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The Upcoming Challenges for the New Pope and Catholic Church

April 18, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The Roman Catholic Church and challenges to the Church grew in the twenty-six and a half years since John Paul II became pope. Most of the growth in parishioners took place outside of the United States and Europe.

Monsignor Phillip Machado was 16 when Pope John Paul II ‘s visit to Bombay inspired him to enter the priesthood.

MONSIGNOR FELIX MACHADO: In the underdeveloped and developing countries, because people are in minority who are Christians and because it is of recent coming, there is that zeal and there is that enthusiasm to live all dimensions of that Christian faith.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But with diversity has come a diversity of issues, according to Monsignor Liam Bergin of the Pontifical Irish College in Rome.

MONSIGNOR LIAM BERGIN: If you are a Christian in Africa, your main concern is about enculturation: How you can be a Christian and still, say, be a Nigerian or be, you know, Congolese or Ghanaian, whatever it is. If you’re from Latin America, your concern is going to be how can we talk about the love of Jesus Christ in a situation of oppression and injustice? If you’re from Asia, your concern is going to be about inter-religious dialogue. In Europe, I think, where we — it’s a post-Christian context.

So how do we talk about Church and Jesus Christ in a context where many people have stopped believing or have abandoned, if you like, institution religion? I think the feminist issues are stronger in the U.S. than they may be in other parts of the world. So whoever the new pope is, he is bishop of Rome, but pope for the world and he’ll have to balance the concerns of the continents and of the peoples.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: In much of the developing world, Catholicism also is coming into conflict with Islam. Abdellah Redouane, secretary general of the Islamic Cultural Center and Mosque in Rome, the largest in the western world, was one of two Islamic leaders invited to attend the pope’s funeral.

Last year he was one of the first Muslims to meet with Pope John Paul as a member of the Committee for Inter-Religious Dialogue.

ABDELLAH REDOUANE: After his death, we have the impression that he insisted to see us together. Like the last message for him to encourage us to continue.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: What would you like to see in a new pope?

ABDELLAH REDOUANE: I hope that they will continue the dialogue between religious peoples and cultures. That’s the most important for us, and I think it’s the best way to live together.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Monsignor Macahado agrees that building bridges is essential, but he also thinks the fervor of Islam should make Christians revitalize their own faith.

Is there concern over the spread of Islam?

MONSIGNOR MACAHADO: Well, if there is concern, it is not in the sense of threat and competition. The concern is how our Christians can live their faith with the zeal with which they are called to live their faith. So that history doesn’t repeat, as it were, we as Christians take very seriously the commandment of Jesus to evangelize the world. This is primary duty of every Christian, to be a missionary, as they say.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: As do Muslims take it very seriously.

MONSIGNOR MACAHADO: They also take it very seriously. That’s why I think, you know, the Church’s first reaction is to kind of revitalize its own life.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: In the West, Francis Cardinal George, the archbishop of Chicago, says the threat to the Church comes more from secularism.

CARDINAL FRANCIS GEORGE: Religion is a hobby now in the United States for a great many people. It’s something you do in your spare time. It’s not something that is a way of life that integrates everything else. Really we’ve got a problem of addressing a culture that, like the culture 2,000 years ago right here where the Church was born accepts abortion, accepts homosexual sexual relations as not morally problematic, accepts suicide and euthanasia. The Church is used to talking about those things; we’ve been talking about them for 2,000 years.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But for many Americans who split with the Church over the sexual abuse scandals, the Church must first get its own house in order. Barbara Blaine came to Rome to protest the fact that Cardinal Bernard Law was leading a mass. He’d been at the center of the abuse scandal in Boston. Blaine thinks the next pope will have to deal with even more accusations of abuse.

BARBARA BLAINE: Survivors in other countries are coming forward in large numbers now as we have never seen before, and right now it seems as though the majority are coming from the developed nations as well as English speaking nations. And we believe that when there’s an environment where victims can feel safe, we think that more will come forward.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Many Catholics in the United States also have questioned the Church’s refusal to ordain women. A recent Gallup Poll showed 55 percent saying women should be allowed to become priests. Italian journalist Vittorio Zucconi says there’s a practical reason for allowing women into the priesthood.

VITTORIO ZUCCONI: The number of priests is dwindling dramatically. There are churches all over Europe that are without a priest, where there are nuns who are celebrating whatever they can without becoming, of course, heretics or being excommunicated. They’re giving out Communion; they’re handling the Church’s duties. So people are aware of the fact that there are not enough young men who become priests who enter the seminaries.

SISTER MARY ANN WALSH: I think most women right now aren’t going to be fighting for something that’s not going to happen, not in the foreseeable future.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Sister Mary Ann Walsh, deputy director for media relations for the U.S. Council of Bishops, thinks instead of fighting for women priests, effort should be made to double the number of women in diocese leadership roles. She says the glass ceiling in the Church is no different than that in any other business.

SISTER MARY ANN WALSH: Oh, it’s clearly not unique to the Catholic Church. You can tell that. Read the business pages. When they have a woman, it’s a major, humongous story because it is such an unusual thing to have a woman heading any major corporation.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Sister Mary Ann credits the late pope with giving women more of a role in the Church and recognizing their special gifts. So does Jennifer Miller, an American studying theology in Rome, a student of what she calls Catholic feminism.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: As you look at all the pageantry that’s going on, as the pope’s body was processed through St. Peter’s Square, I couldn’t help but notice there were over 1,000 men in that procession. There was not one woman.

JENNIFER MILLER: What the Church says is that men and women work together complementarily with one another. And so while men may have a gift to do one thing, women have a gift to another, and it doesn’t degrade what women do. And I think in western society, it’s very hard for us to say this.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The next pope also will have to deal with the struggle over social issues.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The question that many women in the Church have had are around basic issues such as contraception, such as abortion. What is the Church’s answer to this now, and what will it be with the new pope?

JENNIFER MILLER: I think the Church’s — I think one of the misunderstandings that a lot of people have about the Church is thinking that we can just change the doctrine to soothe what we feel or how society is.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Yet in a recent ABC/Washington Post poll, 57 percent of American Catholics said the new pope should change Church policies to reflect the attitudes and lifestyles of Catholics today. In the Gallup Poll, 78 percent said the Church should allow birth control.

And the new pope will have to face issues raised by the advances in science his predecessors could never have dreamed of: Embryonic stem-cell research, in-vitro fertilization, human cloning, and questions of whether or not to use extraordinary medical interventions at the end of life.

VITTORIO ZUCCONI: This bio-medics and euthanasia, it’s the big question. It’s even bigger than the priesthood for women or the marriage of priests, of male priests, and the unfortunate tragic story of pedophilia and sexual molestation because the science are advancing so fast that they’re posing so many questions and they really do not know how to answer.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But Church leaders cast the crisis in positive terms. Father Richard Gill of the Institute of Psychological Sciences in Baltimore is on a year’s sabbatical studying in Rome.

THE REVEREND RICHARD GILL: Well, I think if you want to use “crisis” in the classical sense, it’s a moment of opportunity. That’s what the word really means; it’s a defining moment. I think the Church teaching though is really the way of a solution for it.

All these new technologies come in, they make us really reflect on some of the real good that can be done in medical science to preserve human life. But we really have to balance it against the value of human life as well.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The challenges facing the Roman Catholic are vast. The cardinals will stay in conclave until they decide who will best meet those challenges and become the next pope.