A choice and a challenge

April 05, 2005

AFTER THE devoted pay their respects and after the church Pope John Paul II so admirably served buries him, cardinals from around the world will retire to the Sistine Chapel to choose his successor. In electing the next pope, the cardinals will set the Catholic Church's course for the first half of this century. Will they choose a man who continues John Paul II's intrepid papacy or one who complements it?

Will they elect a cardinal from the Third World, home to most of the world's billion Catholics, or return the papal seat to an Italian? Will the next pope maintain a close hold on power or share it with his bishops? Will the choice surprise us, as in October 1978, with the election of the Polish-born Karol J. Wojtyla?

The hand of John Paul II will surely be felt in this process: He appointed all but three of the 117 members of the College of Cardinals eligible to vote. But the realities of the church in today's world should guide their deliberations. A quarter of the world's Catholics live in Latin America, where evangelical Christian denominations zealously practice. The fastest-growing sector resides in Africa, where church opposition to contraceptives runs counter to the public health needs of millions facing the AIDS pandemic. Poverty, economic disparity and disease plague these continents and demand the church's continuing attention.

The next pope needs to recognize the influence of Islam in the world, its impact on Christians in South Asia and begin a dialogue with Muslim leaders. As for church governance, the pope's death affords an opportunity for the Vatican to share more power with its bishops. That could encourage more activism and participation among America's 60 million Catholics, an issue raised by the laity after the church's sexual abuse scandal here. A more decentralized church also would benefit bishops elsewhere in the world, empowering them to react responsibly to parochial concerns.

It's unlikely that the next pope will change course on birth control and abortion, but he may be forced to consider modifying celibacy because of the shortage of priests worldwide and a particular dearth of them in Latin America. The next pope could send a powerful message to the laity by appointing a woman to lead a sacred congregation that oversees religious life or Catholic education.

But first, the cardinals will have to decide the role of the church at this moment in history, and then choose the man most suited to the challenge.

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