CATHOLICISM Faithful in U.S. at odds on issues
American Catholics adored the pope, but disagree on teachings.
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
WALNUT CREEK, Calif. -- U.S. Roman Catholics adored Pope John Paul II, but vast numbers of the nation's 67 million parishioners openly disregard the pontiff's core teachings about abortion, divorce, extramarital sex and birth control.
But Catholics have become more conservative in recent years, a movement fueled in part by the growing numbers of more traditional Latino members. Church officials estimate Latinos will comprise half of the U.S. membership within a decade.
A majority of Catholics voted for President Bush, the first time a Republican presidential candidate has taken the Catholic vote. A historic union between conservative Protestants and Catholics helped re-elect Bush.
Catholic Joan Toth of Concord, Calif., for one, says she would like American Catholics to stop challenging long-held church doctrine on social issues.
"Some of the hierarchy have conflicting devotions," the 70-year-old said. "They're not supportive of traditional teachings."
It's too soon to know whether this conservative shift will transform American Catholics into more obedient servants of John Paul's teachings or those of the next pope.
Americans' propensity to treat their faith like a buffet, a spoonful of this and a "No, thanks" on that, has diluted the pope's power to dictate their behavior, said Steven Waldman, editor of beliefnet.org and former national editor of U.S. News & amp; World Report.
"The pope is an extraordinarily beloved figure in the American Catholic community even though half of the community disagrees with him on abortion," Waldman said. "In the other direction, a large number of Catholics supported the Iraq War even though the pope opposed it.
"Catholics have the ability to make distinctions in their minds on these issues, and I'm not sure this pope, or the next one, can change that dynamic."
Many U.S. congregates challenge the Vatican by living typical American lives.
They divorce, use birth control and have abortions, although their church forbids the practices, and they clamor for a greater role for women in church leadership or support of gay marriage.
"American Catholicism has been pushing the envelope on many issues," said James Donahue, president of the Berkeley-based Graduate Theological Union, a school specializing in Christian and other teachings. "At the level of the hierarchy, bishops are very much in congress with the establishment. Some of the Catholics themselves are not."
But it's not just parishioners that disagree with the church; count American priests among those who question its doctrines.
Like Catholics around the world, the Rev. Richard Sparks, pastor at Newman Hall Holy Spirit parish in Berkeley, respected the pontiff as a "universal Christian person" who did much to encourage dialogue and understanding in a troubled world.
The priest just wishes his leader had also opened dialogue within the church itself, especially on issues such as divorce and birth control.
"Some Catholics hope that with the next pope, there will be less tension," Sparks said.
On the other side, the Rev. Luis Perez, a Spanish-speaking priest at Queen of All Saints Catholic Church in Concord, said he would like to see the next pope emphasize "the respect for life."