The Pope’s Travels—Why Necessary?
WITH his second visit to Poland, Pope John Paul II completed his 20th international pilgrimage in just five years. After centuries of papal immobility, it is reasonable to ask, Why have so many excursions been necessary in so short a period?
Writer Peter Nichols supplies us with a clue. Speaking of the conclave when John Paul II was chosen, he writes: “There must surely have been, however, widespread agreement . . . that, above all, the Catholic Church needed taking in hand, and that its long period of unease, confusion, experiments, of doubts and discussions, to say nothing of defections . . . had now to be brought to an end.”
This situation is further highlighted by an elderly Dutch priest who, speaking of Dutch Catholicism, said: “There is despair. There is a flight of intellectuals and of simple people. There are public conflicts between the bishops. It is an immense, immense tragedy.” Then, on the vocation for the priesthood, he added: “They do not want to be priests these young people. They will not give their confidence to a church in a state of moral tragedy.”
This malaise affects the Catholic Church in most parts of the world. The unquestioning loyalty of Catholics to the precepts of their church that was evident 30 or 40 years ago has diminished. Attendance at Mass and confession has dropped.
Yes, there are deep and definite cracks in the monolithic structure of the Roman Catholic Church. Divisions are evident in three main fields: (1) the daily practice of basic Catholic norms on morality (abortion, birth control, divorce), (2) politics and social reform, and (3) theology, the basic teachings of the church.
Do Catholics Obey the Pope?
In just the last few years, abortion, contraception and divorce have become burning debates at all levels of Catholic society. Just prior to the pope’s visit to the United States in 1979 a sample of American Catholics was polled about their adherence to Catholic norms. The book The Man Who Leads the Church states that “50 per cent were prepared to tolerate abortion on demand; 53 per cent believed priests should be allowed to marry; 63 per cent thought divorce acceptable . . . and 66 per cent said they would like the Church to approve artificial birth control. On that last point in particular, practice and precept among American Catholics had permanently parted company. Catholic couples were known to be widely using contraceptives, and without any great feelings of guilt about it.”
Similar attitudes on issues of morality are found even in predominantly Catholic countries. A report from Spain indicated that 47,605,000 birth-control items were sold there in 1982. Abortions have been common practice in Catholic countries for a long time. Even Ireland, a fervently Catholic country, is showing the cracks. John Whale writes: “The bishops [of Ireland] themselves acknowledge that ‘at present more than 2200 Irish girls are officially registered as having abortions in Britain each year.’ The true figure is commonly reckoned to be much higher.”
One of the big issues deeply affecting Catholics is divorce. For the church it does not exist, and in his speeches Pope John Paul II has been adamant on that score. However, there is, instead, the sometimes costly and time-consuming annulment. Writer John Whale says about the situation in the United States: “Divorce was identified by Archbishop Edward McCarthy of Miami as ‘the main problem we face—no doubt about it.’” Why are some church authorities reluctant to apply the strict norms of the church on this matter? “They recognize that such a course would defeat their aims, both pastorally and in point of Catholic numerical advance. So they issue thirty thousand annulments a year—in essence, certificates that a broken marriage never really happened in the first place, . . . ‘There’s an element of legal acrobatics in it’, a Chicago cleric . . . acknowledged.”—Italics ours.
A cardinal in the United States recently celebrated a Mass for divorced and separated persons. The New York Times reported: “It was . . . the first time a cardinal celebrated mass for divorced and separated Catholics.” If even a cardinal flies in the face of church edicts, no wonder the pope has to travel the world to try to keep discipline within the ranks!
Does Politics Divide the Church?
Although great emphasis is laid by Vatican spokesmen on the “pastoral” purpose of the pope’s travels, many commentators see them in a different light. The book The Man Who Leads the Church states regarding the pope’s journeys: “Despite the emphasis on their spiritual or pastoral nature, each journey involved tackling a political issue.”
So why are these visits so necessary? Because deep divisions affect the Catholic clergy on political and social issues. This was especially exemplified in the pope’s tour of Central America. One journalist headlined his article on the pope’s journey: “Politics and Religion Divided and Entwined on Pope’s Route.” That was made abundantly clear on his visit to Nicaragua, where Catholic priests occupy important positions in the government. At the same time, according to The New York Times, the archbishop of Managua, capital of Nicaragua, is “a strong critic of the Government.” Is that not a church divided?
The same report also stated that the pope’s principal objective in Central America was “to strengthen the Roman Catholic Church . . . against challenges from the inside by leftist priests and nuns.” The monolithic and autocratic structure of the Catholic Church is cracking and, somewhat like the legendary Dutch boy trying to plug the ruptured dike with his finger, Pope John Paul II is dashing around the world trying to stop up the holes.
Church Teachings Under Assault
Further cracks in the church fabric are seen as Catholic theologians and priests continue to put in doubt some of the fundamental teachings of the church. Little wonder that Benedictine priest Patrick Granfield described the pope’s responsibility of preserving the unity of faith as awesome, “because nearly every aspect of the traditional teaching on faith and morals is the subject of intense theological debate. The issues include: . . . sexual morality; birth control; abortion; divorce and remarriage; priestly celibacy; ordination of women,” among others.
Back in 1971 the pope, then Cardinal Wojtyla, had indicated that some theologians had been sowing seeds of doubt by questioning such basic doctrines as the Trinity, the nature of Christ, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the indissolubility of marriage. Others, such as Hans Küng, Swiss Catholic scholar, put in doubt the 19th-century doctrine of papal infallibility.
The Catholic Church is wracked with divisions and self-doubt. The clergy cover the spectrum from liberal and progressive to conservative and ultraorthodox in the religious field, and from communist to fascist in the political arena. Added to all of this is the worldwide crisis in vocations, leading to a shortage of priests and nuns. Communism continues to claim the loyalty of a sizable portion of the population in Catholic countries such as Italy, France and Spain. Little wonder the pope must travel and deliver stern warnings!
But, in his travels, what message does he carry to the nations? What hope does he offer to the world? Our final article on this subject will discuss those questions.
[Pictures on page 8]
The pope is taking a hard look at Catholic attitudes toward divorce, birth control and abortion