THE PAPAL VISIT : Pope Builds Bridges With U.S. Church : Unbending in Policies but Shows Willingness to Listen to Dissent

Times Religion Writer

The official theme of Pope John Paul II’s 10-day pastoral visit to the United States was “Unity in the Work of Service.” But throughout the journey what the Pope found was abundant evidence of the diversity--even division--in his American flock of 53 million people.

From the very first day--when a priest in Miami urged him to consider the issue of priestly celibacy--to nearly the last--when a lay group leader in San Francisco argued for greater responsibilities for women and non-clergy in church policy-making--John Paul heard respectful, restrained, but unmistakable references to the issues that separate millions of Roman Catholics in this country from the official teaching of their church.

In his replies, this most orthodox Pope gave no comfort to those who would dissent from those teachings. But by his very willingness to listen he built bridges.

Many took heart in his face-to-face dealing with the tough and sensitive issues and they were encouraged and buoyed by his affable and loving charisma--if not his strict words.


“We envisioned candor and a loving expression of the truth . . . I think that came together,” Dolores R. Leckey, who directs the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on the Laity, said after the Pope’s meeting in San Francisco on Friday with 3,000 national representatives of Catholic lay groups.

“It was a historic moment. . . . We were there together.”

A Protestant theologian, Harvey Cox, professor of divinity at Harvard University, noted that the Pope’s visit underscored the vast differences between the theology of the U.S. Catholic Church and that of the Vatican.

“The Catholic Church in America has been discreet about what it believes on the issues of birth control and so on for a long time,” said Cox, a liberal Baptist. “Now, I’m afraid the Pope’s visit has brought it all out very explicitly and it’s going to have to be dealt with.”


But that may have been exactly what the Pope wanted.

“It has never been easy to accept the Gospel teaching in its entirety, and it never will be,” he said in a key admonition to American bishops in Los Angeles.

The pontiff may have had in mind a passage in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, which says that many of Jesus’ disciples “turned back and no longer followed him” because of the difficult demands of his teachings.

It seems unlikely, however that the Pope’s pleas actually will lead to greater adherence to church discipline in matters like birth control, divorce and dissent, according to a number of scholars.

Patrick Hughes, director of pastoral ministry for the Archdiocese of San Francisco and a professional lay minister in the church for 25 years, acknowledged as much when he was asked about the Pope’s unyielding stance that divorced Catholics who have remarried outside the church must not take Communion.

“That’s an ongoing struggle,” Hughes said. “Adults in some parishes make decisions on the basis of their own, sound, informed conscience that may not always be . . . in conformity with the official teaching of the church.”

Nonetheless, this visit was the first time in the United States that the Pope allowed a wide range of Catholics--from professional lay workers to a cardinal--to speak their minds so publicly and frankly on such issues.

Although the speeches on both sides had been written and shared with the pontiff well ahead of time, none was censored, according to participants in the dialogues and Vatican press spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls.


As an example of the candor the Pope faced, Donna Hanson, a lay leader from Spokane, Wash., stood at the podium in St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco and directly challenged the pontiff:

“In my cultural experience, questioning is neither rebellion nor dissent. Rather, it is a desire to participate and is a sign of both love and maturity,” she said in restrained but firm tones.

“My culture compels me to continue questioning those in leadership positions. I question them about public policies related to abortion, development of nuclear arms, the exploitation of our environment. Not to question, not to challenge, not to seek understanding is to be less than a mature, educated and committed citizen.”

Toughest Talks

Several of the toughest talks the pontiff heard were during a closed-door session with 320 U.S. bishops in Los Angeles. Texts of the speeches of the four bishops who addressed the Pope and his reply were released to the press.

In the United States, said Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee, “The faithful are more inclined to look at the intrinsic worth of an argument proposed by the teachers in the church than to accept it on the basis of the authority itself.”

The Pope’s response, as it was to all the challenges and requests from nearly 40 people who spoke to him during the dialogue sessions, was frank and loving. But unbending.

Often described as a consummate politician as well as a keen theologian, John Paul, 67, masterfully told his challengers that they were wrong but that he--and God--loved them anyway. And he seemed able to confront them without angering them.


Listening to Views

“People are very pleased that he is listening to their views,” said San Francisco Archbishop John Quinn, when asked whether the Pope was responding to the concerns of those who addressed him. Other times John Paul simply deflected the concerns expressed to him and won over his audience with personal charisma.

