Published: April 18 2005
Human rights, peace, social justice, fundamental matters of personal morality and the future of religion itself: no issue will be too small for the next pope, who will be chosen at a conclave of Roman Catholic cardinals that starts on Monday.
In what is perhaps the world's most extraordinary electoral process, a mere 115 red-hatted prelates with an average age of 71 will select the leader of a worldwide organisation that commands the allegiance of roughly 1.1bn people - one in every six human beings.
By comparison, about 120m Americans voted in the November 2004 election that put George W. Bush back in the White House, in command of the world's most powerful democracy.
Not surprisingly, the cardinals feel humbled by their responsibility, yet are conscious that their role is utterly unique. "This is not an election of a president of a republic, this is really a matter of conscience," says Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium. "Everyone knows very well at heart that a lot is at stake here."
Little can be predicted about the conclave's outcome except that the next pope will not be a woman (Catholic doctrine forbids it), is extremely unlikely to be an American (a choice that would risk the perception of still greater US influence over the world) and will have to grapple with the immensely complicated legacy of John Paul II, the Polish-born pope who died on April 2.
During his 26-year reign, John Paul became not only the third longest-serving pontiff in the 2,000-year history of Christianity, but a global personality whose pronouncements drew reactions - adoring and critical - from Catholics and non-Catholics alike. It will be all but impossible for his successor to withdraw into a shell.
As they gather in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel under "The Creation of Adam", Michelangelo's awe-inspiring frescoed ceiling, the cardinals will be aware that their decision will penetrate every continent, every important religious faith and the discussion of some of the world's most hotly debated political, social and ethical problems.
When a pope advocates religious freedom, it affects China, its Catholic minority and the communist authorities' hostility to interference in domestic Chinese affairs. When a pope criticises a US-led invasion of Iraq, as in 1991 and 2003, it affects global opinion of the US and its allies. When a pope refuses to countenance the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV-Aids, it impinges on African societies blighted by the disease. When a pope condemns abortion and divorce, it intrudes into the personal lives of hundreds of millions of people.
Yet, to a large degree, the next pope's priority will be the healing of the Church itself. The face and soul of Catholicism have changed since October 1978, when John Paul became the first non-Italian pope since 1523.
In terms of sheer numbers, the Church is no longer a European- or US-dominated institution. About 43 per cent of the world's Catholics, or 470m people, live in Latin America. Over the past quarter of a century, the African faithful have grown to 135m from 55m and those in Asia to 110m from 60m. As a consequence, the regions where Catholics are most numerous are places where issues such as poverty and debt relief are of greater relevance. By contrast, in western countries Church leaders think the rechristianisation of secular societies is the pressing task.
"All values are being desacralised, but not substituted," says Rocco Buttiglione, a devout Catholic who until last weekend was Italy's European affairs minister. "Either we resacralise our values, or society collapses."
In Ireland, Poland and Spain - three European countries where Catholicism is deeply anchored in the national identity - the Church no longer commands the obedience of the masses in doctrinal matters as it did two generations ago. Regular church attendance is falling in much of Europe, and there are fewer priests. In the late 1970s, the Church led a worldwide flock of 750m people and there was one priest for every 1,800 Catholics. Now there is only one for every 2,700 believers - a reflection of the declining appeal of the priestly vocation in western countries.
In the US, represented by 11 cardinals at the conclave, there are more priests aged 80 to 84 than aged 30 to 34. About 3,000 US parishes, or 15 per cent of the total, have no priests. If the trend continues, one-quarter of all parishes will be priestless by 2020.
One question for the next pope will be whether to address this crisis by ending the Church's tradition of priestly celibacy and by allowing women to become priests. Progressive Catholics contend that such changes would help in another way, by showing that the Church was confronting the scandal of sexual abuse of children by priests that has had a shattering impact in the US and parts of Europe.
