March 7th, 2013
09:03 AM ET

My Take: The pope is irrelevant

Editor's note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

(CNN) - Earlier this week I was sitting in my office with a Catholic student discussing the upcoming election of the new pope.  “It’s irrelevant,” she told me, adding that none of her Catholic friends care who the next pope will be, nor should they.

For much of American history, the pope was anything but irrelevant. Throughout the 19th century, Protestants feared him, concerned he and his minions were plotting to take over the United States from afar and replace our Constitution with their canon law.

As late as the 1960 presidential election, John F. Kennedy felt it necessary to promise (in his now famous Houston speech) that if elected president, he wouldn’t be taking orders from the Great and Powerful Vatican.

Today the gap between the “official” Catholicism of Rome and the “unofficial” Catholicism of communicants in Cincinnati and Des Moines is wide and growing.

If you ever find yourself offering an introductory lecture on Roman Catholicism you might find yourself saying things like “Catholics believe the pope can speak infallibly” or “Catholics require their priests to be unmarried men” or “Catholics reject artificial birth control.”

Yet in a New York Times/CBS News poll released this week, nearly four out of every five U.S. Catholic respondents say they favor artificial methods of birth control. Nearly two-thirds say they favor letting Catholic priests marry, and another two-thirds say they favor women’s ordination. Moreover, American Catholics today are more likely to say the pope is “not infallible” (46%) than they are to say that he is (40%).

And so it goes in this survey on questions such as abortion, the death penalty and same-sex marriage, where a majority of rank-and-file U.S. Catholics disagree with the Catholic hierarchy.

When I point out this yawning gap to my non-Catholic students, many conclude either that those who do not follow their church’s teachings are bad Catholics or that they somehow aren't Catholics at all. Yet Catholics in overwhelming numbers repeatedly say that it is possible to disagree with the pope on birth control, abortion, capital punishment and divorce and still be a good Catholic.

What is going on here?

One answer is that the U.S. Catholic Church is going to hell. From the perspective of Catholic conservatives in Asia and Africa and the Vatican itself, American Catholic churches harbor far too many “cafeteria Catholics” who follow the teachings of their church only when those teachings agree with their tastes,

But from the perspective of many of these “a la carte Catholics” (as the French sociologist Danièle Hervieu-Leger calls them), the people are the church. As they see it, the conclave of the cardinals in Rome is a sideshow. The real drama takes place every week in Catholic Mass across the world, or in the equally mysterious depths of individual Catholic consciences.

In the most revealing question in this new poll, respondents were asked whether they are more likely to follow the pope’s teachings or the stirrings of their own conscience when it comes to “difficult moral questions.” Of them, 78% said conscience; only 13 percent said the pope.

Of course, these two voices do not have to clash. And they would harmonize more closely if the Church had done a better job over the last generation shaping the consciences of its flock. Unfortunately, it has far too often set those consciences on edge, by harboring priests who sexually abused young Catholics and then by siding far too often with the abusers rather than the abused.

I don’t always agree with the official Church in Rome on social questions. But in the past I have been grateful that our world includes an ancient institution that can challenge with a prophetic “no” whatever wisdom Hollywood or Washington might be channeling in any given moment. Unfortunately, that moral voice is muffled now to the point of silence.

I’m sure my student would echo the preference of the Catholic respondents in this poll for a pope who is more liberal, and for a Church that isn’t so “out of touch.” But global trends in Roman Catholicism offer little reason for such a pope. Theologically, the cardinals are a conservative lot, deeply committed to the notion that the Church is its leaders and that the other 99% of the Catholic world should get in line and follow.

In the United States, at least, that is a recipe for yet another irrelevant pope.

The opinions expressed here are solely those of Stephen Prothero

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Catholic Church • Polls • Pope • Pope Benedict XVI • United States

soundoff (1,322 Responses)
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    November 28, 2013 at 12:01 am |
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    April 28, 2013 at 6:27 am |
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    April 28, 2013 at 6:04 am |
  4. Erasmus

    You're going on a long trip, you're about to board the plane....and .....out of nowhere........a gentleman comes up to you from the maintenance crew of the plane and says with a worried face........."sir, before you get on the plane..you should know that its missing one screw......." he continues but before he can finish, he is wisked away by his boss as he stares at you with a worried look.........so what do you do:

    1. Get on the plane, i mean what can one screw missing possibly do?
    2. Call some friends and just debate about it
    3. Do your due diligence and search it out, possibly saving lives when you find out which screw was really missing

    Well if Roman Catholicism is the plane your getting on, and you look out on the tarmac, it has all the parts needed to fly, infact its packed with passengers, standing room only............and then it happens..........that mechanic walks up to you and says.......not that a screw is missing........but is laughing .........he says, "well i tried to warn them that they put it in backwards..they just won't listen...........i mean, im chief mechanic for crying out loud...i didn't just order this patch..........well i got to go........just hope i dont' see something bad on CNN later."

