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April 16, 2005
Column #1,233

      Two Predictions for the Catholic Church

     No one has any inside knowledge about who the Catholic Cardinals will choose to be the next Pope, but I'll make two predictions.

     First, I believe the new Pope will be from Africa or Latin America and the man with the best prospects is Cardinal Francis Arinze, a 72-year-old Nigerian, the first black pope in 1500 years.

     Second, I predict that the next Pope will permit married men to become priests.

     These two predictions are interrelated.

     According to Father Tom Reese, a Jesuit priest and editor of the magazine, America, the church's biggest internal problems is "the shortage of priests.  The time for denial is over. There are not enough priests now, and the situation is only going to get worse. A church without sacraments is not Catholic," he writes in an editorial published this week.

     "The next pope must acknowledge that providing the Eucharist and other sacraments to the Catholic community is more important than mandatory celibacy."

     In the United States, there were 53,800 priests to serve 42 million Catholics in 1960. Today there are only 44,000 to serve 67 million. In the old days there was one priest for 780 Catholics, but now one priest serves 1,425 parishoners. Their average age is nearly 60.

     Result: Boston closed 83 churches last year, a third of its total. Milwaukee fell from 265 churches to 219 and that diocese wants to shrink to 175. "We should be moving to 275 churches, and expanding the pool of people allowed to be priests," said Fr. David Cooper.

     He was one of 166 Milwaukee priests who signed a letter to the President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops asking that the priesthood "be open to married men as well as to celibate men." When the Catholic bishops met last fall, 11,000 letters were given to them urging that mandatory celibacy be reconsidered. In fact, two-thirds of priests in 53 dioceses pled with the bishops for an "open discussion of the mandatory celibacy rule."

     There are 25,000 former Catholic priests who left ministry to marry in America. Russell Ditzel, head of a network of former priests, estimates two-thirds would love to return to ministry.

     The church's position on this issue is contradictory. St. Peter and many early priests, bishops and popes were married. Celibacy began to be required because married priests allowed their children to inherit church property. While celibacy is required by most priests, John Paul permitted 200 Lutheran and Episcopal priests who were married, to become U.S. Catholic priests. And there are thousands of "Eastern Rite" Catholic priests in Eastern Europe who are married. Why? Centuries ago, the church made the change to compete with Orthodox priests who are allowed to marry.

     What about the competition by Protestant clergy, who are not only allowed to marry, but can offer better pastoral service since the average pastor serves 100 people? No wonder Protestant churches are growing rapidly in Latin America, home of 483 million Catholics, double that of Europe.

     There is only one priest for 4,000 Catholics in Africa and one per 8,000 in Latin America. Millions can attend Mass only once every few months. Global South cardinals feel the shortage even more acutely than U.S.

     Therefore, I predict that U.S. cardinals will support a Global South prelate willing to call for optional celibacy. None have done so publicly, but the issue will be debated as they vote.

     The major external issue facing the church is its competition with Muslims. In Nigeria, the Philippines and India, hundreds of Christians have been killed by militant Muslims.

     No one has had more experience with this issue in the hierarchy than Cardinal Arinze. He was born in Nigeria where the issue is contentious and was elevated to bishop almost 40 years ago. He has served in the Vatican for 20 years, and led the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue from 1985-2001 where he had many contacts with Muslims.

     He is respectful of them but orthodox. "The other religions are expressions of the human soul seeking God, with some beautiful spiritual insights. Christianity is rather God seeking humanity," he asserts. While Arinze believes the church is "necessary for salvation," he says non-Christians can be saved if they are sincere in seeking God and "follow their conscience in all matters of right and wrong."

     Cardinal Arinze speaks many languages. He has traveled widely and is well known to most cardinals, who may see him as a natural successor to Pope John Paul II.

     If elected, coming from Africa with its acute shortage of priests, I believe he will allow a married priesthood.

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