Pope Benedict XVI

Future of all those Roman (and American) churches? No need for anxiety, says pope

Future of all those Roman (and American) churches? No need for anxiety, says pope

It's a statistic tourists in Rome often hear while gazing at centuries of glorious architecture: The eternal city contains more than 900 churches.

Other statistics will affect those holy sites in the future.

For example, a record-low 458,151 births occurred last year in Italy. The fertility rate -- currently 1.32, far below a 2.1 replacement rate -- is expected to decline again this year. Meanwhile, the number of marriages fell 6 percent, between 2016 and 2017, and religious marriages plunged 10.5 percent.

"Currently we are at a roughly terminal stage. It would not be bad if the Church, the first to pay the price, would understand this and get moving," noted demographer Roberto Volpi, quoted in the newspaper Il Foglio.

Thus, lots of Rome's 900-plus churches will be empty in the next generation or so.

That was the context of remarks by Pope Francis during a recent Pontifical Council for Culture conference, a gathering with this sobering title: "Doesn't God dwell here any more? Decommissioning places of worship and integrated management of ecclesiastical cultural heritage."

Francis stressed: "The observation that many churches, which until a few years ago were necessary, are now no longer thus, due to a lack of faithful and clergy, or a different distribution of the population between cities and rural areas, should be welcomed in the Church not with anxiety, but as a sign of the times that invites us to reflection and requires us to adapt."

The church has problems, but there are "virtuous" ways to deal with them, he said. Bishops in Europe, North America and elsewhere are learning to cope.

"Decommissioning must not be first and only solution … nor must it be carried out with the scandal of the faithful. Should it become necessary, it should be inserted in the time of ordinary pastoral planning, be proceded by adequate information and be a shared decision" involving civic and church leaders, he said.

Pope Francis appears to be advising Catholics not to worry too much as "For sale" or even "Property condemned" signs appear on lots of sanctuaries in some parts of the world, said Phil Lawler, a conservative journalist with 35 years of experience in diocesan and independent Catholic publications.

"The sentence that triggered me was when the pope said we shouldn't be ANXIOUS about all of this," he said.

Satan, the pope, bishops and a spiritual 9/11 for Catholics around the world

Satan, the pope, bishops and a spiritual 9/11 for Catholics around the world

As point man for the inner ring of cardinals advising Pope Francis, Cardinal Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras is sure that he knows a partisan political attack when he sees one.

Take, for example, the firestorm of controversy surrounding ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, once the church's media-friendly voice in Washington, D.C. In press reports, and a fiery testimony by the Vatican's former U.S. ambassador, McCarrick has been accused of decades of sexual harassment and abuse of seminarians, as well as sex acts with male minors.

"It does not seem correct to me to transform something that is of the private order into bombshell headlines exploding all over the world and whose shrapnel is hurting the faith of many," said Cardinal Maradiaga, in a Religion Digital interview. "I think this case of an administrative nature should have been made public in accordance with more serene and objective criteria, not with the negative charge of deeply bitter expressions."

On another "private order," "administrative" issue in church affairs, he said the "notion of a gay lobby in the Vatican is out of proportion. It is something that exists much more in the ink of the newspapers than in reality."

Pope Francis has not directly addressed recent accusations that he helped shelter, and rehabilitate, McCarrick. But in a blunt Sept. 11 sermon, the pope -- echoing a theme in several other recent addresses -- said Satan is the villain behind these new attacks on leaders at the highest levels of the Roman church.

"In these times, it seems like the 'Great Accuser' has been unchained and is attacking bishops," said Francis. "True, we are all sinners, we bishops. He tries to uncover the sins, so they are visible in order to scandalize the people. …

"A bishop's strength against the 'Great Accuser' is prayer. … Let us pray, today, for our bishops: for me, for those who are here, and for all the bishops throughout the world."

On that same day, another symbolic Vatican voice addressed the same crisis in America, and the global church, in words that were subtle and powerful.

Letter from Catholic women: Papal silence isn't going to lessen pain, anger in the church

Letter from Catholic women: Papal silence isn't going to lessen pain, anger in the church

After a week of headlines and dissent, Pope Francis delivered a sermon that -- once again -- offered silence as his strategic response to critics.

