From Denver to the Main Line

Call it the "Rocky Mountain Time Zone syndrome." Journalists in the region know that it's scandalously rare for news events and trends that break in the Rocky Mountain West to gain traction in the elite news outlets of the urban Northeast and the West Coast.

But the massacre at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999 was different. The national press came to Littleton, Colo., and stayed -- forced to wrestle with ancient questions of good and evil, as framed in the unfathomable acts of students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.

Days after the bloodshed, Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput -- two years into his tenure -- joined a friend at a movie theater, trying to understand the buzz surrounding "The Matrix." The archbishop left deeply troubled, gripped by the sci-fi epic's blurring of the line between life and death, between reality and a digital, alternative reality.

A week after another funeral for a young Catholic who died at Columbine, the archbishop was summoned to testify before a U.S. Senate hearing, and the Beltway press, on a loaded topic -- "Marketing Violence to Children."

Chaput was not well known at that time. This was before he was selected to serve on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, before he started speaking out on national issues, before a public clash with the New York Times, before he wrote a bestseller, "Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life." This was years before his name began surfacing in rumors about empty slots high in the church hierarchy.

Now, the 66-year-old Native American has been named as the 13th shepherd Philadelphia, an ultra-Eastern archdiocese of about 1.5 million Catholics, only 30 percent of whom regularly visit pews. This is a high-profile throne that has, for every occupant since 1921, led to a seat in the College of Cardinals.

As someone who has known Chaput since the mid-1980s, when he was a pastor and campus minister, I'm convinced that anyone who wants to understand this Capuchin Franciscan friar's priorities should start with Columbine.

In that early Washington visit, Chaput told the senators it would be simplistic to blame one movie, or Hollywood, or corporate entertainment giants for what happened at Columbine. At the same time, it would be naive to ignore the power of popular culture.

"The reasonable person understands that what we eat, drink and breathe will make us healthy or sick. In like manner, what we hear and what we see lifts us up -- or drags us down. It forms us inside," explained Chaput.

The day he saw "The Matrix," he noted, the "theater was filled with teen-agers. One scene left me completely stunned: The heroes wear trench coats, and in a violent, elegant, slow-motion bloodbath, they cut down about a dozen people with their guns. It occurred to me that Mr. Harris and Mr. Klebold may have seen that film. If so, it certainly didn't deter them."

Critics were not amused, especially when the archbishop linked this bloodshed -- real and imaginary -- to other hot-button issues on both the cultural left and right.

"The problem of violence isn't out there in bad music and bloody films. The real problem is in here, in us, and it won't be fixed by v-chips," he said. "We've created a culture that markets violence in dozens of different ways, seven days a week. ... When we build our advertising campaigns on consumer selfishness and greed, and when money becomes the universal measure of value, how can we be surprised when our sense of community erodes?

"When we glorify and multiply guns, why are we shocked when kids use them? When we answer murder with more violence in the death penalty, we put the state's seal of approval on revenge. When the most dangerous place in the country is a mother's womb, and the unborn child can have his or her head crushed in an abortion, even in the process of being born -- the body language of that message is that life isn't sacred and may not be worth much at all."

That's the voice that "Whispers In The Loggia" blogger Rocco Palmo of Philadelphia has called "brash, outspoken and fearless -- energetic, colorful, cultured -- indeed, even hard-core."

That's the voice that is leaving the Rocky Mountain Time Zone and headed to the Philadelphia Main Line.

Rome ponders iMissal app

When it comes to liturgical details, the Vatican has clear guidelines about sacred objects that are blessed for use during a Mass. "The Church has always sought," notes the Book of Blessings, "to ensure that all those things that are involved in any way in divine worship should be worthy, becoming and beautiful. ... Those objects that through a blessing are set aside for divine worship are to be treated with reverence by all and to be put only to their proper use, never profaned."

This includes books on the altar, as noted in the 2001 text Liturgiam authenticam (The Authentic Liturgy): "The books from which the liturgical texts are recited in the vernacular with or on behalf of the people should be marked by such a dignity that the exterior appearance of the book itself will lead the faithful to a greater reverence for the word of God and for sacred realities."

