Today the Roman Catholic Church in the United States is on the verge of either an irreversible decline or a thoroughgoing transformation” is the topic sentence of Peter Steinfels’s extraordinarily valuable survey of the present state of America’s largest Christian community.
Last fall on a weekend trip to Manhattan, I noticed an unusual addition to the art galleries listed in the Times. The gallery was in the apse of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and the art was a collection of religious treasures from Spain, including handwritten letters from Teresa of Ávila and her mentor John of the Cross.
The biggest religion news story of 2002 was a January-to-December drama of distressing proportions. It very well could have been a virtual nonstory, observers say, if the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. had vigorously confronted priestly sexual abuse of minors when the crisis surfaced in the 1980s and simmered in the 1990s.
Six months ago Voice of the Faithful didn’t exist. Now it is one of the most turbo-charged Christian movements in the country. About 14,000 Catholics from 40 states and 21 countries have registered their support for this centrist, lay-led effort to democratize the Catholic Church.
The scandal of sexual abuse among priests and its institutional cover-up presents the Catholic Church with a staggering crisis. It is a crisis of leadership, of moral credibility, and of trust between parishioners, priests and bishops.