The Vatican: Challenges Ahead

From a priest shortage to shaky finances, the next Pope will be tested

Pope John Paul II will be a hard act to follow. For 26 years, he led the Catholic Church with personal charisma and uncompromising moral authority. He played a decisive role in the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, did more than any other Pope to end centuries of anti-Semitism, and in his globe-girdling travels pleaded tirelessly for social justice. Under his pontificate the ranks of the world's Catholics increased 40%, to 1.1 billion, thanks to fast growth in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. As a monument to the power of one man to bear witness to the Gospel -- and to share that witness with millions of others -- his papacy was one of the greatest ever.

Yet John Paul has also bequeathed to his eventual successor an institution that, by several measures, badly needs reform. There are many problems, but four stand out: a critical shortage of priests; a financial crisis in many parts of the Church; a growing split between the Church of the affluent West and the impoverished South; and the institutional weakness of a Church that centralizes too much authority in the hands of a few.

These are challenges that would make even the most seasoned chief executive blanch. But Catholics around the world, from U.S. executives to Indian bishops to lay volunteers in Brazil, are brimming with ideas on tackling each crisis. Here is a detailed account of each challenge -- and what can and cannot be done.

-- The priest shortage. In the U.S. in the 1950s, there was one priest for every 650 parishioners. Now the ratio is one to 1,500, as many leave the priesthood and young men take other paths. The average age of U.S. priests is almost 60. It's roughly the same situation in Western Europe.

Yet while the number of priests is growing in parts of Africa, Latin America, and Asia -- India has even sent clerics to the U.S. and Europe -- in general they're not keeping pace with exploding Church membership in the developing world. "We are getting more vocations than elsewhere," says James B. Reuter, a Jesuit priest and spokesman for the Catholic Church in Manila, "[but] we don't have enough priests." In Latin America there are 7,000 Catholics per priest. "In remote areas, Latin Americans are lucky if they see a priest even once a year," says Mary L. Gautier, senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. Other areas, like Africa, lack funds to build seminaries to train applicants.

This dearth strikes at the very heart of Catholicism, since only priests can perform the central act of the liturgy -- turning bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. The Reverend John P. Beal, professor of Canon law at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., spells out the consequences: "The fear is that as the Eucharist becomes less available, Catholicism will be transformed from a sacramental faith into more of a word-based faith." In other words, it will become more like its evangelical Protestant rivals. "That would change the essential character of being Catholic," adds Beal.

What to do? Liberal Catholics have an answer. The Church should allow priests to marry and widen the field of candidates. That could be done by the Vatican in a moment, since priestly celibacy is a tradition, not a doctrine. The Church has even allowed married Episcopal priests to convert and join the Catholic clergy.

Since John Paul brooked no discussion of celibacy, his successor would have to make a radical break to achieve change. Yet the pressure from the U.S. and Europe will continue to build. Dean R. Hoge, a sociology professor at Catholic University says a recent survey of U.S. Catholics found 71% support making celibacy optional for diocesan priests. If that happened, Hoge predicts the number of U.S. seminarians would quadruple.

At the same time, reformers argue that lay Catholics should be given more responsibility in the Church around the world. Though that's already happening, the laity still has little say in such issues as selecting parish priests and shaping budgets. Hiring more qualified lay people and giving them more responsibilities would free up priests to focus on religious duties. But that means raising money to pay lay workers a living wage. Which leads to the second problem:

-- Church finances. Nobody knows exactly how much money the Church raises and spends worldwide. But a sexual abuse scandal in the U.S. has cost the Church at least $700 million, bankrupted three dioceses, and dented collections from disillusioned parishioners. That hurts the U.S., and also hurts the Church in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, where many dioceses depend on money infusions from the West. Francis J. Butler, president of Foundations & Donors Interested in Catholic Activities Inc., an organization of major U.S. Catholic foundations, says the annual Mission Sunday collection raises $200 million each year to support the Church in the Third World. Yet U.S. Catholics donate only 1.1% of their income to the Church, half the figure for Protestants. "The growth of Catholicism is exceeding the ability to pay for the priests and ministries that are needed," Butler says.

Church leaders in Asia and elsewhere are scrambling to fund their social programs. Bishop George Punnakottil of Kothamangalam in Kerala, India, has organized credit unions in each parish. "We collect money from constituents and disperse it as loans to the needy," he says.

Ingenious, but that can only go so far. In countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the number of Catholics tripled during John Paul's papacy, local dioceses don't raise enough money to pay basic operating expenses, let alone dispense charity.