But the question some Catholics are asking these days is this: Can there be an app for that? What if clergy used iPads containing the Roman Missal?

At this point, the hierarchy has not publicly approved this leap, noted Father John J.M. Foster, who teaches liturgical law at the Catholic University of America. But that doesn't mean that the Vatican might not support the limited use of an iPad application, which recently was created by an Italian priest who is a consultant with the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.

Nevertheless, it's hard to imagine priests walking in processions with iPads lifted high. Could that happen?

"Not yet," said Foster. "That doesn't mean that some parish somewhere isn't going to make PDF copies of the Gospels, put them on an iPad and hand them to the deacon. ... However, we shouldn't assume that something can be used in the liturgy, simply because it has not been forbidden."

This buzz began in June, when Father Paolo Padrini said he was releasing an app offering the Roman Missal -- the texts that are read and sung during Masses throughout the year -- in Latin, English, Italian, French and Spanish. Two years earlier, he created an iBreviary for the iPhone, containing the Catholic book of daily prayers.

The Catholic blogosphere reacted immediately. Certainly in iMissal would help priests, such as military chaplains, who were constantly on the move. Priests with weak eyesight could change font sizes in a few seconds. But what would happen if the app crashed during Mass? Could laypeople read along, or would they be tempted to check their email?

The church, however, has faced technical questions before. Hand-written volumes gave way to those printed on presses. However, priests cannot hear confessions by telephone. Internet confessions don't work, either.

Speaking as a "self-professed geek who is a lover of both technology and theology," Jeff Miller of the Curt Jester website confessed that he has mixed emotions about liturgical texts on mobile devices.

"This might be a question answered by the Vatican sometime in the future, though they are notoriously slow in answering questions of this type," wrote Miller. "I can certainly see why some priests would appreciate an electronic version of the Roman Missal. It would be much harder to loose your place and in fact easier to find the correct section each day. I love electronic versions of the Liturgy of the Hours because it makes it so easy to read ... without having to thumb through a bunch of ribboned bookmarks."

Some changes will be needed, stressed Jeff Geerling of Open Source Catholic. For example, the screens on these devices will need to operate without strong backlighting. Imagine the blue-glow distraction of iPads during candlelight services. And that omnipresent aluminum shell?

"An appropriate case," he noted, "would need to be manufactured to (a) mask the logo on the back, and (b) downplay the fact that a bit of electronic technology is being used. Something simple; perhaps a nice red leather case?"

At this point, noted Foster, no one knows how these apps will evolve. One thing is certain. Priests would need to look up prayers for special occasions and rites.

"There would still be work to do," he said. "That's why we have all those ribbons. It's not like you could just call up a day of the year and everything would be right there so that you could keep scrolling on and on and on. It's not that simple."

Eunice Kennedy Shriver, pro-lifer

There is nothing particularly newsworthy about a coalition of pro-lifers releasing a public manifesto that criticizes politicos who support abortion rights. Nevertheless, a full-page advertisement in the New York Times during the 1992 Democratic National Convention raised eyebrows because a few prominent Democrats endorsed "A New American Compact: Caring about Women, Caring for the Unborn."

One name in particular jumped out in this list -- Kennedy.

"The advocates of abortion on demand falsely assume two things: that women must suffer if the lives of unborn children are legally protected; and that women can only attain equality by having the legal option of destroying their innocent offspring in the womb," proclaimed ad's lengthy and detailed text.

"We propose a new understanding, one that does not pit mother against child. To establish justice and to promote the general welfare, America does not need the abortion license. What America needs are policies that responsibly protect and advance the interest of mothers AND their children, both before AND after birth."

Near the end, the statement added: "We can choose to reaffirm our respect for human life. We can choose to extend once again the mantle of protection to all members of the human family, including the unborn."

It really wasn't a surprise that Eunice Kennedy Shriver -- who died on Aug. 11, after a series of strokes -- was among those who signed the document, along with her husband Sargent Shriver, the 1972 Democratic nominee for vice president.

Yes, she was the sister of President John F. Kennedy, Sen. Robert Kennedy, and Sen. Edward Kennedy and part of a family dynasty that changed how Americans view progressive politics and Catholicism.

