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One Catholic Church—or Two or Three?
by Paul Wilkes
Friday, April 15, 2005

There we stood on the Piazza Della Pilotta as bright-faced young men and women spilled through the columns and down the steps of the imposing Gregorian University. They were dressed in proper clerical garb not much seen--if ever seen--by many Catholics in the United States. All seemed well with the Church. Such vigor, such diversity. These were some of the 10,000 men and women--from Asia, Africa, South America as well as Europe and America--who attend classes together.

So what of all this talk about two Churches--a Church of the North, a Church of the South? A Church of the developed world, the Church of developing world--each with widely divergent needs. And what shortage of clergy? Certainly not here. The Catholic world seemed a peaceable kingdom indeed.

I was standing there with Father Keith Pecklers, a Jesuit who teaches liturgy here at Greg, as it is known, who took my question of two churches and (as Jesuits are wont to do) quickly expanded it to three. And he wasn't talking about dividing the globe geographically or economically.

"There is the official Church at one end, and the popular Church at the other," he said. "The official Church or the ideal Church is one of unquestioning doctrine and dogma and with unstinting love for the Holy Father. The popular Church will still have that great love and a deep devotional life, but is puzzled and sometimes overwhelmed with such questions as: How do we stop the spread of AIDS? How do I feed my family? How do I protect them from the war going on around me?

"The third Church is in between, and although not all of its members have the crushing problems of those living in poverty, they still are people who are trying to reconcile the idea with the practical."

In the Catholic Church today--as the 115 cardinals sit in their conferences and soon enter into the Casa Santa Maria residence and then file into the Sistine Chapel on Monday for the conclave--the "two church" debate rages. It will certainly be one of the bases on which the new pope will be chosen. Can this man reach into both worlds, which have such different issues?

I decided to call someone for whom "two worlds-two churches" is not a theoretical construct but an everyday reality in his life. Monsignor Arturo Banuelas, who earned his graduate degree in Rome, is the pastor of Pope Pius X parish in El Paso, Texas. His are largely middle-class Hispanic parishioners. Yet little more than a 10-minute car ride away lies the Mexican border.

"Why does it have to be one or the other?" Msgr. Banuelas asked. "As if we are talking about this whining, selfish, materialistic American Church with no values and no major problems versus the compliant, patient, suffering rest of the world. The issue is to be a prophetic Church throughout the entire world, meeting the needs of each culture and place head on.

"We hear that we need more priests to make this. To me the answer is not to ordain more priests that have a perfect orthodoxy, but to allow all Catholics to be prophetic in addressing whatever it is in their particular circumstances that the gospel can transform--bishops also.

"The Catholic ideal is not lockstep rigidity, but openness to what is going on today, in the unique surroundings each person finds herself or himself. Archbishop Oscar Romero is a perfect example of an ordinary churchman who read the signs of the times, read the gospels, and was compelled to have the gospel speak to the moment. He was killed because of it. But he was a prophet, he cried out against injustice.

"Where are those prophetic voices today?" Msgr. Banuelas asked. "I am listening, but I do not hear them. Forget about north and south. We as a Church have a big credibility gap: We have to present a God that people not only have to believe in but want to believe in. A God as symbolized not by dogma or doctrine--we have enough dogma and doctrine and it is good; I studied it, I know it--but by making our faith come alive in the lives of people. That is a big job--but for those of us who live on the border, straddling two cultures, that is at the top of the list for the next pope to address."

My conversation with Msgr. Banuelas spurred me to seek another perspective. So I had lunch with Father John Navone, who teaches spirituality at the Gregorian. He cuts the "two worlds-two churches" divide yet another way.

"Although a poverty of spirit in America is not the same as an empty stomach in Africa, each is a poverty," he said. "So I would agree not with an arbitrary line between a North and South Church, but rather one that, for example, Episcopalians and Jews have. The Episcopalians have a 'high church,' a 'broad church,' and then a 'low church.' The Jews are Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. In Catholicism, on one extreme are those who say 'Orders are orders and I will follow them,' and on the other, 'No, not me, I'm a thinking person and nobody is going to tell me what to do.' In the middle are those who say, 'Look, if this makes sense for my life--and believe me, I need to make sense of my life--you can sign me up. If not, if it does not help in my life, sorry, I just won't do it.'"

So once again, I start off with these neat categories, these focused questions. This time, about a Church of the North and a Church of the South. But reality isn't quite that neat, certainly in the Catholic Church. And I'm sure those cardinals now meeting behind closed doors know this better than I do as they ponder who they hope--and, I'm sure, pray--their next leader will be.


Paul Wilkes is a veteran journalist whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly and The New York Times magazine. He has authored 18 books on Catholicism, including the bestselling Excellent Catholic Parishes. He is the author of The Seven Secrets of Successful Catholics and the creator of New Beginnings, a parish revitalization program, which is distributed by St. Anthony Messenger Press. 



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