VATICAN CITY – Cardinals from around the world are flocking to Rome for a daylong discussion of some of the most critical issues facing the Catholic church, including the sexual abuse of children by priests and persecution of Christians for their faith.
The meeting Friday comes on the eve of a ceremony, known as a consistory, to create 24 more cardinals, the third time Pope Benedict XVI has hand-picked the "princes of the church" who will eventually choose his successor.
Benedict's agenda for Friday's meeting — called to take advantage of the presence in Rome of the bulk of the world's cardinals — reflects his concerns about the challenges facing the church today. The main topic is religious freedom, a timely issue given frequent reports of Christians being targeted for their faith in Iraq and a new flap with communist China.
On Thursday, the Vatican said it was "disturbed by reports" that bishops loyal to the pope were being forced to attend the ordination of a bishop in China's state-backed church.
"If these reports are true, then the Holy See would consider such actions as grave violations of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience," the Vatican said.
Cardinal-designate Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, said the problem wasn't unique to China or parts of the world where Christians face violent expressions of intolerance. It exists in the Western, developed world, where Catholics increasingly are being denied their right to have freedom of conscience, he said.
"In the United States we've always prided ourselves on our freedom of religion, but increasingly it's being considered freedom of worship in a church as opposed to freedom of conscience," he said, citing Catholic hospitals that might be compelled to offer procedures such as abortion that would violate the conscience of staff.
"It's a fundamental right, freedom of conscience, and people need to have that freedom guaranteed," he said.
Other topics being discussed Friday are the sex abuse scandal, the Vatican's offer to let Anglicans convert en masse to Catholicism, relations with other Christians and the state of the liturgy in the church.
With such a full agenda and some 150 cardinals taking part, no major developments are expected, said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman.
"We're talking about communication, information, clarification and reflection on some issues, but certainly not a highly developed in-depth discussion," he said.
Nevertheless, Friday's consultations have the air of a pre-conclave, with cardinals new and old discussing the church's biggest problems and seeing who among them might be able to deal with them as pontiff.
Participants insist, as they always do, that their primary concern is to offer advice to Benedict and that they won't be checking out the "papabile" among them when they gather this weekend.
"I like to think that all that's in the hands of God," Wuerl told The Associated Press. "We have a long, long time before we have to address that."
Maybe so, but Benedict is 83. While he enjoys robust health and shows no sign of slowing down, it's not clear how many more cardinals he'll appoint since he's averaged one consistory every two years or so.
As it is, with Saturday's new cardinals he will have chosen 40 percent of the 203-strong College of Cardinals, infusing the elite group with conservative, tradition-minded prelates like himself and nearly ensuring that a future pope won't radically change the direction of the church.
Of those 203, only 121 are under age 80 and thus eligible to vote in a conclave.
The cardinals' Class of 2011 is heavily Italian, due mostly to the fact that the Vatican bureaucracy is heavily Italian and Benedict named a slew of new Vatican officials recently who get red hats because of their jobs.
Their numbers have swelled the Italian bloc within the college — Italians will have 25 electors, nearly half of Europe's voting-age cardinals — leading to speculation that the papacy could swing back to the Italians following a Polish and German pope.
Half of the newly named electors are Vatican bureaucrats. Others are archbishops of major archdioceses; in addition to Wuerl of Washington, the archbishops of Kinshasa, Congo; Aparecida, Brazil; and Benedict's old archdiocese Munich are being elevated.
Benedict is giving Sri Lanka its only cardinal in Colombo Archbishop Albert Malcolm Ranjith Patagendige Don, a former high-ranking Vatican official known to share Benedict's tradition-minded sense of the liturgy.
Another tradition-minded prelate is Archbishop Raymond Burke, an American who leads the Vatican's supreme court and has been sharply critical of the U.S. Democratic Party for its support of abortion rights.
The pope has also tapped the Coptic Catholic patriarch of Alexandria, Egypt, Antonios Naguib, who recently ran a two-week meeting of Mideast bishops at the Vatican to discuss the plight of Christians in hostile lands.