"If the sex abuse scandal had never occurred, the Catholic Church in the United States would still face a crisis," says religion writer Peter Steinfels. In his new book A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America, he cites some leading Catholic indicators: for every 100 priests who die, only 35 new ones are being ordained; regular attendance at Sunday Mass since 1965 has dropped from 65 to 34 percent, and an overwhelming majority of parishioners disagree with Rome's rigid position on birth control. Steinfels examines these and other sensitive and long-standing issues in this provocative volume. He's well-positioned to present a reasoned and informed perspective: a former editor of Commonweal, a lay Catholic opinion journal, he writes the Beliefs column in the New York Times, for which he was the senior religion correspondent from 1988 to 1997. Steinfels discusses the sweeping changes in Catholicism in the four decades since the pre-Vatican Council II days, when the laity's role seemed largely limited to "pray, pay, and obey." A devoted Catholic, he suggests that profound changes ordination of women and optional celibacy among them might be necessary as the Church in this country stands on the "verge of either an irreversible decline or a thoroughgoing transformation." Decrying their culture of secrecy, which he says has nourished a lack of accountability and has contributed to the scandal of pedophilic priests, Steinfels says the bishops "seem to cringe and backtrack at every sign of Vatican displeasure." He calls on the bishops to embrace and utilize the expertise and management skills of the laity in administering the Church's vast health, educational, charitable and social programs. A People Adrift substantially contributes to understanding the problems ensnaring an institution that provides a spiritual identity to one-fourth of the U.S. population. It should be read not only by interested laity but by involved clergy as well.
Alan Prince lectures at the University of Miami School of Communication.