(CNSNews.com) - Amid the pitched cultural battles over abortion and homosexual marriage in America, the U.S. Catholic Church faces mounting criticism from both the right and left. Conservatives criticize what they call the trend toward a "cafeteria church," in which congregants select which church doctrines to follow. Liberals voice dissent over what they view as the Vatican's reluctance to compromise some of its long-standing traditions.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops ratcheted up the inner church debate with the recent announcement of a new commission to study how to deal with Catholic politicians who favor abortion rights.
Judy Brown, head of the American Life League's Crusade for the Defense of Our Catholic Church, believes that since the 1960s and particularly since 1968's Papal Encyclical, Humanae Vitae, which spelled out the church's opposition to birth control, Catholics in America have drifted into theological relativism.
"Catholic politicians and Catholics began to think that they could have a cafeteria church. They could pick and choose which teachings they would agree with, which teachings they would ignore, and they would continue on their merry way," Brown told CNSNews.com.
"This started with Humanae Vitae, and it has gotten consistently worse since that time and it is very sad but the fact of the matter is that when that happened ... all of this dissent occurred," Brown said.
Groups actively attempting to circumvent any movement toward orthodoxy in the church say Pope John Paul II remains their biggest obstacle.
Sheila Daley, co-director of the Chicago-based liberal group, Call to Action, would like to see the church advocate more tolerance for homosexuals, allow for optional celibacy for priests, the ordaining of women, the use of contraception and the promotion of a more empowered laity.
"[Pope John Paul II] really kind of advocated a kind of returning to, not all, but many of the practices of an earlier time in the church and that has just reinforced this division, I am afraid, rather than creating dialogue," Daley told CNSNews.com .
"We are very disturbed by recent pronouncements coming out of Rome that seem to simply classify the homosexual person as disoriented or as evil almost, and critique their relationships, even their relationships when they adopt children, which seems extraordinarily harsh when they often are providing children that do not have a good home, a home," Daley said.
'Orthodox Catholicism pays off'
A Catholic historian maintains that the bishops have nothing to fear and everything to gain by promoting orthodox Catholicism.
"Orthodox Catholicism pays off," said H. W. Crocker III, author of Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church, a 2,000-Year History , in an interview with CNSNews.com.
"The church and its bishops and priests are obligated to speak orthodoxy. That is their job," Crocker said.
It is an "empirical fact," Crocker asserted, that, "the most active vibrant Catholic communities in the country are indeed those that are the most orthodox, the most conservative." Crocker added that this is the case "not just in church attendance, but in vocation, in the seminary and religious life."
Catholic leaders in Florida were recently criticized for initially refusing to get involved in the Terri Schindler Schiavo case. She is the brain-damaged woman whose husband, Michael Schiavo, continues fighting for the right to remove her feeding tube to end her life.
"The lack of clear, decisive action by Bishop [Robert] Lynch and his brother bishops in Florida to rally support in defense of [Terri Schindler] Schiavo has been very disappointing," Brown said.
Lynch did issue a statement in August siding with Terri's parents in their effort to keep her alive, but it came ten months after an initial statement indicated the church would refrain from passing judgment in the Schiavo case.
However, it is the bishops' response to the pro-abortion views of Catholic politicians that has angered Brown the most. "[U.S.] bishops are supposed to behave in communion with the pope and should have from the very beginning said that no Catholic can support abortion and continue to be a Catholic," Brown lamented. "They never did that, even though Canon Law authorized them to do it," Brown added.
The American Life League has identified 412 state and federal politicians nationwide who have identified themselves as Catholic while also supporting abortion rights. The list includes current Democratic presidential contenders Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio).
"The first thing [the U.S. bishops] should do is teach the truth about abortion. It's an act of murder, it is wrong, it is a sin and the person who involves himself in abortion is offending God and will go to hell," Brown said.
She also takes issue with Catholic politicians who support legalized abortion and still receive communion at mass.
"That is a sacrilegious act against Christ. Christ is truly present in Holy Communion and no one who favors the killing of children, the image and likeness of God, should ever receive communion," Brown said. "It's an offense to God and the bishops have an obligation to say that and they don't," she added.
'Flashpoint' for American Catholics?
Daley, from the liberal group, Call to Action, agrees with many orthodox Catholics, that the 1968 Papal Encyclical on contraception "was kind of a flashpoint" for American Catholics.
"Yes, it kind of paved the way for beginning to think independently about other issues," Daley said. "Today, I think most of the polls say that Catholics are pretty much making up their own minds about the appropriateness and morality of birth control in their lives," she added.
