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The good news is not in good practice

The leadership of the Roman Catholic Church is busy preparing to spread the good news as the world approaches the third Christian millennium.

Spreading the good news is what the word "evangelization" means, the term preferred by church leadership to describe how Catholics should mark the coming era. Perhaps they fear people would laugh at the idea of bishops talking about good news.

The good news announced by Jesus is that God is implacably forgiving love, and that God's kingdom to come is a kingdom of forgiveness in which God forgives us and we forgive others to reflect God's love for us.

God is like the farmer who pays a full day's wage to those who work only half an hour, like the indulgent father who forgives both the prodigal and the faithful son, like the judge who dismisses the woman taken in adultery.

In God's kingdom there are not only second chances but infinite second chances. It is never quite too late to start over again.

It's that simple. Most of Jesus' contemporaries didn't get it and neither do very many people today. If one looks at the leadership of the institutional church, there is not much evidence they believe or practice this simple good news. Rather, it seems, they devote most of their time to denouncing or condemning.

Cardinal John J. O'Connor of New York, for example, is currently condemning the New York Yankees and Major League Baseball for playing on Good Friday. Joined by Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, O'Connor is condemning also the South African priest who gave Holy Communion to President Clinton _ though neither of them said a word about the priest who gave communion to President Reagan.

Alan Keyes, the former Republican presidential hopeful, informs the National Catholic Educational Association and the world that the Soweto priest lacked moral courage.

And the "unofficial" Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, from its offices in the New York chancery office building, celebrates its thuggish success in driving the TV drama Nothing Sacred off ABC's lineup.

Then there's religious broadcaster Mother Angelica, who has in effect excommunicated Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles for not believing in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist _ and only Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee speaks up in Mahony's defense.

Meanwhile, it takes years to remove Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer of Austria, who has been accused of sexually abusing boys as the U.S. church continues to fight the families of sex-abuse victims in the courts.

This is a church that proposes to attract people with "good news" to celebrate the millennium? This is a church that plans to deepen the faith of its own membership as the millennium approaches? Forget it!

I do not reject rules, regulations, and laws. But when the hierarchy squeezes out all signs of compassion, the church obliterates the good news.

The church does not like to measure results. It is enough that a program be carried out without our bothering to ask whether it did anyone any good. But I will make myself obnoxious by proposing some "measures of success" not appreciated by the Vatican.

Three in four American Catholics approve of the death penalty. Four-fifths think abortion should be legal in cases where the mother's health is in danger. More than half approve of in vitro fertilization. The average Catholic family gives only about 1 percent of its income to the church. A little better than two out of five attend Mass regularly.

Will any of these attitudes change as a result of the planned celebration?

How should the church really celebrate the millennium? First, it should listen to its lay people and learn from their constant faith and compassion.

Then it should admit the possibility the Holy Spirit might speak through the laity as well as through the archbishops of New York and Philadelphia.

Andrew M. Greeley is a Roman Catholic priest, best-selling novelist and a sociologist at the University of Chicago National Opinion Research Center. Check out his home page at www.agreeley.com or contact him via e-mail at agreelaol.com.

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