Authors disagree on papacy's challenges

Catholic Courier    |    12.20.2009
Category: Columns


The papacy, unlike the presidency of the United States, has no term limits. The only term limitation for the current pope, John Paul II, is the state of his health. He will remain pope until his death, and that event is entirely in God's hands.

The issues that will face the next pope and the conclave that will elect him do not change from year to year, even if individual commentators disagree on what those issues are and how they should be prioritized.

Two recent lists are typical. One is the work of John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, and the other is by George Weigel, the author of a widely read biography of John Paul II, entitled Witness to Hope.

The first issue, according to Allen, is collegiality. A number of cardinals, he reports, are concerned that the "power of Rome in the 19th and 20th centuries over the local churches was expanded to an unprecedented degree, and that various attempts to inject balance have been largely unsuccessful."

Others, however, are less concerned about the process of recentralization of authority in the Vatican and believe that a strong papacy is essential in a world fraught with secularism, relativism and various nationalisms that threaten the unity of the church.

What Allen and his Vatican sources do not mention explicitly is the process by which bishops themselves are selected and promoted within the hierarchy. Until this issue is effectively addressed, no reform of the curia and no effort to insure the autonomy of bishops in their own dioceses and to enhance their role in the governance of the universal church will make any significant difference.

The pastoral quality of the bishops themselves is the primary issue, not how they interact with one another or with Rome.

Not surprisingly, collegiality does not appear on George Weigel's list. Unlike many other lay people -- not to mention cardinals, bishops, priests, religious and theologians -- Weigel has been supportive of the current pontificate's recentralization of authority in Rome.

According to Allen, the second issue on the minds of the cardinal-electors is evangelization. Although the Catholic Church has made "impressive gains" in Africa, Latin America and Asia, "the traditional cradle of Catholic culture in Europe is experiencing an ecclesiastical winter." How to revitalize the church in the developed world will be among the heavier challenges facing the next pope.

Weigel places the same issue under a narrower heading: the "collapsing Catholicism in Europe."

Neither mentions the so-called "new evangelization," which is identified with movements on the right end of the ecclesiastical spectrum, such as Opus Dei, Comunione e Liberazione and the Legion of Christ. Many Catholics regard these as ecclesially divisive rather than evangelically constructive. Will they continue to be accorded free play in the next pontificate?

Allen's third issue coincides with Weigel's, namely Islam. Some cardinals, Allen reports, think it important to reach out to moderates in the Islamic community, while the more hawkish think that the church must stand its ground and defend the rights of the church in Muslim countries, demanding reciprocity for religious freedom in the West.

Neither Allen nor Weigel, however, cautions against the danger of anti-Semitism.

The commentators also do not mention the sexual-abuse scandal, which raises fundamental questions about vocational recruitment, seminary education, the supervision of priests and obligatory celibacy.

The next pope will have to deal with this ongoing and spreading crisis.

Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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