The impact has been not just moral but financial. According to the US national bishops' conference, more than $840m has been paid out in legal settlements since 1950, mostly since the scandal erupted three years ago. The archdiocese of Portland, Oregon, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last July, and was followed by Tucson, Arizona and Spokane, Washington.
The financial losses of national churches do not directly affect the Vatican, which operates its own budget. But it was significant that in the week before the conclave, the cardinal-electors were extensively briefed by Vatican officials on the Holy See's finances. The Holy See, which is the Church's central administration, had a deficit in 2003 of €9.6m ($12.4m) on revenues of €204m. Vatican City, the papal mini-state in the middle of Rome, was also in the red. Whatever his spiritual qualities, the next pope will need to put his financial house in order.
This in turn touches on the question that most church-watchers agree will be an important factor in the cardinals' choice: how to improve the relationship, increasingly strained under John Paul, between the Vatican and individual national churches. The buzzword here is "collegiality" - a term implying that the world's 4,700 bishops should be allowed some role in the governance of the Church, although they all recognise the pope's supremacy.
Under John Paul, the Vatican vigorously asserted its authority over national churches and bishops, largely reversing a trend that had been set in motion after the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council, known as Vatican II.
In "Apostolos Suos", a document issued in 1998, John Paul decreed that national bishops' conferences had no authority to rule on theological matters. Late in his reign, the curia - the web of Vatican administrative agencies - also stripped bishops' conferences of the power to regulate the liturgy that they had acquired after Vatican II.
Such steps were central to John Paul's strategy of imposing a strict, conservative line on what bishops and priests should teach ordinary believers. The cardinals at the conclave - all but two of them appointed by John Paul - are certainly less progressive than many Catholics who fill lay pressure groups, religious orders and Church missions around the world.
In the 16 days since John Paul's death, however, some cardinals have made it plain they want the next pope to allow more "collegiality". "Never Peter without the 11, never the 11 without Peter," says Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the archbishop of Westminster in the UK, referring to St Peter, the first pope, and the apostles.
The prospects for a more progressive form of Catholicism - perhaps involving more freedom for divorced Catholics to remarry and receive the sacraments, and more participation of the laity in Church ceremony - will rest heavily on who wins the argument about "collegiality" in the conclave.
According to Italian specialists on the Vatican, the first vote in the conclave today is likely to see some cardinals plump for Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the German-born theologian who was very close to John Paul. He served as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's agency for doctrinal orthodoxy, from 1981 until the pope's death.
The election of Cardinal Ratzinger, 78, would signal a continuation of John Paul's conservatism and would almost certainly provoke mixed feelings among leaders of other world religions. For it was the cardinal's agency that was responsible for "Dominus Iesus", a document released in September 2000 that stated that followers of other religions were in a "gravely deficient situation" when it came to salvation.
This document took some of the shine off John Paul's efforts to reach out to other faiths, an endeavour that saw him become the first modern pope to visit a synagogue and a mosque.
The election of Cardinal Ratzinger, or another European, would indicate that many cardinals think the next pope must make a priority of defending the Church's identity and influence in Europe, an area where, some Catholic prelates lament, Christianity is under siege both from materialistic godlessness and from Islam because of rising Muslim populations.
John Paul was dismayed by the refusal of European Union leaders to include a specific reference to Europe's Christian roots in the constitutional treaty they signed last year in Rome. Other churchmen, including Cardinal Ratzinger, do not want Turkey - a Muslim nation but a secular democracy - to join the EU.
According to Italian Church leaders, the attacks of September 11 2001 on the US also served to concentrate minds on the threats to Christian civilisation. "The event opened a reflection on the identity of the civilisation shared by the west and therefore by our country, bringing to light how the religious and Christian component is a founding part of that identity,"says Bishop Giuseppe Betori, secretary-general of the Italian bishops' conference.
"The bishops ask that everyone recognises the Catholic heritage that characterises our country," he adds. "They place particular attention on questions related to mixed marriages [between Catholics and Muslims], which are usually not recommended."