But Eunice Shriver also attended convent schools, considered becoming a nun and remained a daily-Mass Catholic throughout her life, while teaching the Rosary prayers to her five children and 19 grandchildren. She was a public supporter of Democrats for Life, Feminists for Life and the Susan B. Anthony List, which supports pro-life women who seek public office.

"She was pious, I think, a very, very pious woman," said Robert F. Kennedy Jr., stating the obvious during a six-hour public wake and Mass for his aunt at Our Lady of Victory Church on Cape Cod.

An official tribute went further while connecting her faith with the issue that dominated her public life.

"Inspired by her love of God, her devotion to her family, and her relentless belief in the dignity and worth of every human life, she worked without ceasing," said the family's public statement. "She was a living prayer. ... She set out to change the world and to change us, and she did that and more. She founded the movement that became Special Olympics, the largest movement for acceptance and inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities in the history of the world. Her work transformed the lives of hundreds of millions of people across the globe, and they in turn are her living legacy."

The mainstream obituaries and media tributes that followed her death also connected Shriver's work with the poignant life of her older sister Rosemary Kennedy, who was mentally disabled. In a historic 1962 article for the Saturday Evening Post, Eunice yanked one of Camelot's most tragic secrets into the open -- under the stark headline, "Hope for Retarded Children." In the decades that followed, she worked tirelessly to pull Rosemary into the family circle.

Nevertheless, elite journalists failed to connect the dots between Shriver's fierce activism on behalf of children facing disabilities and her commitment to defending the lives of the unborn, including babies with Down syndrome and other genetic flaws.

For Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the sanctity of life was a Catholic issue, a political issue and an intensely personal issue.

"She was preeminently pro-life, against abortion and there to protect and underscore the dignity of every person. This, of course, manifested itself in her love for children with disabilities," noted Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley of Boston, in a reflection posted online.

"While Eunice's works were remarkable, I don't want to lose sight of the fact that her Catholic faith and education was a very important part of what motivated her and helped her to interpret reality. ... It was certainly the soil out of which grew her passion and dedication to the less fortunate and those who are challenged by disabilities and mental retardation."

That other speech at Notre Dame

It was hard to ignore the papal bull condemning the slave trade, which was read to American Catholic leaders gathered in Baltimore in 1839. Pope Gregory XVI proclaimed that "no one in the future dare to vex anyone, despoil him of his possessions, reduce to servitude, or lend aid and favor to those who give themselves up to these practices, or exercise that inhuman traffic by which the Blacks, as if they were not men but rather animals, having been brought into servitude, in no matter what way, are, without any distinction, in contempt of the rights of justice and humanity, bought, sold and devoted sometimes to the hardest labor."

Nevertheless, the first bishop of Charleston, S.C., attempted to soften the blow. Quoting scripture and Catholic doctrine, Bishop John England wrote a series of letters arguing that the pope didn't mean to attack those -- including Catholics -- who already owned slaves.

"Bishop England was not a bad man. He was not personally in favor of slavery, nor was he a racist," noted Father John Raphael of New Orleans, at a rally organized as an alternative to the University of Notre Dame's graduation rites.

"In fact, Bishop England exercised a cherished and personal ministry to black Catholics," he added. "But in the face of strong, anti-Catholic sentiment and prejudice, he simply wanted to show his fellow antebellum Southerners that Catholics could be just as American as everybody else and that tolerance of their cherished institution -- slavery -- was not in any way opposed by the Catholic church."

It was wrong for Catholics of that era to seek any compromise on slavery, stressed Raphael, who serves as principal of St. Augustine High School, one of Louisiana's most prominent African-American institutions. It is just as wrong, today, for Catholic leaders to compromise on abortion. At least the slaves were allowed to live, to be baptized and to receive the sacraments, he said.

The symbolism was obvious, since the priest is a prominent African-American graduate of Notre Dame.

The symbolism was more than obvious, since he was speaking at a rally protesting Notre Dame's decision to grant President Barack Obama an honorary doctor of laws degree, clashing with a U.S. Catholic bishops policy that states: "Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions."

