Date: Sat, 29 Nov 1997 16:47:11 EST
Secularism & ‘Privatization’ of Religion Are Denounced At Vatican Meeting
American Atheists, AANews, #358, 29 November 1997
It has been a religious right cant that Hollywood, gays, teachers or some other group "hates" America and its basic institutions; but the dubious award of bashing fundamental American instutions may now be up for grabs in an unlikely contest pitting the Vatican and Korean cult leader Rev. Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church against each other.
On Thursday at a gathering of hundreds of bishops from North and Latin America held in Rome, speakers took turns denouncing American individualism and calling for a new effort to "revitalize" the church.
Bishop Donald W. Wuerl of Pittsburg told fellow prelates that in the United States, "Heavy emphasis on the individual and his or her rights has greatly eroded the concept of the common good and its ability to call people to something beyond themselves." He went on to denounce what he called "the privatization of religion and morality" where "Both were seen by many as matters of purely personal and private concern, such as a hobby or an appreciation of music, but without a proper role in the public arena."
Although the Roman Catholic Church has lately attempted to position itself as a voice for democracy and pluralism, particularly in Latin America, the prelates applauded another anti-democratic rant from Monsignor Dennis Schnurr, general secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. He told the gathering, "In our democracy, divergent political viewpoints are more often resolved by a facile reliance on the rule of the majority than by a genuine discernment of what is best for the common good." Schnurr singled out "unspeakable crimes," such as abortion and physician-assisted suicide which are "embraced in the name of individual rights and democracy."
Another topic singled out for intense criticism was the secular atmopshere in the United States. Despite opening its doors to political refugees, especially from Latin America, that was not enough for Cardinal Adam Maida, Archbishop of Detroit. He lamented, "We in the North are constantly seduced by the false voice of freedom that calls for individual choice, even to the point of a so-called 'right to die.' " A similar homile was delivered by Archbishop Francis E. George of Chicago, who warned that immigrants leaving Latin America for the social mobility and freedom found in the United States, were in danger of being seduced by a more secular and prosperous lifestyle. "Basically, an immigant community has one generation to adapt its practice of Catholic faith to a new cultural situation before they lose faith and become secularized," he said.
A Shift In Vatican Strategy
With the nominal atheism of the former Soviet Union now no longer a concern, the Vatican is talking less about "freedom" and "rights" -- as it did in the Perestroika era, particularly in regard to Eastern Europe -- and instead emphasizing a more medieval, even feudal vision of the relationship between clerical authority, civil leadership and individuals. The Rome meeting, which opened on November 16 and concludes on December 12, was called by Pope John Paul II in order to instill "renewed missionary zeal" and deal with the revolt of many Roman Catholics who already oppose the church's teachings on abortion, birth control, divorce and celebacy for priests. Yesterday's Washington Post newspaper observed that the prelates are particuarly concerned with American society which, they say, has become "increasingly secular and focused on the individual."
"One of the main themes raised by U.S. bishops," added the Post, "is their concern with what they view as the secularization of American society." The paper noted that at the Rome conference, "Little of the debate has specifically addressed the disillusionment of many American Catholics in the Church over its stands on social and sexual issues. When it did touch on these subjects, the churchmen again placed blame on an overemphasis on the individual."
Aside from underscoring the Vatican's problematic relationship with democracy and individualism, other concerns at the Rome synod suggest similar problems with the issue of religious liberty. The Vatican has joined with American evanelicals and fundamentalists in supporting the so-called Freedom From Religious Persecution Act, which would link U.S. foreign policy with domestic issues in nations like China, and most of the Arab regimes in the Middle East. FFRPA is directed mainly at nations which have taken steps to resist or regulate foreign missionary efforts. While the Vatican has expressed enthusiasm for the proposed legislation, it is nevertheless worried about the erosion of its own share in the "believer marketplace," especially in Latin America. The Post noted that for the Rome meeting, "one of the most troubling problems is the growing presence of non-Catholic evangelical sects, whose popularity has been changing the religious fabric of Latin America, historically a Catholic domain."
Called by Pope John Paul II, the Rome synod is basically a strategy session to attempt to reverse the church's declining fortunes in North America and much of Latin America. The only bright spot in the hemisphere is Cuba, where the Pontiff is scheduled to visit and hold an unprecedented series of masses and prayer rallies and even a meeting with President Fidel Castro. The small communist enclave may be an opportunity for the Vatican to gain"exclusive rights" as the only officially recognized religion.
In much of the hemisphere, though, the church is facing stiff competition from aggressive Protestant sects, Mormon missionaries, and even new age cults. As in the U.S., many believers are seeking a "do it yourself" kind of spirituality which often eschews the orthodox dogmatic and organizational rigidity which has characterized the Catholic Church for centuries. In addition, church fortunes may be on the wane due to a different sort of fortune; the Latin American economic "mini-boom" which is seeing steady rates of financial growth throughout the sector is gradually fostering a consumer- oriented lifestyle at odds with many church teachings.
The situation is equally gloomy in the United States; despite claims to a robust membership, the church is faced with disagreement within its own flock over issues like womens' rights, abortion, birth control, euthanasia and doctrinal belief. American bishops are uneasy even over the call to return to "fish Fridays," where members would abstain from consuming meat as a protest over abortion. Some bishops suggest that the policy be in the form of a "recommendation" rather than a requirement, since few Roman Catholics would probably choose to follow such a rule anyway.
(Thanks to Lowell and Nancy McFarland for info used in this story -- ed.
AMERICAN ATHEISTS AANEWS #358 11/29/97