The Man Behind the Curtain

Article excerpt

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain," huffed the Wizard of Oz near the end of the movie when he is exposed as a fraud. Perhaps something similar should be said about the man in the white cassock in Rome reverentially referred to in the media as the "Pontiff." Pontiff, of course, is the anglicization of the Latin Pontifex Maximus, the title adopted by the self-deified Roman emperors and subsequently appropriated by a long succession of leaders (popes, "Holy Fathers") of the Roman Catholic church to mean the "bridge between heaven and earth."

The points I wish to make in this connection are that the pope is the titular head of the world's largest religious body but represents only a minority of its members on many matters of great secular importance; that the Catholic church--at least in the United States and developed countries--has experienced a serious implosion during the last generation or so; and that the media and a great many non-Catholics have yet to grasp the first two points. Let me explain.

Over at least the last forty years, opinion polls have clearly shown that varying majorities of U.S. Catholics, as well as those in other developed countries, have come to disagree with their church leadership on such issues as divorce, remarriage after divorce, contraception, abortion, clerical celibacy, ordination of women, the importance of parochial education, and democracy within the church. That a seismic implosion has shaken the U.S. Catholic church is evidenced by the following facts:

* Weekly church attendance has fallen from a high level a couple of generations ago to less than 30 percent today.

* Giving to the Catholic church, once on a par with Protestant giving at a little over 2 percent, has dropped by at least half, and only about one-fifth of U.S. Catholics donate anything to their church. (At the same time, Catholic charities are generously funded from tax revenues.)

* Parochial school attendance has declined since 1965 from about 5.5 million students to about 2.5 million--from about 50 percent of Catholic children to under 25 percent.

* Catholics are divorced, use contraception, and have abortions at about the same rate as non-Catholics.

* Recruitment of priests and nuns has ebbed to a very low level, while the average age of priests and nuns is very high.

* Despite Republican stands for school vouchers and against abortion rights, Catholic voters preferred Bill Clinton over George Bush and Bob Dole in the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections.

There have been similar developments in the Catholic parts of Europe.

What accounts for this implosion? A number of factors. Throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century, Catholics were looked down on and often discriminated against in the United States for a complex of reasons: lingering antagonism going back to Europe's religious wars, Protestant antipathy toward "popery," a cultural heritage of English dislike for the Irish, prejudice against non-English-speaking immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, and perceptions that Catholics in the United States were somehow tied to objectionable policies and practices of the Vatican and the papal states.

But since the defeat of Al Smith for the U.S. presidency in 1928, things have changed. A Catholic president--John F. Kennedy--was elected in 1960. The Second Vatican Council and Pope John XXIII moved much of Roman Catholicism into the twentieth century. The U.S. Supreme Court's school-prayer rulings of the early 1960s--removing the last vestiges of nineteenth-century evangelical Protestant hegemony in the public schools--made parochial schools increasingly irrelevant to most Catholics. The general secularizing trend gradually dissolved many of the barriers to cooperation and friendship across religious lines. After World War II, average Catholic family income exceeded average white Protestant income. …