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."

Except for issues of pure power, virtually every point of tension in the church today involves the body, sex, sexuality, gender. "In the last two centuries, the institutional church has been extremely preoccupied with sexual sin," observes Oleskevich. "I think the celibate male priesthood has been forced by its very nature to not develop sexuality, community and intimacy."

Who's most hurt by the teachings that result? "At first glance, we'd all say those who are not listened to," she answers. "But at another level, I think those who are most deeply hurt are the men in the Vatican themselves."

Does she at least understand their reasoning? "I think the pope explains his position on women's ordination unfortunately very well," she replies, "by saying, Well, gosh, they don't have a penis, so they can't be like Jesus. Somehow maleness dominates over humanness. If I said, 'Come on, JP, do you really think having a penis is the essence of holiness?' the man would probably fall off the sofa. Nobody's ever sat down and had a heart-to-heart with him.

"I used to want revolution," she admits, "and now I think we are looking at water dripping on stone." She knows it'll be a wait -- "the current system's hard as a rock" -- but she's staying. "Catholicism's the blood in my veins," she says helplessly. "At one level I'm really proud of it. And at another level, it's very painful."

Robert Schutzius met his wife, Mary Jane, in Bolivia. They were both 38, both from St. Louis, both deeply Catholic. He was a priest, she a lay volunteer. And they fell in love.

Bob stayed in Bolivia an extra year to decide. Then he came home, left the priesthood and married Mary Jane. "I probably would have stayed in Bolivia if I could have been a married priest," he admits now.

What does he miss most about being a priest? "The power," his wife teases. "'Si Padre, si Padre.'" Abashed, Bob swiftly amends this to "the position to help people," explaining that he had to find it in university work instead.

He also joined Reaching Out, a community that supports married and resigned priests and others in transition. What does the church hierarchy think of such a group? "Well, you know, 'Don't ask, don't tell,'" he chuckles. "We have informed Archbishop (Justin) Rigali of our presence. His predecessor, Archbishop (John) May, was relatively supportive; he said he'd let the group's existence be known to anyone who needed help."

Mary Jane looks up sharply: "How many ever looked you up because he referred them? Not one." Born, raised and educated Roman Catholic, Mary Jane left the church because she "didn't find it to be a nurturing, listening, sensitive institution." Bob, on the other hand, belongs to the St. Thomas the Apostle parish, writes out petitions, makes contributions. "I still find enthusiasm in the struggle," he says, "strength in joining with others in the same endeavor."

He's also a board member of the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church (ARC), a group that's pushing for "substantive structural change" in the institutional church. ARC doesn't want to change doctrine, just make the church's administrative structure more democratic, explains Bob. "But the hierarchy is afraid democracy would attempt to modify the truths of the church."

ARC was a reaction to the "highhanded and autocratic way" that German theologian Hans Kung was silenced by John Paul II in 1979 after challenging the doctrine of infallibility. But Mary Jane thinks the very possibility of a group like ARC emerged "after Vatican II, when people were made aware that they were the church. People saw that they weren't being heard." Bob nods and picks up the trail. "Another milestone was when Pope Paul VI called together a group of laypeople and priests to deal with the issue of birth control. Their recommendation was completely ignored.

"The church is a very effective organization, has been for centuries," he continues, "based on the Roman Constantinian model of straight-down authority. Women priests, all that represents more of a subsidiarity approach, where you don't take or make decisions higher up than where they're needed." If the church moved toward subsidiarity, what would happen? "I think we would revert to an earlier church model, in which there was a centralized authority but the pope did not speak as a monarch. Local bishops were given authority, and people had a say in who was elected bishop.

"I also think there are some very significant monetary considerations," he inserts. "Who controls the resources of the church? Do local people control the resources of the parish or own the churches they build and maintain? I think not." Mary Jane brings up the inestimably high costs surrounding the pope's visit, murmuring, "Were the people of St. Louis even consulted?"

"I think in conformity to what the early church did, there ought to be optional celibacy," resumes Bob. "It provides a lot of flexibility, a lot of availability." Er ... because he's experienced both ways of life, is it true that a sort of alchemy takes place, a sublimation of sexual energy into spirituality? "No, it's not true at all," he rebounds. "Celibacy provides more leisure for spirituality, makes less demands on an individual's time. But it doesn't necessarily lead to a deeper spirituality. Married priesthood offers rich dimensions too. And there is absolutely no reason, other than power and control, for the maintenance of male celibate priesthood. If Mary gave Christ his body, it would certainly be strange to say a woman could not do the same today at Mass.

"If you change the male celibate union of the shepherds," he adds hopefully, "you are going to change everything. That's how it's going to happen." Mary Jane's smile is as bitter as that of a lover who hears "Can't we just be friends?" "I don't think it's going to happen," she says. "I think it's going to die."

Bob drums his fingers on the leg of his chair. The struggle his wife sees as futile, he sees as faith.

"I think the church will give the priests to the parishes that can support them and amalgamate the others," she continues.

"They are going to follow the money -- is that what you're saying?" He's drumming again.

