Sins of Omission

St. Louis is welcoming Pope John Paul II, but many devout Catholics don't feel so welcomed by him. They say he's blocking the light for women, intellectuals, non-Westerners, gays, lesbians and remarried Catholics -- and dimming the prospects for an inclus

If Queen Elizabeth came to St. Louis, we'd probably grill her about her household budget and her feelings toward Diana. If President Bill Clinton showed up alone, we might not even put up plexiglass, let alone issue a commemorative pictorial postmark from a papal plaza. Only one man is capable of generating citywide fervor, kitsch, shutdown, jubilant devotion and lavish unquestioned expenditure: Pope John Paul II. The pope whose unprecedented travels are bringing Roman Catholicism into the new millennium as a world religion.

And the pope whose views on sexuality, power and authority are, many fear, shepherding this increasingly diverse global flock right back into an enclosed Old World pasture.

Pope John Paul II has reminded divorced Catholics that they are barred from receiving Christ's body at the communion rail, or a priest's absolution in the confessional, because the "moral disorder" of their life contradicts the love and reconciliation of these sacraments.

He has reinforced the church's official horror of artificial birth control. "Using the natural methods requires and strengthens the harmony of the married couple," he said in 1996. "It helps and confirms the rediscovery of the marvelous gift of parenthood." (Sometimes literally, the cynics add.)

He has urged parents of gay and lesbian children to get their children into therapy. He has silenced a long list of academics and moved to place Catholic universities under control of local bishops. He has expanded canon (church) law, obliging the faithful to uphold "truths" that were once nonbinding.

He wrote in 1994 that "the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women." The following year, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -- the body charged with upholding official church teachings, formerly the Inquisition -- defined his position as "irrevocable."

Some Catholics welcome the unity, certainty and coherence established by this pope and by the steeply vertical, celibate male hierarchy beneath him. Others would like to saw the point off its mitered peak and broaden the power base to include those who are female; those who have remarried; those who find intimacy outside procreative heterosexual relationships; those who think or worship in non-Western ways; those who research and question certain "truths."

These Catholics reminisce about the mid-1960s reforms of the second Vatican Council, which urged the church toward connection, compassion and full participation of the laity. "Vatican II can be seen as a threshold or a boundary," notes a local priest. "This pope feels that people have gone over the boundary and need to be brought back."

Vatican II opened the windows of the church. Some Catholics think this pope has -- diligently, with the best of intentions -- banged them shut.

Diana Oleskevich is a lifelong Catholic deeply loyal to her parish (St. Margaret of Scotland) and her pope. "If he were sitting in my living room, I would be humbled and honored," she says. "But there are a couple of things I would start to talk to him about. One thing I yearn to say is that we are all people of God, regardless of gender or sexual orientation or marital status. "

As a member of Catholic Women for Justice, Oleskevich is helping organize a vigil on Monday, Jan. 25, the eve of the Pope's arrival, to pray on the steps of the Cathedral Basilica for the ordination of women. "We'll be praying that the pope will feel welcome here and that we will feel welcome in his inner circles," she says pointedly. "Women are not welcome in his hometown."

Tired after a long holiday visit from children and grandchildren, Oleskevich sits near the fireplace and wraps her arms around her knees. "I think this pope has come closer to following the letter of the law than its spirit," she muses. "And most of those laws are man-made. Half the church are women, and they have had no input."

For clarity's sake, Oleskevich divides the Roman Catholic Church into "the people-of-God church" and "the institutional church." "Women feed each other; we give birth; we bring God among us; we forgive and seek reconciliation over cups of tea and back fences and in bed with our husbands," she says with a rush of feeling. "Women are clearly sacramental in the people-of-God church. But the pope seems to be bound into the institutional church.

"I think he wants women to be equal and quiet, to have equality without any share in the decision-making," she remarks. "But patriarchy to me is idolatry -- even when the most benevolent father says to his wife and children, 'I know what is best for you,' and takes away freedom of choice." She takes a deep breath. "I don't believe that is in any way who our God is. But it is what we have set up the patriarchal system to be."

She reaches down to fondle the ear of a rescued Labrador retriever hungry for attention. "We are all products of our environment," she says thoughtfully, "and his is a narrow group of men who were trained by men and who live in a patriarchal, hierarchical church.

"Of course, we choose our environment, too," she adds. "The way he was trained has worked for him." Pensively, she strokes the blissful dog. "I think the man has an incredibly good heart," she finally says. "He wants what is best as he sees it. And I don't think he believes that change is good for the church. So he's a fine preacher, but --" the edge returns to her voice -- "he's not a good listener."

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