New Pope. Same church?
The lobby group for women priests will be burning pink smoke during the conclave, gay-rights activists are getting ready to protest in Rome, and we can expect much else besides, especially from the lobbies for the victims of clerical sex abuse. To protest when a much-loved figure such as John Paul II died seemed utterly inappropriate. To protest now, well, that’s different.
Discussing modern issues
Even if the conclave ran off against a background of tranquillity, many of the “modern” issues that dogged Benedict’s pontificate will have to be discussed not just in the conclave but also in the meetings the cardinals will hold in Rome beforehand.
Relations with Islam; relations with the Jews; sexual mores; the clerical sex-abuse crisis; the role of traditionalist groups such as the Lefebrvists; the fall-off in first-world vocations; ecumenism; the growth of groups such as the Association of Catholic Priests of Ireland (there are others all over Europe); the persecution of Christians in parts of Africa and the Middle East; Catholic divorcees denied the Eucharist; these and others are all issues that sure to be in the cardinals’ minds, if only because these are some of the many challenges that will face the new Pope.
As to who it will be, the field is wide open. Most church insiders say the new Pope will have to be young – that is, in his late 50s or early 60s – vigorous, in excellent health and, of course, a stout defender of the fundamental tenets of Catholic teaching. After that, the geographical question of a European or a non-European pope is secondary. First of all, he has to be able to do the job whether he comes from Milan or Manila.
What will almost certainly be debated over the next six weeks is the Eurocentric nature of Benedict’s pontificate; his insistence that the traditional home of the church had to become the theatre of a new evangelisation. With the church in relative crisis in the developed world, this might seem to make sense. Yet, given that Europe now represents 277 million Catholics, or 23.7 per cent of the universal church, does it really make sense? Has the time come to radically change tack?
Another unprecedented aspect of this conclave concerns Benedict himself. He will take no physical part; that is clear. But will the fact that he is having his tea and playing his piano just a couple of hundred metres round the corner influence anyone?
In his address to the Roman priests on Thursday, for example, Benedict spoke at length about Vatican II, appearing to attribute misunderstandings and “banalisations” of the council to the media. Was he saying that his successor would do well to prepare himself a strong PR machine, something manifestly lacking in Benedict’s pontificate?
When Benedict was elected, many saw him as someone who would steer the Catholic Church through the transitionary period that would follow the 27-year pontificate of John Paul II. That time has passed. Many in the church may now be ready for change. But is the college of cardinals equally ready?