Rope a pope

The Australian follows up this weekend's low-key celebration of the twenty-sixth anniversary of John Paul II's election to the papacy with a piece on what will go into deciding the next pope. Author Peter Wilson does a good (read: short, witty, informed) job of laying out how the leadership of the Catholic Church has changed in the last few decades, and how this should influence the decision of the College of Cardinals. One factor is that the turnover has been almost 100 percent since last time. Wilson explains: "Due to rules that strip cardinals of their vote when they reach 80, only three of the 122 electors have previously taken part in the ancient ritual." And if the pope lasts a few more years, that number may dwindle to zero. Also, the makeup of the College has shifted. This means that the "vast majority" of cardinals "have barely met" and it also means that, should they decide to vote as blocks, cardinals from Latin America should have more influence, Italians less.

This is important because the College's choice to elevate Karol Wojtyla to pope in 1978 was a precedent-breaking decision. He was the first non-Italian pope in nearly 500 years. His election came after his predecessor was found dead in bed after only a month on the job, which gave many cardinals the wild idea that maybe their Boss had something else in mind. So they did something extraordinary. After failing to come up with the then-necessary two-thirds vote for a few other candidates, they installed the anti-Communist bishop from Poland in the chair of St. Peter.

As for theological issues at the next go-round, Wilson writes that there is "little doubt [JPII's] successor will share his conservative theological doctrine. There will be no revisiting of abortion, contraception, celibacy for priests, or female ordination under the next pope." That's probably true but it's too limited a look at what's happening in the church. For Catholic social teaching, I've never bought the John-Paul-II-as-classical liberal line that some conservatives have advanced, but the rising influence of Catholics from what we used to call Third World countries (and Philip Jenkins has called the global South), and the anti-liberal political instincts that they bring along, may make the current pope look like Ayn Rand by contrast.

Other issues:

1) There is a priest shortage. The next pope will either have to find some way to convince more Catholics to put on clerical collars or expand lay participation, perhaps by expanding the involvement and responsibilities of deacons.

2) Then there is the question of Latin Mass Catholics and other staunch traditionalists. Most are willing to allow happy-clappy silly masses as long as they can have their own ancient liturgies, but many bishops resist this. A pope could solve a lot of problems by ordering the bishops to go along.

3) John Paul II: great preacher, lousy administrator. Wilson suggests that the College will want a pope who will work on the governance of the church, perhaps an Italian, who will be better at keeping the Vatican bureaucracy in line and who will keep a closer eye on the scandals that bishops have shown a remarkable ability to get mired in.

Wilson quotes sources who suggest that the College will want an Italian to do this but the bottom line is that nobody knows. The article ably explains:

John Paul's longevity and the constant turnover of voting cardinals have also meant an endlessly changing field of candidates to replace him, with several generations of hot favorites now dead, retired or out of favor. Clerics, academics and professional observers in Rome say the present field is perhaps the most wide open and confusing for a century, with no dominant candidates.

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