The Mass and rally on Notre Dame's south quad followed hours of prayers in the university's Alumni Hall and famous Marian grotto. These solemn, peaceful events received little media attention, even though they drew several hundred or several thousand participants, depending on who did the counting, as well as 25 Notre Dame faculty members, 26 graduating seniors and Bishop John D’Arcy of the Catholic Diocese of Ft. Wayne-South Bend. A louder standoff between police and 100 off-campus activists -- led by anti-abortion leader Randall Terry -- received most of the news coverage.

During the actual commencement address, a few protesters yelled, "Stop killing our children." Most of the graduates booed the protesters, then chanted, "Yes we can," Obama's campaign slogan, and "We are ND" as they were removed.

Notre Dame President John Jenkins stressed that Obama accepted Notre Dame's invitation knowing that "we are fully supportive of church teaching on the sanctity of human life and we oppose his policies on abortion and embryonic stem cell research."

"President Obama is not someone who stops talking to those who differ with him," stressed Father Jenkins. Then he added, "Mr. President, this is a principle we share."

Meanwhile, many of the speakers at the "Notre Dame Rally for Life" openly criticized Obama's policies, but consistently focused their harshest words on the actions of the current Notre Dame administration.

"Faith without works is dead, words without actions are meaningless," said Father Raphael. "If, as we have been told, a dialogue is actually taking place … between the presidents of Notre Dame and the United States, between the university and the nation, then, for the university at least, that dialogue must be shaped by truth and charity, and protecting the sanctity of all human life, as the church understands life, must be its goal. …

"Actively building a culture of life at Notre Dame must become central to the university's witness and mission to the nation and to the world."

Hiding behind altars

If you want to cause trouble for American bishops, stick them in a vise between Rome and the armies of dissenters employed on Catholic campuses.

But the bishops had to vote on Ex Corde Ecclesiae ("From the Heart of the Church"). After all, they had been arguing about this papal document throughout the 1990s, trying to square the doctrinal vision of Pope John Paul II with their American reality. Rome said their first response was too weak, when it came to insisting that Catholic schools remain openly Catholic. Finally, the bishops approved a tougher document on a 223-to-31 vote.

Soon after that 1999 showdown, someone "with a good reason for wanting to know" emailed a simple question to Russell Shaw of the United States Catholic Conference. Who voted against the statement?

"There was no way to know. In fact, the Vatican doesn't know -- for sure -- who those 31 bishops where," said Shaw, discussing one of the many mysteries in his book, "Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication and Communion in the Catholic Church.

"The secret ballots were destroyed," he noted. "These days the voting process is even more secret, since the bishops just push a button and they've voted. Even if you wanted to know how your bishop voted, or you wanted the Vatican to know how your bishop voted, there's no way to do that."

Professionals have learned to read between the lines of debates held in the open sessions that the U.S. bishops choose to schedule. Outside those doors, insiders talk and spread rumors. Some bishops spin the press and others, usually those sending messages to Rome, hold press conferences, publish editorials or preach sermons. But many of the crucial facts remain cloaked in secrecy.

Of course, noted Shaw, few leaders of powerful institutions enjoy discussing their crucial decisions -- let alone corporate or personal sins -- in public. When Catholic insiders complain about "clericalism" they are confronting a problem that affects all hierarchies, from government to academia, from the Pentagon to Wall Street.

"It's a kind of elitism, a way of thinking and behaving that assigns to the managerial class a superior status," he said. "They are chiefs and everyone else is an Indian. They set the agenda. They always make the final decisions. They get to tell everyone else what to do."

Of course, there's truth in the old image that puts the pope at the top of an ecclesiastical pyramid, with ranks of clergy cascading down to the pews. Catholicism is not a democracy and there are times when leaders must keep secrets. That's "a truth," said Shaw, but it is "not the only truth," since the whole church is meant to be knit together in a Communion built on a "radical equality of dignity and rights."

Part of what is happening, he explained, is that some bishops are protecting a "facade of unity" that hides their doctrinal disagreements with the Vatican. While Shaw believes the bishops are more united with Rome now than they where were about 25 years ago, some bishops may be pushing for more and more closed "executive" sessions as a subconscious way to protect themselves.

