Pope Visits Amid Growing Disagreement With U.S. Flock : Religion: Polls show gap between John Paul and American Catholics is widening. The controversy centers on abortion, sex-related issues.


It will not be obvious from the warm welcome that the priests of St. Mary's Seminary are preparing for Pope John Paul II, who will stop here Sunday at the end of a five-day U.S. tour that begins this afternoon.

But in truth, the preachings of the Pope diverge sharply from the practices of many of the American Catholic rank-and-file, presumably including the parishioners of those who are studying at St. Mary's to become priests.

On the eve of the visit of the Pope, who will address the United Nations and celebrate Mass in New York, New Jersey and Maryland, polls show that the gap between the conservative John Paul II and his American flock is wide and growing wider, particularly on abortion and other sex-related issues.

The fissures are practically a non-issue to most American Catholics. Here at St. Mary's, the seminarians are preparing to greet the Pope not with theological arguments about church doctrine but with a choral rendition of "All people that on Earth do dwell," to be sung on the spacious, tree-shaded campus late Sunday afternoon.

The priests-in-training at St. Mary's regard the Pope's popularity as perfectly natural.

"You cannot apply an American political standard to the Pope," said Father Matthew Smith of Baltimore, a 32-year-old former seminarian who was ordained as a priest in May. "When the Pope comes to town, the people come together because he is a symbol of hope."

Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, whose position on abortion stands in stark contrast to the Pope's, has a more down-home explanation.

"We all like our parents," she said. "But we don't do everything they tell us to. . . . It's the same in the church. There's a pride and respect that we have for the leader of the religion."

The Vatican, like an indulgent parent, generally refrains from upbraiding American Catholics for straying from the fold. Kissling provides a case in point.

At the United Nations this spring, a Vatican delegate objected to the registration of Catholics for a Free Choice as an unofficial observer at the U.N. World Conference on Women in Beijing last month.

Catholics for a Free Choice has no affiliation with the Catholic Church, the Vatican's representative complained, and it deliberately contradicts the essential teaching of the Catholic faith on abortion. But the church official, despite ultimately losing the battle against registration, did not castigate those working for the condemned organization as false or fallen Catholics.

"I am a Catholic," Kissling said. "I have the right to and do receive the sacraments of the church and participate in the sacraments and community life of the church. No church official has ever tried to stop any of us from doing this."

The disagreements between the Pope and his American flock over church doctrine reflect the changing nature of Catholicism in the United States. A century ago the Catholic Church was dominated by poor immigrants--Irish, Italian and East European workers who lived in the big cities of the East and Midwest--and who were accustomed to obeying authority figures.

Now the picture is more mixed. Latino immigrants fit the old Catholic pattern, but the European immigrants and their descendants have long since been assimilated into the mainstream of American life. Studies show that American Catholics are just as well educated as Protestants and actually have higher average incomes.

Although the priests who are studying here will not disclose their own agreement or disagreement with John Paul II, particularly on sexual issues, they readily acknowledge that the gap between the Pope and the parishioner is a lively topic of discussion both inside and outside St. Mary's classrooms.

"I think our biggest challenge is elucidating the church's view," said 31-year-old Paul Gallagher of Baltimore. "I have talked with young teen-agers about abortion who had no idea that the policy comes from two thousand years ago. It's not John Paul's policy."

Polls on American Catholic attitudes paint a clear picture. In 1993, the Gallup Poll reported that 58% of American Catholics believed that abortion should be allowed under some circumstances, 63% felt that it would be a good thing to have women ordained as priests, 75% said priests should be permitted to marry and 84% favored artificial methods of birth control.

John Paul disagrees with every one of these positions. Despite that, 54% of those polled described themselves as strong Catholics.

These results are confirmed by more recent polls, which also demonstrate extraordinary approval of the Pope by people who do not agree with him on several powerful issues. In a poll released by Time magazine and CNN last weekend, for example, 83% of American Catholics said they were satisfied with his leadership.

Perhaps even more startling, a Los Angeles Times Poll in 1994 found significant disagreement with the Pope among priests and nuns. According to this poll, 59% of priests and 66% of nuns believe that priests should marry and 44% of priests and 57% of nuns believe that women should be ordained as priests. Huge majorities felt abortion was a sin, but fewer than half found the use of artificial birth control as sinful.

Yet dissent does not drive the clergy away from Catholicism. The Times Poll found that 86% of the priests and 87% of the nuns were satisfied with their life in the church, and nearly three-quarters of both priests and nuns approved of the way John Paul II handled his duties as Pope.

Priests are in increasingly short supply, in considerable measure because of the celibacy requirement. In the late 1960s the church ordained 1,000 priests a year; in the 1990s, despite a 50% increase in the number of Catholics, the church is ordaining 600 priests a year.

And on another front, Latinos are drifting from Catholicism to Protestant evangelical churches.

The Pope's impending visit to the United States is not likely to change any of this. But at least it should not aggravate the tensions between the Vatican and U.S. Catholicism.

Attillio Zarrella, a 32-year-old St. Mary's seminarian who lives here in Baltimore, said: "I think the Pope stands as a symbol of hope no matter what the individual disagreements may be."

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