The "father of lies, the accuser, the devil" is trying to divide Catholics, said the pope. When faced with "people who do not have good will, with people who seek only scandal, who seek only division, who seek only destruction, even within families" the proper response is "silence, and prayer."

This echoed earlier remarks when, asked about a scathing epistle by the Vatican's former U.S. ambassador, Pope Francis said, "I will not say a single word on this."

Silence isn't what the authors of a "Letter to Pope Francis from Catholic Women" want to hear, right now. They want the pope to answer Archbishop Carlo Vigano's key accusations -- especially claims that Francis ignored evidence of sexual abuse against children and seminarians by ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C.

"Our hearts are broken, our faith tested, by the escalating crisis engulfing our beloved Church," said the online petition, with more than 30,000 signatures at midweek. "The pain and suffering of the victims never ends, as each news cycle brings more horrific revelations of sexual abuse, sexual misconduct, cover-ups, and deceit -- even at the Church's highest levels."

Several of the Vigano's charges "require neither lengthy investigations nor physical evidence. They require only YOUR direct response, Holy Father."

Tensions have worsened in recent weeks, especially after a hellish grand-jury report about the crimes of 300 priests in six Pennsylvania dioceses. Then came news coverage validating decades of rumors about McCarrick, including testimony about his seduction and abuse of seminarians. Then came Vigano's blast, including charges that Francis trumped efforts by Pope Benedict XVI to push McCarrick out of the spotlight.

The women's statement was triggered by a "wave of problems that has produced so much anguish, confusion, dismay and anger," said Mary Rice Hasson, a Catholic scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. "It's not like there has been one problem that we could solve with a few reforms. … The problems just keep coming at us, one after another."

Pope Benedict XVI and Europe's future: New data about fading faith in Christendom's old heart

Pope Benedict XVI and Europe's future: New data about fading faith in Christendom's old heart

After years of worrying about Europe's future, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany put his hopes and fears on the record during a 2001 interview.

There had been hints. German journalist Peter Seewald noted an old quote in which Ratzinger said the church would be "reduced in its dimensions, it will be necessary to start again." Had the leader of Rome's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith changed his views?

"Statistical data shows irrefutable tendencies," replied Ratzinger. "The mass Church may be something lovely, but it is not necessarily the Church's only way of being.

"The Church of the first three centuries was small, without being, by this fact, a sectarian community. On the contrary, it was not closed in on itself, but felt a great responsibility in regard to the poor, the sick."

Four years later, this bookish cardinal became Pope Benedict XVI, serving until his stunning resignation in 2013 -- the first pope to resign in 600 years. Meanwhile, waves of change have continued to rock Eastern and Western Europe.

Now, the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion in Society, based at St. Mary's University in London, has released a study showing that Christianity is no longer Europe's default religion, especially among the 16- to 29-year-olds who are its future. "Europe's Young Adults and Religion," was produced with the Institut Catholique de Paris, analyzing data from 22 countries, drawn from the 2014-2016 European Social Survey.

In 18 of these countries "fewer than 10 percent of all 16-29 year-olds attend religious services at least weekly. And in 12 of them, over half say that they have 'no religion,' " noted Stephen Bullivant, the report's author and director of the Benedict XVI Centre, in email exchanges with Rod Dreher of The American Conservative.

"These are all countries in Europe, the very heart of Christendom, where Christianity (albeit in several forms) has been reliably passed on from generation-to-generation for the best part of 2000 years. And now, in the space of just a couple of generations, that's largely stopped in many places."

The key, he said is that "nominal" or "cultural" faith doesn't pass from one generation to another.

Year 26: Frustrated Catholics playing 'Name that pope'

Soon after Pope Francis skyrocketed into media superstardom, some frustrated Catholics started playing an online game that could be called "Name that pope." Most of them were not upset with what their charismatic shepherd from Argentina was actually saying and doing. Instead, they were frustrated with the media storm portraying him as radically different -- in substance -- from his predecessors.

Frankly, this is one of the strangest stories I have seen during the many years -- 26 as of last week -- I have been writing this "On Religion" syndicated column.