    March 23, 2013 at 9:18 am |
  5. hebrew expert


    March 16, 2013 at 11:07 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      I doubt the accuracy of your handle. Was I supposed to be impressed?

      March 16, 2013 at 11:11 pm |
    • hebrew expert

      chuck missler is a hebrew expert.

      March 16, 2013 at 11:13 pm |
  6. Keith

    Seems he missed the boat on this one. We needed a Pope just like we got, he could be the one to lead the Church through the healing it needs.

    March 16, 2013 at 10:01 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      You said "the healing it needs" ??. What your Church needs in a Pope is a good attorney, not a physician.

      March 16, 2013 at 10:07 pm |
  7. SoldierOfConscience

    more catholic bashing. we follow the preaching of our pastors and the pope. thank you.

    March 13, 2013 at 5:55 pm |
    • Hubert

      Not many of you.

      March 13, 2013 at 5:58 pm |
    • Be honest

      Hubert – there are 1.2 BILLION Catholics. Do you really feel qualified to make that statement? I wish people who are not practising Catholics would hush up and stop making sweeping statements without a shred of evidence!

      I go to Mass in my own parish on a Sunday morning – it's packed. I also go to the Cathedral some Sundays and ALL 4 masses on Sunday are packed as are the TWO daily masses Monday to Saturday [at midday and 5pm]

      I have to smile at the doom-laden anti-Catholics who drone on about empty churches.

      March 13, 2013 at 9:58 pm |
    • The real Tom

      When over 90% of Catholic women in the US use birth control at some point in their lives, it's pretty safe to say most of you aren't following doctrine.

      March 16, 2013 at 10:06 pm |
    • End Religion

      The churches are emptying out, selling off, or turning into laundromats. They're consolidating into larger churches which are also losing membership. Won't be too much longer before churches will need to relocate the "home office" to Africa.

      March 16, 2013 at 11:07 pm |
    • Austin

      I go to a church of about 4 thousand and last year there were 677 people who accepted Christ, our Church has doubled in size. And of the non denominational churches in my city, I can tell you that they are buying smaller churches that are vacant and expanding to other campuses. People are being saved all over the globe, and there will be an increase in this activity as the end nears.

      "And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God,
      That I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh;
      Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
      Your young men shall see visions,
      Your old men shall dream dreams.
      And on My menservants and on My maidservants
      I will pour out My Spirit in those days;
      And they shall prophesy"
      (Acts 2:17-18).

      March 16, 2013 at 11:17 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      Maybe not where you're living, Austin, but yes, churches are emptying every week and shutting their doors for good. Atheism is growing faster than any other group. The facts and statistics are out there.

      March 16, 2013 at 11:24 pm |
  8. alanm243

    Just today the windbag Bill O'Reilly wrote "the U.S. was created by Christian values" This Bull Crap is THE number one lie spouted by catholics that attended their church schools.....None of these church educated people have ever heard of the predominant belief at the time this country came into being " DEISM" freedom from religion was predominant at the time....Our government is to take no sides with regards religion , period..why all the religious nutz want to brand this country as christian is beyond me....People are free to practice any religion that they want , just so it doesn't interfere with OUR government ! There is just way tooooo much coverage on this pope election....Didn't North Korea just announce WAR with the U.S. ? what the heck is the Pope going to do about that ?

    March 13, 2013 at 12:39 pm |
    • Smith

      Our country was created by men and women who wanted freedom from a tyranical King overseas. For most, they made the trip to have the ability to worship freely and without prejudice. Your hate has clouded your judgement. We live in a country that allows for religious freedom . You choose to believe something different than your neighbor, that is YOUR choice. Rather than bashing those that dont think like you, consider showing somematurity and respect. The movement to bash the Catholic church is old. Move on Media...

      March 18, 2013 at 11:56 am |
    • Keeping It Real

      "they made the trip to have the ability to worship freely and without prejudice."

      If you are talking about the Pilgrims & Puritans who came over here in the 1600s, you might have a more religious angle (although this was not the reason many of them came). Many of those original settlers were fleeing British religious rules which didn’t agree with theirs, but they were somewhat similar to the Mormons who fled to Mexico in the late 1800s to freely practice their religions when the U.S. tightened the laws against them. Many of the communities that the Pilgrims & Puritans set up were quite religiously restrictive and exclusive in their own ways. Thank goodness that the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Plymouth Colony did not prevail!

      King George and the British were religious Christians too, you know. Those Revolutionary heroes were great, but the war was not a religious one.

