Major tests confronting next pontiff

Cardinals meet Monday to vote on who they believe can best lead the Catholic Church.

The Roman Catholic cardinals who file into the Sistine Chapel Monday for the first conclave in a quarter century have a difficult task. They must elect a man who can not only fill the shoes of an immensely popular pope, but lead a global church with urgent and complex challenges.

The dynamic era of John Paul II spurred major growth in the church and gave the papacy added clout on moral issues. But it also left unfinished business that will seriously test the next pontiff.

Among the bigger challenges:

• Replenishing a global shortage of priests. Last year, 17 percent of parishes in North America had no priest.

• Settling the balance of power between bishops and the pope. John Paul II recentralized power in Rome, but many Catholics urge local control.

• Making the church's teaching on sexuality and family more relevant to lay Catholics.

• Dealing with challenges from Islam and evangelical traditions, while improving interfaith ties.

The next pope will assume the mantle at a time of heightened insecurities in the world. Religious competition and conflict in several regions demand his attention, along with the persistent challenges of globalization and poverty.

For an institution centered on the Eucharist and defined by a sharp distinction between clergy and laypeople, the shortage of priests is potentially devastating. "The Catholic Church wouldn't be Catholic without the Eucharist and sacraments, and it can't have them without priests," says the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of America, a Catholic weekly.

Despite John Paul II's travels and inspiring persona, the number of priests worldwide remains the same as at the start of his pontificate, while the Catholic population has grown by 40 percent.

In North America, there is one priest for every 1,300 parishioners. In South America, the ratio is one for every 7,000. The fact that priests in many places on that continent show up only once a month to say mass has helped spur the exodus to evangelicalism, researchers say.

Clergy and laypeople want the new pope to consider the possibility of married priests. "The next pope must acknowledge that providing the ... sacraments ... is more important than mandatory celibacy," Father Reese argues.

Perhaps the most difficult test facing the new pontiff will be how to devolve authority within the institution, an issue rankling church leaders around the world. John Paul put power back in the Vatican, clipping the wings of bishops conferences and local churches, stifling debate, and making it more difficult to adapt practices to local cultural contexts.

"Problems differ in various parts of the world, and people want less intrusion from Rome in their affairs," says Paul Lakeland, professor of religion at Fairfield University in Connecticut. "People on the right and on the left both want that."

The balance of power between the Vatican and bishops - what in the church is called "collegiality" - is seen as a prime issue for cardinals in this week's voting.

Some Catholics say it's time to consider electing bishops at the local level, a practice that occurred in earlier periods in the church. Others suggest that devolution should include more responsible involvement of the laity.

In today's atmosphere of global tensions, the new pope will have to decide how best to build on his predecessor's monumental efforts in interfaith relations. By most accounts, Islam tops the agenda. Catholic communities face difficult encounters with Islam in Africa and elsewhere, and it's crucial for the church to reach some kind of modus vivendi.

John Paul met more than 50 times with Muslim leaders, and won appreciation in the Muslim world by showing respect for the faith. He apologized for past errors, visited a mosque, and when a Koran was given to him, he kissed it. And unlike some Protestant preachers, he stated that Christians and Muslims pray to one God.

"He saw his dialogue as work of peace-building," says Diana Eck of Harvard University, who participated in interfaith discussions with the Vatican.

Some critics in and outside the Vatican now argue for a tougher line, and acknowledgment of the religious rivalry with Islam. They say it's time for Muslim leaders to provide some guarantees on religious freedom for Christians.

Whether the new pontiff sees relations as simply managing religious competition or building new modes of cooperation has implications far beyond the church, says William Vendley, head of Religions for Peace, which has worked with the Vatican on interfaith endeavors for decades.

George Weigel, a prominent US Catholic and papal biographer, suggested in a January talk that the lessons learned from the church's own journey toward the acceptance of democracy and religious freedom - a journey it did not complete until 1965 - might be useful to Muslims.

Whether the new pope comes from the developing world or not, he will be expected to emphasize the issues most troubling that region - poverty, HIV/AIDS, and the inequities related to globalization.

Catholicism's center of gravity has shifted southward, and church leaders there seek concrete action on economic issues. Polls show that large numbers of Catholics in the developed world also want a greater focus on poverty.

John Paul spoke and wrote eloquently on these issues, but he cracked down on the grass-roots efforts of Catholic clergy to address injustices through liberation theology. The next pontiff faces the test of going beyond denouncing the problems to developing specific proposals.

Similarly, in Africa, where the church is growing most rapidly, some critics say its singular focus on abstinence has done little to thwart the AIDS epidemic Some look for policy changes, such as allowing husbands with HIV to use condoms.

The late pope raised the bar for the papacy on communication skills; but the new leader will have to best John Paul in the realm of communicating the relevance of church teachings for the 21st century. He was not able to sell his teachings on sexuality and family matters to most American Catholics, or keep Europeans from drifting further into secularism.

Conservatives look for a communicator who can articulate John Paul II's theology more effectively. Others insist that progress will only come by opening up discussion on a host of issues, including birth control, divorce, homosexuality, and the role of women and the laity.

"We need a pope who is willing to listen to all voices in the church before making a decision," Reese says.

How the new pope addresses the role of women holds tremendous import for the church's future, many say. Women's issues are at the heart of the survival of the American church, according to Sr. Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun and prominent US writer. In a talk last week in Rome, she charged that Vatican authorities had downgraded women's role in recent years, with many being removed from official capacities in dioceses.

The church sees the biotech revolution as a profound challenge to its theology of a "culture of life." It has opposed in vitro fertilization, cloning, and stem-cell research.

Mr. Weigel suggests the church should help develop a new vocabulary for the debate on legal and regulatory standards. Today's moral vocabulary, he says, "is a popularized form of utilitarianism - a utilitarianism reinforced by misplaced notions of compassion, on the one hand, and by scientific hubris, on the other."

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