But how can affluent Catholics be persuaded to give more to support the Church around the world? The Leadership Roundtable, a group of 200 influential U.S. Catholics, led by Geoffrey Boisi, a former vice-chairman of JPMorgan Chase & Co., recommends that every diocese publish a certified annual budget and strategic plan, thus giving the faithful a far fuller accounting of how contributions are actually spent. Such transparency would allay suspicions of the laity about how the Church spends its money, and improve contributions. Peter G. Danis, an active Catholic and former chief executive of Boise Cascade Office Products Corp. (BCC ), even suggests that the Church split its management structure in two. Most administrative functions would be handed off to a separate organization run by professionals who would give a more public accounting than the Church now does. A sustained effort to improve finances and disclosure would also probably help Catholicism with its third challenge:

-- The West-South split. The new Pope will have to carefully choose where to focus his limited resources. In Latin America and Africa, where Christianity is spreading fast, Catholicism faces a market share battle with evangelical Protestantism and Islam. Meanwhile, many Cardinals are deeply concerned over the increasing marginalization of the Church in Western Europe. Focusing on a revival of Catholicism there might be appealing, but it could have severe consequences. "The Catholic Church can afford to lose the Netherlands" and other Western European countries, says Philip Jenkins, a Penn State University history professor and author of the book The Next Christendom: the Rise of Global Christianity. "But it cannot afford to lose the Philippines or Latin America."

Yet that's a possibility. Look at what's happening in South America. Although total Church membership in the region continues to grow, the percentage of Latin Americans describing themselves as Catholic has slipped from more than 88% in 1970 to about 85% today, as millions have defected to Protestant denominations. Protestant congregations often seem more welcoming. "They offer a closer relationship with parishioners, with less hierarchy, and that better meets the needs of contemporary men and women," says the Reverend Israel Batista, a Methodist minister who is general secretary of the Quito (Ecuador)-based Latin American Council of Churches, a Protestant organization. Evangelical outreach programs to help working-class men stop drinking, for example, can quickly have an enormous impact on a small community.

Latin America also is feeling the strains long evident in Europe and the U.S.: "The Church says one thing and the people say another," says Sister Irmã Lourdes, a philosophy teacher at Colégio São José in Santo André, outside São Paulo. While many Latin Americans embrace Catholic traditions such as religious holidays and prayer to the saints, they ignore Church teachings on birth control, divorce, and homosexuality. "If the Church wants to slow the migration of its faithful to other religions, it needs to tone down the dogma of its doctrine," says Juan Luis Hernández, director of the political science department at Mexico City's Iberoamericana University, a Jesuit institution. Toning down the dogma might not be possible, but the Church could learn to be more responsive to local needs. That's part of the fourth challenge:

-- The rigid hierarchy. Many lay Catholics -- especially in the U.S. and Europe -- feel the Vatican could do better in understanding what goes on at the parish level. John Paul concentrated ever more power in the Vatican, managing everything from the role of altar boys to the translation of liturgies into local languages.

This top-down arrangement is unwieldy for an organization that increasingly resembles a far-flung group of islands, each with its own different population and needs. It also fuels discontent among front-line clergy and lay people, and it muffles the warning signals of things going wrong in a distant diocese. "There are 3,300 bishops and cardinals," says Danis, the former Boise Cascade exec. "But they see [the Pope] every three to five years. There's no built-in accountability. That's how the sexual abuse scandal in the U.S. festered for so long."

Some U.S. managers have suggestions to improve the information loop, and the ability of Church leaders to work with the rank and file. John T. Ryan III, an active Catholic and CEO of Mine Safety Appliance (MSA ) in Pittsburgh, wants term limits in the Curia, the Vatican bureaucracy. "Once you go to Rome, you never leave," he says. "There needs to be a constant infusion of [diocesan clergy] into these jobs for limited amounts of time, three to five years." The Leadership Roundtable wants the Church to adopt the "best practices" of multinationals. Among them: advanced management programs for bishops and a big increase in the role of lay experts. These ideas are being considered by the U.S. bishops.

Is the College of Cardinals ready to name a Pope who would push through such far-reaching changes? Most of the current 117 cardinals who will choose the next Pope were named by John Paul and helped promote his policies. "Only a minority of them think he went too far in institutional rigidity," says one French theologian. Yet previous conclaves have often surprised the world with their choices.

The Vatican's supporters, meanwhile, point out that just as there was one Christ, there is one Pope, and one authority. "The Church is not a corporation," says Monsignor Klaus Kastel, a Dutch cleric who was close to John Paul II and who works at the Vatican. "Tradition has to be observed as much as possible. Christ organized his Church in a centralized way." Somehow, the new Pope must reconcile that tradition -- and the astonishing legacy of John Paul II -- with the need to go forward.

By Carol Matlack in Paris and William C. Symonds in Boston, with Ann Therese Palmer in Chicago, Maureen Kline in Rome, Josey Puliyenthuruthel in Bangalore, and Geri Smith in Mexico City

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