In the News 2008
Irish Times

Pope begins US visit in attempt to galvanise Catholics


US: POPE BENEDICT XVI has begun a six-day visit to the United States as the country’s 65 million Catholics struggle with doubts over church teaching while priests become ever scarcer and the cost of child sex scandals drives dioceses into bankruptcy. DENIS STAUNTON reports from Washington

The official reason for the Pope’s first visit to the US is to mark the bicentenary of the country’s five oldest dioceses and his schedule includes three large open-air Masses as well as talks with President George Bush and an address to the United Nations in New York.

Pope Benedict’s deeper purpose, however, is to connect with American Catholics, almost a quarter of the US population, who are almost evenly divided between conservatives and liberals.

The Pope is popular among his American flock, three out of four of whom have a favourable view of him, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll published yesterday.

Most American Catholics disagree with the Pope on a number of controversial issues, however, with 58 per cent favouring the ordination of women and 63 per cent saying they disagree with the church’s ban on artificial contraception. An overwhelming 73 per cent disapprove of the way the church has handled the issue of child sex abuse by priests, a scandal that has already cost the US church more than $2 billion in damages and bankrupted six dioceses.

Jon O’Brien, the Irish-born president of Catholics for Choice, which opposes the ban on contraception, says that few priests in the US bother preaching about family planning nowadays but that the Catholic bishops lobby Congress and the administration to exclude condoms from US initiatives to fight HIV in the Third World.

“The percentage of Catholics that support the use of condoms to prevent HIV and other STDs in the United States is 93 per cent,” he says.

“It’s very clear that when the bishops speak on Capitol Hill, they do not speak for American Catholics.” American Catholics abandon their church in greater numbers than any other denomination, with about one in 10 Americans describing themselves as former Catholics.

The Catholic population in the US was less than 50 million in 1979 but grew to more than 59 million in 1999 and 64.4 million today, according to the Official Catholic Directory.

Numbers have remained stable since the 1970s, however, because almost half of the immigrants who come to the US are Catholics, mostly from Latin America.

Hispanics now account for almost one-third of US Catholics and many inner city parishes that were founded in the 19th century by Irish and German immigrants are now dominated by Spanish-speaking immigrants.

If the size of the flock has remained healthy, its pastors are becoming fewer every year and more than 3,000 of the country’s 19,000 parishes now have no resident priest. Many congregations focus on greater lay involvement in the ministry but the Pope appears to have little time for such remedies and when he celebrates Mass at New York’s Yankee Stadium next Sunday, there will be no lay Eucharistic ministers.

The shortage of priests is only one reason for American Catholics’ enthusiasm for ordaining women and allowing priests to marry; many blame priestly celibacy for the child sex scandals that have cost their church so dearly, both financially and in terms of moral authority.

The Los Angeles archdiocese last year announced the largest church settlement of sexual abuse lawsuits to date, agreeing to pay some 500 alleged victims a total of $660 million (EUR 418 million).

The scandal exploded on to the public stage five years ago when Boston’s archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law, resigned after documents showed his cavalier response to allegations of the most horrifying abuse by his priests. Dr Law, who now runs the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, was the first prominent casualty of a scandal that has seen many US dioceses selling off much of their property to pay compensation to abuse victims while contributions from the faithful have dwindled.

Before he arrived in Washington yesterday, the Pope told reporters on the papal aircraft that he was “deeply ashamed” of the US sex abuse scandal and will work to make sure paedophiles do not become priests.

This article originally appeared in the 16 April 2008 edition of the Irish Times.

Catholics for Choice