Choosing a New Pope

By George Weigel
Charlotte Observer [Charlotte NC]
Downloaded February 23, 2004

What issues will frame the election to choose a successor to Pope John Paul II? They're not the controversial matters of abortion, homosexuality and ordination of women. Popes are the servants of doctrine, not its masters. The real issues in the next conclave will be three matters of global consequence:

- Collapsing Catholicism in Europe. No Western European state has a replacement level birth rate, and Catholic practice in Western Europe is at historical lows. Churchmen believe these two hard facts are related: Europe is heading for demographic disaster because it is in a severe crisis of cultural morale, a result of a radical secularization that dissolves a people's sense of responsibility for the future.

- Radical Islam. How can the Church's dialogue with Islam strengthen the position of Muslim religious leaders and intellectuals who want to develop an authentically Islamic case for religious toleration and civility in pluralistic societies?

- Biotechnology. The Catholic Church welcomes the new genetic knowledge but teaches that attempts to remanufacture the human condition by manufacturing (or retrofitting) human beings end up dehumanizing us. How to shape the global debate about the new biotechnologies is a mega-issue bearing hard on the next conclave.

Influential cardinal-electors believe that John Paul II has been more successful in articulating a robust, compassionate Catholic orthodoxy than in embedding that vision in the church's practice. Finding a man who can both bring the church to the world in a compelling way and reform the church's discipline is the great "personality" issue the cardinals must resolve.

The next conclave's electors will be the most diverse such group in history. The cardinals don't know each other well, don't have a single common language and are keenly aware that they must find a successor to a giant figure.

The next conclave is going to be complex, difficult, probably lengthy -- and perhaps quite surprising.


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