Want to try this game? Start with this quotation: "The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion."

Name that pope: That's Pope Francis, believe it or not.

Round two: "It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the church's pastors wherever it occurs."

Name that pope: That's Pope Benedict XVI.

Round three: "If we refuse to share what we have with the hungry and the poor, we make of our possessions a false god. How many voices in our materialist society tell us that happiness is to be found by acquiring as many possessions and luxuries as we can! ... Instead of bringing life, they bring death."

Name that pope: Benedict, again.

Round four: "Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us. ... Frequently, as a way of ridiculing the Church's effort to defend their lives, attempts are made to present her position as ideological, obscurantist and conservative. ... It is not 'progressive' to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life."

Name that pope: Francis, of course.

What's going on? Many progressives now shouting praises at Francis don't seem familiar with the doctrines he is supposedly modernizing, according to Rep. Rebecca Hamilton, a Catholic Republican in the Oklahoma House of Representatives.

"This old wine of the Gospel has become new again in Pope Francis' way of expressing and living it. 'Bombshell' is the word that pundits attach to comments he makes that are nothing more nor less than what the Church has taught from the beginning," she wrote, at the Public Catholic website.

Another religion-beat veteran, someone who has read daily Vatican dispatches for 20 years, thinks it's "nonsense" say Francis has suddenly shifted Rome's concerns away from contraception, abortion and homosexuality to poverty, peace and environmentalism. If there has been a dominant theme under recent popes, it has been human rights.

"It was the media, some advocacy groups on both sides and perhaps some individual bishops -- but not the popes -- who were fixated on what is so wrongly mischaracterized as 'pelvic issues,' " said Ann Rodgers, who recently became communications director for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh after several decades covering religion in the mainstream press.

So why is Pope Francis a media star and "Teflon" when it comes to criticism? Speaking at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Rodgers said the key is that famous Marshall McLuhan statement: "The medium is the message."

After his election, Francis declined a limo and rode a bus to dinner with other cardinals. The next day he famously paid his own bill at the international residence house, where he had often stayed in the past and knew the staff by name.

"The medium is the message," said Rodgers.

The list goes on and on. Last fall, the pope publicly embraced a man with a horribly disfigured face. He warned Mafiosi to repent or face hell. On his first Maundy Thursday, he washed the feet of inmates, including women and non-Christians.

"When he is washing the feet of a Muslim girl, he is not making a claim that she is a Christian or that Islam and Christianity are in any way interchangeable," said Rodgers. "He is saying, 'You are a Muslim girl. You are a prisoner and I love you, in the name of Jesus. I am here to serve you, in the name of Jesus.' ...

"He takes away her sense of shame, but in a way that may help her aspire to holiness. He's not just talking about mercy. He's not just talking about loving the stranger who is our neighbor. The medium is the message."

An earthy reality in the words of Pope Francis

There is nothing unusual about a Catholic leader urging priests to draw closer to their flocks, to focus on day-to-day issues that bridge the gap between pulpit and pew. Still, it caught Vatican insiders off guard when Pope Francis, a week after his installation Mass, used a somewhat pungent image when discussing this problem.

"This is precisely the reason for the dissatisfaction of some, who end up sad -- sad priests -- in some sense becoming collectors of antiques or novelties, instead of being shepherds living with the smell of the sheep," he said. "This I ask you: be shepherds, with the 'odor of the sheep,' make it real, as shepherds among your flock, fishers of men."

At this point, "it's safe to say everyone in the Catholic world knows that line, if they're paying attention at all," said Father Robert Barron, president of Mundelein Seminary at the University of St. Mary of the Lake near Chicago. He is also known for his work as founder of the Word on Fire media ministry and as an NBC News analyst.

It's easy, when talking about this pope's back-to-basics style, to stress his life in Argentina, growing up in the home of immigrants from northern Italy. But when considering his preaching, said Barron, the key is to remember his experience at the parish and diocesan levels. While Pope Benedict XVI speaks with the precision of an academic comfortable in European classrooms, Pope Francis has spent much of his life preaching in slums.

