The next pope will face many challenges, some of them unprecedented in the life of the church. While the papacy is not the church, it is difficult to overestimate the influence that a pope can have on the church. Certainly John Paul II had a tremendous impact on the church and the world at the end of the 20th century. The next pope could be just as important in shaping the church in the 21st century. The pope’s influence will shape both the internal life of the church and the church’s role in the world. What kind of world will the next pope face? It is a world where the cold war is over but nuclear weapons still abound. It is a world where wars between nations can still occur but where internal conflict and terrorism are growing phenomena. It is a world of glaring economic inequalities among nations and within states. Globalization of the economy and culture is having profound effects and bringing unforeseen consequences to every corner of the earth. In this shrinking world it is essential that Christians and members of other religions, especially Muslims, live at peace. It is a world that may face rising oceans and climatic dislocations because of global warming. It is a world where mass communications and advertising are driving the consumption of resources at an exponential rate. It is a world where technological developments promise extraordinary achievements and a better life but may also bring disasters unheard of in human history. It is a world where the human person is measured and quantified but not always respected.
In short, it is a world that cries out for a prophetic voice to encourage what is good, challenge what is evil and question what is taken for granted. The next pope must do this and also empower others in the church to do likewise. The Vatican must therefore respect and trust local bishops and bishops’ conferences. The church must return to a fuller collegiality that treats bishops as more than echoes for Vatican pronouncements.
The pope also faces many challenges in the internal life of the church. At the top of the list is the shortage of priests. The time for denial is over. There are not enough priests now, and the situation is only going to get worse. A church without sacraments is not Catholic. The next pope must acknowledge that providing the Eucharist and other sacraments to the Catholic community is more important than mandatory celibacy, although voluntary celibacy is a charism for which there will always be a place in the church.
The pope will also face a growing population of educated Catholic women who feel alienated from the church. In the 19th century, the church lost working-class European males because it was on the wrong side of history. Losing educated women in the 21st century will be even more problematic, since it is most often women who pass on the faith to the next generation as educators and mothers. The church has made much progress in the treatment of women since the Second Vatican Council, but a greater sensitivity on women’s issues must be a sine qua non for the pope or anyone who attains leadership in the church. Women’s ordination must be open for discussion.
During the last couple of decades, there have been too many issues taken off the discussion table. This has been very unhealthy for the church. By some estimates, over 100 theologians have been silenced or reprimanded by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
A church that cannot openly discuss issues is a church retreating into an intellectual ghetto. And the issues are many: birth control, divorce, women priests, married priests, homosexuality, the selection of bishops, the overcentralization of decision making in the Vatican, inclusive language, inculturation of the liturgy, catechetics, intercommunion and the role of the laity in church governance. There are no simple answers to these issues, and reformers must recognize that every change has both positive and negative effects. But without open discussion, church life will become more and more dysfunctional.
Ultimately, the church must find ways to make the Gospel understandable and relevant to people of the 21st century. It can no longer simply repeat formulas from previous centuries. To develop new ways to communicate the Gospel message, theologians and pastors must be given freedom to experiment, even though mistakes will be made.
In the face of so many challenges, the next pope will need our prayers. Be not afraid were words of Christ that were favorites of Blessed John Paul II. Like Blessed John XXIII, who convened the Second Vatican Council, we as a church have to be willing to go out from shore and cast our nets into the deep, trusting in Christ, who has power over the wind and the waves.