Catholic Church Faces Shifting Landscape As It Ponders New Pope
There's no denying a move away from organized religion among young Americans. According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, one in three American adults under 30 say they have no religious affiliation. (One in five adults overall consider themselves unaffiliated.) Many of these Americans say they believe in God, but they do not feel a connection to a particular church hierarchy.
The cardinals who will select the new pope maintain they are guided entirely by the Holy Spirit. But they are well aware of these realities. There have been calls for the church to acknowledge its demographic shift and select a new pope from Latin America, Asia or Africa - Ghana's Peter Turkson and Nigeria's Francis Arinze have already been the subject of speculation. On the flip side, the cardinals could choose a European or even an American who could potentially help boost Catholicism in the parts of the world where it seems to be losing ground.
"I'm hoping for a new springtime for the church," said Groome. He said that the new pope could potentially win back support in Europe and America by establishing a commission to consider the ordination of women priests or by softening the church's stance on homosexuality and contraception.
"I think then you get people sitting up and saying there's life in us, there's still hope in us," he said.
Father C. John McCloskey III, a Research Fellow of the Faith and Reason Institute, strongly discounted that possibility, saying, "there is no such thing as progressiveness in the church."
"It comes down to the cardinals who are going to be in that conclave," continued McCloskey. "That conclave is going to be made up 100 percent of cardinals who were named by either John Paul II or Pope Benedict XVI. Every one of them on issues that are important are going to be with the teachings of the church."
McCloskey said that the Vatican should not look to shift with public opinion, even if it means Catholicism continues to lose adherents in Europe and America.
"No one wants to lose people, but you can't keep people at the expense of betraying your beliefs or principles," he said. "That's not going to happen."
Kean University professor Christopher Belitto, an expert on Catholicism, said that the cardinals will decide on the new pope "based on what leader can push the church into the 21st century." He said that it is only a matter of time before they look beyond the borders of Europe.
"Certainly if not this pope, the next pope is going to be from Africa, Asia and Latin America. That's where the energy of the church is," he said. "It's an inevitability."