Catholicism: What does the future hold?

With the pope resigning for the first time in 600 years, things are definitely changing in the Catholic Church. Currently, 115 cardinals are gathered in the conclave to determine the next pope. The 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, representing roughly the population of India, are anxiously awaiting the results. Who will be chosen as the next pope? What issues will he face? What decisions will he have to make? What is the future of the Catholic Church?

Recently, the Catholic Church has had its fair share of scandal. Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brian recused himself from participating in the conclave after admitting to unspecified sexual misbehavior involving other priests. Additionally, the sexual abuse of children, lack of transparency, and the celibacy requirement for priests are all subjects that the new pope will have to address. The Vatican’s response to these global issues will determine both the direction and influence of the Church going forward.

Between 1950 and 2002, 4% of priests were accused of sexual abuse. While this is less than the rate in the general U.S. population (10-20%), it is still a grave concern given the position of trust that priests are placed in. Between the 1950s and 1980s, it was common practice in both the church and law enforcement to refer transgressors to psychologists and the common thought was that they could be rehabilitated. This led to an alarming amount of recidivism, with 149 priests accounted for 26% of all the abuses in the U.S. between 1950 and 2002. Files unsealed by the court in January showed that Cardinal Roger Mahoney (archbishop of Los Angeles) worked to shield pedophile priests from prosecution. Other priests, however, have taken a hard line against accused priests. U.S. Cardinal Sean O’Malley published a list of clergy accused of abuse on the Boston Archdiocese website and established a system for mandatory reporting of allegations to civil authorities. How the new pope addresses this ongoing concern will greatly determine how the Church is viewed in the future.

A related concern is the requirement that priest be celibate and never marry. Not only has this fed the perception of priests as potential deviants, it may have contributed to the dwindling population of those willing to become priests. Many popes throughout history were married, including Peter, the first pope. Some restrictions on the marriage of priests were first decreed during the 306 council of Elvira, after which a priest who slept with his wife the night before mass would lose his job. In 325, during the council of Nicea, it was decreed that a priest could not marry after being ordained, and in 385 Pope Siricius left his wife to become the pope, declaring that priests may no longer sleep with their wives. It wasn’t until 1123 that Pope Calistus II at the first Lateran Council decided that clerical marriages were invalid. Whether to continue this tradition will be an important decision for the new pope, as 62% of U.S. Catholics believe the next pope should allow priests to marry, according to a Quinnipiac University poll.

Another issue facing the Holy See is whether to relax contraception restrictions, with 64% of U.S. Catholics believing they should. In this vein, there is the pending lawsuit against the Obama Administration over the requirement that Catholic hospitals and universities will have to adopt employee insurance plans that offer contraception coverage. This case blurs together two issues: religious freedom and the Church’s theological stance on contraception in general. Both will need to be addressed head on by the next leader of the world’s largest religion.

Additional Resources

The Wall Street Journal, Meeting Is Set to Choose Pope:

Quinnipiac University, Catholic Poll:

The Washington Post, Papal Conclave to Begin March 12:

CNN, Embattled Scottish Cardinal O’Brien Apologizes for ‘my sexual conduct’:

The Media Report, Fast Facts:

The Washington Post, New Pope to Inherit Demystified Office:

Future Church, A Brief History of Celibacy in the Catholic Church:


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