The reform of the Curia
The Curia, which is the Vatican civil service, is not a bureaucracy, with rules, so much as a court, with courtiers, in which progress depends on who you know. It is the last court in Europe with any power. The various departments, corresponding to ministries in the outside world, are still known by their names under the Byzantine emperors – “dicasteries”.
This court structure is no longer fit for purpose, and everyone outside the Curia, whether conservative or liberal, is agreed on this. On the other hand, it has a history of at least 1,500 years of resisting change, almost always successfully. Whoever takes it on will have to be tough and determined. Success would mean breaking the Curia away from the pattern of Italian politics. It might mean an end to recurrent scandals around such institutions as the Vatican bank. Beyond that, it depends who undertakes it and why.
Liberals and conservatives disagree on whether the reform should make the Curia less powerful or more so. For liberals, reforming the Vatican would be part of a wider process to make local churches more responsible and more responsive to their congregations. For conservatives, it would provide yet more ways to stamp out creeping liberalism.
Celibacy and the crisis in the priesthood
The traditional western model of Catholic priesthood collapsed in the second half of the 20th century. More than 100,000 men left the priesthood to marry before Pope John Paul II made marriage almost impossible; the average age of priests in the US rose from 34 to 64.
There are no official statistics – obviously – on the extent to which this gap has been filled by gay men, nor on how many of those are celibate. But informed Catholic observers agree that the number is high, and that there is a profoundly unhealthy culture within the priesthood. When the HIV/Aids epidemic first hit the US in the 1980s, the death rate among the Catholic priesthood was three times the national average.
In the developing world – especially in Africa – there is a great deal of undiluted homophobia, but there is also a widespread and fairly open disregard of the rules on celibacy, which are treated rather like speed limits, as something other people should observe, if they’re idiots. On the other hand, pentecostal and charismatic churches, in which pastors can have freely acknowledged wives, are also growing strongly there.
There are some married Catholic priests – most of them former Anglicans – in England and the US. Their experience suggests that a married priesthood brings its own complications – there has been at least one clergy divorce in the US – but it may still be the least worst solution.
The disaffected laity
In western Europe, North America and Australia, Catholic numbers are falling and show no signs of recovery, except as a result of immigration. One in 10 adult Americans is now a lapsed Catholic. Those worshippers who remain are divided between an increasingly fanatical group fixated on abortion and the culture wars, and a broadly liberal majority increasingly estranged from the hierarchy. American Catholic laity not only use birth control much as everyone else does, but are also more pro-abortion than the average.
Similar patterns can be seen in western Europe. In Germany and Austria there is a strong lay movement calling for liberalisation of the church. This must worry the Vatican, since its share of the German church tax, collected by the state, is increasingly important as American Catholics lose enthusiasm. Even in Britain the church is becoming infected by the internecine hatreds of the US: the anti-abortion pressure group Spuc last week “excommunicated” the Catholic weekly the Tablet after it suggested in the wake of the Cardinal Keith O’Brien scandal that the church should shut up about gay marriage.
Islam and Christianity are the two great missionary faiths and they entwined with each other, sometimes in conflict, all across Africa and Asia, from Senegal to Tehran. In the Middle East, the problems are most violent. There are ancient eastern-rite Catholic churches that acknowledge the pope, although they use their own languages and often have married priests. Their members have been increasingly persecuted during the past 30 years. The invasion of Iraq, the Arab spring and the Arab-Israeli wars have all contributed to a massive exodus of Christians from the Middle East.
While the Catholic church has renounced its historic antisemitism, it has a complicated and not entirely supportive relationship with the state of Israel. This has not made life easier for Middle East Christians.
In Africa south of the Sahara, there is tension and sometimes open warfare between largely Muslim pastoralists pushing southwards and largely Christian agriculturalists resisting them. Climate change will exacerbate these pressures. There is also tension between Muslim Indonesia and Christian East Timor. In India there is pressure on Christians from Hindu fundamentalists. The Chinese government, while quietly favourable to Christianity, is determined to wrest control of clergy appointments from the Vatican. All of these tensions will require a response from the pope, and some electors believe they constitute a central problem.
The papal agenda: what will be in the new pope’s in-tray – The Guardian
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