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Issue Date:  April 22, 2005

Catholic crossroads

Papal electors to weigh complex issues -- and 'funeral effect'


This week in Rome feels a bit like the period leading up to the Super Bowl, with all manner of forecasts and predictions floating through the air, even though everyone realizes that the game is played when the two teams take the field, not before. Everyone from Vatican officials to cab drivers has a hot pick for the next pope, but these conversations generally have the feel more of an office pool than a serious analysis.

Behind closed doors, conversations are taking place this week among the 115 cardinal electors who will select the next pope, but at least three factors make their work especially complicated:

  • They are seeking the best candidate, not just the best Italian, meaning they’re casting a much wider net than in most previous elections;
  • There is no one obvious front-runner, as in 1939 with Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, or 1963 with Cardinal Gianbattista Montini (both of whom were elected, belying the notion that papal elections are always impossible to predict);
  • There is no one obvious issue looming over the conclave, as in 1878 with the “Roman question,” meaning whether the Vatican should make peace with the new Italian Republic, or 1963, with the question of whether the Second Vatican Council should go forward. This time there’s a whole cluster of issues.

Further, there is the wildcard factor that has come to be known in Rome this week as the “funeral effect.” While many cardinals were talking well before John Paul’s death about the need for the next pope to be slightly more engaged with the day-to-day business of running the Catholic church, the stunning outpouring of devotion witnessed during the period in which John Paul’s body lay in state at St. Peter’s Basilica, and then again at his April 8 funeral Mass, has at least some cardinals now saying that the next pope must have an analogous capacity to connect with people. Though no one can duplicate Wojtyla’s charisma, the next man will have to be someone who can reach out, inspire and motivate people, especially the young.

All of this makes the politics of selecting the next pope terribly complex, because there is a widespread sense among the electors that much hangs on this election. On many fronts, cardinals are saying, the church stands at a crossroads, and momentous decisions await the next pope.

Of course, their sense of what’s at stake does not always mirror that of the outside world. The cardinals are not debating birth control or abortion or homosexuality, even though these questions tend to preoccupy Western minds. No one in the College of Cardinals seriously believes there will be major changes on these matters under the next pontificate (with the minor caveat that the Vatican might become somewhat more tolerant of the use of condoms to control the spread of HIV/AIDS, as there has already been some movement in that direction under the current regime).

Three main ‘voting issues’

Instead, when one speaks with cardinals now gathered in Rome, three topics tend to surface repeatedly as “voting issues”: governance, secularity and Islam.

As already mentioned, there has been grumbling for some time among some cardinals, as well as within the Vatican, that John Paul II’s style was so directed to the outside world -- through his travels, his documents, his ecumenical and interreligious outreach -- that to some extent he neglected the internal administration of the church.

“His charism was almost entirely directed ad extra,” one European cardinal said April 9. “He was not preoccupied with what was going on here in Rome. It just was not his cup of tea.”

For Americans, perhaps the most obvious manifestation of this inattention to internal business would be the sexual abuse crisis. Many American Catholics wanted John Paul II to intervene earlier and more aggressively to insist that bishops be held accountable if they failed to adequately supervise their priests, thereby placing children at risk of abuse. Instead, the pope treated the crisis as largely a matter for the local church to resolve, restricting himself to general statements of repugnance at sexual abuse and confidence in the American bishops.

Even in the Vatican itself, many observers insist, there was at times a striking lack of coordination and oversight in the John Paul years. One comical, yet telling, example came with the fracas over what John Paul either did or did not say regarding the Mel Gibson movie “The Passion of the Christ.” One senior Vatican official told reporters that John Paul said, “It is as it was,” meaning that the film was a faithful reflection of the Gospel. Then another senior Vatican official denied it. In the end, no clarity was ever brought, and the episode made the Vatican look slightly ridiculous.

More seriously, the period surrounding the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was marked by a series of public statements from Vatican officials, followed by clarifications that the official spoke only “for himself,” and did not represent the official Vatican line. (This was the case, for example, when Cardinal Renato Martino of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace opined that Saddam Hussein had been treated “like a cow” by American forces.) To some extent, of course, it’s useful for the Vatican to be able to float trial balloons and make points without having to take official responsibility for the statements, but the frequency with which this happened over these months led some to conclude that no one was really in charge.

