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The Catholic Church leaders see threats to the church's core beliefs in the United States from culture, from the White House, even from Catholics themselves. So the Vatican and the U.S. bishops are pushing back. They're cracking down on liberal theologians, disciplining nuns and emphasizing a more orthodox theology. As NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, some Catholics are thrilled, while others express concern.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: For months now, the U.S. Catholic bishops have waged a vocal campaign against the Obama administration's birth control mandate. They say the new rule forces Catholic institutions to violate their beliefs. Journalist David Gibson says all this culminated with the Fortnight for Freedom, two weeks of prayer and fasting for religious liberties.
DAVID GIBSON: It's an effort to kind of rally the troops to recreate this unified Catholic community that's really disappeared in the last 50 years.
HAGERTY: Gibson, who's written several books about the church, says the campaign is only the latest signal that the church is enforcing a more conservative theology. Recently, the Vatican openly criticized liberal theologians. It's instituted a more traditional liturgy. And, Gibson notes, it's wooing back the controversial Society of St. Pius the X, just as it's cracking down on the largest group of U.S. nuns.
GIBSON: Rome is doing everything it can to bring a schismatic right wing group that rejects the reforms of Vatican II back into the fold, while at the same time, it's censuring nuns and theologians who are actually following the spirit of Vatican II.
HAGERTY: Fabian Bruskewitz, the bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska, says the nuns are a precious treasure, but some of their leaders were promoting ideas about sexuality, for example, that were at odds with the church. He says when it comes to core doctrines, the church is not a democracy.
BISHOP FABIAN BRUSKEWITZ: These are not open to votes. These are what God has revealed and the custody of that revelation is, of course, in the possession of the church.
HAGERTY: Bruskewitz says the church can't compromise its views just because the secular world doesn't like them.
BRUSKEWITZ: Some lady told me just a short time ago, what don't you do adopt what is socially acceptable - divorce, contraception, and so on. I said, well, you know, that's not the criterion for morality.
RUSTY RENO: I just think we're in an era with secular culture where compromise can be fatal in a way that was not the case in the past.
HAGERTY: Rusty Reno is editor of the conservative Catholic magazine First Things. He says, if anything, the church became too liberal after Vatican II, as people interpreted reform as a license to defy the church.
RENO: So we're seeing an attempt to find a equilibrium.
HAGERTY: Father Thomas Reese at Georgetown University wouldn't call it equilibrium. Rather, he says, it's a dramatic shift toward the right. He says the shift began with Pope John Paul II. Reese says the Pope was alarmed by Vatican II and set out to rein it in.
First, he says, John Paul tried to, quote, "control the message" by cracking down on liberal theologians who dissented from the Vatican. Second, the pope appointed conservative bishops loyal to the Vatican - the men who are running the U.S. church today. Reese says on matters of sexuality and morality, these bishops brook no dissent from the faithful.
FATHER THOMAS REESE: They see themselves as teachers. They teach what they consider the truth. If the students don't accept it, that's the student's problem, not theirs.
HAGERTY: Reese says the leaders of the church today act a little like parents of teenage children.
REESE: They realize that they're losing control. And they think the solution is simply to shout louder and to say, no, you can't do that, or not in my house you won't, or because I said so. That's simply not going to work with an educated laity.
HAGERTY: Reese believes that top-down approach, combined with they way the bishops handled the sex abuse crisis, has alienated many faithful. Polls show that a third of people raised Catholic no long attend. And that may not be a bad thing, says Bill Donahue, president of the conservative Catholic League and author of "Why Catholicism Matters." He notes that Pope Benedict XVI has intimated that a smaller, purer church might be better anyway.
BILL DONAHUE: I think for a long time, what I would consider the base of Catholic Church, the ones who practice, who go to church regularly and pay the bills, generally speaking of a more conservative stripe, we feel that we've been neglected and now we feel like, hey, maybe our time has come.
HAGERTY: It sure feels that way to John Gehring, who works for a progressive advocacy group, Faith in Public Life. He says the church he loves used to care as much about poverty and social justice as sexuality.
JOHN GEHRING: I believe in a big time Catholicism where liberals and moderate conservatives can get along. You know, we share a faith, we share rituals, we break bread together. But this is as much my church as it is Bill Donahue's church.
HAGERTY: And so Gehring plans to stay and hopes that someday the pendulum will swing back his way.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.