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Last Updated: Monday, 18 April, 2005, 12:30 GMT 13:30 UK
Divided Church seeks new inspiration
John Simpson
By John Simpson
BBC world affairs editor

In the latest of his weekly columns for the BBC News website, John Simpson talks about the difficulties for cardinals in choosing a new head of a deeply divided Catholic Church.

The pilgrims have gone.

Cardinals attend mass
The last Pope appointed cardinals from traditions different to his own
You can walk around Trastevere and the Vatican once again without having to step over the prone bodies lying in doorways for protection against the rain.

Buses from Poland are no longer quadruple-parked in every wide place in the road.

The mountains of plastic water-bottles and old newspapers have been swept away.

The minor miracle of how Rome coped with the near-doubling of its population for the Pope's funeral is already being embroidered.

Yet perhaps the real miracle was the way so many young people descended on Rome to pay their last respects to John Paul II.

This was indeed a Children's Crusade, and those in Europe and America who have grown used to thinking of the Catholic Church as a refuge for older people were made to think again.

Near collapse

And yet, once the funeral was over and the respects had been paid, the Catholic Church was left with all its old problems once again.

The Church is still as divided over issues of personal morality as it always was
Nothing has really changed, except that the remarkable man who has guided its affairs ever since 1978 has gone. And it will be very hard to find someone else who can capture so many people's imagination in the way he did.

The Church is still as divided over issues of personal morality as it always was.

Many Europeans and Latin Americans believe a rethink on subjects like contraception is essential. In Africa, where the Church tends to be deeply conservative, there would be great anger if that, or the line against homosexuality were to be changed.

In Western countries many Catholics feel the position of women needs urgent consideration. Yet this would greatly offend many Catholics in the developing world.

Past scandals have refused to fade. The decision by the Vatican to choose Cardinal Bernard Law of the United States to lead one of the nine memorial masses for John Paul II, only three days after Friday's funeral, has disgusted many US Catholics.

Cardinal Law was forced to resign as Archbishop of Boston three years ago, after accusations that he had covered up the sexual abuse of children by priests in his diocese.

Issues like this have caused what some people in Europe and the US have called the near-collapse of Catholicism in their countries.

In Ireland, Italy and Poland itself, there has been anxiety at the way congregations are dropping and people are failing to come forward to be priests, monks and nuns.

And yet in Latin America, in parts of Asia, and particularly in Africa, the Catholic Church is experiencing an extraordinary renewal.

True, the growth in evangelical Christianity is often greater, but the enthusiasm and fire you find among Catholics in countries like Nigeria is quite remarkable.

Another Italian?

So how should the new Pope approach the divisions and contrasts in world Catholicism?

Worshippers light candles for late Pope in Abidjan, Ivory Coast
Officials say an African pope is unlikely this time
That depends entirely, of course, on who the 115 Princes of the Church eventually choose at their conclave next week, when the bell rings out and the prescribed chemicals are sprinkled on their final ballot-papers in the small grate beside the Sistine Chapel to turn the black smoke of their earlier efforts into white.

The received wisdom is that the Italian cardinals, whose influence matters, would like the next pope to be an Italian once again. Or if not an Italian, then someone close to them - conservative German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, perhaps, who was a close confidant of Pope John Paul and celebrated his funeral mass on Friday.

Yet John Paul, in making his last appointments as cardinal, was scrupulous in bringing in men from very different traditions from his own. He was deliberately not like a US president, packing his Supreme Court with like-minded judges to prolong his influence.

It may be that the cardinals will eventually settle on someone from the vibrant Church of the developing world.

"It is probably a little too soon to have a pope from Africa," one senior Vatican-watcher mused to me. "But a Latin American could be an effective halfway house."

Energy and determination

With Latin American attitudes to contraception? "Ah well," said the Vatican-watcher, "no-one said it was going to be easy."

Better for the Catholic Church to have a pope who will energise some, than a pope who will fail to rally anyone at all
Quite. But age will matter too. Whatever the memory of Pope John Paul's final, difficult years, the image that remains with many of us is of a man at the height of his powers, active and tough enough to withstand an assassination attempt and all that hectic travelling.

The huge crowd of mostly young people who said their farewells to the Pope were captivated by his energy and determination. A new pope in his seventies, tired and perhaps a little frail, will not look good by comparison.

The old Vatican stand-by, after a powerful and charismatic pope, was always a compromise candidate, selected primarily because he was unlikely to last long.

That will not do this time. Better for the Catholic Church to have a pope who will energise some, than a pope who will fail to rally anyone at all.

