Church's Global Agenda Includes Economics, Islam and Science
Published: April 4, 2005
he next pope faces challenges so urgent that many church leaders and analysts worry that even a pope with the charisma and capacity of John Paul II will have to resort to a strategy of triage.
The rich nations pose one set of concerns: the Roman Catholic Church is withering in Europe, the continent that once supplied it with priests, cathedrals and intellect, while in the United States, the church is self-consciously struggling to make its message relevant in a materialistic society where even religion is market driven.
The poorer countries pose a different set of concerns: in Latin America, home to 4 of every 10 Catholics in the world, priests say they cannot compete with the exuberant, proliferating evangelical and Pentecostal churches. In Africa and Asia, growing Catholic populations often live uneasily among Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists.
The Roman Catholic Church is, more than ever, a global institution with global problems. With more than one billion members, amounting to half the world's Christians and 17 percent of the world's population, it is the largest and wealthiest religious or charitable institution on the planet.
But the biggest concerns of the new century - the turmoil within the Muslim world and the explosive shift of economic power to India and China - did not draw the focus of John Paul. As he proved, the church's leader is capable of changing the course of history. But the church has to make choices.
"One question that the leadership of the church has to ask itself," said Christopher M. Bellitto, academic editor at Paulist Press, a large Catholic publishing house, "is will it invest most of its time and money and energy in what we used to call the third world, or will it try to pull Europe and North America back from the materialism that John Paul II said was the curse of capitalism?"
The choice may be embodied in the choice of a new pope. In the weeks leading up to the conclave, the cardinals will be discussing among themselves not only who should lead, but what the church's priorities are. If they choose a candidate from Africa, or more likely, Latin America, it may signal that their primary concern is with the church in the Southern Hemisphere. Or they could choose a pope from Europe because he can speak convincingly to the West about its growing religious indifference.
Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson said, "As a church I think we're kind of tired, and I think we've lost a little bit of our confidence." The church in the United States, and in countries like Austria and Ireland, is still reeling from the revelations of sexual abuse by priests. Bishop Kicanas's own diocese declared bankruptcy in the face of mounting lawsuits by people asserting abuse.
He says he regularly meets Catholics who are hungry for spiritual teaching but skeptical that the Catholic Church actually lives what it preaches. The major challenge facing the church is, he said, "to articulate the message of the faith in a way that's actually influential and convincing to people."
The most pressing problem facing the church, said Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, is "the secularity of our society, the passivity of people with regard to things of God."
In the third world, the church does not face the problem of making Christianity relevant. By serving the poor, refugees or people with AIDS, by speaking out on corruption, deforestation or global debt relief, churches are engaged in peoples' lives.
A crucial and delicate challenge for the next pope is relations with Islam at a time when militant Islam is on the rise. The church under John Paul focused its major interfaith and ecumenical initiatives on mending relations with Jews and Orthodox Christianity. But now the most urgent interfaith dialogue must be with Muslims, said Daniel Thompson, a theology and religious studies professor at Fordham University.
"There are many countries in the world where the Christian and Muslim populations are at odds with each other," he said. "The south of the Philippines is dominated by a Muslim majority and the northern part is Catholic. There are tensions there."
There are disagreements among Catholic theologians, he said, about how to engage with Muslims, and which Muslims to engage. Some theologians want to acknowledge that "there has been a lot of historical damage wrought by people in the name of Christianity on the Muslim people," Mr. Thompson said, while others believe the focus should be on the wrongs perpetrated by Muslim extremists more recently. The next pope should help the church set a clear direction, he said.
The church is also struggling to respond to the rapid developments in science and biotechnology. Cloning, stem-cell research and new possibilities for genetic screening and selection will all be a test of how to apply the church's moral teaching on the sanctity of life. Vatican conferences have taken up these questions, but the church will need a pope not only conversant with the issues, but also driven by a clear vision on how to apply church teaching to these 21st century developments.
George Weigel, senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a Catholic theologian, said in a January speech, "Many cardinal-electors have the sense that the world has, at best, a 10-to-20-year window in which to build the legal and regulatory structures necessary to channel humanity's new genetic knowledge, and its marriage to technology, in directions that will lead to healing and genuine human flourishing rather than to Huxley's nightmare."
The problem in Latin America, and among Hispanics in the United States, is the proliferation of Pentecostal churches with their exuberant worship services and ability to provide instant social networks for rural residents looking for work in cities.
The evangelical and Pentecostal churches in Latin America are often powered by lay pastors, outnumbering Catholic clergy who must be ordained and make a lifelong commitment to the church and to celibacy.
Mary Gautier, senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, said the priest shortage is global: "Relative to the rest of the world, the United States is in very good shape. South and Central America are very Catholic cultures, but people wait years to get their babies baptized. They may see a priest only once a year. They don't have access to the sacraments the way we expect to. If Americans can't get communion on Sunday we think there's something drastically wrong with our church."
While the church has grown by a quarter of a billion people during John Paul's 26-year papacy, the number of priests worldwide is about 400,000 - almost exactly the same as when he started his globe-trotting evangelization campaign. Where should the church send newly ordained priests when they are needed everywhere?
Bishop Ricardo Ramírez, who serves the priest-poor diocese of Las Cruces, New Mexico, said, "I've asked my bishop friends in Mexico to send me priests, and they say 'We'll keep you in mind, but right now our dioceses are growing and our cities are growing and we need all the priests we are getting.' "
Another challenge facing a global church is how much autonomy priests and bishops should be given to adapt church teaching and liturgy to their own cultures. After the second Vatican Council of the early 1960's, the plan was for greater regional autonomy from Rome. But John Paul recentralized church authority.
When the bishops from Asia held a synod in Rome in 1998, some of them confronted their colleagues in the Vatican with the autonomy issue, said the Rev. Peter C. Phan, a professor of Catholic social thought at Georgetown University. The bishop from Japan asked what was the point of composing all liturgical texts in Latin, then sending them to be translated to Japan, only to send them back to Rome for approval by Vatican officials who could not read Japanese.
"The second thing on their minds is married clergy," Father Phan said. "They have been asking for the possibility of married clergy because in Asia the number of priests is small. And Rome simply does not answer."
The question of whether local culture can be integrated into church practices, and if so how much, goes back to the 15th century, Professor Thompson of Fordham said. With the centralization of authority in the Vatican under John Paul, how much autonomy to permit local bishops has again become a pressing issue, he said.
"That is a question that goes from St. Patrick's in New York all the way to Bangkok," Professor Thompson said.
The Rev. Ian T. Douglas, professor of world mission and global Christianity at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., said, "When the Catholic Church was simply a Mediterranean church or a Western European church, it was a lot easier to know the limits of authority."
"You knew who's in and who's out," he said, "belief structures, tenets, doctrinal understandings. Now you have all these cultures, languages and peoples trying to find their way within a common fellowship."
Neela Banerjee and Andy Newman contributed reporting for this article.