other Europeans and Latin Americans--and Catholics in the United States, whose church is one of the world's largest and richest.

The divide reflects conflicting values: New World openness versus Old World secrecy, American home rule versus Vatican centralization, Anglo-Saxon CEO-style management versus a Mediterranean forgive-and-forget attitude toward sinners.

The chasm helps one understand a range of conflicts between the Vatican and American Catholics during John Paul's long reign, including disputes over academic freedom at Catholic universities and inclusive language in the liturgy. And it helps explain why the pope and his aides failed at first to grasp the scale of the current crisis, the American church's worst in modern times.

Senior U.S. clerics, summoned here on a week's notice, said Monday that they were encouraged by the Vatican's belated attention and the chance to explain the American perspective.

For today's opening session in the frescoed Sala Bologna, in the Apostolic Palace, the Vatican is sending eight top curial officials--up from the original list of three--to meet with the Americans. The pope will address the group today and attend as many of the sessions as his schedule allows, the Vatican said.

"The more members of the Holy Father's Curia who are engaged in the discussion, the better it is for the church," said Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who will join the American delegation. He said the talks will allow Vatican officials "to ask the questions that perhaps they do not fully understand in terms of the crisis we are facing."

The two sides have a history of misunderstanding.

Since the 19th century, when Pope Leo XIII cracked down on what he called "Americanism," the Curia has viewed American culture as deeply rooted in Calvinist individualism, lacking a strong concept of community or the church.

More recently, in 1989, John Paul became concerned that the American church was spinning beyond his control. He summoned all American archbishops, including cardinals, to Rome. The discussion ranged widely--from the high rate of remarriage for divorced American Catholics to the American hierarchy's tolerance for dissent within the church.

John May, then archbishop of St. Louis, crystallized the clashing perspectives in his opening remarks.

"Authoritarianism is suspect in any area of learning or culture," he said. "To assert that there is a church teaching with authority binding for eternity is truly a sign of contradiction to many Americans who consider the divine right of bishops as outmoded as the divine right of kings."

The response by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, the Vatican's guardian of doctrinal orthodoxy, was equally blunt: Bishops must remember that they are "guardians of an authoritarian tradition."

Since then, papal appointments have brought the American church hierarchy more into line, but disagreements have persisted.

In 1990, for example, a papal document on higher education required theologians at Catholic universities to get certification from their bishops that they were teaching authentic Catholic doctrine. U.S. bishops resisted, arguing in defense of academic freedom. To many of them, the Vatican effort smacked of loyalty oaths and blacklisting.

The American reaction, in the Vatican's view, was a rebellious assertion of individual freedom against the collective good of the church.

A few years later, the Vatican began objecting to the use of inclusive language--the word "people," for example, instead of "man"--in English translations of Latin liturgical texts. It demanded new powers over the translators--a panel set up by English-speaking bishops conferences around the world. Bishops in America balked.

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