Frustration with the curia

Others have been frustrated with the extent to which the Roman curia has appropriated to itself powers that previously had been reserved to local churches. Nowhere has this tendency been clearer than in the liturgy, where control of the process of liturgical translation has been recentralized in Rome. Some complain that even minor decisions are being made by Roman officials that should be left to the judgment of local authorities.

Hence, when some cardinals talk about the need for a pope more concerned with governance, they mean someone who will supervise bishops more closely, take greater personal responsibility for the appointment of bishops, and insist on a more coordinated common line in the Vatican. Others mean a pope who will “tame” the Roman curia, insisting on a program of decentralization, known in Catholic parlance as “collegiality.” This tends to be a concern both of progressives in the developed world, who tend to resent Roman rigidity, as well as bishops in the developing world who may be conservative on matters of doctrine but want to see some room for greater “inculturation” of that doctrine, meaning allowing it to be expressed in ways appropriate to the local culture.

Yet while many cardinals seem to concur that the next pope should be a bit more of a manager, the “funeral effect” has impressed on them that he can’t simply lock himself up in the Vatican and move the levers of power either. He has to strike a balance between being behind the desk and on the road, working behind the scenes and on the public stage.

“Maybe he has to do both,” as Cardinal Francis George of Chicago recently put it.

Given that the majority of cardinal electors are European (58 Europeans, as opposed to 57 from everywhere else), and given that even the non-Europeans generally have spent long stretches of time in Europe, European realities tend to loom large in the collective imagination of the College of Cardinals. These days, those realities are frequently inhospitable to the Catholic church.

No reference to God

It’s not just that the Vatican recently lost a bitter fight to have the preamble of the new European constitution make a reference to God, or that Italian politician Rocco Buttiglione was blackballed as new European Commissioner of Justice because of his traditional Catholic views on abortion and homosexuality, or even that the new Spanish government has waged what is tantamount to a cultural crusade against Roman Catholicism. Deeper than all that, several trends converge to suggest to many observers a kind of “ecclesiastical winter” in today’s Europe:

  • Declining vocations to the priesthood and religious life;
  • Low Mass attendance rates, in some cases in the single digits in northern European countries;
  • Declining fertility rates, with the lowest recorded in traditional Catholic strongholds such as Spain and Italy;
  • Declining cultural influence, with, for example, 12 nations that have regularized same-sex unions, and three that have granted full marriage rights to same-sex couples.

There is little question that these are tough times for institutional Christianity in Europe, so much so that some cardinals wonder if some European candidates ought to be excluded from consideration as the next pope by the mere fact of being European.

“If we elect a pope from Honduras or Nigeria, there would be a very dynamic and excited local church behind him, as there was with John Paul II and Poland,” one cardinal from the developing world said April 10. “If we elect someone from Belgium or Holland, can you imagine the Belgians or the Dutch getting excited? He simply wouldn’t have the same base of support, the same energy behind him.”

It’s easy enough to identify secularity as a challenge. The hard part is knowing what to do about it, and here ideas among the cardinals tend to cluster into three main options.

A less authoritarian church

First is the reform option. This current holds that in order for the church to be a credible dialogue partner for contemporary Europe, it must better reflect the values that animate European culture -- transparency, democracy and human rights. They reason that a less authoritarian church, one that is more open and accountable, will stand a better chance of finding a hearing in contemporary European conversation. “Europe” here functions as a metaphor for secularized Western culture, which is increasingly becoming the culture of the world.

Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium is one prominent exponent of this position. He has repeatedly argued that the contemporary Western mind is allergic to arguments from authority, so that the church needs to learn instead to speak in the language of beauty.

Another option is “aggressive engagement.” This view holds that the crisis in European Catholicism is not one of structures but of nerve. The church’s problem is that it has become too timid, too cowed by the challenges of secularism, and the danger is being assimilated to the dominant ethos of relativism and immanentism, the notion that all that exists is in the natural world and a supernatural realm is merely imaginary. Instead, people who hold this view think the church should proclaim its traditional truths loudly and boldly, offering an alternative model of a life lived on the basis of integral Catholic principles, with no compromise and no apology. In the end, this view holds, such an approach will win over Europe because it expresses the truth about the meaning and purpose of human existence.

