Since last May, the Catholic Church, and all Christians, have been rocked by events that bring up a number of sensitive issues. Several theology professors and community members were asked to discuss the year's most important subjects.
With the election of Episcopalian bishop Gene Robinson as the first openly gay bishop in August, the entire Christian community began to reexamine their stances on homosexuality. The United Methodist Church recently acquitted a minister who was openly gay from being discharged from the ministry. This ruling is the first of its kind in the United Methodist Church and took place weeks before the quadrennial conference where the Church can vote to change church policy.
In contrast, last March, the Vatican released a document that told Catholic legislators and politicians to they should not support same sex civil union bills.
"Those who would move from tolerance to the legitimization of specific rights for cohabiting homosexual persons need to be reminded that the approval or legalization of evil is something far different from the toleration of evil," the document said.
Christine Firer-Hinze, a theology professor, said she thought the issue of homosexuality and the Church was coming to the forefront of national attention.
"I think the Church is still continuing to deal with and react to the statement made by the Vatican," Firer-Hinze said. "Here in the United States, especially among the youth, there are dynamic cultural shifts that are occurring with the way we see this issue."
Firer-Hinze said in the past people tended to polarize very easily into conservative and liberal camps along the issue of homosexuality.
"The viewpoints do not divide as sharply along this issue as they used to," Firer-Hinze said.
Patrick Carey, a theology professor, agreed with Firer-Hinze on the importance of the issue this year.
"The issues of gay marriage came up in a very prominent way," Carey said. "That whole concept of defining marriage is something the society — and particularly the Church — will have to examine in the next few years."
This year the states of Massachusetts and Oregon and the city of San Francisco began to offer marriage licenses and civil unions to same sex couples, much to the frustration of the Vatican.
This attempt of the Church to influence Catholic politicians echoes a year-long trend of tension between certain bishops, conservative church groups and Catholic politicians who vote against traditional church teaching.
Archbishop of St. Louis Raymond Burke, formally bishop of Lacrosse, sparked this debate when he said he would deny communion to Catholic politicians whose voting records did not match the Church's teachings. This grew to an outcry by many pro-life groups that presidential candidate John Kerry, a practicing Catholic, should not receive communion because of his pro-choice stance.
Daniel Maguire, a theology professor, said that he thought Catholics across the country were starting to discern their decisions and follow their own conscious more than ever before.
"I think the Catholic laity are really starting to grow up," said Maguire. "They are starting to make mature judgments that factor in the teaching of the pope and the bishops and also include looking at their own conscious."
Ash Wednesday, February 25, marked the release of The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson's movie depicting the last hours of Jesus' life. Considered brilliant by some, anti-Semitic by others and exceptionally violent by many. The movie has grossed over $350,000,000 since it's opening, proving the American public is interested in faith.
Julian Hills, a theology professor, said the larger Christian community needed to think about how they could use the movie's success as a springboard to encourage people to delve deeper into their faith.
"I think the reaction to Mel Gibson's movie proved the interest in Christianity is more than just residual in the American public," Hills said. "The Christian undercurrent seems to be alive and well and they have really warmed to this movie."
Both Carey and Firer-Hinze also agreed with the publication of the John Jay reports — a study done of the clergy sex abuse cases, the church is trying to move beyond.
"In the backlash of the initial reports of pedophilia, the cases have really dropped and started to dwindle," Carey said.
"The Church seems to be trying to move beyond the aftermath," Firer-Hinze said.
The extremely poor health of Pope John Paul II in the fall led many Catholics to speculate on the possible identity of candidates for the papacy. Although, in exceptionally frail condition in October, the Pope made a recovery and is in stable, but weak condition.
John Paul II "probably is not going to be with us that much longer," Firer-Hinze said. "It has given us a real climate of waiting and wondering."