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Pope Benedict XVI Faces Huge Challenges

  • Roger Wilkison

Pope Benedict XVI faces a Roman Catholic Church that is deeply divided on many issues, including his own background as the guardian of church dogma. From Rome, VOA's Roger Wilkison looks at the new pontiff and the many challenges he will face in the years ahead.

He was known for the past 24 years as the Vatican's enforcer. But the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has now become the spiritual leader of more than one billion Catholics. And, as such, he carries with him the tough and controversial points of view that he has expressed in the past.

The day before his election, the then-Cardinal Ratzinger told his fellow princes of the church that the world is moving toward a dictatorship of relativism that fails to recognize the certainties contained in Catholic doctrine, adding the only goal of this "anything goes" approach to life is to satisfy individual egos and desires.

He has also said the modern world has caused feminists to be adversaries of men. He has called homosexuality an intrinsic moral evil. He has argued that predominantly Muslim Turkey does not belong in Christian Europe. And a church document he wrote maintains that Catholicism is the only true religion.

Even though he reached out to other faiths and Christian confessions at his first public mass as pope, Vatican experts like John Allen, of the National Catholic Reporter, a U.S. weekly, say there is no sign that Pope Benedict is prepared to waver from his strongly held beliefs.

"I don't think the drama of Benedict XVI's pontificate is going to be whether he changes his positions, because I think it's quite unlikely that he's going to do so, in the main," Mr. Allen said. "He regards them as fixed matters of objective truth."

Prelates who did not always see eye-to-eye with the new pope when he was a cardinal say they are prepared to work with him. Cardinal Walter Kasper, who, like Pope Benedict, is a theologian and oversaw the Vatican's relations with other Christian churches, often crossed swords with the former Cardinal Ratzinger.

"And when it comes to the real issue of faith, there was never a difference," he said. "But among professors, it's a normal thing to have different visions and different aspects. But, now that he's pope, there's a different relation now."

Despite his background as an academic, the new pope has a chilly relationship with academia. He disciplined theologians who questioned the church's doctrine of papal infallibility as well as its bans on contraception and the ordination of women as priests. Father Thomas Reese, who edits the Jesuit magazine America, says Benedict is not popular at many Catholic universities.

"It's going to be problematic with the academic community in Europe and the United States and Latin America because Cardinal Ratzinger is seen as the man who was involved in silencing theologians and having them removed from teaching positions," he said. "So I think academia, you know, a lot of people there don't think that he respects academic freedom."

But the 78-year-old Benedict has a lot of support within the church, not only among the cardinals who elected him to consolidate the legacy of his good friend, Pope John Paul II, but also among the rank and file of the clergy.

Father John Bartunek, an American priest in Rome points out that the new pontiff was a key intellectual figure at the Second Vatican Council, which modernized many aspects of church life. The future pope, he says, later turned his back on some of those reforms because he felt they had been too politicized.

"And I think that the fact that he's older and has been through those changes and seen both sides of many issues, seen the results good and bad of some of the changes in the church in the last few decades - this gives him a unique perspective among all the cardinals, which is probably one of the reasons why the cardinals were able to come to a decision so quickly," he explained. "They saw in this man someone who is courageous and yet understanding and a man of prayer and who has the same vision of what the church should be doing as John Paul II had."

Many Vatican observers say the choice of Benedict to succeed John Paul also signals an unwillingness on the part of the church hierarchy to abandon Catholicism's European heartland to secularism. The new pope has called Europe, where church pews are increasingly empty, a spiritual desert.

In his writings, the pontiff has stressed the need for Christianity to rise again in small groups whose members "live in combat with what is evil in the world while demonstrating what is good."

He is hoping that the young people who flocked to see his predecessor, but did not necessarily attend church, will become what he calls "the vessels of the faith." The first test for the shy and retiring intellectual who succeeded the charismatic John Paul in keeping the loyalty of those young believers will come when he attends his first youth gathering in Germany in August.

But outside Europe, the church also faces big problems. In Latin America, the number of Catholics has dropped from 90 percent of the population to just over 70 percent as evangelical churches continue to siphon away believers. And in Africa, Catholicism is locked in a battle for souls with Islam.

In the United States, the church is divided over demands from some that it ordain women and married men as priests. And a scandal involving pedophile priests has devastated the clergy's credibility.

One of the biggest questions facing Pope Benedict is how far he should go in sharing power with local bishops. Vatican expert John Allen says the crisis affecting the church is mostly felt at the grassroots level.

"If you look at the parish level of Catholicism, there are problems relating to lack of clergy, relating to aging congregations, relating to congregations that are badly split and divided," he said. "These are all serious, pressing challenges that, for one reason or another, John Paul elected not really to engage and that are certainly awaiting his successor."

John Paul used his papacy to recentralize church authority in the Vatican. John Wilkins, the editor of the British Catholic magazine, The Tablet, recalls that one cardinal-archbishop told him that he and his peers were treated like altar boys by officials of the Roman curia.

"Now, these are princes of the church, and they don't like to be treated like altar boys," Mr. Wilkins noted. "And I think it's arguable, though a lot of them wouldn't say this, but they have been feeling that the bureaucracy has gone right over the top in Rome. And they'll want to cut it back."

The Roman Catholic Church likes to describe itself as the world's oldest institution. It has endured through the centuries because it has been able to build unity within diversity. But it now faces challenges that it has never faced before: rampant materialism, a seductive pop culture, hedonism and festering divisions within its own ranks. Finding its way through these uncharted waters may be the biggest challenge to befall it since the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago.

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