Take, for example, the brutal waves of scandal caused by the sexual abuse of children and teens by clergy. For several decades, argued Shaw, the bishops have been afraid to openly discuss "the causes of the dreadful mess -- nasty things like homosexuality among priests, theological rationalizing on the subject of sex and the entrenched self-protectiveness of the old clericalist culture."

That's the kind of scandal that creates global headlines. But, for most Catholics, more commonplace forms of secrecy shape their lives at the local level, said Shaw.

Consider another story reported in Shaw's book, about a woman who quietly confronted a priest after a Mass in which he omitted the creed. When he failed to acknowledge the error, she said, "Father, you teach your people to be disobedient when you disobey the Church."

The offended priest was silent. Then he leaned forward and whispered, "You know what honey? You're full of it." The priest walked away, giving the woman and her husband what appeared to be "the single-digit salute."

Truth is, said Shaw, "clericalism is often alive and well at the local level. That's the kind of secrecy and dishonesty that really cuts the heart of many local parishes, destroying any hope for real Communion there."

Not a Catholic 'Mass factory'

Catholics who treasure ancient liturgies smirk and call them "Mass factories."

These churches are visions of horizontal utilitarianism, their flat, plain walls broken by patches of metal and glass while rows of chairs face ultramodern altars. The faithful are more likely to see balloons drift to the rafters than clouds of incense veil images of Jesus, Mary and the saints.

Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Dallas is certainly not a "Mass factory," as both critics and fans of this poor but lively parish in a battered barrio would agree. Its Italian windows have been lovingly restored, Romanesque walls repaired and statuary augmented by treasures abandoned by others. Roses are popular, often in waves of 700 or more.

"Beauty is terribly important, especially for people who have so little beauty in their lives," said Father Paul Weinberger, 44, a beefy, energetic Anglo who arrived 10 years ago after a Spanish-language immersion program.

"People need something that lifts them up, that lets them glimpse something higher. So I want worship here to be extravagant. I want their church to be like a garden in this workaday world. ... I can't guarantee that they'll listen to me, but if their eyes wander around this church they're going to drawn to things that point them toward the mysteries of the faith."

But it was a change in the 1999 midnight Mass that helped create a buzz in Dallas and on the Internet.

Weinberger estimates that 70 percent of his flock speaks Spanish and the rest English. The challenge was to find a way for worshippers to gather in the same pews, at the same time, sharing a common language.

The priest's solution raised eyebrows. He embraced the modern Catholic rite -- the Novus Ordo -- but elected to use the Vatican's Latin text, accompanied by preaching in Spanish and English. This rite then filled the 10:45 a.m. slot in the parish's Sunday schedule, mixed in with two Spanish Masses and three in English.

Now Weinberger is being transferred -- against his will -- and supporters believe his love of Latin is one reason for the decision. They fear sweeping changes in this revived parish.

This is nonsense, said Deacon Bronson Havard, spokesperson for Bishop Charles V. Grahmann. It's perfectly normal for a priest to be rotated to another parish after 10 years and the next pastor will make the decision about Latin at Blessed Sacrament.

However, Havard stressed that the Dallas diocese does require priests to seek permission to use Latin rites -- ancient or modern. This is an issue of loyalty. Only a directive from Rome can override the local bishop's authority on matters such as this, he said.

As for Weinberger's conviction that a Latin Mass is a symbol of unity, Havard said: "Using the Latin may mean something to him, but it means nothing to the people in the pews -- especially not to the Mexican immigrants who come into this area. We've had many complaints about that."

This is news to Weinberger. Diocesan policy requires that pastors receive copies of all complaints, he noted, and none have reached his desk.

This whole Dallas dispute sounds sadly familiar, said Helen Hull Hitchcock, editor of Adoremus, a conservative journal about liturgy.

"We hear reports from Catholics across the nation who are accused of doing all kinds of horrible things, like kneeling at places in the Mass where people have been kneeling for centuries," she said. "Then people tell them that if they clash with their bishop ... they're being disloyal to the pope.

"It's all very annoying. Some people are mad that these priests and parishes still exist."

This is precisely what worries Weinberger.

The days of the Advent season are passing as he prepares for a final midnight Christmas Mass at Blessed Sacrament. Poinsettias, stacked 15 to 20 feet high, will frame the altar. Pews will be packed for the Latin Mass.

