The Catholic Church is no longer simply a European church. It's not even a Northern Hemisphere church. Nor is it primarily a white church. It is now a universal church found in every country, every race, and nearly every global culture.

All of which means that when the 115 cardinals begin their conclave to pick the next pope, they'll debate far more than liturgical fine points or birth control or how the church will deal with women's roles. They'll set the stage for Catholicism's embrace of the 21st century-complete with globalization, terrorism, poverty, American dominance, and the clash of Christianity and Islam.

It is these issues that must drive the Catholic Church in the next decades, says Father James Fredericks, a Jesuit theologian at Loyola Marymount College in Los Angeles. "The challenge is this," says Fredericks. "How is the Catholic Church-as the world's first transnational community-going to relate to Islam, Judaism, and all the other faiths, as a global community? This pope took important steps, but it was only the beginning of a long and difficult process, and doing so goes to the heart of the mission of the Catholic Church."

How will the cardinals respond? Many people predict they'll elect a pope who is emblematic of these struggles-a cardinal from Latin America or Africa.

"This would have a tremendous impact," says Father Thomas Reese, author of Inside the Vatican. "It would show that this is a universal church." Third World cardinals are worried about their desperately poor and hungry flocks, about the uber-dominance of the United States in their economies and cultures, about dealing with Muslims, and about persecution of Christians.

On the other hand, says Reese, American cardinals are worried about the loss of morale among their members because of the priest sex abuse crisis. It's critical the Vatican keep Americans content because U.S. Catholics contribute about 25% of the Vatican's annual budget. Meanwhile, both Americans and Europeans want someone willing to bend on issues such as birth control and priestly celibacy; they also want a man who continues the pope's outreach to Protestants and Jews, and who can continue efforts to lure wealthy, secularized Catholics back to the pews. Those concerns might argue for an Italian pope, who could soothe Americans and energize Europeans.

Jo Renee Formicola of Seton Hall University adds more issues to the list. Pope John Paul II desperately wanted to establish relations with China, she says, but was rebuffed by the Chinese government. He wanted the same with Cuba and Russia. Cuba may resolve itself after the death of Castro, but what of Russia, which-along with large portions of eastern Europe-is controlled by the Orthodox church? Then there is the "impending disaster" between Islam and Christianity, says Formicola. And the needs of Africa with its unfolding AIDS crisis and its desperate lack of clergy. Or Latin America, where Catholics feel under siege by Pentecostal Christians. She adds that the situation is unsettled in the United States, too, where there are lots of "cafeteria Catholics" who refuse to buy the church's teachings on sexual morality. Or in Holland, where euthanasia is legal; and in France, which is rife with anti-clericalism.

"There are major challenges left," Formicola says. "A new pope will look at these things with new eyes. He can revisit all these problems and bring a new approach to how to deal with these questions in the 21st century."

Sister Christine Schenk, head of the liberal group FutureChurch, says the main issue for Catholics worldwide is a devastating clergy shortage. Schenk says there has been a 52% increase in the number of Catholics worldwide since 1975-but the number of priests has stayed the same. At the moment, the United States and Europe have the best ratio of priests-to-flock in the world: 1 priest for every 1,200 parishioners. In Africa, it's 1 to 4,000. In Central and South America, it's 1 to 8,000.

"If they're having mass once a year they're doing well," Schenk says.

The priest shortage, she says, is the one issue that unites Catholics worldwide. And that is why she believes the next pope must make celibacy optional-not just for progressive Americans, but also for Catholics in other countries who need priests. She also believes that if women can't be ordained as priests, they should be ordained to the diaconate so that they can more fully minister to the world's one billion Catholics.

Increasingly, these Catholics live in the developing world, says Philip Jenkins, author of The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. He believes this shift of Christianity to Africa, Asia, and Latin America is the most pressing issue facing the church. "We are living through one of the transforming moments in the history of religion worldwide," he says.

According to Jenkins, 2 billion Christians are alive today, about one-third of the planet's population. The largest single bloc, 560 million people, still live in Europe. But Latin America is close, with 480 million; Asia has 313 million Christians; North America has 260 million.

By 2025, there will be around 2.6 billion Christians, of whom 633 million will live in Africa, 640 million in Latin America, and 460 million in Asia. Europe, with 555 million, will slip to third place. By 2050, only about one-fifth of the world's three billion Christians will be non-Hispanic whites. This means that most of the world's Christians will be black, brown, and desperately poor.

"The Catholic Church was the first global organization, and it faces all of these issues in an acute way because so many of its people do live and have lived for many years in the global south," Jenkins said in a 2004 interview. "By 2025, something like 80% of the world's Catholics will be African, Asian, Latin American."

Catholics in the Northern Hemisphere are simply not that important, he contends. "What a lot of Americans also haven't worked out is that the United States represents 6% of the global church and that most of the big Catholic nations of the future are in Africa, Asia or Latin America," Jenkins said. "So it's almost as if North American and Europe don't matter anything like as much as they did."

That's true, according to the numbers-but it's not necessarily true from the point of view of the church's center of power. Fredericks, of Loyola Marymount, contends that the church will never write off Europe, which is struggling with what he calls "militant secularism" every bit as troubling as militant Islam.

Meanwhile, the simple fact is that the center of the media universe is the United States. Cable News Network (CNN), the major American television networks, even the center of the blogosphere-all are here. And Americans care deeply about sexuality and morality issues: abortion, birth control, married priests, euthanasia, stem cell research, divorce, the role of women, among others.

Fredericks called these issues "particularly intractable" with the potential for creating a "train wreck" between liberal American Catholics and the Vatican.

"I'm confident in the Catholic Church's ability to engage Muslims, to develop working relationships," he says. "When it comes to evangelizing in Latin America, can we compete with the Pentecostals? Yes, I think we'll find ways to do that. But in terms of what are obviously vitally important issues in the United States regarding women? This is going to be particularly difficult."

He thinks the cardinals will want to "do it all" in finding a man who can tangle with Western liberals and can also deal with Islamic fundamentalism and poverty in the developing world. But they'll probably have to settle on someone who can tackle one of these gigantic problems. Which one, though?

"How are these collision of visions going to play itself out in the next papacy?" Fredericks asks. "I just don't know." And he adds: "I don't think the cardinals know either."

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