"Yeah. And the Vatican isn't going to listen to those bishops in Oceania, either. Now, they would listen to bishops in the U.S., but they follow the money too." She sighs. "It just all strikes me as futile."

Bob folds his hands together, quieting them. Then he looks straight at the woman he loves -- whose words are clearly exasperating him -- and reminds her cheerfully, "There were only 12 apostles!"

Tom Wagen is president of Dignity,a group that puzzles many gay activists. "We're a group of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered folk who prefer to worship God in the Roman Catholic tradition," he explains. "But of course we are not sanctioned by the Catholic Church."

Raised in the faith, Wagen believed the church's teachings about procreation and homosexuality for decades. "I didn't come out of the closet until 1995," he begins, "but I had struggled with it for a good 20 years. Initially I wasn't even aware what the struggle was about. I had glimmerings in high school, and the same thing happened in college, but the thought of touching another man carried with it all the baggage of sinfulness, so I suppressed it."

He entered the military, married a devoutly Catholic woman, numbed the inner conflicts with alcohol. "Finally, in 1990, I admitted to myself that I was gay," he says, "in the presence of a priest who was very supportive." Five years later, after another priest helped him stop drinking, he went on retreat and asked God, "Please lead me where you want me to go." And in the first tape he pulled from the retreat-center library, he found his answer.

"I realized I had to let go of everything -- the life I had built for myself. I had been married for 24 years; I had three children; I had pretended for many years that I was a straight man. If I didn't become the person God intended me to be, I'd be right back where I started, and I'd probably drink myself to death."

Before, everything Wagen was suppressing "had to be released somehow -- by drinking, by masturbation, in anger toward my ex-wife and my children, in all sorts of excesses. I could never do anything in a minimal way. I'd start preparing for Christmas in August, make most of the cookies, make candy, get out decorations in October -- but during all that time I was a sonofabitch. I can remember my ex-wife humming Christmas carols while we were putting up the tree, and I told her to shut up. My oldest daughter had gay friends, and I'd make fun of them.

"I was very judgmental, very critical," he finishes. "Now even my attitude toward my children has changed." (This year, he and his partner trimmed the tree in an hour, and Wagen made 12 chocolate turtles. Period.)

"The official line in the Roman Catholic Church is that being homosexual is not sinful but acting out that sexuality is sinful," he notes wryly. "I think the church is in a lot of denial about the needs of human beings. I, too, used to believe that intimacy was solely for the purpose of procreation. But now I think it has a much vaster value.

"It's like a half-circle and a whole circle," he continues, drawing in the air. "There is a sense of wholeness and completion in the intimacy I share now that I never experienced before. In my heterosexual relationship, when the intimate act was finished, I was finished. Now the most pl0easurable part is lying in my partner's arms afterward and holding his hand."

So how does Wagen reconcile himself with Catholicism's teachings? "I think I see the church more realistically now," he replies. "I see it as a bureaucracy no different than a Protestant church or the federal government. We need bureaucratic structures to keep order, and within those structures people get wrapped up in ideas and ideals and impose them on others. Whether these people are genuine in their intent to keep everyone on the straight-and-narrow or whether it's a power thing, I wouldn't even want to hazard a guess. But to admit that two men can experience physical love puts a kink in the idea of patriarchal authority. It makes men appear weaker. And it kind of opens the door that maybe there is a greater value to women, because men who love men are showing the same type of tenderness a woman would show. Also, to be intimate, I have to let down all my guards, be completely defenseless. And that in itself can be pretty frightening to an authoritarian church."

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."

Modras has thought long and hard about the forces shaping John Paul II. "I think he really felt his election was providential," Modras begins slowly. "Here's this orphan, almost killed during the war, enters the seminary in Nazi-occupied Poland and goes into hiding in his archbishop's residence. He's ordained a priest and sent to study in Rome; he comes back and has this meteoric rise to archbishop of Krakow and then becomes the first Polish pope. That's not the normal way of ascending the hierarchical ladder. Plus, he's a romantic Polish poet. So if he thinks God chose him to be pope, he has to think that God did not choose him to change his mind."

It's a conviction that's meant no one else could change or question, either. In 1990, John Paul wrote the Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities, Ex Corde Ecclesiae ("The Heart of the Church"), outlining a framework that would give local bishops authority over Catholic colleges and universities. "The American tradition is that they have none, that these universities ought to be autonomous," notes Modras. "But Rome is not used to anything Catholic being autonomous." So far, U.S. bishops have resisted Rome's efforts to tie Catholic identity to doctrinal obedience. But this December, the new president of the Catholic University of America, Father David M. O'Connell, took an oath of fidelity, vowing to "hold fast to the deposit of faith in its entirety" and "avoid any teachings opposed to that faith." He urged presidents of other Catholic institutions to do the same.

Among lay Americans, the "cafeteria Catholic," who airily picks which rules to obey, is a cliche. Any chance that, if you took a vote of the world's Catholics, the majority would agree with the pope? "We in the U.S. are not even especially liberal; the Europeans are far more so," Modras counters irritably. "The U.S. bishops have been so acquiescent to Rome, they have functioned as branch managers. This is a boys' club that is quite separated even from Italy, let alone the rest of the Western world.

