VATICAN CITY - The next pope will need to address an accelerating loss of religious faith in the West, a growing gap between the rich and poor and the lack of trust between Roman Catholics and Muslims, three American cardinals said yesterday.
The three were Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, D.C., Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago and Cardinal Adam Maida of Detroit, who spoke in separate interviews at their temporary residence at the Pontifical North American College before entering the conclave that will elect a new pope.
George, of Chicago, spoke of "an aggressive secularization" that challenged church doctrine. "We live in a society where freedom has also come to mean sexual freedom," he said. "The church teaching isn't going to change, so the question is how do we live our faith in this society."
He called the growing gap between rich and poor countries a "scandal for the global church" - a gap that Maida called the single most daunting challenge for the church in the United States.
"I think of how in many ways we are blessed," Maida said. "But in many ways we have a responsibility to share that. Our country needs to better address that."
At the Vatican, cardinals meeting at the Apostolic Palace announced no date for convening the conclave to elect the new pope, and continued introducing themselves to one another.
The three American cardinals said they would not act as a voting bloc when electing a successor to Pope John Paul II. "A bloc would be resented. That's not the dynamic of the conclave," George said. "This is an exercise in unity."
A fourth American cardinal, Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, said, "All of these cardinals come together to choose according to their conscience."
But there is significant common ground. All four cardinals pointed to interfaith relations, particularly with Muslims, as major issue for the next pontiff.
All four men were circumspect about the debate over the Vatican's centralization of authority at the expense of local bishops. Critics of John Paul II in the United States complained that bishops had been stripped of significant decision-making.
George, of Chicago, acknowledged that the issue may be addressed in the conclave the chooses a new pope.
None of the cardinals would comment in detail about the conclave or discuss who might be emerging as favored candidates for pope.
McCarrick headed off a question by holding his hands up, "There are 117 folks in the world forbidden to speculate," he said referring to the number of cardinals eligible to join the conclave.
A Brazilian cardinal told Italian state radio that he expected the conclave would choose a new pope quickly, a prediction that immediately caused a stir.
"It may become a concern," George said, "if it becomes a situation where cardinals are disagreeing with each other" in public.
Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles was also at the Pontifical North American College. Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore and Cardinal Edward Egan of New York were expected to arrive in Rome today.