The Catholic Church is currently at one of the more important stages in its leadership cycle: The transition from one pope to another. Just a few weeks ago, Pope Benedict XVI announced that he would be stepping down from the Papacy and retiring to a monastery to focus more on prayer and meditation. He will be the first pope to step down in several centuries.
Shortly, the Cardinals will assemble in Rome to choose a new Pope, and the 24/7 media coverage surrounding the rich ceremonies of their election will begin. The Catholic Church will be at the center of world wide media coverage — and for good reason: With over a billion members and huge humanitarian operations in every corner of the world, the Catholic Church is one of the most important non-governmental institutions in the world.
The new pope will need the leadership and strength of character to guide the Church and its faithful followers through a precarious time in the history of the institution. An increasingly visible geographic and doctrinal disconnect between Church membership and leadership will prove a significant challenge for the new pontiff. Mass attendance in the western world is declining, slowly in America and rather drastically in Europe, even in places historically viewed as Catholic strongholds, such as Ireland. Rising secularism, strong public backlash and internal dissatisfaction regarding institutional cover-ups of sordid scandals will need to be addressed — and much more actively than they have in the past. The Church’s stances — especially its approach to contraception — have drawn significant scrutiny, especially as it relates to public health problems in the developing world and new health insurance mandates in the United States.
The new pope will hopefully bring fresh insight to these problems. He will need the strength and foresight to take stands on important Church teachings while also enacting progress on issues that need to change. The new pope should stand up for the fundamental beliefs of the Church. All of the Church’s teachings regarding beginning-of-life issues, for instance, stand as a guiding light for the Church’s actions in the world. The new pope must be a strong advocate for those teachings and others and a man of sufficient integrity to advocate for these beliefs even in light of sometimes deep and grave opposition.
But at the same time, perhaps the next bishop of Rome will be able to enact changes that the Church so desperately needs. Hopefully, he will shift more of the Church’s institutional power to social issues. Advancing the ideas of Catholic social teaching is an important and sometimes neglected duty of the Holy Father. As the Church’s membership undergoes a demographic shift from Europe and North America to Africa and Asia, the Church will need to push for economic and social justice. It must be made expressly clear that socioeconomic issues, particularly in the developing world, are issues of life just as much as the use of contraceptives.
In addition, almost certainly, the new pope will have to continue to press for changes in how the Church deals with sexual abuse and any other sins committed regularly under its supervision. With luck, these types of changes will allow the Church to flourish in new environments in the developing world and regain some of its lost strength in America and Europe.
We need a Holy Father with leadership and integrity for the 21st century and one with the ability to address challenges in a rapidly changing world. He will have to deftly balance the preservation of tradition with the progression of necessary change. He will have to adapt the Church to the needs of its newest members while ministering to those burned by scandal and shame in the West. The election of the next pope will determine whether or not the Church thrives or falters in the coming decades and how the largest church in the world will minister to its faithful. Saint Peter, pray for us.

Pat Gavin and Alex Honjiyo are seniors in the College and School of Foreign Service, respectively. AGGIORNAMENTO appears every other Tuesday.

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