Reprinted from the June 2002 issue of The Washington Monthly with permission.

The Vatican, the 109-acre international headquarters of Roman Catholicism, works at the leisurely pace of an institution that has seen it all over 2,000 years of history. This is a place that closes shop every day at 1 p.m., where decisions that might take weeks in other organizations can be "studied" for years, awaiting an "opportune" moment to be announced. It is not accustomed to working under pressure of tight deadlines, as it showed in late April, when all 13 American cardinals were summoned for a meeting with John Paul II and top Vatican officials to discuss the sexual-abuse crisis in the American church.

At only a week's notice, the speed with which the summit came together was startling. The Vatican simply does not turn on a dime like this, and hence the event signaled that business as usual wasn't cutting it. Media scrutiny from the United States was intense. Banks of satellite trucks were parked in front of the Vatican press office streaming 24/7 coverage back to the States. CNN broadcast the press briefings live and flew in its new star, Connie Chung, to cover the proceedings.

At times like these, when an institution is under unusual pressure, outsiders can sometimes catch a glimpse of the normally hidden political tensions that could decide its future. Such was the case on the second and final day of the summit. At around 9:30 p.m., the press office handed reporters a communiqué setting forth the summit's conclusions regarding the church's mishandling of priests who commit sexual abuse. Half an hour later, a contingent of U.S. cardinals and bishops stepped before the microphones to answer questions.

What quickly became clear was that American church leaders had not had sufficient time to read the hurriedly prepared document, and that a certain amount of political intrigue had gone into its drafting. The Americans on the panel, for example, had been convinced the document contained a call for greater lay involvement, including a national blue-ribbon commission to set standards and accountability procedures, and were embarrassed to find that the reference to the laity was missing. (A startled Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., flipped quickly through the text, then concluded that there must have been an "editing error.")

Most controversially, the communiqué took sides in the debate between the Catholic left and right to explain priestly sex abuse. The left views the problem in terms of mandatory clerical celibacy, the refusal to ordain women (both of which limit the pool of candidates for the priesthood), and a repressive streak toward sexuality in Catholic thought. The right sees it as an issue of doctrinal dissent and tolerance of a gay subculture in the priesthood and in Catholic seminaries.

Most American bishops, struggling to hold the church together, have avoided getting swept up in these polemics. The communiqué, however, showed no such caution. It called for a new crackdown on doctrinal dissent, and recommended a papal investigation of American seminaries, the subtext of which was to blame gays. Afterward, it emerged that the language on dissent was inserted by two staunch theological conservatives: Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, a Colombian who heads the office for clergy, and Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, an Italian who is the number two official in the office for doctrine. In the wake of the summit, one American cardinal has advised reporters to "forget" the communiqué, to pretend it never came out, and to focus on preparations for the June meeting of the U.S. bishops in Dallas.

The story offers two morals. First, when it comes to doctrinal questions, the architects of John Paul II's pontificate miss few opportunities to assert their conservative views. Second, there is discontent with the style and approach of this pontificate--if not its substance--even within the ranks of the cardinals.

This latter point is especially important, because the sex-abuse summit will not be the last time cardinals gather in Rome to make important decisions. It was, in fact, an anticipation of what will almost surely be the next great Vatican event: the conclave, when cardinals from all over the world gather in the Sistine Chapel to elect a successor to John Paul II.

The next pope will have to address a host of complex issues that have grown more and more contentious during John Paul II's reign. They include power distribution within Catholicism, the role of women and the laity in the church of the 21st century, the church's stance on complex bioethical questions, and its role in the process of globalization. In many parts of the Catholic world, the answers being urged by the faithful depart significantly from those offered by the leadership. How the next pope responds to these challenges will have broad consequences for secular politics and contemporary culture wars, in which the Catholic Church--the world's largest religious denomination, with one billion members--is still an important player.