"What father does not want to see his whole family gathered around the same table? That has always been my goal," he said. "I want to see our whole parish there, from the first-generation immigrants who only speak Spanish to the native Dallasites who only speak English.

"I don't want the language to divide us. I want it to unite us."

Catholic college culture wars

Anyone trying to understand the Catholic college culture wars can start with last spring's commencement address by Cardinal Francis Arinze at Georgetown University.

Media coverage was guaranteed, since many list the Nigerian prelate as a top contender to succeed Pope John Paul II. Who knew he would dare to mention sex and marriage?

"The family is under siege," said Arinze. "It is opposed by an anti-life mentality as seen in contraception, abortion, infanticide and euthanasia. It is scorned and banalized by pornography, desecrated by fornication and adultery, mocked by homosexuality, sabotaged by irregular unions and cut in two by divorce."

A theology professor walked out, as did some outraged students. Seventy faculty members signed a letter of protest. But traditional Catholics began asking a burning question: Why was it shocking for a cardinal to defend Catholic doctrines on a Catholic campus?

These fires are still smoldering as students return to America's 223 Catholic colleges and universities. The Arinze controversy also reinforced some controversial statistics suggesting that four years on most Catholic campuses may actually harm young Catholic souls.

"What we are seeing is a battle between orthodox Christian beliefs and the moral relativism that is becoming more powerful in many religious groups," said Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, a fiercely pro-Vatican educational network.

"Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, you name it.

Faith Crisis in Blogosphere

The news from Rome infuriated the most quotable Catholic, gay, HIV-positive, political conservative in cyberspace.

But Andrew Sullivan knew where to find comfort after the Vatican's recent reminder that gay unions are in no way "similar or even remotely analogous to God's plan for marriage and family." He poured out his frustration at and his online community responded.

"Times are terrible," wrote a Catholic priest. "The church says gay people are not permitted to get married, ordained or adopt children. All prohibitions. Not one statement of moral guidance or recognition. Negation only. I don't know what to say or think myself. ...

"I take refuge in conscience (which the tradition treats with utmost respect) and in my belief that the church is larger and older and wiser than one segment, no matter how powerful and officially sanctioned its self-defined role. The church cannot be contained or proscribed as the narrow experience of what the magisterium teaches. It is all of us."

Sullivan shared that anonymous epistle with the 400,000 or so readers who visit his "weblog" each month. There are between 1.5 and 3 million "blogs" and the former New Republic editor is known as a trailblazer in this ever-expanding "blogosphere."

Blogs are helping shape mainstream news, as the ousted editors of the New York Times now know. But blogs are also touching untold numbers of private lives. This is especially true in the realm of religion, where public policy and private piety are mixing in new ways.

Headlines seem distant in the daily press. They are personal in the blogs. One day it's Catholic doctrine and its impact on legislators and judges. The next day it's the Episcopal Church and the consecration of its first openly gay bishop.

Sullivan is used to slinging ink in this marketplace. But this week he used his blog to say that events are pushing him toward a "pretty major life-decision."

"It tears me apart to see no prospect of the Catholic Church ending its war on gay people and their dignity in my lifetime," he wrote. "I think it's getting worse; and the next pope from the developing world could make the current one seem humane. Leaving the sacraments would be a huge blow to the soul; but the pope just called the love I have for my boyfriend 'evil.' "

Sullivan posted painful letters from gay Catholics who said the Vatican had pushed them over the line. One pondered cutting off "my membership and support of the Roman Catholic Church" and moving on to "what in my upbringing would be called 'the next best thing': the Episcopal Church."

But the "blogosphere" has other sanctuaries. Father Paul Mankowski of the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome called Sullivan and his acolytes "conditional" Catholics who yearn for a different church.

"They persist in their membership, but with the understanding that the Church will be a different Church in the future," he said, in the blog at Catholic World News ( "And if the Church will reverse her teaching in future, the Church must be wrong now. And if a man believes the Church is wrong now, he can't possibly mean the same thing I mean when he professes her to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic."

