WASHINGTON -- The astonishing pilgrimage of Europeans to Vatican City for the most attended funeral in history obscured a stark fact confronting the conclave that on Monday begins selecting the next pope: Vatican City is 109 acres of faith in a European sea of unbelief.
Poles, especially, traveled to Rome to honor John Paul II. But what was said of Georges Clemenceau -- that he had one illusion, France, and one disillusion, mankind, including the French -- might, with some exaggeration, be said of John Paul II and Poland. He was vexed by the zeal with which Poles, liberated from the asceticism inflicted by communism, embraced consumerism, materialism and hedonism. From Catholic Ireland to Catholic Spain to Poland, the most Catholic nation, the trends of contraception, divorce and abortion are moving against Catholic teaching.
The challenge confronting the church can be expressed in one word: modernity. The church preaches that freedom is life lived in conformity to God's will as manifested in revelation and interpreted by the church. Modernity teaches that freedom is the sovereignty of the individual's will -- personal volition that is spontaneous, unconditioned, inviolable and self-legitimizing.
John Paul II's mastery of the presentational aspect of the papacy -- a mastery dependent on two modern technologies, television and jet aircraft -- may cause the conclave to seek a candidate with similar skills. But the substance of what he presented did not amount to accommodation with the culture of modernity.
In America, a market-driven society, there is a religion market in which the most successful competitors for congregations are churches with clear doctrinal and strict moral positions. For these churches, the ``crisis of Christianity'' is congestion in their parking lots.
Christianity is a varied and complex structure -- theological and institutional -- erected on a foundation of biblical prophecies and reports of the activities of Jesus. For two millennia these prophecies and reports have been, to say no more, subject to various interpretations. Hence the search, from the earliest days of Christianity, for sources of authoritative interpretation. That search produced great councils -- Nicaea, Trent -- and the post-Reformation papacy. When the conclave begins, a European epoch may begin to end.