Read John Simpson's previous columns:


You sent us your comments:

It's no accident that this branch of Christianity is still growing in followers
Andy, UK
Changes in the Catholic Church are slow and evolutionary, not revolutionary. It's no accident that this branch of Christianity is still growing in followers (admittedly not in the west), whereas the Church of England for example, has moved so far to be PC (modern) in the last 20 years that it no longer has a coherent credo and is facing schism.
Andy, UK

I was raised as a Roman Catholic here in the US, but long ago came to believe that it was much too conservative a religion for me. The papacy of John Paul II very much reinforced my views about the Catholic Church's conservatism. As for me, the church with which I feel most comfortable now is the Episcopal (Anglican) Church.
Thomas Hall, Olney, MD

Those who advocate reforms should stop and ponder two facts. Should the Catholic Church embrace modernity and descend into the tussle the Anglican Communion is in? Again, those who seem to speak, particularly about Aids in Africa, have they really asked an African if Aids is his biggest problem instead of poverty? Finally and most importantly, for those who are advocating change, do they really know that amongst Catholics, they are in the minority? If reformists are satisfied, what will become of those who have laboured to live their traditional faith?
Emeka Obiodu, London, UK

He stood up for the church's doctrines and didn't run it on the whims of the moment
Ken Stevens, Glen Haven, CO, USA
There are those who think that the Catholic Church should be run to suit the current views of followers. One of the main reasons that Pope John Paul II attracted the young in such numbers was that he stood up for the church's doctrines and didn't run it on the whims of the moment. The church doesn't exist to tell its members that they can be "cafeteria" Catholics, it exists to provide people with the guidance to share in the eternal life that was promised.
Ken Stevens, Glen Haven, CO, USA

The church simply needs to retain its identity and tradition and not get distracted by issues that deflect from the real meaning of Christ.
Paul Whiting, London

John Simpson's article suggests more time is needed for bereavement over the death of Pope John Paul II. As The Washington Post expressed it, "his light is gone". Perhaps the Roman Catholic Church and the cardinals can take some time before appointing another Pope. In an institution that's 2000 years old, what's the urgency?
Juliana L'Heureux, Topsham, Maine, USA

The Catholic clergy should consider a Pope outside Europe
Joseph Raj, Chennai, India
Europeans have always wanted to dominate the upper layer of Christianity and they will continue to do so during the next Pope's selection. This time the Catholic clergy should consider a Pope outside Europe as majority (more then 50 %) of Catholics live outside Europe.
Joseph Raj, Chennai, India

Too soon for an African Pope? Well, the church has only been going for 2,000 years, so it wouldn't do to rush these things, would it?
Neil H, Sheffield, UK

Many Catholics will not want an airport kissing superstar, rather a holy Italian who directs compassionate policy from the Vatican.
Tom Mullan, Southampton, England

I saw John Paul II as a 16 year old and can appreciate the charisma felt by today's young people that flocked to Rome. However, as I approach my 40th birthday and have lived in the real and not idealistic world of the young, I acknowledge John Simpson's comments. I have felt myself move away from the Church as I feel real life issues such as contraception, the increase in HIV and Aids and the ordination of women priests were not addressed by John Paul. It doesn't matter what the next Pope's nationality is as long as the gap between the young and those approaching the end of their life is addressed.
Tricia Dolan, Bolton, England

The Church needs a breathing space. It should appoint a caretaker Pope until the Church has had time to consider the big issues
Robert Osmond, Exeter, UK
The Church needs a breathing space. It should appoint an older man who would be a caretaker Pope until the Church has had time to consider the big issues it now has to tackle. For example, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger who both presided over and spoke so eloquently at John Paul's funeral. The biggest issue is, of course, that the shoes of the fisherman that now need filling are too big for almost anyone.
Robert Osmond, Exeter, UK

As a Catholic, I hope that the church realises that to sustain itself, it must appear to be in tune with the realities of modern society. I am not saying you should make radical and immediate changes on all the issues besetting the Church, but the College of Cardinals should look to a young and vital successor. Someone who has less attachment to the ingrained dogma and thinking, particularly in respect of the twin betes-noire of homosexuality and contraception. Either way, let's all pray that the path lies forward to the future, not backward to the past.
Adrian White, Burgess Hill, UK

Of the biggest issues facing the church, I think that contraception is a position that can and should be changed. The others (the stance on homosexuality, women priests, married clergy) are not likely to be changed in the next papal term.
George Broze, Houston, USA

For man it is impossible, but for God everything is possible. God will guide the cardinals to choose the "right person" as the next Pope to lead the Catholic Church, no doubt about it. No one needs to shed their tears over it.
Devassy, Alkhobar, Saudi Arabia

There is no doubt that this Pope was a very good man. But when it came to the child abuse cases here in the US he went missing - he was no where to be found.
Ned Kelly, Florida, USA

I would welcome the election of an African cardinal and the first black Pope
James Flaherty, Liverpool, UK
The church needs to move with the times and be more proactive and responsive to the modern world. I think the Cardinals needs to keep this in mind when electing a new Pope. Pope John Paul II was one of the most widely travelled Popes and electing another Italian may result in the Pope remaining in Rome and watching things from a far. It would make more sense for the Pope to be from the developing world and I would welcome the election of an African cardinal and the first black Pope.
James Flaherty, Liverpool, UK

The Catholic Church has treated women as second class citizens for years. And for a man who does not know anything about bringing up a family or feeding them, to say the practice of contraception is a sin is a classis example of chauvinism. When they walk in my shoes then they can make these sweeping statements.
Lesley Power, Birkenhead England

Those who push for sweeping reforms in the Catholic Church are forgetting something: the more you reform something, the more you eat away at its very identity: until, eventually, there is nothing left but its name. If Catholic churches are virtually empty today, it may just be because Catholics no longer know what their religion is.
M. McLaughlin, Carlisle, UK




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