The many faces of the church
By Greg Botelho
(CNN) -- There is one Roman Catholic Church, headquartered in the Vatican. Then there are thousands of churches -- located in rural and metropolitan, traditional and progressive, affluent and impoverished communities worldwide.
From Manila to Marseilles, New York to Nairobi, more than one billion Catholics belong to these churches, each with their own major influences and issues.
Pope Benedict XVI, formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, will be charged with guiding and serving this diverse, dispersed and demanding membership.
"He's got to be in touch -- to listen, to speak and to pray -- so as to keep a sense of unity among people who see things differently," said the Rev. James Halstead, chairman of religious studies at DePaul University.
In some cases, Catholics' differences lie with the Vatican itself. South African bishop Kevin Dowling, for instance, has broken with the church in promoting condom use -- something he hopes could curb the spread of AIDS, but that the Vatican says does not respect the sanctity of life.
A recent poll of U.S. Catholics showed that a majority support changes to church policy on issues such as birth control, stem cell research and allowing priests to marry.
"The church has become quite polarized between the right and left," said the Rev. Keith Pecklers, a professor at Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Italy. "[Pope Benedict XVI] will very much need to deal with this kind of polarization."
Besides those issues, Benedict must also function in a media and technological age in which he can travel easily and transmit messages instantly. Addressing a lack of clergy and aging church population in the West and intense competition for adherents in Africa (from Islam) and South America (from Pentecostals and evangelicals) head a roster of other pressing issues, according to experts.
"It's a very different world," said the Rev. Robert Sullivan, head of Notre Dame University's Erasmus Institute. "[Benedict] faces a more complicated set of problems than John Paul II did in 1978."
Reaching out in the modern world
In 26 years as pontiff, John Paul traveled to 129 countries on 104 foreign trips, far more than any of his predecessors. Technical innovations helped make the globetrotting possible, advancing the former pope's goal of reaching out to Catholics worldwide, experts said.
In his book "Papal Power," Australian priest Paul Collins wrote that by traveling so widely and using mass media so well, the pope created "an entirely new situation in church history: the seemingly omnipresent papacy."
Benedict will travel, but maintaining his predecessor's pace could be difficult, said John Allen, a National Catholic Reporter correspondent and CNN analyst. Allen cited the physical limits of the pope's age (he just turned 78) and his temperament, saying Benedict is less gregarious and theatrical than his predecessor.
Still, Halstead said, a modern pope must leave Rome to be effective.
"What he's got to do is travel, make himself visible, reach out and touch people," he said.
The church can also embrace other elements of technology -- from television to the Internet -- to address existing followers and attract new ones, wrote Professor Neil Ormerod, head of the theology and philosophy department at Australian Catholic University's Sydney campus, in an e-mail interview with CNN.com.
"Modern technology has made centralization easier to achieve," Ormerod wrote. "Instant communication and the possibility of instant response ... could allow for greater dialogue and collegiality. But so far, this has not occurred. It could be used to build bridges or just to issue central commands."
Some experts are skeptical that Benedict will embrace modernity, believing he will instead focus more on internal church changes than on reaching out globally. That said, he remains -- by definition -- the leader of hundreds of millions of Catholics in most every corner of the world.
"As pope, he has to be the pastor of everyone," Allen said.
Growth, complexity to the south
More and more, the temporary structure in the Kitisuru neighborhood of Nairobi, Kenya, teems with parishioners -- about 500, more than 12 times the number when the church formed in 2003.
The Rev. Martin Ndegwa attributes the growth to the church's incorporation of native traditions.
"Bringing the [Catholic] faith, not just the way it came from Europe ... but interpreting that [in harmony with] the cultural set-up ... has made it more in tune with the people, linking their belief and their way of life with their religion," Ndegwa said.
About 150 years ago, Catholic missionaries began arriving in Africa -- trying, often unsuccessfully, to spread their faith.
"They used to say that Africa [was] the missionary graveyard," said John Maugbekanliho of Sacred Heart Parish in Badgary, Nigeria.
But the expansion of this Kenya parish mirrors a recent continent-wide trend. About 140 million Catholics live in Africa -- 2.5 times more than in 1978. That number also makes up about 13 percent of the church's worldwide membership, compared with 1 percent in 1900.
More than 400 million Catholics, meanwhile, live in Latin America, more than in any other region, including Europe.
Sullivan said high birthrates account for some of this surge in developing nations. But he added that very fact could be related to religion, noting that the Vatican opposes birth control and abortion.
Yet the numbers are not all good for the church. Half a century ago, for example, 90 percent of Latin Americans identified themselves as Roman Catholic; today that figure is 70 percent, a drop that corresponds with a rise in the number of Pentecostals, particularly in Brazil.
