Monday, April 04, 2005


John Paul II's passing is a historic landmark in many ways, not only in that it marks the end of an era for the church, but one of a very history-making figure. There was something anyone could find to like about John Paul II, and also something everyone could find not to like. His bold positions in a crusade against the death penalty and the Iraq War (or war in general, for the most part), married to his dedication to activist reductions in global poverty and debt relief with frequent criticisms of "savage" capitalism and its materialism endeared him to liberals and leftists, and rubbed many conservatives the wrong way. His equally daring frontal attacks on communism and staunch stances against abortion, euthanasia, stem-cell research, and birth control had conservatives cheering and liberals whining. The man was, as repeated ad nauseam on "Meet the Press" yesterday, a true independent that followed what the scriptures said and how he interpreted them without a care for any of the world's politicians or public opinion. His given position on anything was bound to please some and infuriate others. With so many fans, both fawning and grudging, the next Pope is going to have his hands full of disputes and really big shoes to fill.

The challenges facing the church are ginormous, and not just from secular Western types who are vainly hoping the Catholic Church will revise its stance on the pro-choice end (which will never, ever ever ever happen). For my money, here are the big ones: biotechnology, the decline of Catholicism in the West, Protestant competition, the priest shortage, and the war on terror. First, there's biotech. Already the church grapples with the issue of stem-cells, and it's only going to get worse. Besides obvious cartoon monsters like cloning, the biotech industry is going to churn out more and more troubling developments, things like anti-aging drugs, enhanced gene therapy, nano-technology driven medicine. All of these things are going to raise troubling questions of how much the use of technology and medicine in transforming the human race and people are "playing God." The Church is going to have to be savvy enough to see these problems and formulate its positions without being seen as obsolete. Second are the decline of Catholicism in the West and Protestant competition, pretty much taken together. In Europe the Catholic church is dying, and in America amid the scandals of priest abuse and diocese bankruptcies it's at the very best stagnating. Part of this is because of the explosion of the evangelical movement, which is also exploding in the developing world at a rate that threatens the headway the Catholicism has made there. Especially Pentecostals. Taken with the shortage of priests, this is a serious problem to the Vatican.

The shortage of priests issue is its own dilemma. Do they allow married men to become priests? Do they allow priests to get married? For ages the church allowed it, and when competing with Protestant traditions that allow ministers to get married, it's a tougher choice. A vote in the 70s by the Bishops showed a majority favoring already-married men to be ordained as Priests, especially older men who have already had a family and raised children. This may be the only way to get around the shortage when those in the developing and developed world suffer a constant lack of priests. Lastly, the War on Terror provokes a serious challenge to the Church. How far does it carry its opposition to war? The "just war" doctrine in theology is constantly strained, and with each new conflict the Church will be thrown in the middle and have its traditional pacifist leanings called into question. Relations with Islam is also a trickier question. How much outreach should there be? How much criticism? That Catholicism and Islam have a rocky history is probably the king of understatements. The new Pope will inherit all of this and more, and the Vatican will need a figure as strong and savvy as John Paul II, if not more, to pull it off.