Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Talks Test US-Vatican Culture Gap ; Cardinals Convene in Rome, with Agenda Complicated by American Social Traditions

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Talks Test US-Vatican Culture Gap ; Cardinals Convene in Rome, with Agenda Complicated by American Social Traditions

Article excerpt

When the American cardinals sit down with the pope and his close advisers today, they'll be grappling with one of the most wrenching crises ever faced by the Roman Catholic Church.

But as they try to set policies for dealing with sexual abuse and consider how to restore credibility among churchgoers, they'll also be grappling with a cultural clash that has challenged relations between the Vatican and the American church throughout their history.

On the one hand, is a church rooted in a democratic society that clamors for transparency, accountability, and a voice for the people. On the other, is an ancient hierarchical institution that values confidentiality, control, and authority based on a sense of divine anointing. Tensions have persisted between the two since the 19th century, when Pope Leo XIII felt compelled to issue a condemnation of "Americanism."

The culture clash is complicating the understanding of the current crisis and what it will take to find a genuine solution. US church leaders find themselves caught between allegiance to their conservative pontiff and rising pressures from the pews.

Last week from amid the trenches, Archbishop Roger Mahony of Los Angeles boldly said he would push for a discussion of obligatory celibacy and women's ordination at the meeting - issues roiling the American laity. Other leaders agreed.

"These people of unquestionable loyalty sense that the severe crisis gives them the opportunity to raise issues that need to be raised without appearing disloyal to the pope," says R. Scott Appleby, director of the Cushwa Center for American Catholicism at Notre Dame.

Yet John Paul II, who has scarcely spoken a public word on the sex-abuse problem, didn't even wait for today's meeting to rebuke them. Instead, over the weekend he strongly affirmed priestly celibacy and cut short expectations that a real discussion might ensue. He acted after an American cardinal at the Vatican said that celibacy, homosexuality, and the role of women would be added to the meeting's agenda.

Clearly, the Vatican has finally grasped the gravity of the sex- abuse scandal - it's being confronted with cases on almost every continent. Yet officials are also irritated by what they perceive as particularly American aspects of the situation.

"What they see as American is the overheated atmosphere that is one part the genuine problem and another part an overly aggressive and negative press, dissenters stoking the crisis to grind their particular axes, and perhaps an element of financial hustle on the part of lawyers," says John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.

And they are not about to feed that. During a Vatican press conference on the pope's letter to priests mentioning sexual abuse, Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos gathered written questions from the media and, after glancing at them, refused to answer any, apparently irritated by those from US reporters.

"We're used to living in a society with open debate on issues," says the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of America magazine and author of a book on the Vatican. "A lot of people in the Vatican just didn't grow up with that kind of experience."

Yet one attempt is under way to accommodate American openness. Contrary to usual practice, the Vatican will hold two press conferences daily during this week.

US law vs. …

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