In spite of this wariness about Islam, which swept into southern Europe in the 8th century AD and was then gradually rolled back, some Catholic churchmen see no alternative to pursuing a dialogue with Muslims.
"The challenge of dealing with Islam will be played out in Europe," says Cardinal Angelo Scola, the patriarch of Venice and a possible future pope. "This is part of the mixing of civilisations. We have to join this process."
Yet Europe is not the only continent where Christian and Muslim cultures meet. No clearer signal of willingness to engage with Islam could emerge from the conclave than if it elected an African prelate with direct experience of the Christian-Muslim relationship, such as Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria, a country on the dividing line between the two faiths.
The decision, in the end, is for the cardinals and their consciences. It is after the white smoke finally rises above the Sistine Chapel and the bells of St Peter's Basilica ring out - probably later this week - that the new pope's hard work will begin.
Influence is under threat in Latin America
The next pope’s style and substance will have a big impact on the politics and culture of Latin America, home to more than 40 per cent of Roman Catholics. But John Paul II’s successor will know that the Church’s influence in the region has been eroded.
Relations between the Church and the region experienced significant changes during John Paul’s reign. In Cuba his charisma won over Fidel Castro, who opened party membership - the key to economic advancement - to practising Catholics. In overwhelmingly Catholic Mexico, the state ended its official anti-clericalism, opening the way for papal diplomacy with Vicente Fox, the president and a practising Catholic.
However, the Church’s influence on the region’s politics is being limited by the decline of traditional Christian Democratic parties. Perhaps more significantly, its spiritual hold over believers is being challenged. From sprawling shanty towns to rural areas devoid of priests, evangelical Protestant religions have made big inroads. In Brazil , the world’s largest Catholic nation, only 75 per cent of its 180m people call themselves Catholic.
“This Sunday in Brazil there will be more Protestants attending church than Catholics attending mass,” says Andrew Chesnut, a historian of Latin American religion at the University of Houston. “Only 20 per cent say they are Protestant, but they actually practise.”
Pentecostalism, which attracts three-quarters of the region’s Protestants, has an emphasis on faith healing that wins over many converts, especially among women with little access to decent medical care and Latin America’s indigenous population.”It makes a better cultural connection,” says Mr Chesnut. “It fits so well . . because it [connects with] indigenous forms of healing.”
The Church has shifted resources to “charismatic Catholicism”, a movement that meets mostly without priests, offering intense, “spirit-centred” services with lively music. But the hierarchy has resisted calls to bring more local culture into its rites - for example by substituting tortillas and cacoa for communion bread and wine, says Kathy McNeely, who worked as a lay missioner in Guatemala for the Maryknoll Society and is now at Center of Concern, a Washington-based Catholic anti-poverty organisation.
Protestant denominations are also better at finding leaders who have shown their charisma on the streets and in the pulpits, rewarding them by allowing them to lead a church. Without celibacy requirements, their talent pool is greater.
The Church’s shortage of priests is acute, notes Virginia Garrard-Burnett of the Institute of Latin American Studies at the University of Texas in Austin. “People a re filling the seminaries in Latin America for the first time, but it’s going to take a long time to catch up,” she says, noting one priest who had to cover 54 rural congregations in Guatemala.
Pope John Paul II was hostile to the “liberation theology” of some Catholic priests in Latin America, who believed the Church should do more to improve the lives of the poor. During a 1983 visit to Nicaragua, he famously admonished Ernesto Cardenal, a priest in the government of the leftwing Sandinista revolutionaries. With such revolutionary experiments now over, many Catholics still believe the Church needs to be more active in addressing poverty.
“The next pope has to stand with people in poverty who are marginalised, which John Paul II felt called to do, but it is also time to embrace Catholic social teaching and to integrate some of the insights from regional theologies that were shaped by the negative impacts of globalisation,” says Ms McNeely.