VATICAN CITY—When the 115 cardinal-electors of the Roman Catholic Church gather in eight days, they will be choosing more than a pope. They will be choosing a Catholic Church for the 21st century.
This is not a reality most of them discuss publicly. But this conclave will be seeking not only a man to lead the 1.1-billion-member church, but also a model for how the church should be governed.
The model it adopts, and the local churches that gradually evolve under it, likely will shape Roman Catholicism more profoundly than the white-robed figure who steps onto the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica a few days hence. That is because the pope who emerges from the conclave will likely represent the winning side in the big debate looming inside the Sistine Chapel.
At issue is the matter of "collegiality."
A polite-sounding word, it masks the frustration of some cardinals and bishops who say Pope John Paul II dictated important decisions, instead of allowing local church officials who know local situations best to share in the matter.
These cardinals also argue that the Vatican bureaucracy known as the Roman Curia must relinquish some of its power and allow greater autonomy for local bishops and bishops' conferences on such matters as liturgy, training of priests and even divorce and remarriage.
"The Europeans pretend Europe is the center of the world," Cardinal Stephen Fumio Hamao, the Japanese-born president of the Pontifical Council for Migrants, complained in an interview last year at his Vatican office. "They need to recognize that they don't know Asia."
Just how many cardinals subscribe to a more-collegial model of church is hard to judge. In 1978, the brand-new Pope John Paul II squelched talk of greater collegiality—including creation of an advisory cabinet of bishops—by declaring that "the Church speaks with my voice."
Ambitious churchmen yearning for a bishop's miter, a bigger diocese, or a cardinal's red cap quickly learned to keep quiet about collegiality.
But with John Paul gone, the cardinals are freer to consider a different approach. While none is publicly pushing a campaign, some insight into the kinds of issues being discussed appeared in an article last year in Commonweal magazine by the Rev. Andrew Greeley, an American sociologist and frequent critic of Catholic Church leadership. In the article Greeley urged that the next pope:
_ Return the selection of bishops to local churches, perhaps allowing a diocese's priests to propose candidates for consideration by the Holy See.
_ Strengthen the national bishops conferences.
_ Promote local, regional and national synods, or gatherings of bishops, and make them less subservient to the Curia.
_ Reach beyond the College of Cardinals in selecting the next pope. "Some way must be found for the clergy and laity" to be involved, he said.
_ Expand and reform the Curia, including term limits, with a better geographical distribution and greater reliance on non-clerical experts.
For all his personal virtues, Pope John Paul II leaves behind a Catholic Church with big problems and an uncertain future. Cardinals advocating for the collegial model generally believe some of the church's needs can best be addressed at the local and regional level.
Some of the issues that the church faces:
_ Western Europe, whose culture was shaped by Roman Catholicism, essentially abandoned Catholicism during John Paul's pontificate. "It would take three generations to restore," George Weigel, John Paul's official biographer, said in an interview last year. Europe has 58 cardinal-electors, 20 of whom are Italian.
_ Latin America, long said to have a "Catholic soul," has seen Protestant Pentecostalism make deep inroads during the past 25 years. "We can no longer say Latin America has a Catholic soul," one Brazilian bishop remarked recently. "We can only say it has a Christian soul." Latin America, with nearly half the world's Catholics, has 21 cardinals.
_ Parts of Africa are seeing rapid growth of Catholicism and priestly vocations, trends likely to continue. But Islam and Protestantism are eager to spread on the continent, too. And so the church must decide whether to compete with or accommodate these other faiths. Africa has 11 electors.
_ Asia seems a promising ground for growth to some Catholic evangelists, who point to the Catholic presence in the Philippines, South Korea and Vietnam and see hope for China. But Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism are so deeply rooted that few observers suppose Asia will ever be "converted." Asia has 13 electors.
_ North America is uncertain. The Church in the United States boasts some of the best church attendance and financial contributions in the developed Catholic world. Although some Catholics tend to obey and believe as they choose. And some observers worry that a younger generation—suspicious of institutions and disaffected by the recent sex abuse scandals—might follow Europe's lead into a vaguely post-Christian spirituality. Canada and the United States have 14 electors.
It is a fragile global communion whose billion adherents range from the scrupulously orthodox to those who never see the inside of a church—but wash their babies in holy water as protection from disease.
Holding it all together is tradition, law, and an international network of about 3,000 bishops. At the head is a Bishop of Rome, who, according to the Code of Canon Law, exercises "supreme, full, immediate and universal power" over the Church.
No one seriously expects that the new pope will relinquish such authority, even if he subscribes to the collegial model of governance.
Nevertheless, some of the strongest evidence that there is hunger among the cardinals for a more collegial brand of decision-making comes from the fact that several of the so-called papabiles, or leading candidates, are standing on the platform of collegiality.
"The matter of collegiality must be decided at the highest structural levels of the church," Cardinal Claudio Hummes of Sao Paolo, a moderate-conservative whom many believe could be John Paul's successor, said in an interview at his residence last year.
Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Mariadaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, is another papabile who says the same.
Collegiality will surely not be the only criterion by which cardinals will choose the next pope. They are also said to be conflicted over what the church needs more, a manager who concerns himself with the day-to-day running of church business, or a telegenic, globe-hopping charismatic figure like John Paul.
There is also the question of whether it is time to break tradition and reach outside of Europe altogether, as a sign that the church is abandoning its Eurocentric ways.
Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who hinted last week that he is not a fan of collegiality, said the next pope must be able to guide the church's encounter with Islam, which in the past has been "not a happy" relationship.
Others say service to the poor and continuance of John Paul's indefatigable campaign against abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research and other "culture of life" issues are essential roles for the church and its next pope—liberal or conservative, collegial or monarchic.
The question before the cardinals, then, is how.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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