Finally, a third camp believes that in the present moment, Europe (at least the post-Christian, post-religious culture of Western Europe) is essentially beyond the reach of evangelization. They hold that it is pointless to hope that Christianity will be a mass presence in this historical period. Instead, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has repeatedly said, the aim ought to be to make Christianity “a creative minority.” The goal should be to defend Christian identity rather than to make it acceptable to a culture hostile on principle to what it stands for, concentrating on forming a new generation excited about the faith, however small in number they may be, who can emerge at a future point when the false promises of hedonism and secularism have run their course.

Complexity of choices

These options are more like ideal types than real groupings of people, and many cardinals would find themselves to some extent in all three, or in none, depending upon the precise question under examination. Nevertheless, they illustrate the complexity of the choices facing the conclave on this question.

In the post-9/11 world, there’s a kind of general recognition that the relationship between the Islamic world and the West, and thus between Christianity and Islam, will be among the most decisive factors shaping world events. For better or worse, the Islamic world perceives the pope as the most important leader in the Christian world, and hence the policy of the next pope toward Islam will be a critically important force in shaping this relationship.

Moreover, there is a growing concern among some Christian observers that Christian energies may be flagging, especially in Europe, just as Islam is gathering momentum. Already there are more practicing Muslims who go to mosque on Fridays in the United Kingdom than Anglicans who attend services on Sunday, and estimates are that Muslims could be some one-quarter of the French population, the “eldest daughter of the church,” within a generation. The fear in some quarters is that Europe, which has traditionally been the cradle of Christian civilization, could end up as little more than an outpost of the Islamic world.

Once again, it’s far easier to name the concern than to forge policy in response to it.

One group of cardinals, who could be labeled “doves” on the question of Islam, emphasize the need for ever greater levels of dialogue with different Islamic movements and institutions. They argue that because the Christian West is richer and more powerful on the global stage, it’s incumbent upon Christians to take the first step, to avoid saying or doing anything inflammatory, and to accept what at times may seem a certain irrationality and suspiciousness as part of the historical “baggage” of this relationship. It’s also important, this camp believes, to reach out to moderate centers of Islamic opinion, and to work to resolve the social justice issues that sometimes are at the root of terrorism that appeals to Islamic principles.

This view, for example, was expressed recently in a session with the press by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor of Westminster, England.

“I would hope that the way of dialogue would increase,” Murphy-O’Connor said, “and make inroads among the other parts of Islam. This needs to be done with urgency for the sake of peace in our world.”

Murphy-O’Connor argued that Islamic immigrants in Europe, including those in the United Kingdom, could become a “bridge” between the West and Muslim populations in the Arab world.

Other cardinals, however, believe that while there are plenty of moderate Muslims, “moderate Islam” is a bit of myth, at least in the sense of an organized and politically consequential movement. The short-term future, they believe, is more likely to be characterized by conflict rather than by dialogue, especially in those zones of the world where Christians and Muslims rub shoulders: sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Catholicism should be prepared for this conflict, they believe, through a policy more akin to “tough love.”

One focus for this attitude is the issue of “reciprocity.” If Muslim immigrants to the West insist upon religious freedom and the protection of law, they argue, the same treatment should be extended to Christians in the Islamic world. If the Saudi Arabian government can spend $65 million to finance the construction of a sprawling mosque in Rome, for example, then perhaps Christians ought to be able to legally build churches in Saudi Arabia, something that is presently barred by law.

A subset of these concerns focuses on Christians in the Holy Land, where a strong out-migration has been underway in recent years, driven by a combination of economic, social and cultural factors. The nightmare scenario for many in the Vatican, and in the College of Cardinals, is that the land of Christ may one day be effectively empty of Christians. This too produces a sense of urgency about the relationship with Islam.

Cardinals in Rome this week have strong views on each of these issues, and a keen desire that the next pope -- aside from being a holy, pastoral, loving man -- will bring new energy and vision to resolving them.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, April 22, 2005

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