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Taking stock of the church's challenges.

Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, in an interview three days before the funeral for Pope John Paul II, insisted that, at least in his experience, cardinals were not yet talking about specific candidates to be the next pope. Instead, he said, they were trying to take stock of the issues facing the church in different parts of the world.

"It's very premature to be talking about a specific leader," Mahony said during an April 5 interview on CNN. "We're trying to get a fix on what the state of the church is now."

What are those challenges?

In conversations with cardinals, not just in these days but over the last several years, three seem to loom largest.


Part of what happens in this "taking stock" period is an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the pontificate that has just ended. Many cardinals believe that John Paul II was a magnificent evangelist and apostle, a towering moral authority and a genius at communications. The price of all that, however, was a certain inattention to the internal governance of the Catholic church. In the inevitable balance between matters ad extra and ad intra, outside and inside the church, some cardinals believe the next pope will need to focus a bit more on internal business.

For some, this means a reform of the papacy and especially the Roman curia, decentralizing the distribution of power, allowing regional and national bishops' conferences and local dioceses more room to work out matters on their own. Bishops from the developing world express this in terms of "inculturation," meaning allowing local churches to express the rituals, pastoral practices and disciplines of the church in the idiom of their own culture, rather than follow ing a uniform Roman model. In the developed world, the argument often takes the form of the need for more collaborative and ecumenical models of leadership, including greater empowerment of women and laity.

For others, however, what's needed is a pope who will take matters into his own hands more rather than less, a pope who will exercise tighter control over the curia to ensure that its various departments are on the same page, who will take a greater personal role in the appointment of bishops and other vital Vatican business. They would also see the need for greater consistency in the application of policies; it's not enough to discipline one theologian on matters of sexual morality, they say, or to reprimand one parish for liturgical abuses, if the same teaching or same practices goes on in many other places without consequence. These cardinals would also like to see the pope take a more personal role in supervising bishops, in part driven by the experience of the sexual abuse scandals in the United States and elsewhere.


Given that almost half the 117 cardinals who, will elect John Paul's successor are European, the realities of Europe tend to loom large in their imaginations. The picture is not a pretty one for the Catholic church. A runaway form of secularity has forged a post-Christian environment, so much so that the European Parliament would not even mention God in the preamble of its new constitution. Birth rates are plummeting, Mass attendance rates are at all-time lows, vocations to the priesthood and religious life are scarce, and the church's capacity to shape culture is weak.

"What's happened to the church in Europe?" Mahony asked. "Why such low attendance? why is there no renewal? why is there no excitement? These are all issues we have to look at," he said.

Again, diagnosis is easier than cure. One school of thought among the cardinals believes that the church cannot relate to secularity, especially in Europe, without internal reform. The church must speak the language of democracy, human rights, accountability and transparency, they believe, before it can be a credible dialogue partner for a secularized world. Others, however, think the crisis is not one of structures, but of nerve. The church must be bold, proclaiming and living the full package of Catholic teaching. They believe that this teaching expresses eternal truths about human nature, and they will eventually prevail.


In the post-9/11 world, virtually everyone recognizes that the relationship between Islam and the West will have a great deal to do with the kind of world that takes shape in coming years. For better or worse, the pope is widely perceived as the CEO of the Christian world, and hence his approach to the Christian/Islamic relationship is critical in shaping Islamic attitudes. John Paul was sensitive to this; he met with Muslims some 60 times, and he was the first pope to enter a mosque, which he did in Damascus in 2001.

One school of thought holds that the next pope should reach out to moderate Islam, avoiding anything that smacks of confrontation, and strive to address the social justice issues that are at the roots of Islamic terrorism. Others, however, believe that the short-term future is likely to hold as much conflict as dialogue, especially in zones such as northern Africa and Asia, where Christianity and Islam rub shoulders. The church should therefore pursue a policy of "tough love." One watchword for this camp is "reciprocity." If the Saudi Arabian government can spend millions of dollars to build a mosque in Rome, for example, then Christians ought to be able to build churches in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, this group worries about accelerating Muslim immigration in Europe. The fear is that the cradle of Christian civilization may one day become an outpost of the Islamic world.

Of course, many cardinals would add other concerns to this list: the need for the church in Latin America to cope with the evangelical "sects" cutting into traditional Catholic populations; Asian Catholicism's ongoing struggle to figure out a theological rationale for its relationship with the other great religions of that region, especially Hinduism and Buddhism; the reality of global poverty and injustice; and the challenges of biotechnology, continually confronting the church's moral reflection to keep up with science.

Whoever is the next pope will obviously find a lot of work waiting on his desk.

[John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is]
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Title Annotation:JOHN PAUL II: AN ERA ENDS
Author:Allen, John L., Jr.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Apr 15, 2005
Previous Article:Who gives the bishop counsel?
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