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New pope doesn't mean new doctrine, experts say

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Pope Benedict XVI's abdication is unlikely to lead to big changes on major issues, experts say.


Some Catholic progressives view the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI as an opportunity for the church to usher in a more liberal era, but many Vatican watchers don't see big changes on the horizon.

NBC News' Vatican expert, George Weigel, said hot-button issues like women in the priesthood, contraception and abortion won't be game-changers in the selection of a successor because all the serious contenders will have the same solidly traditional positions.

"The notion that a papal transition is like getting a new president or governor or mayor is a false analogy," Weigel said.

Rocco Palmo, who writes the blog "Whispers in the Loggia," agrees.

"The teaching of the church is the teaching of the church and it's not a pope’s prerogative to change it," he said.

Weigel contends the new pope won't be under any serious pressure to loosen the doctrine because the factions of the church that "agitate these questions are dying."

Courtesy FutureChurch

Chris Schenk, executive director of FutureChurch, says there's the possibility of change with the selection of a new pope, but not everyone agrees.

"In the United States, 250,000 people came into the Catholic Church last Easter," he said. "Those people are not embracing 'Catholic Lite.' They're embracing the new Catholic evangelism."

Sister Chris Schenk, executive director of the progressive FutureChurch coalition, said her hope is that a progressive will break away from the pack and that one day soon there could be married priests or female deacons.

"Whether it happens in this next papacy or the one after that, I don't know, but I think it will happen," she said.

She pointed to Pope John XXIII, who was not expected to bring great change when he was elected in the 1958 but later opened the Second Vatican Council, which led to modern reforms.

Palmo, though, said Vatican II didn't alter the substance of church teachings, just the "articulation of it," such as allowing Mass to be said in the local language instead of Latin, and involving more lay people in the liturgy.

"There's style and there's substance, and when we're talking substance, no change," he said.

Weigel said that when the conclave begins, the papal candidates will likely be evaluated on how well they can handle a set of less polemical challenges:

— Europe's Catholic population is declining, and the College of Cardinals will be looking for a leader who can encourage "off-brand" charismatic renewal movements that are gaining strength outside the parishes, but without letting them "careen off into the bizarre," Weigel said.

— The new pope will need the tools to promote religious freedom internationally and confront efforts to equate "biblical morality" with intolerance, Weigel said.

— The Roman Curia, which is essentially the bureaucracy of the Holy See, is in desperate need of adminstrative reform, Weigel said. The cardinals could decide that should be the top priority and choose a new pope who can get the job done, "someone who can tackle it themselves or will understand they need to hire a cardinal to be secretary of state and make it work," he said.


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