jason berry author

Change challenges the church

On a November evening in 2002, I received the OK from a guard at the Vatican City walls and strolled to the apartment building where Cardinal Achille Silvestrini lived.

For a cardinal, sometimes, you have to wait. But after 15 minutes, Silvestrini welcomed me up.

A former Vatican diplomat, Silvestrini had worked on human rights issues; he also presided at the funeral of producer and director Federico Fellini, calling him a "lord of images." I asked him about the wisdom of maintaining the celibacy law, how to replenish the priesthood, how to restore the church in Western countries rocked by sexual abuses.

As Pope John Paul II has said, Silvestrini told me, celibacy was a gift from God. Scandal tarnished Protestant congregations when ministers divorced, and married men committed most child abuse, he said.

I had heard these rationalizations before. More intriguing was what Silvestrini did not say. Several cardinals in the Curia Romana had lashed out, blaming the American media and lawyers for the abuse crisis.

Not Silvestrini.

He gave the party line but showed the nuances of a realist, conveyed in sighs, and a shift of shoulders, suggesting sorrow at the evidence of things unsaid.

At 82, Silvestrini is too old to vote in the conclave that begins April 18. That is a shame; his wisdom would serve them well.

The Roman Catholic Church is the largest in the world, with a billion members, but it faces challenges that threaten the participation of those who call themselves Catholic in many countries.

Church attendance among the nominally Roman Catholic countries in Europe has been declining for decades. In France, for example, it is estimated that only about 6 percent of Catholics attend weekly mass.

Sex abuse scandal

In the United States, the church faces another version of that same challenge.

Membership is up as immigration pumps millions of faithful into the country from the Southern Hemisphere, but American Catholics continue to wrestle with the fallout from the sexual abuse scandal.

The priest shortage is so severe that many parishes have no pastor. The U.S. church also wrestles with sweeping cultural changes that touch on everything from social participation to sexual ethics, identity and behaviors.

In the Southern Hemisphere, Catholicism finds itself in stiff competition with evangelical religions that have been growing amid strong missionary efforts.

In some areas of Latin America, too, there are severe shortages of priests. The same pressures play out in Africa.

The situation seems to demand some flexibility from an institution that has never looked on flexibility as an asset.

But change is not easily accomplished at the top of the Catholic hierarchy.

Most of the voting cardinals are concerned about collegiality, an ethos of papal authority shared with national bishops' conferences. The curia is historically the gatekeeper between a pope and bishops.

But under John Paul, the curia became a cement wall.

In 1989, he called U.S. archbishops to Rome, where curial officials scolded them for granting too many marriage annulments.

They also raised their eyebrows at the Americans' pioneering pastoral letter on issues of war and peace, forged by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago.

A passive approach

John Paul cracked down in a 1998 decree that "gutted the principle of collegiality," Eugene Kennedy wrote in a Religion News Service column. Bishops' conferences now submit pastoral letters to Rome for vetting. Yet on the worst crisis the bishops faced, Rome stood passive, offering no leadership as abuse scandals surfaced in the 1990s.

The cardinals will want to select a colleague untainted by those issues.

They may also want a pope to govern less in John Paul's style as an absolute monarch and more in the spirit of Pope John XXIII, who convened the reform-minded 1960s Second Vatican Council, the epitome of collegiality.

Accepting consultation from bishops will be pivotal if the new pope is to revive Catholic identity in lands where evangelical Protestants are cutting deep inroads amid unresolved tensions in the Latin American church.

In that church, a movement called Liberation Theology took root in the 1970s; priests and bishops allied themselves with "base communities" in urban slums, heeding the Latin bishops' 1968 call to uplift the poor.

A kind of class warfare immediately erupted. Pope John Paul II and Joseph Ratzinger, the cardinal in charge of doctrine, viewed Liberation Theology as Marxism. One of its proponents, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, was assassinated in 1983.

As the Latin cardinals confront poverty wrought by globalization, they view Europe, ironically, as a civilization to be evangelized anew. Mass attendance has plummeted across the continent; the attendance problem in France is so severe that that nation is viewed as territory for a new generation of Catholic missionaries.

They may be racing Islam for that territory.

Challenge from Islam

The cardinals share an urgency about Islam, which is spreading in Africa even as it takes root in huge immigrant communities in European cities.

Fortunately, John Paul's apology to the Islamic world for the Crusades and his opposition to the invasion of Iraq provide his successor with vital credibility in the Islamic world.

The church also faces that problem of coping with change in a modern world.

Two cardinals in the curia, theologian Ratzinger and the vicar of Rome, Camillio Ruini, are fixated on the impact of science.

They see abortion, birth-control devices, in vitro fertilization, stem cell research and euthanasia as existing on a shared plane of evil.

"No cease-fire in this battle is foreseen for the next pontificate," writes Sandro Magister, the authoritative religion writer for Italy's L'espresso.

"For Ruini, the anthropological question, the new epochal conflict over the conception of life and of man, will have an impact on our future, including the future of Christianity in the West, more profound and lasting than that of the worldwide conflict with Islamic terrorism."

He argues that Ratzinger believes the culture that has developed in today's Europe "constitutes the most radical contradiction, not only of Christianity, but also of the religious and moral traditions of all humanity."

Such fundamentalism may not represent a majority of Europe's cardinals, but it highlights the competing interests of science and moral teachings, poverty and the social gospel as the next pope is chosen.

Inside the conclave, the evidence of things unsaid may count more than assertions of a sweeping worldview shared only by some.