The case of Bishop Dowling, moreover, is one of many in which some Catholics (including local leaders) are at odds with Vatican policy.
"We have to develop a theology ... that takes [into account the] reality of people's lives here," Dowling told CNN, claiming that promoting condom use does not undermine the church's pro-life policy. "We've got to develop ... a hopeful response."
Similar divisions exist in Latin America over sex, culture and other subjects. There, as elsewhere, the hot topics (and complications) might vary by country, by region, even from church-to-church and individual-to-individual, according to Halstead.
"A goodly number of people in the Third World, if you ask them what they think, [say] we love the pope, but he doesn't know how our lives are," he said. "Don't underestimate the independent thoughts of poor people."
That could prove problematic for Benedict, according to Ormerod, should he concentrate on strengthening the church in Europe at the expense of maintaining and enlarging the ranks in developing nations where other faiths are competing for adherents.
"The new pope's vision is largely Euro-centric, and he will find this a difficult challenge," Ormerod wrote. "His focus is on secularization in Europe, while the big issue is the confrontation of religions in Asia, Africa [and Latin America]."
The open-minded approach of St. Francis Xavier Church in Manhattan flies in the face of some conservative Catholic doctrines advocated by the Vatican.
"We try to welcome those who may have felt alienated from the institutional," said the Rev. Matthew Roche. "They can find a home here."
The parish embraces not only the disabled and seeing-eye dogs, but also gay and lesbian couples.
"The bottom line is my faith and my belief in God," said Harold Forbes, who attends St. Frances Xavier with his partner, Bill Mulloy. "My dialogue with God or Jesus is separate from the church."
The Second Vatican Council gave hope to many reformers keen on liberalizing the church and its doctrines. Yet Pope John Paul II helped to stifle this impetus by taking conservative stances on issues like homosexuality, contraception and stem cell research.
A recent poll showed that a majority of U.S. Catholics disagreed with the Vatican on those matters. Such sentiments are echoed by fellow followers in Western Europe, according to experts, as well as some in developing nations. The appointment of Pope Benedict, widely viewed as a conservative, riled some in Latin America, for instance.
"It seems that he is too conservative," Jurandir Arauj of the National Conference of Bishops' Afro-Brazilian Section told Reuters. "We expected a person ... who could give the church alternatives [and] open the church to the world; look more at reality."
Experts say this political and cultural divide might help explain the decline in churchgoing in Europe, where most identify themselves as Catholic but many are less conservative on social, sexual, political and other issues than the church hierarchy.
A recent visit to a church in Marseilles, France, illustrates this problem: The structure is woven into the culture but is cavernous even on Sundays, except for a few, often elderly, parishioners.
"It's a frightening thing," said John Wilkins of The Tablet, an independent Catholic newspaper based in Britain. "To go to France, the elder daughter of the church, it's always called, and you get the feeling the church has gone away."
Yet despite significant drops in new priests, the church's power base still lies in Europe. Just over half the cardinals are from the continent, with 38 in Italy alone.
Moreover, a higher standard of living and average education level in Western nations tends to produce followers who are opinionated, self-involved and less reliant on Catholic services, for the poor and homeless, for instance, experts said.
"The old notion of run to God with your troubles, that will have to be supplemented with how do you be rich and religious at the same time," said Halstead, who also preaches in Chicago, Illinois, of the situation facing many U.S. and European churches.
"And once you've got an economic development plan working [in developing nations], you'll have to develop a spiritual life that goes with living better there, too."
Faith 'a personal thing'
As people increasingly focus more on their careers, amassing wealth and other personal matters, they tend to devote less time to rituals and other means that unite communities -- including members of the same religion -- Sullivan said.
"There are very few ritual occasions in modern society, and rituals are ways of overcoming individualism," he said. "What is obvious about our society is that we're individuals."
Whereas once people may have identified themselves by their family and their faith, today sports teams, political parties, alma maters, community groups and other organizations vie for allegiances.
"There are many more influences on people's lives than decades ago," Halstead said. "The church is one voice among many."
The pope, too, must fight to be heard in today's world. Blind adherence to Vatican policy has become more and more rare, experts added.
An influx of information and options makes today's Catholics more demanding spiritually as well -- asking for help not only to meet their material needs, but also psychologically, as they cope with the hustle and stresses of modern life.
More and more, Sullivan said, spirituality has become about one's personal relationship with God -- as opposed to one's place within a larger religious community or culture.
"Where do we find meaning? It's partially from families, [extracurricular] commitments, education and work, but also from reflection," he said. "It's very much a personal thing."
CNN's Maria Hinojosa, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Tumi Makgabo and Walt Rodgers contributed to this report.
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