(AP) — Pope John Paul II inspired American Catholics with his globe-trotting, charismatic leadership and deep spirituality in the face of debilitating illness.
But his tight grip on church leadership and unwillingness to change some unpopular teachings clashed with the more democratic approach that many of the 65 million U.S. Catholics favor.
At the end of his pontificate, John Paul leaves behind an American church uplifted by his personal piety yet struggling with several of the same problems that preceded him: a dramatically shrinking U.S. priesthood, disagreement over the proper role for lay leaders and a growing conservative-liberal divide over sexuality, women’s ordination and celibacy for clergy.
“He was seen as an extraordinarily prayerful pope. There was a kindness to him that seemed to come through,” said James Davidson, a Purdue University sociologist who specializes in Catholicism. “But there were moments at which the pope and American lay people seemed to be on different pages on how decision-making in the church takes place. He tended to be more top down and they tend to be more bottom up.”
The cry for greater lay influence grew loudest after the clergy sex abuse crisis erupted in 2002 with revelations that many American bishops had moved predatory clergy among parishes without notifying the public or police. Some Catholics responded by demanding the Vatican give them a greater say in choosing church leaders. Officials in Rome, not surprisingly, did not budge.
Many of the troubles buffeting the U.S. church began before John Paul was elected in 1978 — though the pontiff ultimately was unable to arrest them.
Church attendance, among Catholics and other denominations, had already started on a steep decline. The 1968 decision by Pope Paul VI to uphold the church ban on artificial contraception sparked widespread dissent from Catholic teaching on sexuality. Men left the priesthood by the hundreds to marry and fewer people enrolled in seminaries to replace them.
Most importantly, American Catholics were still wrestling with the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, which changed everything from the scope of lay involvement in parishes to where priests should stand during Mass. Conservative and liberal Catholics disagreed vehemently over the pace and substance of these reforms.
It was in this environment that John Paul launched his defense of Catholic orthodoxy and tried to reinvigorate the priesthood.
In five visits to the United States, more than any of his predecessors, he gained religious celebrity, especially among young people. When he arrived at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1979, a school band welcomed him with the theme from “Rocky.”
“I think what the pope did for the public credibility of the church in the United States was quite significant,” said George Weigel, his American biographer. “He was the great Christian witness of our time.”
John Paul inspired many to join the priesthood in the United States. Studies have found that younger American clergy tend to be more conservative than their older peers and many see this as evidence of John Paul’s influence, said Dean Hoge, a Catholic University sociologist who has researched the priesthood for more than three decades.
He emboldened conservative Catholics, who now have a greater voice through publications such as Crisis magazine and Eternal World Television Network. Several prominent American Catholics are members of the conservative, clergy-managed lay movement called Opus Dei, and they influence the American church, said the Rev. Richard McBrien, an expert on Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame. John Paul canonized Opus Dei’s founder in 2002.
Still, despite the pope’s widespread appeal, he could not ease one of the church’s most urgent problems: the shortage of priests.
Their ranks dropped by more than 15,000 during his pontificate. In his final years, more lay people than priests were working full-time in American parishes, and many of those lay leaders were women, said David Gibson, a former Vatican journalist and author of “The Coming Catholic Church.” The number of permanent deacons alone — lay ministers who cannot perform the Eucharist but can fill in for priests by distributing Holy Communion and provide other sacraments — grew from about 900 in 1975 to more than 14,000 in 2004.
Faced with this lay surge, John Paul, through prayer and public statements, tried to preserve the special role of the priesthood and defend its all-male status. The Vatican repeatedly reminded Catholics that their involvement in parish life — such as serving on church finance councils — was consultative and that priests retained final decision-making power.
John Paul’s strictures were not limited to rank-and-file parishioners. He appointed nearly all the U.S. bishops serving today, expecting full obedience to Vatican mandates and he reduced the independence of national bishops’ conferences.
Despite these changes, some conservatives still believe he did not do enough to keep the American church in line.
“I think the pope has been a relatively permissive pope,” said conservative James Hitchcock, a church expert at Saint Louis University. “He has an image of a hardheaded conservative, which is probably based mostly on his words, but he has not been a disciplinarian.”
John Paul’s full impact on the U.S. church will be seen more clearly as the generation of conservative priests he deeply influenced become pastors and bishops, and minister to lay people seeking change.
This conflict — which will play out parish-by-parish as well as on a national stage — will be a key part of John Paul’s legacy for the U.S. church.