As the world's one billion Catholics continue to mourn the death of Pope John Paul II, many are contemplating the challenges his successor will face - and the issues he ought to address. John Paul II had a traditional - some might say "conservative" - approach to internal Church affairs throughout his pontificate. But even as they praise John Paul II's legacy, many American Catholics are calling on his successor to make some radical changes within the Church.
The question of interest for the international media right now is whether the Church will elect its first non-European pope in 1500 years. Three-fourths of the world's Catholics now live outside Europe, and experts say there is a very real possibility the next Pope could be an African or Latin American. But wherever he comes from, he is going to have to deal with a priest shortage - especially in the West - that some American Catholics believe has reached a crisis point.
Father Mark Massa, director of the Curran Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham University, says the Church has been dealing with the clerical shortage in so-called 'First World' countries like the United States by importing priests from the Third World. "As a short-term answer, that's not a bad answer," he says. "But there's a lot of problems inherent in that answer. That is, you're bringing in people who were not raised in this culture, that have a different set of cultural abilities. That's not a long-term answer to what you're going to do about who's going to staff parishes."
Many lay Catholics agree. As she waits for her child outside a Catholic school in New York, Kathleen Harris says she has some ideas on how to fix the problem of not enough masses and not enough priests. "I think that if he would allow married people to be priests, that would help a lot," she says, adding she doesn't think it should be a problem.
Allowing priests to marry is not the only solution being suggested by American Catholics. Josephine Lauriello says the next Pope ought to reconsider the status of women in the Church. "The future of the Church - and the past - has really been tied to the women," she says. "I don't know if the time is right for them to be priests, but I think there is some role that they could take - and they already are, as Eucharistic ministers and whatever."
These two women are not unusual, according to a recent poll conducted by the Associated Press. Sixty percent of the American Catholics surveyed said the Church needed to change its policies so that women could become priests and priests would be allowed to marry. That is up 20% from 1979, the year John Paul II was elected Pope, when a Gallup poll showed just 40% favored the ordination of women.
Even so, Fordham University's Mark Massa says American Catholics and their leaders are actually more traditional than Catholics in other Western countries. "My gosh, Holland, Germany, France… you know, Catholics in those countries are far ahead of American Catholics in terms of rethinking through how the Church should restructure itself," he says. "I mean, the Dutch bishops, to use the invidious, political 'left-right' thing, the Dutch bishops are far to the left of the American bishops. This is not a North American thing. It's certainly a First-World thing."
But whether the next pope comes from the First-World or not, Mark Massa says he is going to have to consider the alternative methods for dealing with the clerical shortage being suggested by First-World Catholics. "Because these are the kinds of issues that the North American Catholic Church has, clearly, I think, the next Pope will have this on his agenda," he says. "Because the First World, and specifically the United States, is simply too important to let collapse. I mean, it is massively in the best interests of the Vatican to have a powerful, North American Catholic Church."
That being said, Father Massa predicts the Church will allow priests to marry before it ordains women. Married priests are actually already performing Masses in the Catholic Church. If a Protestant minister who is married decides to convert to Catholicism, he is allowed to join the Catholic clergy - and he does not have to renounce his marriage in order to do so.