      March 18, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
  9. (2i)^0.5

    This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, Without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, Traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away. For of this sort are they which creep into houses, and lead captive silly women laden with sins, led away with divers lusts, Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. (2Tim 3:1)

    March 11, 2013 at 11:02 pm |
    • sam stone

      Wow, a quote. Nothing more convincing than that, nosireeebob

      The beauty of it is that each generation sees this in the following generation. So, the "end times" are always coming.

      March 12, 2013 at 4:04 am |
    • lol??

      "Mat 13:14 And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive:"

      March 12, 2013 at 11:00 am |
    • Be honest

      Sam, Jesus, the Divine Mercy appeared to St Faustina and told her that 2000 was the cut off point for people to reconcile with God but that because God so loves His creation – MAN – and wants them to be with Him for eternity, He's granted us extra time. But it isn't going to last, We ARE in the end times, and we need to be thinking seriously about the way we live.

      Abortion is the biggest scourge of all – it is an abomination and must stop. The deliberate undermining of the family is a close second.
      How can anti-Catholics create a fuss about abuse carried out by 4%of priests over 30 years and STILL demand and support abortion? I'm a Catholic and I detest both; evidently others only have a problem with one of the two.

      We are in the period of the Chastisement. Unnatural weather; fires; wars; earthquakes; asteroids...........and it's going to get worse.
      Some will say " God's supposed to be a God of love?" So He is and He's been keeping the world on even keel for eons. But the majority – like the touting of the "sky fairy theory etc etc" by people on here – have told God that we don't NEED Him. So now He's doing what people want; He's letting us get on with running things without Him.

      Don't moan when it all goes pear-shaped. The majority of the world have rejected God...........be very careful what you wish for, you having seen ANYTHING yet! God Bless each one of you in the times ahead.

      March 13, 2013 at 10:16 pm |
    • Keith

      You guys are pretty funny, why did you include a book written by someone that hated Christians. It is even dumber to believe that it is a revelation of the future.

      March 16, 2013 at 10:52 pm |
    • Austin

      36 “Then the king shall do according to his own will: he shall exalt and magnify himself above every god, shall speak blasphemies against the God of gods, and shall prosper till the wrath has been accomplished; for what has been determined shall be done. 37 He shall regard neither the God[k] of his fathers nor the desire of women, nor regard any god; for he shall exalt himself above them all. 38 But in their place he shall honor a god of fortresses; and a god which his fathers did not know he shall honor with gold and silver, with precious stones and pleasant things. 39 Thus he shall act against the strongest fortresses with a foreign god, which he shall acknowledge, and advance its glory; and he shall cause them to rule over many, and divide the land for gain.

      The Northern King’s Conquests

      40 “At the time of the end the king of the South shall attack him; and the king of the North shall come against him like a whirlwind, with chariots, horsemen, and with many ships; and he shall enter the countries, overwhelm them, and pass through. 41 He shall also enter the Glorious Land, and many countries shall be overthrown; but these shall escape from his hand: Edom, Moab, and the prominent people of Ammon. 42 He shall stretch out his hand against the countries, and the land of Egypt shall not escape. 43 He shall have power over the treasures of gold and silver, and over all the precious things of Egypt; also the Libyans and Ethiopians shall follow at his heels. 44 But news from the east and the north shall trouble him; therefore he shall go out with great fury to destroy and annihilate many. 45 And he shall plant the tents of his palace between the seas and the glorious holy mountain; yet he shall come to his end, and no one will help him.

      March 16, 2013 at 11:05 pm |
    • Austin

      glorious land is palestine, king of south is egypt, king of north is syria

      March 16, 2013 at 11:06 pm |
    • Damocles

      So the cut-off date to get right with the deity was back in 2000? So everyone born after that date is screwed? And now you want to add asteroids into the mix of divine justice because, hey, we just had a few pass by the earth at realitively close range and that sounds doomy and gloomy enough to fit into a loving deity's persona.

      March 16, 2013 at 11:17 pm |
    • Austin, nothing added

      9 And the fifth angel sounded, and I saw a star fall from heaven unto the earth: and to him was given the key of the bottomless pit.

      2 And he opened the bottomless pit; and there arose a smoke out of the pit, as the smoke of a great furnace; and the sun and the air were darkened by reason of the smoke of the pit.

      3 And there came out of the smoke locusts upon the earth: and unto them was given power, as the scorpions of the earth have power.

      4 And it was commanded them that they should not hurt the grass of the earth, neither any green thing, neither any tree; but only those men which have not the seal of God in their foreheads.

      5 And to them it was given that they should not kill them, but that they should be tormented five months: and their torment was as the torment of a scorpion, when he striketh a man.

