What's Next for the Catholic Church?
Having accepted its new role of intervening in secular affairs, the Church is defining its stand on the moral and ethical issues and trends sweeping the world in science, ecology, business, and human rights. These stands are not always popular with secular society or even with some Catholics.
Recent encyclicals on abortion and reproductive technologies reveal the Church's ability to stay on top of the latest social and scientific developments. It has issued frequent commentaries on the state of the world, praising the value of human work, and criticizing both Western capitalists and old-style Communists for contributing to poverty in the developing world. The American bishops have developed position papers about the U.S. economy, the American role in Central America, and the U.S. government's environmental policies. Pope John Paul II worked behind the scenes with Jewish leaders, an initiative that culminated in his tour of the Holy Land in 2000. He also made overtures toward the Eastern Church, holding out hope of finally healing the Great Schism.
Part of the Vatican's world role is to set a course through ethical quagmires created by new science and technology. The Vatican plays a valuable role in stating its opposition to the death penalty or trying to define the ethical issues surrounding new reproductive technologies.
Some of issues that dog the American church are also of concern in Latin America and Africa, both regions that boast a growing number of Catholics. The status of women, the celibacy of priests, and Church stands on sexuality are issues that could come to the fore in the twenty-first century. While the concerns may be the same, the underlying conditions that give rise to these concerns are very different. And none is more pressing than the shortage of priests.
In the United States, the shortage of priests has led to parishes merging or putting up with mediocre ministry. One of the most pressing issues is that priests cannot marry. The issue of celibacy has contributed to the shortage of priests in Latin America, and there is also a shortage of men to provide ministry as they often must work outside their community. Yet there is no shortage of women willing to take up these tasks.
Additional problems in the United States include the issues of contraception and the treatment of homosexuals. In Africa, the controversy is over the spread of AIDS. African women are still fighting to improve their status within their own cultures and have asked the Church to back them in attempts to stop female circumcision, early marriage, and the shunning of widows. They have not demanded ordination of women, in part because there is no shortage of priests there. Many African men have been drawn to the priesthood.
Few Catholic thinkers want the church to give in to prevailing attitudes. Most want to seek an ethical choice that is responsive to the needs of local congregations. That would involve some kind of mechanism for each diocese or national Church to listen to its people. Again, there is the pressure for structural change and for ministry that adapts to local conditions. Whether such a change happens, whether there will be a Vatican III that sets a new course for the Church, may rest on the men chosen to be pope over the next 100 years.