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Thousands of miles from here, about 150 cardinals -- "princes of the church" -- are trying to decide who will lead the world's 1 billion Catholics. But choosing a successor to Pope Benedict may actually be the easy part. The next pontiff must deal with scandals that won't go away. He'll need to reach out and restore faith to the faithful. And he will minister to a global flock that's changing rapidly and dramatically. Will the church do the same? Brian Rooney looks ahead.
Brian Rooney: When white smoke issues from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, the relief of new leadership for the Catholic Church may be brief.
The new pope faces shifting demographics and social change outside the church, scandal on the inside, the infallibility of the office damaged by the rare resignation of Benedict XVI, and undermined by widening revelations of sexual abuse by priests.
Among those voting for a new pope, will be a living shadow of the church's troubles, retired Los Angeles Archbishop Roger Mahony, who presided over a sex abuse cover-up during his watch. Father James Heft is both a priest and a professor at USC.
Father James Heft/Professor, USC Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies: My desire for the next pope is that we have a person who is really astute in understanding Catholicism as a global reality, as a vehicle for addressing some of the major issues such as the huge gap from the rich and the poor. And someone who as a practice does his best to listen as carefully as possible before coming to some discernment, some decision.
Rooney: The College of Cardinals meeting now in Rome is an institution ruled by the past required to lead the church into the future. The new pope will have to deal with the push for gay marriage and how to accepting homosexuality -- also birth control and whether to have married priests.
According to the Pew Research Center, 60 percent of American Catholics think priests ought to be able to marry. And two-thirds also think the pope did a poor job handling the sex abuse scandals.
One in ten Americans born Catholic have left the church. American Catholics are not happy with the church stand on abortion and homosexuality. And nearly 20 percent say that in some way the church should become more modern, more accepting. It's clear that many Catholics don't practice what the church preaches.
Rooney [to Heft]: Can you see one day a Catholic Church in which priests are married and birth control is okay?
Heft: I don't think I'll see a time when priests get married. I think it's possible, conceivable, that married men could get ordained priests. Put it this way: we know that celibacy is a church law, and as a church law, it could change.
Rooney [to Heft]: Do you ever seen a time when birth control is accepted by the church?
Heft: I think flat out, birth control being accepted by the church, no.
Rooney: So how much is the church going to bend in all this?
Heft: I don't even like to think of it in terms of the church bending. I think of it more in terms of listening profoundly.
Rooney: In the Catholic Church things can take quite a while?
Heft: Well, if you think of catholic time, it could.
Rooney: But young Catholics are on the forefront of social change; they don't live on catholic time.
Laura Martinez/Church Member: One of the biggest challenges is the way social progress is going in certain countries and the fact that that does conflict with some of the church teachings. The way gay marriage is looking in this country, it will probably be legal nationally in my lifetime, and there is a church teaching, a current stance against that.
Rooney: And many Catholics just want something better, not different.
Mayra Torres/Church Member: We have such a great example of blessed John Paul II, so I hope he follows in that legacy that he left us. Someone who reached out, someone who went out and got out of the Vatican, came to the different countries, traveled a lot, reached out, you know, heard and saw the problems that we are facing.
Rooney: American Catholics may be among the most liberal, but they are not necessarily the most influential. Only about 8 percent of the world's Catholics live in North America, a steady number, but the number would be shrinking if not for an infusion of Hispanics. And things are changing everywhere else.
According to a Pew Research poll, in 1910, 65 percent of Catholics were in Europe and 24 percent in Latin America. Today, 24 percent of Catholics -- 257 million of them -- live in Europe and 39 percent in Latin America -- 425 million Catholics south of the border.
Interestingly, though, the percentage of Catholics in the population of both Europe and South America is dropping, but Africa is becoming more Catholic -- 2 percent in 1910, and 17 percent now. So where and for whom would the church change?
Heft: What about in Africa, where there's a huge number of people growing there, and so on? What do we do in South America? What do we do in Europe, where things seem to be dead, almost? To what group should the church bend?
Rooney: The church did not bend when a group called Catholics United last month delivered a petition demanding that retired Archbishop Roger Mahony recuse himself from choosing the next pope.
Andrea Leon-Grossman/Catholics United: I think it's important that for once the church looks after the faithful more so than after the institution itself. So it's really disappointing that he was looking more after the church and the image of the church than after minors, who were being abused by priests.
Rooney: Rather than answering or bowing out, Mahony posted on his blog what he called a Lenten challenge to love the enemies in our life. "I can't recall a time such as now when people tend to be so judgmental and even self-righteous, so quick to accuse, judge and condemn," he wrote.
Leon-Grossman: That's why I think more and more Catholics are being out spoken, and I think that's why groups like us exist, so that the church will listen to us.
Rooney: She would like to see the church refocus on basic missions.
Leon-Grossman: We want transparency, we want strong leadership, we want to make sure that the most vulnerable are looked after. We want to make sure that they focus on the poor, people who may not have a voice.
Rooney: The church will have trouble doing that with fewer clergy to tend the flock. The number of nuns in the U.S. has dropped by two-thirds since 1965. The church is having trouble recruiting priests. And many of the local archdioceses have financial trouble after settling enormous sex abuse lawsuits, the biggest of them in Los Angeles.
Rooney [to Heft]: It shatters the moral authority of the church?
Heft: Well, it certainly has weakened it profoundly.
Rooney: The archdiocese here settled with 550 victims for $722 million, $362 million of which has to come directly from archdiocese accounts. And in an unfortunate robbing of Peter to pay Paul, they took $115 million from their dedicated cemetery fund without telling the donors.
Between the scandals, the settlements, and the Mahony cover-up, the Los Angeles archdiocese and others in the country have been badly hurt.
Heft: In the Catholic Church, the only requirement to become a Catholic is to be a sinner, and then you qualify. And we seem to demonstrate this on a regular basis.
Rooney: The Catholic Church has had better times. It's also had far worse. About picking a pope, father Heft tells the story of what Benedict XVI said when he was still a cardinal.
Heft: The interviewer asked Ratzinger, he said, "Your Eminence, don't you believe that really in the last analysis it's the Holy Spirit who chooses the pope in the conclave?" Ratzinger answered, "No, I don't believe that, for three reasons. First, there are any number of popes in history that the Holy Spirit would not have chosen. Second, the Holy Spirit is not a dictator. Like a good teacher, the Holy Spirit encourages, nudges, and like students from ages on end, you can ignore what the Holy Spirit has to say. And third, the best we can hope for is that whoever becomes pope will not destroy the church." That was a brilliant answer.
The photo associated with this post shows a cardinal celebrating mass in the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King in Liverpool England. (Credit: Mazur/catholicchurch.org.uk/Flickr/Creative Commons License)