Alfretta Antone, a Pima Indian, appealed to the Pope during his meeting with Native American Catholics in Phoenix to help them solve a long list of problems and to declare sainthood for an American Indian woman.

In his response, the Pope basically challenged the Indians to solve their own problems and, while paying tribute to Mohawk Kateri Tekakwitha, gave no hint about when--or if--she would be canonized.

Still, after Antone’s speech, John Paul warmly embraced her and presented her with a set of pearl rosary beads in a box embossed with the papal seal.

Overwhelmed Her

Antone dissolved in tears of joy. The personality and magnetism of the Pope had overwhelmed her, she said afterward.

It was a response that was repeated over and over during the trip.

He charmed immigrants from Mexico, Poland and Haiti by speaking to them in their native languages; he jumped from a stage in Los Angeles to embrace a guitarist born without arms, and he touched the emotions of homosexuals in San Francisco’s Mission Dolores when he kissed and prayed for a 4-year-old child suffering from AIDS.

But even while John Paul touched people’s hearts, he gave no ground on doctrine.

The Pope ceded nothing to women. While defending their equal dignity with men and praising their roles in the church, he clearly restated their exclusion from the priesthood.

He also said American Catholics must unquestionably obey all church teachings, including the much-disliked and largely ignored prohibition of contraception.

He gave his bishops clear marching orders to enforce church law and to spike the so-called “pick-and-choose” style of selective Catholicism rampant in America, particularly as it applies to sexual and conjugal morality, abortion and divorce and remarriage.

Lays Down the Law

He made no accommodations to liberals among the U.S. Catholic theological community.

In a talk to Catholic university officials in New Orleans, he said the work of theologians “must ultimately be tested and validated” by the bishops and himself, “even when theology exists in an academic setting.”

And laying down the law about dissent, he told the bishops:

“It is sometimes claimed that dissent from the Magesterium (the church’s teaching authority) is totally compatible with being a ‘good Catholic’ and poses no obstacle to the reception of the sacraments. This is a grave error that challenges the teaching office of the bishops of the United States and elsewhere.”

How did that no-nonsense lecture go over?

Publicly, at least, the bishops expressed fealty.

“I can’t water down the church’s teaching in order to keep people in it,” said Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, one of the four who had spoken to the Pope in a prepared speech. “If the choice is between giving them oatmeal to stay in the church, or meat and potatoes and they can’t digest it, I’m still going to give them meat and potatoes.”

Sees No Effect

But one of the nation’s liberal theologians, Richard McBrien, who chairs the theology department at the University of Notre Dame, said he thought the Pope’s call to champion orthodoxy “will have no effect at all on Catholics in general.”

Catholics who use contraceptives will continue to do so after the Pope returns to Rome, said McBrien, who added that women seeking a greater role in the church will also continue to insist on it long after the papal visit is forgotten.

Moreover, while most of those who addressed the Pope were concerned about issues of personal morality and institutional change in the church, he had a different agenda for Americans in general and U.S. Catholics in particular.

In dozens of speeches he accented the dangers of secular values and the problems of social injustice and unequal wealth in the United States and in the world. Saying that America has a responsibility as a nation blessed with riches, he urged Americans to do more for migrant workers, poor blacks, and the physically handicapped.

“As you look with gratitude upon the high standard of living that many of you enjoy,” he challenged an outdoor audience as he spoke from the balcony of St. Mary’s Basilica in Phoenix, “may your hearts go out to the less fortunate. May your hearts and hands be open to the poor, both within your own society and in developing nations of the world. Just as God enriches you, so may you be channels of enrichment for others.”

Navarro-Valls, the chief Vatican spokesman, said the Pope was not surprised by the candor of those who addressed him here, and that he appreciated and understood it.

“He was able to do everything he wanted to with a good sense of feedback,” Navarro-Valls told a reporter.

‘Useful and Helpful’

Archbishop Quinn of San Francisco said at a press conference Friday afternoon that he thought the lasting impact of the Pope’s visit would be “strengthening people’s faith--motivating them to service and energizing them to live a Christian witness.”

Quinn conceded, however, that the long-term effect “is not something you can measure and calibrate. It’s like trying to measure the beauty of a sunset. . . . But I know he touched people’s lives very deeply.”