Trouble brewing | Inquirer Opinion

Trouble brewing

/ 12:34 AM June 11, 2012

My wife and I sat in the back of St. Patrick’s Cathedral on New York City’s Fifth Avenue, waiting for the social anthropologist Mary Racelis to arrive from Staten Island. It was a rainy weekday, so there were few people in the cathedral, mostly people like ourselves sitting quietly in their pews appreciating the soft amber lighting and prayerful silence. St. Patrick’s is the largest neo-Gothic church in the Americas, but it has always had a simple message for the people who come through its doors: “You are at home here. Whoever you are, you are in your Father’s house.”

It is hard now, however, with all the controversies in the Church, to sit at ease in the pews. The following stories and issues show in some ways how troubled our Church is. We didn’t go looking for these problems. New York is a world center of information. Every issue makes its voice heard here one way or another. You don’t have to look for issues in New York; they will find you.


We watched a TV documentary titled “Pink Smoke Over the Vatican,” which tells the story of seven women who were ordained Roman Catholic priests (validly but illicitly, according to Canon Law) and their plans to have more women priests and, eventually, more decision-making power in the Church through women bishops and cardinals. The seven women, who seemed mature, well-educated and articulate, were ordained by German bishops in the international waters of the Danube River. The women tell their life stories in the film. Nearly all say they had wanted to be priests since they were young girls; they believe God had been calling them to be priests, they said.

There are well over such 100 women priests in the world, and there are groups of women planning how to have more women priests and more women in powerful roles in the Church. They say that the Church would be a more tolerant and loving home for men and women if women had a hand in making the basic decisions. This must be an alarming development for Church leaders who have ordered Catholics to not even discuss women’s ordination.


The Vatican’s sharp criticism of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious—and, in a lesser way, of the Girl Scouts and Caritas International—is hard to understand. The nuns, for example, have been judged heroes in their lives of poverty and service of the poor by the American public. Ordinary men and women cannot understand why the Vatican can berate the nuns so publicly. The Vatican says the nuns have followed a pattern of “corporate dissent”—that is, they have, for example, not gone along with the American bishops in strong condemnations of same-sex marriage, or abortion aspects of President Barack Obama’s National Health Act. Americans tend to see this controversy as one that involves free speech and democracy, which are so highly valued throughout the world these days, as seen in the Arab Spring. The Vatican admits that the nuns are wholehearted warriors for justice and peace issues.

We saw an Italian movie titled “Habemus Papem,” which tells the story of a very personable and pastoral cardinal who is elected pope. Before he goes out on the balcony to meet the crowds in St. Peter’s Square, he has anguished second thoughts. He refuses to go out and manages to elude his aides and live with ordinary people for a number of days. While listening to conversations about their lives, he says to himself: “Why does the Church have difficulty understanding so much in the world these days?”

He returns and goes out on the balcony to meet the crowds. He tells them there are very many things to be fixed in the Church, but he is not the one who can fix them. He leaves the balcony and the movie ends.

An article by a Maryknoll priest which is circulating in New York claims that the basic argument in the Church today is over the meaning of the Vatican II Council. Persons who can be identified with the Vatican believe that the Council put traditional doctrine in a form more acceptable to the modern world, but it didn’t change or alter doctrine or tradition. Others say the Council not only found more appropriate language for its doctrine, but also went beyond that in believing that tradition in the Church can be “a foundation upon which faith can continually build and grow as its context changes.”

The discussions will come to a head in October, when there will be a Synod of Bishops in Rome to discuss “New Evangelization for the Transmissions of the Catholic Faith.” It will inaugurate a “Year of Faith.”

Ordinary Catholics in the back pews of St. Patrick’s will have a difficult time finding their way through the controversy. We suspect that many bishops will also have problems. What will it all mean for the Philippines? We hope it all leads to a Church that is more focused on the poor and becomes in time the Church of the poor.

At last Mary Racelis arrived, and we headed out into the rain to visit old friends at Fordham University and do some shopping. The real meaning of Vatican II would have to wait.


Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates.

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TAGS: New York, Religion, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Vatican, Vatican II Council
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