"When you look at him in the pulpit you just have to say, 'This is a preacher in a parish.' He's going up there with notes, not a formal five-page text" the Vatican press officers distributed in advance, said Barron, in a telephone interview. "Every now and then you catch him looking up with a kind of twinkle in his eyes and you can tell he's enjoying what he's doing, what he's saying."

Recently, the conservative journal First Things collected a few "vivid images" drawn from early sermons and remarks by the Jesuit pope. For example, the pope has warned Catholics not to focus on temporary things and, thus, become "teen-agers for life." On another occasion, he said some Catholics complain so often they could become "Mr. or Mrs. Whiner" or end up with faces resembling "pickled peppers."

Other sound bites in this list included:

* On March 14, Francis used a bit of policy wonk lingo: "We can walk as much as we want, we can build many things, but if we do not profess Jesus Christ, things go wrong. We may become a charitable NGO, but not the church, the bride of the Lord."

* It's crucial for Catholics to live their faith, not just talk about it privately, the pope said in mid-April: "When we do this the church becomes a mother church that bears children. ... But when we don't do it, the church becomes not a mother but a babysitter church, which takes care of the child to put him to sleep."

* While some insist on talking about faith in vague terms, Francis reminded an April 18 audience: "When we talk to God we speak with persons who are concrete and tangible, not some misty, diffused god-like 'god-spray,' that’s a little bit everywhere but who knows what it is."

* Stressing the importance of Easter, he noted: "Efforts have often been made to blur faith in the Resurrection of Jesus and doubts have crept in, even among believers. It is a little like that 'rosewater' faith, as we say; it is not a strong faith. And this is due to superficiality and sometimes to indifference, busy as we are with a thousand things considered more important than faith, or because we have a view of life that is solely horizontal."

What runs through these words is the new pope's desire to awaken in his listeners a "religious sense," a "religious sensibility" that insists that there is more to life in the real world than mere materialism, said Barron.

Pope Francis knows that "if you want people to act, you have to touch them at the level of the real, the earthy and the practical," he said. "As a pastor, he has used this language before. Now he is using these kinds of images again -- from the throne of St. Peter."

Pope Benedict XVI exits, on his own terms

In the spring of 2009, Pope Benedict XVI stopped in Aquila, Italy, to pray at the shrine of St. Celestine V. The pope left his pallium -- a wool garment that resembles a yoke, symbolizing bonds between a shepherd and his flock — on this medieval pope’s tomb, noted theologian Scott Hahn of Franciscan University of Steubenville. Then, 15 months later, he visited a cathedral outside Rome to pray before the relics, once again, of St. Celestine V.

Few noticed Benedict’s actions at the time, wrote Hahn, on his Facebook page. So who was this saint? He was the elderly priest who, “somewhat against his will,” was elected pope in 1294. Before long, Pope Celestine V issued a decree allowing occupants of St. Peter’s throne to step down -- a step he then proceeded to take.

Looking back, it appears Benedict’s visit to shrines honoring this particular pope were “probably more than pious acts,” argued Hahn. “More likely, they were profound and symbolic gestures of a very personal nature, which conveyed a message that a pope can hardly deliver any other way."

This was a message consistent with the 86-year-old pope's stunning announcement this week -- days before the start of Lent -- that he would end his eight-year papacy on Feb. 28. Although it has been seven centuries since the voluntary resignation of a pope, this option remains in canon law and was affirmed by Pope Paul VI in 1975 and the Blessed John Paul II in 1996.

Benedict said he was thinking about the future of the papacy, not the past: "In today's world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me."

The Vatican Press Office noted these words were consistent with his thoughts in the 2010 book, "Light of the World." While it would be wrong to flee in times of trouble, Benedict said: "When a Pope realizes clearly that he is no longer physically, mentally, and spiritually capable of carrying out his role, then there is legally the possibility, and also the obligation, to resign."

Vatican leaders are planning for the election of a pope by Easter, thus creating a whirlwind of activity. Reactions, so far, have included:

* Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert -- an active Catholic -- quipped that "popes don't quit. God has a way of telling popes when it's time to retire. It's called death." Father James Martin, a Jesuit known as The Colbert Report chaplain, later tweeted that he should have told the comedian, "Pope Benedict XVI is raising the bar when it comes to giving things up for Lent."

