Pope John Paul II's arrival in Denver today begins his third and shortest visit to the continental United States. But his four days in the Mile High City will highlight what is perhaps the biggest challenge facing the Catholic Church -- or any religion, for that matter: ensuring its perpetuity by nurturing the next generation of believers.
Denver is host to World Youth Day, a gathering that draws young Catholics from around the world. The range of tongues and cultures is vibrant testimony to the rich diversity of the Catholic Church (see article on Opinion * Commentary page).
It is fitting that this year's gathering takes place in a country built on diversity, a country founded by pilgrims fleeing persecution by established churches which later enshrined in law the seemingly paradoxical truth that by keeping government out of religion, faith could thrive. American Catholics are themselves proof of this principle, with almost 60 million members, or about 23 percent of the country's population.
But for an institution steeped in tradition and hierarchy, diversity can be a double-edged sword. The pope's visit has spurred much comment on the alienation many American Catholics feel from the Vatican, chiefly having to do with sexual issues. Many Americans disagree with the pope's opposition to the ordination of women, to lifting the ban on married priests and, especially, to the church's prohibition on any form of artificial birth control.
No single issue in modern times has stirred as much dissent in the church as Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical issued by Pope Paul VI which, contrary to predictions, reaffirmed the church's stand on contraception. The debate is as much about authority -- and how much diversity of opinion is healthy -- as about sex or morals. One American bishop has likened the church's attempts to uphold the Vatican's pronouncements in the face of widespread disregard for them among lay people to a dysfunctional family.
In Denver, Pope John Paul II will not ease those tensions. Rather, as is his custom, he will reassert the church's teachings on controversial issues. In his scheduled meeting with President Clinton today, he is expected to raise the church's opposition to abortion. But that will be only one topic of disagreement among many points of mutual concern -- the wars raging in Bosnia and other parts of the former Soviet empire, the chaos in countries like Somalia, Sudan and Liberia, and hunger, inhumanity and injustice wherever they occur.
On balance, the president and the pope will have far more areas of agreement than division. The same is true for the young people gathered in Denver and, no doubt, for all Americans.