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POPE JOHN PAUL II: Paying Respects, But Also Hoping for a Miracle

Katherine Stapp

NEW YORK, Apr 6 2005 (IPS) - Reform-minded Catholic groups in the United States are praying the successor to John Paul II will prove more receptive to softening church doctrine on contraception, abortion, homosexuality and women’s equality, although they acknowledge that these issues are probably not high on the Vatican agenda.

”Being a Catholic, I’m always open to miracles,” said Jon O’Brien, vice president of the Washington-based Catholics for a Free Choice. ”But as a realist, I also think the decks have been stacked on these issues.”

Noting that all but three of the 117 cardinals voting for the next pope were appointed by John Paul II, whose tenure saw the replacement of liberal bishops from the school of liberation theology with younger men without much pastoral experience, O’Brien said it was unlikely that radical change would be forthcoming anytime soon.

”However, if a conservative of similar ilk gets in, that might be the push too far,” he added. ”In the wake of the sex abuse scandal (in the Catholic church), the tolerance level for a dominant hierarchy telling people what to do is very thin. It might be just what reformers in the church need.”

The Vatican estimates that about two million pilgrims have paid their respects at St. Peter’s Basilica, where the pope’s body now lies in state. John Paul II has been widely praised as a champion of human freedom and dignity who worked tirelessly to make the church truly global in character and ethnicity.

But many Catholics also say they felt alienated by his unwavering stance on birth control (forbidden, even for married couples) and condom use to prevent disease transmission, and his intolerance of any discussion of women entering the priesthood.

On Mar. 11, shortly before his death, the pope told a group of Tanzanian bishops that ”fidelity within marriage and abstinence outside are the only sure ways to limit the further spread of AIDS infection.”

He had previously declared the use of birth control to be ”intrinsically illicit”.

”In the global North, most Catholics already use contraception, so to a large extent Rome’s stance is irrelevant,” O’Brien said. ”But in developing countries, people are actually dying, and the reality is they have to speak out on the issue.”

Today, two in three Catholics are from Asia, Africa and Latin America, regions that suffer tragically high rates of infant and maternal mortality. The United Nations estimates that more than 200 million women have an unmet need for safe and effective contraception, and that family planning alone could reduce maternal deaths by 25 percent.

”The pope wrote quite a lot about women’s dignity and women’s equality,” said Aisha Taylor of the Women’s Ordination Conference in Virginia, which lobbies for women to be allowed into the priesthood. ”Which is ironic because then he turned around and barred them from governing structures in the church.”

Under John Paul II’s leadership, the Code of Canon Law was revised in 1983 to encourage women to take a wider role, especially at the diocesan level, where they were allowed to serve as eucharistic ministers and on parish committees.

However, he was rigid on the subject of women’s ordination, issuing an apostolic letter in 1994 declaring that ”the church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women, and that this judgment is to be definitively held for all the church’s faithful.”

Still, in opening doors to women to assume new roles and responsibilities, Taylor believes that the pope may have unwittingly advanced the cause of women’s ordination – a position now supported by 70 percent of U.S. Catholics.

”These writings are now in the church canons and can’t be taken back,” she said. ”It’s like Thomas Jefferson (the third U.S. president) writing that ‘all men are created equal’. Of course, he meant ‘all white, landowning men’, but his words ultimately helped inspire the abolitionist movement.”

While the field of front-runners for the next pope is largely conservative, not all share John Paul’s positions, and some say the College of Cardinals, which elects the successor, could make a surprising choice.

‘National Catholic Reporter’ Vatican correspondent John Allen, Jr. points out that, ”Colleges of cardinals appointed entirely by one pope do not elect a reproduction of that pope as his successor.”

He cited the example of Pope Pius XII, who appointed all but two of the 51 cardinals who elected his successor – the ”strikingly” different Pope John XXIII.

”There is some surprising diversity among the cardinals,” agreed Taylor. ”Of the four main groups, two are involved with church reform and social justice.”

Vatican watchers say the social justice contingent, which focuses on such worldly problems as globalisation, racial relations and the fight against AIDS, is the largest current, and represents many cardinals from developing nations, including Cardinal Juan Sandoval from Mexico, Cardinal Claudio Hummes from Brazil, and Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga from Honduras.

At the other end of the ideological spectrum is a grouping dubbed the ”cultural warriors”, who want to see the church’s conservative teachings on issues like abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research incorporated into civil law.

”From the beginning of his papacy right up to his deathbed, John Paul had appointed cardinals in his own image, which is the right-wing current of the church,” said O’Brien.

Of all the potential successors, O’Brien singled out Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium as the most moderate.

”He did say that using condoms to prevent HIV/AIDS is about stopping the transmission of death, not stopping the transmission of life,” O’Brien noted. ”And in this airless environment, saying something like that is a fresh breeze.”

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