What on earth is a pope for? And why should it matter to the world who he is or what his talents are, so long as he is a good man and preaches the gospel?
On Tuesday, the cardinals will enter the papal conclave to discuss the problems of the Roman Catholic Church in the world and the kind of man best suited to tackle them.
Their debates will be shaped by the times. On the brink of the Second World War, they chose a diplomat pope, hoping in vain that he would bring a negotiated peace before conflict began. After Paul VI, an anxious reformer who had struggled with the sexual and other social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, they wanted a cheerful, uncomplicated, pastoral pope who would stress the need for prayer.
(Unfortunately, John Paul I, the “smiling Pope,” lasted barely five weeks – the cardinals realized too late that they had chosen a man in fragile health. They next chose the young, physically robust cardinal who would become the papal superstar John Paul II.)
Sometimes, during a long papacy, the problems alter drastically. In the 1980s and 1990s, John Paul II had a hand in bringing down communism and ending the Cold War, which benefited East and West, Catholics and non-Catholics. He said, “The tree was already rotten. I just gave it a good shake.” After the fall of communism, however, John Paul was fearful of the dark side of unrestrained capitalism and the growth of secularism and materialism, especially in his native Poland.
He was an example of the strong moral voice a pope can bring to global affairs, speaking truth to power even when governments choose to ignore his teachings. In 1991, I followed John Paul on a trip to Sicily, where he fearlessly denounced the corruption of the Mafia on their own territory. He was popular throughout the world, even among many not bound by Catholic beliefs.
Catholicism is nothing if not social, committed to the principles of the Sermon on the Mount, antagonistic to the status quo. Catholicism is radical, communitarian, open to all cultures and ethnicities – hence “catholic,” universal.
Yet, the great difficulty of every pope is that he is the final protector of traditional belief. The Catholic Church is evidently a conservative institution. It does not pander to the latest fads and fashions; it is vigilant over its traditions of belief and practice. It does not fall into the trap of believing that, unaided by grace, human nature is perfectible.
How can a pope – who, in combination with his bishops, is regarded as infallible in faith and morals – change course once he has proclaimed the dogma? And yet how can he not engage with the real world, the changes in society and politics, as well as scientific knowledge?
Hans Küng, the Swiss dissident Catholic theologian and former friend of Benedict XVI, has written of the papacy: “A change, indeed a radical revolution, has to come, given the present accumulation of problems.”
Threats to the Church
A pope must try to protect the Church against threats of every kind, at the highest level.
There are many external threats to the Church today. In China, the regime has created a government-sponsored hierarchy of bishops in competition with those appointed by the Vatican. In parts of Africa, Catholic churches and their congregations are being targeted in Christian-Muslim conflicts. In the United States and Britain, many parts of the Church find themselves at odds with the papacy over equal-rights policies.
Yet, more than in any era since the Protestant Reformation, the pope who resigned last month has been deeply engrossed with internal rather than external threats to the Church.
High on the agenda is the clerical sexual-abuse scandal, still rocking the Church. The cardinals must choose someone who has had no executive or pastoral responsibilities for pedophile priests. But there is a danger that the clerical-abuse problem is obscuring deep internal structural problems that need urgent attention.
There are two major questions, on which a host of other issues depend: first, the scope and limits of the power of the pope and the Curia (the Vatican bureaucracy); and next, what does it mean to be an authentic Catholic today?