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Philip Jenkins

The Catholic Crisis

No, not that crisis, the crisis. The horrors of the past two years are symptomatic of much deeper conflicts and discontents, which largely have their roots in the 1960s. In A People Adrift, Peter Steinfels, a loyal Catholic and a highly perceptive observer of the contemporary church, analyzes these long-term trends in a way that is obligatory reading for anyone concerned with the future not just of Catholicism, but of Christianity in the United States. His predictions for change may or may not prove accurate, the directions he wants those changes to take may be controversial, but the book is the best guide currently available to how this situation came to pass.

Steinfels begins with the observation that "Today the Roman Catholic Church in the United States is on the verge of either an irreversible decline or a thoroughgoing transformation." As he notes, a comment of this sort sounds like journalistic hyperbole, but in 2003, it seems quite justifiable. After the recent abuse scandals, the prestige of the Catholic clergy is at an all-time low. More important, perhaps, is the real resentment that many priests have expressed towards their episcopal superiors. According to critics, the bishops pursued irresponsible policies that allowed clerical molesters to pursue their careers; yet when public pressure became too great, the same bishops adopted stringent new policies that seemed to throw accused priests to the wolves.

Meanwhile, many ordinary Catholics used the perception of deep crisis to advocate their particular causes, which would (they believe) have averted the disaster. Liberals had their particular remedies—if only priests were allowed to marry, or women could have been ordained. Conservatives, too, felt they knew what had gone wrong: the crisis would not have occurred if homosexual clergy had not been tolerated, or if the seminaries had enforced both sexual and theological orthodoxy. What Steinfels terms simply "The Scandal" became a symbolic stage on which different ...

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