Formidable Array of Issues Awaits New Pope’s Attention

VATICAN CITY — Who will be the next pope? Catholics in this city and around the world are asking that question, and familiarizing themselves with names and faces that just might appear on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica in the days following the April 18 opening of the conclave.

Yet before the cardinals decide on who will succeed Pope John Paul II, they will be discussing what issues the Church will face in the generation ahead — the challenges that the new pope will face. And the priority they give to those various issues will shape how they come to think about particular candidates.

The following is a survey of the major issues that have been discussed around the Vatican in the days following the papal funeral.

Secularization of the West

While there are signs of renewal in Europe, the general picture is of a continent that has abandoned its Christian heritage. The deliberate decision not to include a reference to Christianity in the new European Union constitution is but an indication of how Christianity has been marginalized as a culture-forming influence. Europe as a whole still has the largest contingent of voting cardinals. Will they be looking for someone who can do what not even John Paul, the consummate pan-European, could do?

The problem is not limited to Europe alone, of course, but extends throughout the West. While the Church might be healthier in North America, there is also a militant secularism that seeks to drive Christianity out of public life altogether. The decline — and in some pockets of the culture, disappearance — of marriage and the family is the most obvious consequence of the secularized culture.

Rapport With Youth

One cardinal mentioned that after the massive outpouring from young people during John Paul’s funeral week, he felt an obligation that the conclave must not disappoint them. No one expects the successor to enjoy the same rapport with youth as John Paul did, but it will be necessary to have someone who recognizes and encourages their presence — even as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger mentioned them specifically in his funeral homily.


Liturgical Reform

It was only in the last years of the pontificate that John Paul turned to liturgical matters, with the promulgation of a new missal, reforms in the translations of texts, and the instruction on liturgical abuses, Redemptionis Sacramentum. Liturgical reform is a matter both of instruction and discipline. Will the new pope be of a mind to devote energy to liturgical matters?

Religious Life

The New Evangelization cannot advance without a renewal of religious orders — which can be complemented, but not replaced, by the new movements. The collapse of women’s religious life in Europe and North America has been near total, and religious orders — both male and female — are too often afflicted by doctrinal dissent, laxity of morals and secular lifestyles.

While a handful of new orders have flourished during John Paul’s reign, there has not been a substantial renewal of the major religious orders that have served the Church for centuries. Whether that task is beyond any pope is an open question, but the need for reform is clear.

A related problem, more particular to the United States, is the link between secularized religious orders and institutions of Catholic higher education. The decline of vitality in religious life has produced a lack of Catholic identity and mission in many Catholic colleges.


It is commonplace that relations with Islam will be a delicate but unavoidable item on the new pope’s desk. First, the continuing persecution of Christians by Muslims needs to be addressed in a more forceful way than has been done in the past. Second, Catholics need to build bridges with Muslims who can provide a counterweight to the extremists who resort to violence in their hatred of the West and Christianity.

And third, the increasing Islamization of Europe poses a challenge to the vitality of Christian cultures. The European crisis in marriage and family life has only exacerbated the demographic challenge of Islam in the heart of Europe.

Asia and Africa

While much attention has been paid to the fact that a majority of the world’s Catholics now live in Latin America, it is the churches of Africa and Asia that are growing most rapidly. The evangelization of Africa is relatively recent, and the evangelization of Asia may well be the project of the third millennium, as the evangelization of Europe occupied the first and the evangelization of the New World occupied the second. But growth poses challenges and problems, and a new pope will have to provide direction for cultures that are young in the faith.

Globalization and Development

The emerging new economies of the latter half of the 20th century have posed a challenge to traditional Catholic thinking about poverty. Remarkable economic growth in places as diverse as Japan, South Korea, India, Eastern Europe, Latin America and China have challenged predominant redistributive thinking about economics. A new world of trade and investment, as well as instant information flow, has created vast new areas for opportunity, as well as for potential exploitation.

A new pope will have to speak to this world in a way that acknowledges the gains made by human ingenuity, while safeguarding the primacy of the human person over market forces, and championing the poor at the margins of globalization.

Genetics, Biotechnology and the Gospel of Life

There is no doubt that the Brave New World has already arrived in nascent form, and is poised for massive expansion in the next generation. The battles over cloning and embryonic research are already being fought, and a future in which life is created and disposed of according to utilitarian calculus alone is just over the horizon.

Preaching the Catholic ethic on life questions will be a dominant concern of the next pope. Indeed, it may be that only the Catholic Church can be a worldwide voice in defense of the dignity of human life. In the face of widespread acceptance — both within and outside the Church — of contraception and artificial reproduction, the articulation of the Gospel of Life will be more difficult than ever, even with the strong foundation laid down by John Paul II.

Forming the Laity

When a Catholic agonizes over a doctor’s suggestion that it’s time to “pull the plug” on his ill parent who is not imminently dying, it’s a problem. When a Catholic doesn’t agonize at all but goes along with the suggestion, it’s an even bigger problem, reflecting the crucial need for more widespread formation of the laity.

Forty years after the close of the Second Vatican Council, with its emphasis on participation by the laity, catechesis is showing signs of a new springtime. But the sacrament of confirmation still marks the end of formation for too many Catholics. One of Pope John Paul II’s greatest contributions was the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It will be the new pope’s task to take that forward.


Holiness is not so much an issue, but is a foundational requirement. The burden of the papacy is so onerous that only a man rooted in Christ can bear it. Holiness is not optional.

Father Raymond J. de Souza

was the Register’s Rome

correspondent from 1999-2003.