The Pope Who Had to Deal with a Less Deferntial Flock

Roundup: Talking About History

Tony Barber, in the Financial Times of London (4-4-05):

... , John Paul's long reign was a period of such rapid social modernisation that believers from the US and western Europe to Latin America and Asia are better educated, more prosperous, more geographically mobile and correspondingly less willing to show deference to the Church hierarchy than did their parents or grandparents.

An earlier version of this trend caught the Vatican unawares in the 19th century, when the full-scale industrialisation of western societies uprooted millions of Catholic faithful from their native parishes and, in many countries, detached the new working class from organised religion.

In the late 20th century and early 21st century, the biggest threat to the Church's control over its 1.1bn flock came to be its attitude to women and the sexual revolution that began in the 1960s.

Thomas Reese, an expert on the US Roman Catholic Church, says that, if the Church loses educated women in this century as it lost European working-class men more than 100 years, then "it will be in serious trouble".

Much of the blame for this is often laid at John Paul's door, yet in truth the problem began with Humanae Vitae, an encyclical promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1968 that banned Roman Catholics from practising artificial birth control.

North Americans and Europeans - even in John Paul's Poland, often seen as a Catholic stronghold - have overwhelmingly ignored the Church's teaching in what Diarmaid MacCulloch, a historian of 16th century European Reformation, calls "the first such instance in the history of the post-Reformation papacy".

The gulf between Church doctrine and the habits of ordinary Catholics remained as wide as ever under John Paul, who - together with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's guardian of theological orthodoxy since 1981 - refused to moderate the hard official line against contraception, abortion, divorce, modern feminism and priestly celibacy.

This stance blew up in the Church's face when revelations of sexual abuse of children by some clergymen, especially in the US, caused an uproar whose consequences are still unfolding....

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