When in Rome

Trouble, change and the future of the Catholic Church


By now, everyone knows that the Roman Catholic Church lost a pope and gained a pope in recent weeks. Likewise, there are few who aren't aware of the public relations trouble the Catholic Church has been having in recent years-and not just long-running sociopolitical issues such as birth control and abortion, but also sexual abuse scandals and apparent concealment from high up, both globally and locally.

The bright spotlight of attention-with both genuine interest and schadenfreude-has raised questions about the direction and future of the Catholic Church. Public perception, from within the church and without, and the short- and long-term outlook of this powerful church are in question.

In the last 35 years, the church's demographic has drastically evolved. The largest percentage of the world's Catholics is in Latin America, the smallest in North America. The greatest increase in Catholic population in that time has been in Africa, which, while making up only 13 percent of the world's Catholics, has more than doubled its percentage in the past three decades. Numbers are up in that same period in Asia (at nearly 12 percent) and Latin America (43 percent), and down in Europe, Catholicism's traditional home turf.

According to Father Ronald Wekerle, vicar general for the Diocese of Idaho and pastor for St. Jerome's Parish in Jerome, numbers of Catholics in Idaho are holding and perhaps slightly increasing. As the population grows, Wekerle told BW, the percentages may decrease, but the numbers haven't. Last year, nearly 500 people were brought into the Catholic Church in Idaho, and as of 2004, the in-state congregation was 146,000 strong.

This past February, it came to light that Deacon Robert Howell, formerly a lay minister at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Northwest Boise, pled guilty last November to the charge of possession of child pornography (and received an 18-month prison sentence). What had St. Mary's parishioners upset was that the bishop of the Boise diocese, the Rev. Michael Patrick Driscoll, did not disclose Howell's crimes until nearly four months after the guilty plea. Predictably, Catholics in St. Mary's and beyond were angered at what they perceived as being kept in the dark.

St. Mary's School nearby was also uninformed-some say a critical omission given the nature of Howell's offense. Said Wekerle of this recent scandal, the Bishop is committed to "transparency"; the Howell scandal "emboldened the Bishop to do the right thing"-the "right thing" being manifold. To move past a damaged image, said Wekerle, the church must apologize and demonstrate its commitment. The Boise diocese now requires background checks for all employees and even volunteers. Priests have to have a "good standing letter" to even substitute at an Idaho church. There are countless hours of training and education. Children are educated about personal safety. Said Wekerle, scandal has, at least, brought about widespread institutional change.

While the church has been recently lamented for the decline in religious teachers, the truth is that for decades, Catholic educators have been scrambling to cover an ever-increasing gap. Nuns, priests and brothers have nearly disappeared from classrooms, and the laity has been called upon to pull up the slack.

According to Dan Makley, superintendent of schools for the diocese of Boise, the percentage of religious (as opposed to laymen and women) teachers in Idaho's Catholic schools is less that 2 percent. Numbers have been dropping consistently since the 1970s.

Idaho's Catholic school enrollment has been steady in the last five or so years, with numbers between 2,900 and 3,200 students. This year there are 3,188 students, up 67 from last year. Makley predicted enrollment surpassing 3,200 students next year.

Makley attributed numbers to results. If Idaho ranked its schools, he told BW, Idaho's Catholic schools would rank in the top 10 percent on ISAT tests. He said that at Sacred Heart Elementary, better than 90 percent of the students are proficient or better on their ISATs-the only Idaho school that can make that claim.

Said Makley, the schools are good, but their first purpose is for the religious training they provide. Overall, Idaho's Catholic schools range from 5 to 20 percent non-Catholic. At St. Nicholas Elementary School in Rupert (a rural district), non-Catholics make up about 50 percent of students. It's fair to say, said Makley, that many are there for the education, not religious training.

"The goal of this office is that there should be more Catholic schools in Idaho," he explained. "There should be more children in the schools and we're trying to figure out ways to make the tuition lower so more people can afford to go." In Wichita, Kansas, tuition at Catholic schools is free throughout the diocese. Makley hopes that Idaho's Catholic schools can head in that direction, too. He said the idea has been introduced to some "key people," and they'll see in the next year or two whether it's possible.

Makley said he sees Catholic schooling as imperative to the church's future. "We're educating about 10 percent of school-age children and putting out 50 percent of the priests," he explained. "If you want more priests, you ought to have more Catholic schools."

The struggles in Catholic education reflect the fact that vocations are down church-wide, including in Idaho. Attracting people to vocations has always been a struggle, but now more than ever.

The diocese prays for vocations but is proactive in attracting people into the priesthood, where numbers are needed to minister to the various parishes. Said Wekerle, a number of programs, labeled "houses of formation of discernment," are in place throughout the state to provide young men an opportunity to "put a toe in" and see what a vocation is like. The fruits: according to Wekerle, about 30 seminarians in Idaho are considering a vocation-more than ever before.

Even so, there are other challenges. Wekerle told BW that many young men interested in vocations are not fluent in English. Though he calls these potential priests a "tremendous blessing," Wekerle said that they also present a bilingual, bicultural challenge. The face of the church, he says, is changing.

In a growing Catholic population like Africa, the need for the church to relax its stance on birth control-particularly condoms, in the fight against AIDS-has been a point of contention from outside the church and among Catholics themselves. In Idaho, the need isn't perhaps so obvious, but it remains an issue as people think about their faith and the direction of their church, perhaps a symptom of the divide between doctrine and social realities.

In the fight for public perception, the Catholic Church has been its own worst enemy, with a historic lack of transparency and a tension between dogma and the evolving needs of its faith community. "Cafeteria Catholics"-those who pick and chose doctrines rather than across-the-board adherence-are likewise an issue the Catholic Church will have to face, here and around the world, as the church, now 1 billion strong, struggles with preserving not only numbers, but its historical, intellectual and political hold.