Catholics divided over direction of Church with next pope

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With John Paul II’s funeral over and the College of Cardinals preparing to meet next week to select the next pope, Catholics remain largely divided over the types of changes, or lack thereof, they would like to see in the Church.

Regardless of who is chosen as a successor, the next pope faces a flock split over issues John Paul II remained ardently conservative on during his papacy, including birth control, celibacy for priests, and the role of women in the Church. Catholics also hold different views on whether the reforms of the 1960s Vatican II have been carried out effectively, or have been largely forsaken.

“The resurrection of Vatican II is what the next pope must do,” said Vincent Coppola, a part-time religious studies instructor at CSUN who teaches a class on Modern Values and Ethics. “The more conservative elements have been running the Church.”

The role of the Church in developing regions, including Africa, Asia and Latin America, which collectively contain a majority of the worldwide Catholic community, is also one of the greatest challenges the pope will face, as significant differences between the Church in the secular West and in poorer parts of the world continue.

As of 2003, the world’s approximately 1 billion Catholics included approximately 228 million in North America, with at least 63 million in the United States, 307 million in South America, 280 million in Europe, 137 million in Africa, 110 million in Asia and 8 million in Oceania, according to the Vatican.

“Whoever is (elected) pope, he will have a hard time today because the Church is so divided,” said Mutombo Nkulu-N’Sengha, an assistant professor of religious studies at CSUN who served the altar at Mass with John Paul II in the Vatican while studying with the Jesuit Fathers at Gregorian University in Rome from 1989-92. “The concerns of rich nations are not the concerns of Third World nations.”

The College of Cardinals is itself divided, with some saying the Church has not lived up to the call of Vatican II, and others saying there is no need for more changes, said Patrick Nichelson, CSUN Religious Studies Department chair, who studied for six years to be a priest but changed his mind for various reasons.

But despite the divisiveness, a full split in the Church into different branches or sects is unlikely, Nichelson said.

“It’s so central to the Catholic idea that you hang in there together even when you disagree with each other,” he said.

The next pope must strive to avoid a more profound schism, or split, among Catholics, said Nkulu-N’Sengha.

“(As pope), you must be a unifier,” Nkulu-N’Sengha said. “You have to try to stay in the middle, while fulfilling the tradition of the Church. In a world of confusion, where (…) things are changing rapidly, many people don’t know where to turn. They want someone to tell them how to behave. In a world changing so fast, people want to listen to someone who, claiming to speak on behalf of God, tells them right from wrong. They want moral clarity.”

John Paul II’s leadership made for a good pontificate, although he became more conservative toward the end of his life, Nkulu-N’Sengha said.

“Vatican II opened the window to the world, to modernity, to human rights, to recognize other religions,” Nkulu-N’Sengha said.

John Paul II’s outreach to other faiths, including Judaism, made great strides, Nkulu-N’Sengha said, especially since the Church still upheld the belief that “the Jews killed Christ and would go to hell,” before Vatican II.

“You measure this pope in light of what the Church was from the Renaissance to 1965,” Nkulu-N’Sengha said. “With the struggle against Protestantism (during and following the 1500s), the Church became traditionalist. It was an anti-human rights Church.”

John Paul II embraced human rights, Nkulu-N’Sengha said, by opposing the War in Iraq and through his opposition to communism. John Paul II was also the first pope to reach out to Muslims, going so far as to kiss the Koran, the holy book of Islam, something no other pope has done, he said.

“In terms of staying in line with the (Vatican II), he made great strides in reaching out to the Muslim world, to the Protestant world and also to the Eastern Orthodox Church,” Nichelson said. “One of the motifs of the Second Vatican Council was establishing better ecumenical relationships. (In terms of) relationships with Judaism, he did things no pope had done before, (including) almost apologizing for the (Holocaust).”

During his papacy, John Paul II apologized in a public statement for the several actions taken by the Church in the past, including the Church’s silence during the Holocaust.

