Vatican II

A golden age for Catholic architecture -- in the Bible belt?

Architect Michael Tamara's original goal was to study new Catholic churches built using classic designs and symbolism, as opposed to all of those modernist sanctuaries offering what some critics call the "Our Lady of Pizza Hut" style.

The first church that caught his eye, 15 years ago, was the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Ala., an ornate sanctuary rich in majestic marble and gold details that was becoming familiar to viewers of Eternal Word Television Network. This church, he thought, was built decades after the Second Vatican Council?

Tamara began gathering materials about other new churches in neo-Gothic, Romanesque or other classic styles. Eventually he spotted a surprising pattern.

That first church was in Alabama, and then he found others in Texas, Tennessee, North Carolina, Oklahoma, several in South Carolina and quite a few in Virginia. Oh, and there was a stunning new monastery -- in Alabama.

"Shocking" news for postmodern nuns

In the beginning there was the Conference of Major Religious Superiors of Women's Institutes, which was established with the Vatican's blessing in 1959 during an era of rapid growth for Catholic religious orders. Then along came two cultural earthquakes, the Second Vatican Council and the Sexual Revolution. In 1971 the women's conference changed its name -- this time without the Vatican's blessing -- to become the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Two leaders in this transformation later wrote that the goal was to become a "corporate force for systematic change in Church and society."

The rest is a long story, ultimately leading to a blunt April 18 missive (.pdf) from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This long-expected Vatican broadside noted "serious doctrinal problems" in LCWR proclamations, characterized by a "diminution of the fundamental Christological center" and the prevalence of "radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith."

Women's conference leaders offered a terse response, saying they were "stunned by the conclusions of the doctrinal assessment" from Rome.

"Stunned" was the key word for legions of headline writers, whose work resembled this Washington Post offering: "American nuns stunned by Vatican accusation of 'radical feminism,' crackdown." The Chicago Sun-Times went even further, proclaiming: "Vatican waging a war on nuns."

Truth is, tensions have been building for decades between the LCWR leadership and Vatican leaders. Thus, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith missive stressed that its call for reform was built on a lengthy study of materials created by "a particular conference of major superiors and therefore does not intend to offer judgment on the faith and life of Women Religious in the member congregations."

This particular investigation began in 2008 and Catholic leaders first discussed some of its findings two years later. The final "doctrinal assessment" document was completed in January of 2011. Some of the specific events criticized in the Vatican document took place during the 1970s and '80s.

"It certainly didn't help matters" that there has been so much publicity about liberal nuns supporting White House health-care policies and new Health and Human Services regulations that require most religious institutions to include free coverage of all FDA-approved contraceptives in their health-insurance plans, noted John L. Allen, Jr., of the National Catholic Reporter.

Nevertheless, "it doesn't withstand scrutiny for anyone to say that this conflict is about the bishops and Rome being upset about the sisters, Obama and birth control," said Allen, in a telephone interview from Rome. Also, "no one is upset about all the sisters have done to abolish the death penalty, stand up for immigrants, care for the sick and help the poor. Rome praised them for that. ...

"Frankly, his report could have been written 20 years ago. The real issues in this case are that old."

For example, the Vatican noted that in 1977 the LCWR leadership openly rejected Catholic teachings on the "reservation of priestly ordination to men." The women's conference later published a training book suggesting that it's legitimate for sisters to debate whether celebrations of the Mass should be central to events in their communities, since this would require the presence of a male priest. In the '80s, leaders in female orders backed the New Ways Ministry's work to oppose Catholic teachings on homosexuality.

A pivotal moment came in 2007, when Dominican Sister Laurie Brink delivered the keynote address (.pdf) at a national LCWR assembly stating that it was time for some religious orders to enter an era of "sojourning" that for some would require "moving beyond the church, even beyond Jesus."

With the emergence of the women's movement and related forms of spirituality, many sisters would see "the divine within nature" and embrace an "emerging new cosmology" that would feed their souls, said Brink. For these sisters, the "Jesus narrative is not the only or the most important narrative. ... Jesus is not the only son of God."