* On the far doctrinal left, Catholics United noted: "The Catholic church hierarchy has been seen as an institution overly focused on issues of human sexuality, such as opposition to access to birth control and marriage equality. ... The next pope has a unique opportunity to radically shift the agenda of the church."

* Among journalists, "The Fix" blogger Chris Cillizza at The Washington Post tweeted: "Pope Benedict, following Sarah Palin's lead, resigns."

* This pope's departure drew several tributes from Protestant conservatives. Benedict reminded the world that humans are not mere machines, "collections of nerve endings, that spark with sensation when rubbed together," noted theologian Russell Moore of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The pope defended Down syndrome babies and Alzheimer's patients, as well as those "society wants to dehumanize with language: 'embryo,' 'fetus,' 'anchor baby,' 'illegal alien,' 'collateral damage,' and so on."

* Strategically, the key is that Benedict's "out of the blue" decision will do much to prevent the months or even years of political maneuvering that precede papal elections, wrote Jimmy Akin of Catholic Answers. It also helps that Benedict did not act in response to calls for his retirement, such as the campaign aimed at John Paul II.

At the same time, he noted, "advancing medical technology means increasingly long life spans with a longer period of frail health. ... Unless we get really wizard regenerative medical technology really soon, we're likely to have more popes in that kind of situation, and thus there are likely to be more resignations in the future."

Commandments for believers who blog

Popes rarely produce viral sound bites, but legions of Catholic bloggers continue to pass around a quote from Pope Benedict XVI in which he openly blessed the passion that drives them to their keyboards. "Without fear we must set sail on the digital sea facing into the deep with the same passion that has governed the ship of the Church for 2000 years," he said, in a 2010 Vatican address easily found at YouTube. The goal is to live in the "digital world with a believer's heart, helping to give a soul to the Internet's incessant flow of communication."

If that quotation is too long, bloggers can embrace this shout out from Pope John Paul II, who could become the patron saint of digital scribes. Just before his death in 2005, he proclaimed: "Do not be afraid of new technologies!"

That quote should fit atop a computer monitor.

"The greatest obstacle is always fear, when the church tries to get involved in something new," said Brandon Vogt, author of "The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists and Bishops Who Tweet."

"There's the fear of the unknown, the fear of making mistakes, the fear of creating controversy and, most of all, the fear of causing divisions in the church. ... Are there going to be bad apples? Of course. Will there be people who think they've been appointed as the pope? Of course. But Catholic leaders -- including our bishops -- can't ignore what is happening online."

As in the secular media, the social-media tsunami has rocked the old-guard religious publications.

For Catholics, diocesan newspapers long served as the official establishment voices, often clashing with independent publications on left and right, as well as those produced by religious orders such as the Jesuits. Now, Catholic bloggers have emerged as a quick-striking source of alternative commentary and information -- often from a sharply pro-Vatican point of view.

"The Catholic blogosphere is probably one of the most orthodox parts of the American church, in large part because there were so many people who feel like the church being attacked and they want to defend it," said T.J. Burdick, a Catholic educator who edited the new "One Body, Many Blogs" e-Book.

In this collection, a circle of Catholic writers provided their "10 commandments" lists for blogging about religion. In addition to the need for prayer before clicking "post," these blunt recommendations included:

* First, said Marc Barnes of the Bad Catholic blog: "Don't suck. There is a tendency within the Christian world to think the work we do will be good work, if only we do it for God." Anything less than excellence "is no service to God, no matter how well we think we are witnessing, giving testimony, or whatever Christian euphemism we want to use to disguise the fact that we can't be bothered to make something awesome."

* Never assume "everyone who reads your work has the same viewpoint on issues of faith," wrote Lisa Hendey of CatholicMom.com. "Find a Jewish, Protestant or even Atheist friend or acquaintance and invite them to join you for a cup of coffee and a peek at your blog. While they view it, watch carefully how they interact with your content and what lasting impressions they have in reading your work."

