The election of a new pope is high drama, full of history and mystery. But to understand what's ahead for the Catholic Church in the United States, you also need to look at a far less momentous transition here in Washington not long ago.
Georgetown University, run for more than two centuries by Jesuit priests, chose a layman as its president in 2001, the first in its history. John J. DeGioia joined thousands of lay Catholics around the country who occupy top positions at church-sponsored colleges, hospitals, clinics, newspapers, orphanages and schools.
John J. DeGioia is Georgetown University's first lay leader.
The ranks of priests and nuns in the United States have been shrinking for a generation. Today, there simply aren't enough ordained leaders to run the vast Catholic Church in America -- a network of worship, education and social services that makes up the largest non-governmental organization in the country.
One result: the shift of responsibility, from the pews to the colleges, to lay leaders such as DeGioia. This change cuts across many of the toughest issues facing the American church, according to interviews with a range of clergy and lay leaders in recent days.
It shoves forward questions about who makes decisions, and how; where the church places its priorities, and why; whether the trend toward fewer priests can be reversed and what steps that might require. Most of all, does more responsibility in lay hands mean less power for the clergy -- from priests to bishops to the pope himself?
Questions like these will confront American Catholics no matter who is picked for the throne of St. Peter.
Pope John Paul II, who died April 2 after one of history's longest papacies, strengthened the traditional arrangements of power -- to the satisfaction of some Catholics and the frustration of others. The next pope can also take sides, if he chooses, in the coming power struggle. Or he can try to mediate, through the signals he sends and the principles he underlines.
But the church is too big for every battle to be waged from Rome, said Wilton D. Gregory, the archbishop of Atlanta, who recently completed a term as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"The Holy Father coordinates," Gregory explained. "He points us in a direction. But it is the bishops who have to solve the problems in their own communities. What Rome does is say, 'Go for it.' "
Or, perhaps, go at it.
"A peculiar part of the American culture is that we don't express our love by being silent -- we express it by arguing over it," said Patricia A. McGuire, president of Trinity College in Washington -- like DeGioia, a lay person leading a prominent Catholic institution. "We're a big, sprawling nation with a huge cultural divide."
The math is not in dispute. The number of priests is down 28 percent over the past generation, and the number of Catholics is up 33 percent. The average priest is more than 60 years old, and far more priests die each year than are ordained. About 1 in 6 parishes have no priest, compared with 1 in 26 in 1975. The decline among monks and nuns is even more dramatic.
Nor do most Catholics dispute the idea that these trends are important. The dwindling corps of priests ranks just behind the clergy sex-abuse scandal as the top concern of American Catholics, according to an in-depth poll by sociologists at the Catholic University of America in 2003.
"If you were to ask most people what they think of when it comes to issues for the Catholic Church, you'd probably hear about sexual ethics -- contraception, abortion, homosexuality," said David Yamane, a Wake Forest sociologist who studies American Catholicism. "But in the trenches, the biggest problem is the priest shortage."