Catholic church stands its ground



The Catholic church’s top 250 bishops last week wrapped up a three-week meeting, called a “synod,” that produced 50 recommendations for Pope Benedict—and, according to some church-watchers, a loud-and-clear message that the church is going to stand its ground on a wide range of issues.

But while some liberal Catholics may worry the meeting—along with the recent election of conservative-minded Pope Benedict—may keep the church on its traditional path, Ann Matter says it may be too early to judge.

“You never know what [a Pope] is going to do,” says Matter, a professor of religious studies in Penn’s Department of Religion and an expert on the papacy.

The synod, which concluded Oct. 23, produced several important pronouncements from church leaders: The bishops disregarded the notion of allowing priests to marry in order to bolster its roster of priests, hardened their stance on divorced Catholics (the church bans divorced Catholics who have not received an annulment from receiving communion) and affirmed the church’s authority to deny communion to politicians whose stances are at odds with Catholic teaching.

Though these positions may generate headlines, they shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone who has followed the church in recent history.

“Look at the whole thing about how you can’t have any kind of birth control,” says Matter. “That means in an age of AIDS, you can’t have condoms. They defend that. And [Benedict] will hold the line, if he doesn’t expand on it.”

One issue that was not addressed at the synod—probably because the meeting focused exclusively on the Eucharist—was the sex abuse scandal that has rocked dioceses across America, including Philadelphia. But Matter says the scandal, and how the church reacts to it, figures to remain at the forefront of Americans’ concerns about the church for months to come.
The Philadelphia diocese, like others, is accused of protecting abusive priests by moving them from one parish to another after learning of their actions.

Media coverage has been extensive—the Inquirer earlier this year published the photos and names of all the local priests who had been accused of abuse—and some Catholics have been outraged at the church’s almost combative reaction.

“That’s the way the decisions of the church have always been—favoring the ecclesiastical hierarchy,” says Matter.“They don’t understand why this is such a big deal. … It’s characteristic of people who are in power.”
The Vatican has said little about the scandal. Still, rumors have been circulating for some time that the Pope will soon issue a declaration banning gay men from the priesthood. Some believe the rumored declaration will serve as the church’s reaction to the sex scandal; others say it is unrelated.

But Matter says that any such declaration, if issued, could further strain relations between the church and its members.

“There’s a lot of concern [about the declaration] in a lot of different places, including Rome, because a lot of people are pointing out this is not about gay priests,” Matter says.
“It’s about an abuse of power. I think [Benedict] has a real sense of embarrassment because of this, and he wants to put a stop to it, but he also thinks that making some declaration about gay men and the priesthood would do it.”

Matter says she hopes it won’t come to that, and there is some reason to believe it won’t: Though many assume Benedict’s papacy will be a reflection of his conservation reputation, Matter is quick to point out that Popes have historically been unpredictable.

[Popes] have to step up and take the measure of the time,” she says. “We don’t really know yet what he’s going to do.”

Originally published on November 3, 2005