A year later, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith opened its investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

The Brink address, noted the resulting doctrinal assessment, "is a challenge not only to core Catholic beliefs; such a rejection of faith is also a serious source of scandal and is incompatible with religious life. ... Some might see in Sr. Brink's analysis a phenomenological snapshot of religious life today. But pastors of the Church should also see in it a cry for help."

Yes, Catholics need more priests

As a regular part of his ministry, Archbishop Edwin O'Brien of Baltimore says Masses on behalf of Catholics who have left the church. The unique element of these rites is that he offers his prayers for anyone he has -- during his 45 years as a priest, with or without knowing it -- driven away from Catholic pews and altars.

This isn't the kind of ecclesiastical issue that makes headlines.

Nevertheless, this is a quiet kind of crisis that priests must take seriously, said O'Brien, in a Franciscan University forum that included current and potential seminarians. How many lapsed or former Catholics, he asked, slipped away because they felt "talked down to or lectured at by preachers or confessors who don't really know them or who appreciate how difficult their struggles are just to get through life?"

How many, he added, are haunted by a clergy comment, "often at an emotional time in their lives," that wounded them so deeply they became convinced that it justified leaving the church? How many drifted away to Protestant megachurches because of "our dull, lifeless and irrelevant homilies."

The priesthood has faced many crises during the past generation or two and O'Brien offered no easy solutions.

Obviously, he couldn't ignore three decades of scandals caused by the sexual abuse of thousands of children and young people by priests and bishops. O'Brien also discussed the hierarchy's problems finding new priests, yet avoided the stark statistics that are so familiar to American Catholics. In 1965 they had 58,000 priests. Now there are about 40,000 and, if trends stay the same, there will be 31,000 in a decade, with most over 65 years of age.

While these crises dominate the news, O'Brien stressed that Catholic leaders cannot overlook the personal challenge of helping potential seminarians struggle with this timeless question: Does God want me to be a priest? As a former seminary leader, in the New York archdiocese and in Rome, O'Brien said he has added a more nuanced set of follow-up questions.

"Why are you living your life here and now?", he asked the audience at his late-2010 lecture on the Steubenville, Ohio, campus. "What is your radical motivation? Are you here on this earth to give or to get?"

The cultural changes that rocked Catholicism after the 1960s made it even more of a challenge to answer these kinds of questions. O'Brien saw this era up close, since he was ordained in 1965 and, as an Army chaplain with the rank of captain, served a tour of duty in Vietnam.

In the "heady years" after the Second Vatican Council it seemed that Catholics "saw almost everything go up for grabs" in their parishes and "in Western Culture in general." Priests were "leaving by the droves" and at times, he noted, it seemed as if "follow your conscience" stood alone as the "only criterion for morality, heedless of any objective moral truth." Many seminaries lowered their admissions requirements in an attempt to find more priests.

O'Brien offered a blunt analysis of that decision: "Many of the horrendous sexual scandals, I think, can be traced to the breakdown of seminary formation from 1965 to the early 1980s."

The continuing aftershocks are familiar to priests who keep trying to defend church teachings and traditions. The archbishop noted that a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 45 percent of Catholics didn't know that their church believes that the bread and wine consecrated during the Mass are not mere symbols, but become the body and blood of Jesus Christ. A survey commissioned by the Knights of Columbus found that 82 percent of Catholics between the ages of 18 and 29 agreed with this statement: "Morals are relative, that is, there is no definite right and wrong for everybody."

This is sobering, but Catholics must not lose hope, said O'Brien. God will raise up priests who are willing to wrestle with ancient and modern questions while serving in what the archbishop called a "post-Christian" culture.

A missionary bishop in an earlier era, he noted, stated the challenge this way: "The task of a missionary is to go to a place where he is not wanted to sell a pearl whose value, although of great price, is not recognized, to a people who are determined not to accept it -- even as a gift."