Wed, Oct 08, 2003 - Page 16 News List

Challenges ahead for Roman Catholics

REUTERS , PARIS

In his quarter-century at the head of the world's billion Roman Catholics, Pope John Paul II has led an unflagging campaign to assert Vatican orthodoxy amid cheers from traditionalists and groans from Church liberals.

The Polish pontiff has filled almost all the seats in the College of Cardinals with like-minded men, stacking the odds in favor of another staunch conservative following him.

As the fourth-longest papacy in history nears its end, the passion that marked the clashes with his critics has calmed considerably but the divisions remain. Unfinished business will have to wait for the next man to resolve.

At the Vatican, some even wonder whether John Paul's long papacy may have helped the Church ride out the storm that his reemphasis on orthodoxy whipped up after the reformist phase launched by the 1962 to 1965 Second Vatican Council.

``I think the Church would have been left more divided if he had died 10 or 15 years ago,'' one Vatican source said. ``I wonder if he has not worn them all out. There is a new generation of people who look at things in a different way.''

But even a moderate like German Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the Vatican's office for relations with other Christian churches, sees a gap between the Church and the faithful.

``It will not be very easy for the next pope,'' he told the British Catholic weekly The Tablet last year. He noted a ``tension in many points between the official doctrines of the Church and what is received and lived within the Church.''

Following are several main issues facing the next pope.

North-South rift

The Church's center of gravity shifted during the last century from Europe to the Third World, with 62 percent of all Catholics now in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

The churches of the ``global South'' take a more activist stand for social justice and Third World debt relief than Northerners. But they are generally more orthodox on issues such as celibacy, liturgical rituals and the role of women in the Church.

The question now is whether a more ``Southern'' Church would alienate those ``Northerners'' hoping for more liberal policies after the long conservative papacy of John Paul II.

Dwindling ranks

Over the next 10 to 20 years, the Church's aging clergy faces a dramatic drop in its ranks as priests die or retire. The average age of a Catholic priest now is over 60.

The number of parishes without a resident priest is climbing worldwide, most quickly in developed countries. The total in the US jumped from 702 in 1975 to 3,040 this year.

Liberals say traditional rules discourage vocations and call for reforms including married and women priests. Conservatives blame the drop on modernizing reforms and say the Church has to become more orthodox and more Catholic to attract new priests.

Celibacy

The clergy shortage and the scandal of priests sexually abusing children in the US, Ireland and several European countries has prompted reformers to urge an end to the ancient tradition of priestly celibacy.

But the Church values celibacy as a gift from God that frees priests to devote their lives fully to serve Him. It believes personal faults and not celibacy drive errant priests to sin.

While no change of celibacy is expected in the foreseeable future, reformers think the Vatican could agree to ordain viri probati [Latin for men of proven character]. They would be middle aged or older, with grown-up families if married.

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