      6 And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them.

      7 And the shapes of the locusts were like unto horses prepared unto battle; and on their heads were as it were crowns like gold, and their faces were as the faces of men.

      8 And they had hair as the hair of women, and their teeth were as the teeth of lions.

      9 And they had breastplates, as it were breastplates of iron; and the sound of their wings was as the sound of chariots of many horses running to battle.

      10 And they had tails like unto scorpions, and there were stings in their tails: and their power was to hurt men five months.

      11 And they had a king over them, which is the angel of the bottomless pit, whose name in the Hebrew tongue is Abaddon, but in the Greek tongue hath his name Apollyon.

      March 16, 2013 at 11:22 pm |
    • Austin

      people who reject Gods ways and are opened up to evil, and Satan along with his army of spiritual oppressors, are the doom and gloom.

      Blaming evil on God, is not a good move.

      March 16, 2013 at 11:24 pm |
    • Damocles

      Ahhh so the all powerful deity that created everything did not, in fact, create everything?

      March 16, 2013 at 11:29 pm |
    • Austin

      did He create the sentence you just wrote or did you? He created free will. He created the world and every soul. He does not create your choices.

      March 16, 2013 at 11:44 pm |
    • Damocles

      So now the all knowing is not so all knowing.

      March 16, 2013 at 11:50 pm |
  10. C. Ortiz

    Personally, I know that any survery or study can be skewed to reflect whatever the person conducting the survey wants by cleverly wording the questions or framing them in a certain manner. Thus I don't place much stock in surveys. But, if so many so called cafeteria Catholics are dis-satisfied, why don't the simply leave? I'm sure the Anglican/Episcopalians would love to have them. I prefer to see the Roman Catholic Chiurch smaller in number but filled with faithful believers who understand their faith.

    March 11, 2013 at 5:37 pm |
    • Saraswati

      C Ortiz,

      Certainly you have to treat surveys with some skepticism, especially when they are conducted by organizations with a clear agenda who have not hired well trained professionals. However, the methodologies used by professionals are much more highly developed and researched than most people realize. The techniques used to word a question are tested for validity in controlled environments where results can be validated. No, they aren’t perfect, but when the alternative is testing the impression one gets from speaking with friends, they are by far the better choice.

      March 12, 2013 at 7:56 am |
    • Be honest

      C Ortiz – Couldn't agree more, well said and God Bless you.

      March 12, 2013 at 2:28 pm |
  11. Quest ion

    Ten days have gone by since the weirdo's resignation.

    How is it that the post continues to be so irrelevant?
    Why is it that it is so irrelevant?
    What made it so irrelevant?

    March 10, 2013 at 8:32 pm |
    • Be honest

      It's hardly IRrelevant if it's being broadcast on all news media every hour on the hour?????????

      March 11, 2013 at 3:36 pm |
    • dj65

      obviously someone with an axe to grind.

      March 14, 2013 at 9:26 am |
    • Be honest

      Question – that "wierdo" was the leader of 1.2 Billion Catholics and has forgotten more than YOU will ever know.

      I'd say you're one of the great Yankee unwashed who elected the personification of "wierdo" as leader of the terminally thick Liberal population of the good ole USofA. Like weak, number dyslexic, whining, meglomaniac, attended an anti-Uncle Sam church for 20 years, authorizes drones as a perk on his bad days...............lol. Wake up and smell he coffee purleeeeeze!

      March 15, 2013 at 10:31 pm |
  12. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    March 10, 2013 at 7:19 pm |
    • Jesus

      Prayer does not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!

      March 11, 2013 at 5:03 pm |
    • Really?

      "Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things"

      That's why the data, has shown that atheists have happier and healthier lives, than conservative Christians. Your post is built on a lie!

      March 11, 2013 at 5:07 pm |
    • Be honest

      You are right. Prayer DOES change things. When you pray you don't fill in an order to God as if you're ordering kitchen fittings from IKEA – you ask for God's help.
      I know people who have incurable illnesses who pray for their health to improve but they are willing to leave it in God's hands. Some DO get better; others find peace in their final days and are content to wait till the end to be united with God in Heaven.
      After all we're ALL going to die aren't we? Many people accept suffering and offer their pain to save the souls of others. Pope John Paul II showed the world the dignity and humility in years of severe physical illness. TTUST in God's mercy instead of focussing on yourself' then you too will find peace.

      March 12, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
    • End Religion

      Plenty of evidence prayer does nothing more than a placebo. The same thing as rubbing a horseshoe or wishing on a 4-leaf clover. How would an impotent and retarded semi-godling have any power to do anything anyway? Zeus has given us more than your god. Pathetic.

      March 17, 2013 at 12:01 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.