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Crossroad for the Vatican

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The Vatican's doctrinal crackdown on American nuns will only add fuel to a fire that now has young Catholics, like myself, fleeing the Church. The unilaterally conducted investigation reins in nuns in for such infractions as not wearing a religious habit or living outside of convents. Or, more to the point, promoting the ordination of women to the priesthood.

Yet it comes at a time when studies show that many young American Catholics--leery of a creed that is identified with scandal and dogmatism--are abandoning their religion in remarkable numbers.

According to a 2007 study conducted by Catholic University's Life Cycle Institute, just 15 percent of college-aged American Catholics attend mass regularly. The rest know Catholicism only from what the media tells them of it. The authors of the report, Bill D'Antonio and Vincent Bolduc, conclude, "Once a generation has established a pattern of Mass attendance, evidence suggests that it does not change much throughout their lives. If we follow the present pattern, the church of 2050 may well be a fraction of its present size."

To stem this tide, the Catholic Church needs to rebrand itself in the eyes of American youth.

No doubt, the thought of crafting a public image--of doing PR--would strike the Church as unsavory. But the Vatican has a long history of dropping the ball. Pope Benedict XVI only made his ecumenical trip to the Middle East after his disastrous remarks in Regensburg, which stirred wide protests among Islamic leaders. Rome only responded to pedophilia in the priesthood after American Bishops had received thousands of reports and had repeatedly reassigned suspected molesters. Going even further back, the Church only tackled the authoritarianism of the Soviet Union in the 1980s after prostrating itself before Nazi Germany with the Concordant in 1933; and it was only after the Concordant, which emerged partly from a fear of Communism in the Soviet Union, that Pope Pius XII moved to shelter Jews in Italy during World War II.

Imagine how much stronger the Church would be today had it gotten it right the first time around in any of these cases. But the Church doesn't need to wait for the next absolute moment. As a curative measure, it can beef up its image as a player on issues like poverty, immigration, genocide, the death penalty, nuclear disarmament and workers' rights. These are issues that interface with core Catholic concerns and affect the reality of people in the States and throughout the world. They are also issues that American Catholics are deeply involved in. The Jesuits have a volunteer program, of which a growing number of college graduates participate in. Then there are community organizations like the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, which President Obama worked for in the 1980s.

Conversely, the Vatican's investigation of American nuns only generates indignation. Many were angered this September when a nun supporting the ordination of women to the priesthood was removed from her teaching position at archdiocesan parishes in Cincinnati. Similarly, public outcry followed when Rev. Ray Bougeious, a prominent Boston priest, was threatened with excommunication for his role in the women's ordination movement in August.

For the Vatican such policing is simply a matter of enforcing orthodoxy. But for Americans, the refusal to at least engage in dialogue is repellent--particularly among younger Catholics. According to the Life Cycle report, a majority of young Catholics are mistrustful of "moralistic judgments," 80 percent disagree with the statement, "Catholicism contains a greater share of truth than other religions," and decreasing numbers are concerned with the sacraments and the consequences of personal sin.

By contrast, young Catholics are strongly inclined to "view social sins--bigotry, failing to give women equal rights, lack of respect for diversity, neglect of the poor--as major ills they need to confront."

To bring young Catholics back into the fold, the Vatican and the American Bishops must visibly champion the Church's social justice efforts. Pontifical tactics, like the investigation of American nuns, get them nowhere but the history books.