LORD knows what Pope Benedict XVI thinks of American Catholics, but I'll wager many of us are counted among the black sheep in his flock. As a cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger's understanding of the church in the United States was likely jaded by the countless challenges it presented. In his new role as the supreme pontiff of all Catholics, Benedict XVI cannot successfully lead the church here with the same preconceptions.
Catholicism in America is complicated. The laity's approach to church and faith and organized religion in this land is as varied as the faithful. There are orthodox Catholics who yearn for more orthodoxy from Rome. There are just as many who yearn for more innovation and believe the Second Vatican Council didn't go far enough with liturgical reform.
There are regular churchgoers. There are regular no-shows. Some Catholics are religious to the point of evangelical. Some prefer the route of secular spiritualists. We are firmly committed to moral absolutes. We are firmly convinced there are shades of gray in everything.
Conservatives are arguably far too rigid in their beliefs, permitting no room for discussion. Cafeteria Catholics are arguably far too flexible in their beliefs, allowing endless interpretation.
Roman Catholics are said to be practicing if they attend Mass and other services religiously and adhere without exception to edicts from the Vatican.
Roman Catholics are said to be non-practicing when they forsake the religious trappings of the church but reserve the right to return when and if the spirit moves them. In a way we confront our faith like rebellious teenagers. In a way we embrace it like stunted adults. We are a questioning, probing, debating congregation who refuse to be led like sheep. We are also a lost, confused congregation desperately seeking a shepherd to follow without question.
Complicated enough? American Catholics have always confounded and comforted the Holy See. They stubbornly oppose its direction and strongly support its everlasting existence. Crazy individualism is our birthright in America. Can't be helped. But it can be hurt by religious hardliners who hew to extreme liberal or conservative ends.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger laid down the doctrinal law of the church as head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for more than a quarter century. His reputation as a strict enforcer of official doctrine is well established. The German prelate is a traditionalist with moorings firmly rooted in the pre-Second Vatican Council.
But the fact that the man is a fundamentalist from the old school is not as troubling to me as it is to other Catholics in this country. Structure, order, and compliance with the rules are necessary to run any organization. Cardinal Ratzinger effectively brought the church back in line with what he and his boss regarded as fundamental truisms. Some matters were beyond discussion. Acceptance was compulsory for members.
The outrage among some American religious and lay people was tempered only by a unique pastoral, personal connection with the late Holy Father. But resentment over church judgments on everything from women's ordination to celibacy and cleric sex abuse scandals simmered - and simmers still. Equally hard to forget are the words of Cardinal Ratzinger denouncing feminism and homosexuality or chastising those who argued that true salvation can't be found outside the church in other denominations and faiths.
That fire-and-brimstone method may work in some Catholic strongholds in some parts of the world, but not in a country where the right to dissent is as sacred as the right to worship. Sorry, in 2005 American Catholics want more, not less, of a say in how their church grows and remains a vital force in their lives. They want not so much to change the basic tenets of their faith but to make those tenets reclaim some meaning among the alienated.
And make no mistake: Alienation runs deep in the American church. It grips those long excluded from the ranks of its hierarchy because of gender, those ostracized as moral deviants because of sexual orientation, those judged morally inferior by stain of divorce and remarriage, and those publicly condemned for political positions that don't mesh with religious ones. But they're not the black sheep of the fold.
They're wistful souls looking for a place to belong where they can serve without limitations and worship without restrictions. How complicated is that? Under John Paul II the possibilities were beyond discussion. Under Benedict XVI there is hope for dialogue, but it is exceedingly slim. Changing the color of skull cap from red to white does not guarantee a transformation.