John Paul II’s travels to Jerusalem, Syria and Iraq to reach out to Muslims and those of other faiths “were truly novel after centuries of antagonism and at best, benign neglect,” Nichelson said.

“Even in his most conservative moments, he never withdrew the claims of Vatican II that all people could find salvation through their different paths, and that God is working through all the world’s religions,” he said.

But Coppola said that in his view, John Paul II fell short of fulfilling the intended Vatican II reforms, which included curbing inequality for women in what is supposed to be a universal Church.

“Women in the Church have been fighting for equal rights for so long,” Coppola said. “It’s a logical, proper thing to do. If (the Church) is Catholic, if it’s universal, it should have women in there.”

The Church must also address the question of stem-cell research in wealthier nations, as well as “learn to deal respectfully with gay and lesbian people,” he said.

“Traditionalism tends to lean toward dogma and doctrine,” Coppola said. “One has to realize that … the Church must (show) sensitivity to all people. Freedom and openness is so important.”

“The central message of Christ is love, and if the Church loses its concept of that, it loses its whole Christ-consciousness. Augustine probably put it best when he said, ‘Love and do what you will.’ Because if you love, you will know what to do.”

The word Catholic itself can be defined to mean inclusiveness, Nichelson said.

The controversial attitude toward gay marriage that exists in the United States does not exist in Africa, Nkulu-N’Sengha said. There is fear amongst some North American and European Catholics that a pope from developing nations would not address Western views on these types of issues, he said.

Nkulu-N’Sengha said John Paul II’s argument that Jesus did not want women as leaders in the Church was inaccurate, as were the pope’s views on birth control, including the use of condoms.

“The argument against ordination of women is sociological and has to do with patriarchal power,” he said. “(We have) celibate priests setting up rules for married people. In Italy, they have a funny saying — ‘We love the pope, but we want him out of our bedroom.'”

Nichelson said part of the reason he decided not to go into the priesthood was due to the celibacy restrictions, and also because his 1960s generation was one of change and of turning away from establishments in general.

“Vatican II had seemed to conk out … especially here in (the United States),” he said.

The Church’s stance on birth control largely does not take into account the plight of those of a lower socioeconomic status, both here and abroad, Nichelson added.

“It’s crazy-making to preach about the dignity of the poor and helping the poor, and be against birth control,” Nichelson said. “It just doesn’t add up. But it’s part of being a religious leader (to have) issues you will not compromise on.”

Barbara Hanson, a junior business major at CSUN and a parishioner at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Santa Clarita, said she supported John Paul II’s conservative leadership on issues including birth control, and does not want to see changes.

Hanson, who recalls being presen
ted to the pope and receiving his blessing when he visited the Los Angeles Archdiocese in September 1987, echoed Nkulu-N’Sengha in saying that issues important to Catholics in wealthier nations, including the United States, may not be of primary concern for Catholics in different parts of the globe.

“(Catholics in) other countries may not want priests to be married, and birth control may not be an issue with them,” she said.

Hanson said she is not going to allow the Church’s current controversy involving priests molesting young boys to affect her view of God and Catholicism, and added that she does not support the idea of priests marrying, in part due to the gray areas it would create involving the question of divorce, which the Church remains opposed to.

Andrea Gallardo, who has been president of CSUN’s Catholic Newman Club for one and a half years, said John Paul II’s views on the role of women in the Church were more conservative than she would have liked.

“He was more conservative than I am,” Gallardo said. “I would like to see women priests.”

Nevertheless, like many other Catholics and non-Catholics, she said she supported John Paul II’s active outreach to other faiths through his travels, and his direct interaction with other religions. Gallardo said she hopes the next pope will continue these efforts.

Nichelson called John Paul II “the first truly media pope.”

“His writings and speeches are in every bookstore,” Nichelson said. “His personal soulfulness, combined with his physical attractiveness, (made him popular). If you had a pope as conservative or more conservative than John Paul II, without his charisma, that could create big problems for the worldwide Church.”