Education served as another big factor in the push for liberal reforms within the church, according to Daley.
"Catholics were becoming more educated. Going back to the 1930s or 40s, the majority of Catholics had not graduated from college," Daley explained. The more highly educated Catholic congregation in later years led to intellectual challenges to church teachings like contraceptive use, according to Daley.
"In their professional lives people were thinking and having to make very important decisions based on their own ability to reason and gather the evidence or the information they needed to make these decisions and this did not make sense not to do the same thing in the church," Daley said.
'Pick and choose'
Daley also accuses traditionalists or conservatives of hypocrisy.
"The traditionalists -- they also pick and choose what they listen to the pope on," Daley said, referring to Pope John Paul II's recent opposition to the U.S. war in Iraq and his opposition to capital punishment.
"[The conservatives] would not hear the pope. They would not see themselves as having to follow that particular teaching of the pope," Daley said. "Each side perhaps has some selectivity in the process of sorting out what they think is important," she added.
But Lou Giovino, spokesman for the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, disagreed with Daley's claim that both sides pick and choose church doctrine.
"Disagreeing with the pope on the war in Iraq is not the same as disagreeing with him on contraception. They are two different things," Giovino told CNSNews.com .
Crocker, the Catholic historian, agreed, explaining that liberal Catholics are essentially mixing apples and oranges when they make such a claim.
"It's perfectly in the realm of orthodox Catholic beliefs to disagree with the pope on war and not be unorthodox as a Catholic," said Crocker. He explained that the pope's opinions on the death penalty and war are not binding to Catholics, unlike Catholic catechism on abortion.
"In 'Just War' doctrine, the pope can issue his opinion, the church can advise leaders, but the decision is in the hands of civil authorities," Crocker said. Similarly, despite the current pope's opposition to capital punishment, Catholics are left to make up their own minds about the issue, according to Crocker.
"On both those issues, those are very different from the tradition which is extremely consistent in opposition to abortion, homosexuality and contraception," Crocker added.
Father Frank Pavone, the national director of Priests for Life, a pro-life group that seeks to encourage priests to speak out on abortion, believes liberal reformers within the church are not really even part of the church.
"They already do have a different religion. These folks speak of the church in political terms. They don't just disagree with the church on contraception -- they disagree with the church about the church. We have no authority to change those teachings," Pavone told CNSNews.com .
"The cultural battle we are in right now is just as much a test for the church as it is the nation generally," Pavone said.
View on abortion 'doesn't nullify my Catholicism'
Catholics for a Free Choice, disputes the idea that abortion is immoral or even a sinful act. Repeated requests for comment from Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, were not returned. However, a question and answer section on the group's website explains its position on abortion.
In countering the Catholic Church's statements, that abortion is sinful and amoral, Kissling's group asserts that, "it is immoral that during the course of this hour, eight women will die from unsafe abortion."
"I believe it is immoral that women are branded as criminals simply because they have an abortion," Kissling's website statement adds. "The fact that I don't agree with the pope doesn't nullify my Catholicism. It's my church too. I was baptized a Catholic, raised a Catholic, remain a Catholic, and will continue to be Catholic unless I decide to join another faith."
Among Orthodox Catholics, there is a range of opinions as to how the church should deal with Catholic politicians favoring abortion rights.
"What I would like them to do is excommunicate these [abortion rights politicians], publicly," Brown said.
But not all conservatives think excommunication is a viable option.
"Excommunication is kind of a big weapon to use," said Giovino, of the Catholic League. Instead, Giovino would like the church to refuse pro-abortion rights Catholic politicians the opportunity to speak in church. He also wishes that church leaders adopted a policy in which any politician "hawking abortion [was] persona non grata" in a Catholic church.
Bishop William Weigand of Sacramento, Calif., and Bishop Robert Carlson of Sioux Falls, S.D., are bishops who recently took a stand against pro-abortion rights Catholic politicians.
Weigand told former California Democratic Gov. Gray Davis that until he publicly changed his support for legalized abortion; he would no longer be welcome to receive communion.
Carlson requested that U.S. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota stop calling himself a Catholic, unless he officially changed his position on abortion.
Father Pavone is not concerned about the battles raging between orthodox and liberal Catholics.
"I say let them rage, because the church always ends up triumphing in the midst of all of this," Pavone said. "The truth always shows itself in the end to be the only way for us to go," he added.
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