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Fifty years ago this month, Pope Paul XI reminded Catholics that the church considered artificial birth control sinful. His edict was mostly ignored. Actually, one effect was that it changed the way many Catholics view their church teachings. Many Catholics now say they want to decide on their own how to live out their faith. For a church defined by a tradition, that can present a problem, as NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Birth control is pretty much a moot issue for American Catholics. Eight of 10 say you can disobey the church ban and still be a good Catholic. And it doesn't stop there. A similar number say you don't have to go to church every Sunday or accept church teachings on divorce. Those are some of the findings from Mary Gautier's survey of American Catholics. She's a sociologist at Georgetown University.
MARY GAUTIER: They feel very strongly that they're being good Catholics by taking under advisement what the pope says and what the bishops say but making up their mind ultimately based on their own situation, their own conscience.
GJELTEN: These days, those situations often involve marriage and family questions.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We thank you, Lord, for it's time to gather this morning.
GJELTEN: A group of women meet weekly at St. Anthony on the Lake, a Catholic parish near Milwaukee. They're married with children. Some are divorced.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Known in our good and stable times and in our disoriented and difficult times.
GJELTEN: Marriage in the Catholic church is a sacrament, a covenant meant to be perpetual and designed to produce a family with children, but marriage is hard. It doesn't always last, and family life can be challenging.
KATE WIMMER: So many times, I just feel like I'm sort of failing as a parent, and then I came here and realized that everyone struggles and actually...
GJELTEN: Kate Wimmer is raising seven kids, including one from a previous marriage and three from her husband's previous marriage. The group leader, Kathie Amidei, speaks to the women about how she as a divorced mom learned to take responsibility for her own parenting.
KATHIE AMIDEI: If I could be that one good parent, and now that's what I teach to families that are going through divorces. You can't do anything about the other parent, but you can be that one good parent, and having one good parent changes the odds for a child.
GJELTEN: Catholic doctrine holds that marriages do not end with a divorce. They must be invalidated by the church. If Catholics remarry without that annulment, the new marriage is not recognized by the church, and they should not partake in communion. Not surprisingly, many Catholics who go through a divorce, Amidei says, feel estranged from their church community.
AMIDEI: For a Catholic, it's an embarrassment that's different than even the loss through death. It's - just has a particular stigma.
GJELTEN: Of course Amidei recognizes that the church itself with its strict ideas of marriage is partly responsible for stigmatizing divorce.
AMIDEI: I think as a lay minister in the Catholic church, as a lay woman in the Catholic church, I sort of know what I can do, and I know what I can't do. I can just care for them as best I can and not make them feel that shame and guilt. In many cases, you know, they can't stay married even if they want. So to punish that person or to make that person feel worse just doesn't make any sense to me.
GJELTEN: Amidei and others are on the Catholic front lines dealing with modern reality in a church context. They know what they're up against. If the church clings to old doctrinal positions, whether on birth control or divorce, it may lose touch with some Catholics who are wavering in their faith. That concern may have motivated Pope Francis two years ago when he issued a document urging priests to be sympathetic to Catholic couples in what he called imperfect or irregular situations.
But some Catholics expect their church to stand for something. They worry the Francis approach may weaken Catholic orthodoxy. This is the current controversy in Catholic circles. Joanne Perleberger is a lifelong Catholic at Saint Sebastian Parish in Milwaukee.
JOANNE PERLEBERGER: That's what a faith community is supposed to do - give you some guidance as to what the right path is.
GJELTEN: And do you think that that guidance has gotten a little bit weaker?
PERLEBERGER: Yes. They're trying to appeal to as many people as possible, which is a good thing. On the other hand, it dilutes what the message is.
GJELTEN: Like other Catholic leaders, Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki aims for a balance - serving his flock while also defending the faith. His emphasis is on what he calls the truth of church teachings over the years.
JEROME LISTECKI: To be consistent to that is important. Why - because when you start to push yourself away from that, that's when you lose the uniqueness. If we're supposed to be like everybody else in the secular world, then we're not going to be the Catholic church.
GJELTEN: In fact, U.S. Catholics may already be less Catholic than they used to be. Fifty years ago, about half of all Catholic children in the U.S. were educated in Catholic schools. Now it's less than 20 percent.
GAUTIER: It suggests a gradual social change occurring.
GJELTEN: Mary Gautier of Georgetown University.
GAUTIER: The American Catholic church I think is assimilating ever further into American popular culture.
GJELTEN: Such an assimilation may be easier for some Christian traditions than for others. For Catholics with a papal lineage going back 2,000 years, modernizing the faith is a real challenge. Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.