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

He returns, dogged as his own Grand Inquisitor, to the question of guilt. "St. Thomas Aquinas talked about the primacy of conscience. I guess I've come to the point of saying, 'As long as I act in good conscience, I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing.'" What would the pope say about that? "I think he would say, 'Tom, I think you are a little misguided,'" Wagen grins. "'I think you think you have a good conscience, but I don't think you do. I think you need to read the Bible a little more and listen to the church; they have more experience than you do.'" His tone darkens. "The prelates of the church have not lived my personal experience."

Or maybe some have. Does it ever anger him to hear how many priests are gay? "If they've taken a vow of celibacy, they should keep it," he replies instantly. "But I'd like to see priests free to establish marriages or intimate relationships. I think the priest would grow as a result. I certainly did."

Wagen attends Dignity "because there, I can worship God with people knowing who I am." He dreams of that happening in a mainline Catholic church. "Will we see it in my lifetime? Probably not," he says frankly. "But Catholicism is the tradition of my youth. I feel a very close kinship with God in the context of the Mass. I also think if we are really serious about changing the church, we can't do it from outside. It would be too easy for the hierarchy to say, 'Well, you left us; you don't matter any longer,' whereas if I'm here and I maintain my ethics and my principles and my monogamous relationship, I can say I'm being faithful to my conscience.

"I think there was a time and place when people were uneducated and they believed in witches and thought the night mists that floated on the fens were spirits," he adds. "I don't think in our day and age we need the same kind of guidance."

He falls silent for a minute, then brightens. "I've met the pope. I had an audience with him when I was in Rome with the military. We have pictures of him blessing our three kids." Does Wagen blame John Paul II for blocking progress? "I think in his own way he is progressive," he replies slowly. "The fact that he's traveled so much has kind of taken the church out of the closet. But that's also opened the church up to more criticism from the outside world. And I don't think that's a bad thing."

Dr. Ronald Modras, professor of theological studies at St. Louis University, is something of an expert on the pope. He also knows the danger of opinions -- he studied under Hans Kung before he was silenced, and now a friend in Australia, Father Paul Collins, is being investigated by the Vatican for writing a book titled Papal Power.

"John Paul II has crushed the optimism and ebullience created after the second Vatican Council," Modras says anyway. "He's tried to restore the pre-Vatican II church. I think people would take umbrage if you called him a Catholic fundamentalist, but he is. He's like orthodox rabbis: You have inherited a certain body of truth, and you have to hold onto that truth."

Take birth control. "He's seen the masses; he's seen the squalor," exclaims Modras. "But he simply cannot accept that the teaching on birth control (which forbids any "artificial" method and recommends elaborately planned abstinence) has anything to do with the world's population problems and poverty. I think that's one reason he's spoken so little on ecological issues. You can't talk about using up the world's resources without talking about population."

Birth control's also linked, at least in the church, to homosexuality: "If you allow for birth control, you allow for expressions of intimacy between gay or lesbian couples (who also have sex without procreating)," explains Modras. "The pope sees these as sins against nature. He is a very disciplined person; he sees his own iron will, and he upholds the tradition in all its medieval harshness."

John Paul II even blames Western materialism -- not the rule on celibacy -- for Catholicism's empty seminaries, Modras adds. "He doesn't stop to look at Protestant seminaries being full, or remember that seminaries were full in Poland and Ireland, and now in Africa, because of the opportunities for social advancement.

"Rome's insistence on male, celibate priesthood is causing a shortage of leadership and of the sacraments," concludes Modras. "There has been a quiet hemorrhage of women and intellectuals from the church, and also of Hispanics. It's comparable to the Reformation of the 16th century, the number of Catholics who have become Protestant under his watch."

What about all those devout Catholics who swallow the pill religiously? "He's an icon, which is something that you look at," replies Modras. "He will be remembered for his gestures, not his words. For kissing the ground in Jerusalem, for wagging his finger at Ernesto Cardenal (a Nicaraguan priest who was a minister in the Sandinista government), for hugging HIV-positive babies and entering a synagogue for a service. But the people don't listen to him, and he knows that."

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