"The St. Louis Review (the archdiocesan newspaper) does not give an honest picture of the universal church," he continues. "The bishops of Oceania (who met last month) were quite critical of the way things are; they opened up issues of married priests, women priests, reconciling with divorced Catholics so they could return to the sacraments. These same issues were brought up a month earlier in Austria (along with more democratic governance and a local role in selecting bishops). People here don't appreciate the tremendous fissures and tensions in the church today."

The Rev. William Barnaby Faherty, S.J., an emeritus professor of history at SLU who's about as radical as a teddy bear, has been watching John Paul II for years, hoping he'd do more to ease the old "all roads lead to Rome" arrogance. Finally it dawned on Faherty: "Look what the church is trying to do! The mechanism running the diocese of Rome is trying to run the world. And it can't be."

Inspired, Faherty wrote a novel, The Call of Pope Octavian. Just published, it follows a Brazilian cardinal, an Italian cardinal and a woman journalist into the 21st century. They attend the convocation to elect a new pope, Octavian, who must do for the church what Emperor Octavian (Augustus) did for the Roman Empire in 27 B.C.: Find a form of governance that can span a diverse globe, keeping unity but respecting local ways and sensitivities.

John Paul II plays a big role in the novel, too. Faherty quotes the pope's biographer Tad Szulc: "This highly intelligent Pontiff never grasped the reasons for Catholic women's rising unhappiness with the Church." Then one of Faherty's characters remembers thinking, "What a great pope he would be, if only he would practice in his own church what he preaches to the world."

It's just one of many apparent paradoxes in the thought and behavior of this great, maddening man. He's spoken eloquently about the dignity of women but won't even restore the tradition of lay cardinals, a role a woman could fill with perfect legality. He has a strong devotion to Mary -- but as receptive, obedient and fertile. As a bishop, he was heavily involved in Vatican II; as pope, he's accused of unraveling its work. "One of the major goals of his pontificate has been to reinstate and reinforce the luster and authority of the papacy," remarks Modras, contrasting Vatican II's emphasis on decentralized power and full, egalitarian participation.

"The thing that most puzzles me, and maybe distresses me also, is that he is a puzzlement," says a priest who must go unnamed. He describes himself as "an informed observer who is very sympathetic to the fundamentals of what John Paul wants to accomplish and skeptical or sorry about the means that, at least in recent years of his pontificate, have been used." And then he launches into his list of paradoxes.

"He's moved forward and said more on ecumenism than virtually anyone before him, and for that I must praise him. But ecumenism is not just the Eastern church, it is also the Western non-Catholic church that he and his offices seem quite insensitive to. He's placed extraordinary emphasis on the importance of culture and enculturation yet allowed repressive measures to be taken against the possibility of a plurality of theological expressions. He is deeply aware of the mistakes made in the past by precipitate condemnations from the Holy Office (to wit, Galileo), yet he is willing to allow the Holy Office to condemn contemporary ideas precipitately. He is unquestionably intellectual -- his own postdoctoral work on phenomenology was daring -- yet he attempts to impose strictures on the ways in which academics operate. He has great respect for intellectuals in the Church, yet he allows the Vatican offices to chill their ability to question.

"As a good theologian, he must have been aware of the varieties of grades or degrees of certainty and probability with which the church teaches," the priest continues. "They range from revelati to defide definita, a doctrine defined by the Church, to probabilis (probable), piis aruibus offensiva (offensive to pious ears), communis et certa (common and certain). But you didn't have to give a definitive assent to that kind of thing. John Paul has attempted to collapse those degrees into a rigid scheme that in almost every instance demands assent."

Why the return to heavy-handed, sceptered authority? Blame the millennium. When he became pope, John Paul II was told by his mentor, the primate of Poland, that he would lead the church into the third millennium. It has dominated his imagination ever since. "He wants to wipe the slate clean for the new millennium," notes Modras. "He was archbishop in Krakow in 1966, when Poland celebrated its first millennium, and it's one of the reasons he is the way he is. Vatican II had just ended, and everyone else was looking forward to something new, and Poland was looking back."

Now John Paul II is looking forward to a new, global millennium, and he's desperately trying to purify and recollect his flock so they can enter it faithfully. As a result, he speaks with great complexity and nuance about human nature; offers fearless, evenhanded critiques of both communism and consumerism -- then makes flat pronouncements about sexuality and freedom. "Contradiction is obliteration of the line of demarcation between good and evil," he writes in Prayers and Devotions from Pope John Paul II. "Morality and law are the fundamental conditions for social order.... The fundamental principles, the sacramental order above all, remain unchanged."

John Paul II has taken to heart the scriptural description of the papacy: "Upon this rock I will build my church."

And nothing -- not the waters of change, nor the tears of the excluded, nor the heady wine of intellectualism -- can soften that rock.

The vigil to pray for "full participation for women in the church" begins at 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 25, on the steps of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, 4431 Lindell. "We're really glad it'll be cold," grins Oleskevich, "so women can come bundled up in hats and scarves if they need to conceal their identity." For details, call 533-8016.

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