* Along that line, but in pews, Deacon Greg Kandra advised: "Keep an open mind to the many ways there are of Being Catholic. Not everyone loves the Latin Mass. Not everyone adores strumming guitars and liturgical dance." When in doubt, he added, "Ask yourself periodically: WWJB?"

* Kevin Knight of NewAdvent.org warned: "Truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a pixel, will pass from the Wayback Machine cache until all is accomplished." With a strong "amen," Katrina Fernandez of The Crescat said her first commandment is to "remember that we will be ultimately judged by every word we utter and write. The Internet is forever, folks."

* Former atheist Jeff Miller, blogging at The Curt Jester, advised: "Do onto other bloggers as you would want them to do onto you. If you want to be linked by others, then be generous in linking to others and to give proper attributions to where you first noticed a story. If you want others not to jump to conclusions about what you write, make sure you are not doing the same."

The pope, the president and religious liberty

Pope Benedict XVI cut to the chase when meeting with the visiting bishops from Washington, D.C., Baltimore and the U.S. Armed Services. The pope mentioned "religious freedom" in the third sentence of his Jan. 19 remarks at the Vatican and he never let up -- returning to this hot topic again and again.

The bottom line, he said, is that America's once strong political consensus has "eroded significantly in the face of powerful new cultural currents which are not only directly opposed to core moral teachings of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but increasingly hostile to Christianity as such."

It doesn't matter if these attacks originate in "radical secularism," "radical individualism," a "merely scientific rationality" or suppressive forms of "majority rule," said Benedict, during one in an ongoing series of meetings with American bishops. Catholic leaders must strive to defend church teachings in ways that reach all believers in their care -- including Catholic politicians.

Within a matter of hours, these American bishops had good cause to reflect on one Benedict passage in particular.

While he didn't name names of cite issues, the pope noted that of particular Vatican concern are "attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion. Many of you have pointed out that concerted efforts have been made to deny the right of conscientious objection on the part of Catholic individuals and institutions with regard to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices. Others have spoken to me of a worrying tendency to reduce religious freedom to mere freedom of worship without guarantees of respect for freedom of conscience."

The next day, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius -- a liberal Catholic -- announced that the Obama administration would not back down on its new rules requiring the majority of church-based institutions to include all FDA-approved forms of contraception in the health-insurance plans they offer to employees and even students. This would include, with no out-of-pocket payments, sterilizations and the contraceptives -- abortifacient drugs -- commonly known as "morning-after pills."

"Scientists have abundant evidence that birth control has significant health benefits for women and their families, it is documented to significantly reduce health costs and is the most commonly taken drug in America by young and middle-aged women," announced Sebelius. The administration's decision was made "after very careful consideration, including the important concerns some have raised about religious liberty."

In a concession that further infuriated her critics, she said some religious institutions could apply for a one-year delay in complying with the rules.

The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was not amused.

"In effect, the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences,” said Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, in an online video. "To force American citizens to choose between violating their consciences and forgoing their healthcare is literally unconscionable. It is as much an attack on access to health care as on religious freedom."

Pro-Vatican Catholics were united in their opposition to the new regulations, which also drew fire from conservative Protestants and Jews. At the same time, the struggle provided fresh evidence of painful divisions among American Catholics, including the reluctance or refusal of many Catholic institutions to defend church teachings. For example, a mere 18 Catholic colleges -- out of nearly 250 nationwide -- united for an earlier protest of the proposed HHS regulations.

"Some Catholics will hear this news with mixed or negative emotions, including many bishops," noted Dr. Patrick Whelan, of the Catholic Democrats organization. "At the same time, we know Catholic women, and by extension their families, use oral contraception at the same rate as the overall population. For over half a century, since the issuance of Humanae Vitae, Catholics and Catholic theologians have taken issue with the Church's teaching on birth control."

Meanwhile, a cardinal long admired by progressive Catholics added his voice to the chorus of those who were outraged.

"I cannot imagine that this decision was released without the explicit knowledge and approval of President Barack Obama," said retired Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles, on his weblog. "I cannot imagine a more direct and frontal attack on freedom of conscience than this ruling. ... For me the answer is clear: we stand with our moral principles and heritage over the centuries, not what a particular Federal government agency determines."