By JOHN THAVIS, CNS | Published April 5, 2007
Although Pope John Paul II leaves behind a legacy of pastoral accomplishments, his successor will also face a number of challenges in areas of church governance, missionary strategies and priestly ministry.
The challenges are expected to loom large in the cardinals’ daily discussions ahead of the conclave, where they will assess church priorities and begin to look at potential papal candidates.
Some of the discussion will focus on unfinished papal business, such as the ongoing tension between dialogue and mission, especially in countries where Christians are a minority.
The cardinals are also expected to examine ways to improve lay formation and counter dissent on church teachings about sexuality and marriage, and they will no doubt take a close look at the increasing pastoral burden on priests and the implications for the church’s 1.08 billion members.
Based on interviews, speeches and cardinals’ meetings in recent years, here are six themes that many see as crucial for the next pope:
– Collegiality and church governance. At almost every major meeting of bishops and cardinals in recent years—most notably at the last discussion assembly of cardinals in 2001—some of the most interesting debate was on how the universal church relates to local churches.
It is clear that some bishops are not completely happy with the level of cooperation they receive from offices of the Roman Curia. They have asked for more input on things like selection of bishops and preparation of Vatican documents and more flexibility in matters like liturgical translations.
Some think the Synod of Bishops should be overhauled to make it a more open and influential forum for discussion. Others note that Pope John Paul was never much of a hands-on manager of Vatican affairs; they say the church would be well served by someone able to pull the reins of the Roman Curia when necessary.
– “Clash of civilizations.” This clash is not the tensions between the Muslim world and the West, but what cardinals see as the growing gap between popular Western culture and traditional Christian values.
Cardinals meeting in 2001 spoke candidly about the difficulty of proclaiming the Gospel in pluralistic societies where religion is no longer passed on from generation to generation. The phenomenon is internal as well as external, since many Catholics do not understand or accept church teachings on some controversial issues.
Church leaders say the problem is especially evident in European and North American society; they point to legal abortion, a growing acceptance of euthanasia and legislative efforts to approve same-sex marriage.
But the issue also resonates among cardinals from developing countries, where sterilization and contraception campaigns have drawn sharp church criticism. Some fear globalization is helping to spread secular values to the Third World.
Many church leaders believe Pope John Paul did a good job spelling out the moral arguments behind church teachings and drawing clear lines on dissent. They say the challenge that remains is to educate the Catholic laity and encourage them to accept and live those teachings, which will ultimately have a greater social impact than pronouncements by the hierarchy.
– Mission, witness and dialogue. In the second half of Pope John Paul’s pontificate, the Vatican emphasized that evangelization means proclaiming Jesus Christ as the unique savior, even in places where Christians are a small minority.
Many local bishops would place the emphasis elsewhere—on dialogue and witness as the most effective ways of communicating the Christian faith. That is especially true in Asia, a continent considered prime evangelizing terrain but where efforts to date have been somewhat disappointing to the Vatican.
The debate has taken on a new dimension in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the so-called “war on terrorism,” as minority Christian communities try to achieve or maintain legal rights in countries where Muslim fundamentalism is spreading.
Given all that, the cardinals’ assessment on this issue could have important consequences for the future path of inter-religious and ecumenical dialogue.
– Ordained ministry. Under Pope John Paul, the pastoral burden on priests increased dramatically; there was one priest for every 1,800 Catholics in 1978 and about one priest for every 2,700 Catholics in 2005. The ratio was even higher in many developing countries, where some Catholics have had to go without Mass or the sacraments for weeks at a time.
The situation has led a number of bishops to ask that the Vatican consider relaxing the priestly celibacy rule in the Western church. Few if any church leaders believe that the next pope will consider women’s ordination as an option, since Pope John Paul ruled it out in a definitive way.
A separate but related issue is the selection of priesthood candidates, which drew particular attention after the sex abuse scandals of recent years. Two Vatican documents long under preparation—one on psychological screening of seminary candidates and another on homosexuality—were left in suspension by the pope’s death.
– Bioethics. The moral questions raised by the rapid advances in science and technology are expected to multiply during the next papacy. While church teaching on the sanctity of life is clear, some of the issues—such as genetic therapy—involve complex questions of personal identity and biological integrity that theologians are only beginning to examine.
Pope John Paul responded by identifying practices and attitudes that threaten human life and by creating the Pontifical Academy for Life. A new pope may want to raise the academy’s profile and increase the level of expertise at the Vatican.
– Parish life and lay movements. Lay movements came into their own under Pope John Paul, growing in numbers and influence. But many bishops have questions, chief among them the ability of such movements to integrate themselves with local parish life.
The tension was perhaps best illustrated in the pope’s final year, when he singled out the Legionaries of Christ for high praise even as some U.S. bishops were banning the organization’s activities in their dioceses.
The cardinals’ discussions on this topic are expected to be lively, and the positions taken by potential papal candidates will be given careful attention by those going into the conclave.