“Millions of Catholics who didn’t agree with some of his more conservative views found him to be a stern, scolding uncle, but they loved him,” he said. “And he complained about that. He said, ‘They love me, but they don’t listen to me.'”

Nkulu-N’Sengha expressed a similar view.

“He has been perceived, I think, as a star,” Nkulu-N’Sengha said. “Modern society made him a star. He’s (perceived as being) like a grandpa.”

Whether John Paul II was progressive or not rests essentially in the eye of the beholder, Coppola said.

“When people call (John Paul II) progressive, they’re talking about his wonderful help of Poland and freeing them from of the Soviet Empire,” he said.

John Paul II battled communism in Poland because it was his own nation, but he didn’t do much to quell human rights violations in Africa, South America and Asia, Nkulu-N’Sengha said.

“His political, moral teachings were, from a North American perspective, socialist,” Nichelson said. “He was a great supporter of the United Nations, opposed the (U.S.) occupation and invasion of Iraq, was (in support of) the collapse of the Soviet Union, and was probably the world’s greatest critic of capitalism.”

While it is hard to predict who the new pope will be, some are arguing that if Catholicism is to truly be a universal Church, it is time to chose a pope from outside Europe, Nkulu-N’Sengha said.

“If I were to bet, I would say it may be somebody from Italy or Eastern Europe,” said Nkulu-N’Sengha. “That’s the likelihood. If any surprise comes, maybe from Honduras, the Philippines, Vietnam or China.”

Europeans would like the pope to be from Europe due to concerns that the Church is collapsing in Europe because of increasing secularization, he said.

Though John Paul II elected all but three members of the current College of Cardinals, this doesn’t mean they all share his exact views, and there is the possibility that the next pope will be more liberal, and will lead the Church with a “softer hand,” Coppola said.

Since America is the leading power in the world, an American cardinal will definitely not be chosen, he said.

“If you were a betting person, you might not want to bet on this one,” Nichelson said. “(Although John Paul II) chose more cardinals than any (pope) has ever done before, that they will be as orthodox as he was in matters of theology and personal ethics (is unknown). (It might) seem as if we’ll have a religiously conservative pope, but there are a lot of surprises in this process.”

A lot of the cardinals, he said, are more flexible and liberal than John Paul II in leading their own dioceses, but it is unknown if these individuals would maintain liberal attitudes while leading the Church as a whole, he said.

“When somebody takes on the position of leader of the worldwide Church, he might think it’s (his) duty to be the defender of orthodoxy,” Nichelson said. “And it could cut the other way. Some people who have been loyal to the pope (might say), ‘Now that I’m pope, I can move the Church in different directions.'”

Most of today’s priests are coming from developing and non-Western nations, Nichelson said, especially since priesthood is more highly respected in those societies, held to the same level of prestige as being a lawyer or doctor in Western culture.

“They are producing more clergy than the rest of the world,” Nichelson said of Latin America, Asia and Africa. “We have this fascinating reversal here in Southern California of priests from India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Africa and Latin America staffing the local parishes.”

Susan Fitzpatrick, three-year CSUN history professor who teaches a class on Religion in Latin America, said that despite an influx of Protestant missionaries beginning in the 1980s, Latin America boasts the largest Catholic population in the world, and therefore it is possible the new pope might be selected from this region.

“It’s not impossible,” she said. “It would be a politically smart move.”

Some of the Catholic leaders in Latin America hail from the conservative Opus Dei movement, which would probably make for a conservative pope if one of them was chosen, Fitzpatrick said.

But because John Paul II appointed cardinals that held similar views, even if a pope is chosen from outside Europe, he could still be conservative in his leadership, Nichelson said.

“At Vatican II, the bishops from the Third World were fairly progressive,” Nichelson said. “Some of them argued for relaxing the celibacy rules, (and) they were much more interested in multi-cultural forms of worship. Now, because of John Paul II, the Third World cardinals and bishops are very conservative. We may have a pope of color, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be a progressive pope.”

However, a Latin American pope might be more concerned about the poor, and champion the issues of the Church in the Third World, Fitzpatrick said.