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Published: Saturday, 6/9/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

COMMENTARY

The Pope's message is clear: Conform or else

BY MARILOU JOHANEK
BLADE COLUMNIST

Fundamental fever grips the Vatican. The affliction is evident in the renewed mission of the church to separate the wheat from the chaff among Roman Catholics in the United States, to cull the conservatives from the liberals who cause so much trouble.

Under Pope Benedict XVI, a paternalistic pattern of crackdowns, censorship, and intolerance for dissent is emerging. The largest Christian denomination in America, and one of the world's largest religions, has taken a hard turn to the right.

The Catholic Church is on a path toward imposed orthodoxy. Like a father who pulls unruly children into line, the mission of Benedict and his bishops is to regain control over freethinking faithful who dare to question their authority.

This is miter muscle. Power is maintained through dictate, not dialogue. No one but the church hierarchy has the wisdom to decree the right words to pray, what to think on issues from contraception to gay marriage, why to believe, or who can belong.

To question the church's stance on liturgical changes, the male-only priesthood, opposition to insurance coverage for birth control, human sexuality, or any other issue is to be unfaithful. But the notion that church precepts are not open to discussion is difficult for American Catholics to grasp.

In this country we talk, debate, and consider freedom of thought a birthright. We understand the church is not a democracy, but we are not unthinking automatons.

The people in the pews are the heart and soul of their stained-glass communities. Parishes either forge a deeper, more meaningful faith through collaborative effort and a diversity of ideas, or they settle for staid protocol and arrested growth.

It's hard to imagine any Catholic preferring the latter, but I can't say the same about the Holy See.

Unconventional Catholicism in the United States has long been the bane of Vatican right-wingers who see everything in black and white. The German pope, dubbed "God's Rottweiler" when he headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, spent 25 years investigating people perceived as having strayed too far left for Rome's conservative tastes.

Now, in the seventh year of his papacy, the Pontiff appears determined to reassert himself as the grand inquisitor. His message to the unorthodox is clear: Conform, or face the fury of the Vatican.

If that means disenchanting large blocs of American Catholics who were brought up to believe their faith was a vehicle for social justice -- not a doctrinal Rorschach test -- too bad. A smaller Roman Catholic Church in the United States, burning with fundamentalist fever, will do the Vatican's bidding without question.

It will impose a more orthodox religious curriculum on Catholic schools, parse the liturgical narrative to pre-Vatican II perfection, and replace "radical feminism" with women who will be seen and not heard.

Outspoken Catholic women religious in America will never do. They need to be put in their place after decades of service to education, health care, and social services. Their organized sisterhood must be brought back into the fold by ordained men who know better.

Toledo Bishop Leonard Blair, who led an investigation of the nation's sisters, raised questions about the "doctrinal soundness and doctrinal completeness" of the organization that represents most of the nation's 57,000 nuns. His probe stunned the Leadership Conference of Women Religious with findings of "doctrinal assertions that are problematic."

The two-year assessment of the nuns' group also studied where the women may have strayed on fundamental church doctrine or not rallied enough against abortion, homosexuality, and the ordination of women. It even found that the nuns had "promoted radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith."

With the Pope's blessing, conservative American bishops are attempting to silence all questioning, to purge all perspective, to purify the ranks.

The nuns who are being chastised by Rome, who spent a lifetime helping the poor, homeless and underprivileged, are more sad than angry with the men who call the shots. Leaders of the largest and most influential group of Catholic nuns in the United States say by targeting them with "unsubstantiated" criticism, the Vatican has caused "more scandal and pain" and "greater polarization" in the church.

That is no way to mend what is broken and staunch the exodus of American Catholics from the church, but Rome doesn't care. It's too busy separating the wheat from the chaff, saving tradition, and establishing a level of top-down control not seen in the church for 50 years.

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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