And Catholic blogger Amy Welborn ( wondered whether Sullivan fears surrendering the familiar rituals of daily Catholic life, even though his beliefs have changed. Yet reason suggests that there "comes a point when an individual who doesn't believe that faith rests on objective truth comes up hard against the institution that maintains that it does, and at that point, something's got to give."

Then again, she said, he may stay. What's the "marquee value" of being a gay Episcopalian?

Reached by email, Sullivan said he feels tied to Catholicism by baptism, family, the sacraments and a "lifetime of prayer and reflection." He still goes to Mass. He asked his readers to pray for him and was stunned at the consolation that flowed through these digital ties that bind.

"I don't think I could belong to any other Church but the one I believe to be the true one," he said. "I respect completely other faiths and denominations; but this one is in my bones and in my soul."

Layers of Catholic denial

Every day the headlines and cartoons seem to get worse.

Every night stand-up comics crank out more nasty one-liners.

So it's sad, but not shocking, that a Catholic priest told the Boston Globe about a partygoer who dressed up as a pedophile priest at Halloween.

It's open season. Even though priests know they shouldn't take it personally, it's hard not to, said Father Donald Cozzens, a veteran Catholic educator who led a graduate seminary in Ohio.

"It's hard to imagine how this can end any time soon," he said. "It's incomprehensible to me that some people continue to believe that we have to be careful about talking about this crisis. There are people who are still afraid that honesty will do more damage than silence."

Back in 2000, Cozzens published a book called "The Changing Face of the Priesthood" that openly discussed trends -- such as the thriving gay subculture in some seminaries -- that reached mainstream news reports during 2002. Now he has written a sequel entitled "Sacred Silence: Denial and the Crisis in the Church."

Once again, it is tempting to focus on the sexual details in this ongoing scandal, which actually began in mid-1980s. But Cozzens said recent headlines must be read in a larger context.

News reports are "unmasking a systemic or structural crisis that threatens the lines of power that have gone unchallenged for centuries," he said. "This in itself is enough to make some prelates and clergy afraid, very afraid. Another is the Catholic anger rising from conservatives, moderates and progressives alike against the duplicitous arrogance of some prominent archbishops and other church authorities."

Underneath the fear and anger are deep concerns about changing times and statistics.

For example, one or two generations ago middle-class or poor Catholic parents were proud when one of their sons and daughters decided to become a priest or a nun. Today's suburban Catholic reality is radically different. The numbers just don't add up.

"We have known for some time now that the birth rate for Catholic families in the U.S. is less than two children (1.85), the same rate for families in general," he noted. "It is likely, then, that many Catholic parents will have but one daughter. Parental support, let alone encouragement, for a daughter considering the religious life is likely to be weak."

And the same is true for Catholic sons. As the former vicar for clergy in Cleveland, Cozzens knows all of the statistics about the falling number of American priests and the rising number of Catholics in their pews. He also knows that some dioceses are faring better than others and that, at the global level, vocations may actually be up.

Nevertheless, 6 percent of U.S. priests are 35 years old or younger. The age of the average priest is creeping closer to 60 and Cozzens believes the number of priests 90 years of age and older may soon be larger than the number under 35.

Anyone who studies modern Catholics must face other stark realities, said Cozzens. The number of single-parent Catholic homes is rising, with the rest of the culture, and approximately "half of the young men and women making vocational ... decisions are doing so in an environment that has been marked by separation, divorce or death."

Meanwhile, worship patterns are changing. A generation ago, 70 percent of U.S. Catholics attended mass each week. Today, about a third do so.

Is there a link between the size and shape of suburban Catholic families and the drop in the number of candidates for holy orders? Can these trends be reversed?

This leads Cozzens to other tough questions: Will the clergy sexual abuse crisis start a "domino effect" that combines with other trends to cause sweeping changes in the church? If so, what should those changes be? Perhaps married priests?

Two years ago, a Vatican archbishop told Cozzens that his work was raising eyebrows. Vatican insiders were convinced he was attacking mandatory celibacy.

"We cannot avoid that issue," said Cozzens. "Truth is, we already have a married priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church, just not in the west. We may need to draw on the traditions of the Eastern Rite Catholics and the Orthodox, as well.

"But most of all, we can't be afraid to talk about what is actually going on."