Next month, 117 cardinals from across the globe will gather inside the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, invoke the Holy Spirit and elect a pope to replace Benedict XVI, who’s resigning at the end of this month.
Behind closed doors, cut off from the outside world, they will choose a leader who will have an impact on not only the Catholic Church but also the entire planet. Let’s look at some of the misconceptions about how the cardinals will select the latest successor to Saint Peter.
1. Pope Benedict resigned, rather than remain in office until death, so he could influence the cardinals to elect someone like him.
In Washington, we tend to be suspicious of the explanations politicians give for anything, but in the case of the pope’s resignation, the explanation — his deteriorating health — appears to be accurate. Benedict recognizes that he is no longer up to the job, and he should be honored for giving up power and position for the good of the church. He is moving out of Rome after he steps down to avoid the appearance of trying to influence the election. “He will not interfere in any way,” a Vatican spokesman said the day after the announcement.
So how will the cardinals decide? Each will look for someone who agrees with the cardinals’ values and vision for the church. He will also want someone with whom he will have a good, friendly relationship. Finally, since all politics is local, each cardinal wants someone who will be well-received in his country. Americans want someone who understands the sex abuse crisis; Nigerians want someone who understands Islam.
The cardinals realize that this election will be one of the most important things they ever do. One pope, Felix IV (526-30), tried to influence the selection of his successor; the Roman Senate objected and passed an edict forbidding any discussion of a pope’s successor during his lifetime.
Benedict has appointed 57 percent of the cardinal electors (John Paul II named the rest), so they most likely will elect someone with similar views. In American terms, that means someone to the right of Newt Gingrich on social issues and to the left of Nancy Pelosi on economic issues.
2. The next pope is likely to be African or Latin American.
Catholicism has been growing dramatically in the developing world, but with 52 percent of the cardinals coming from Europe, chances are the next pope will be European.
The Italians have the largest bloc of votes, almost one-fourth of the 117 electors. John Paul II, who was Polish, was elected because the Italian cardinals were divided. Current evidence, including documents leaked from the Vatican, indicates that the Italian cardinals are again split. A non-Italian is again possible.
Those who support a pope from Africa argue that the vibrant and growing African church is Catholicism’s future. Others say that the church in Africa is doing fine and that Catholics need a leader who can save the church in the developed world.
In the United States, about one out of three people raised Catholic has left the church. The church in Europe has been in trouble since the 19th century. Today, more people in Paris go to mosques on Friday than go to Mass on Sunday.
Both John Paul and Benedict railed against secularism and relativism in Europe but were unable to turn the tide. If there is a cardinal who can turn the church around in Europe and the United States, he deserves the job.
3. The cardinals will elect a brilliant theologian like John Paul and Benedict.
At the past two conclaves, the cardinals elected the smartest man in the room. Now, it may be time to choose a man who will listen to all the other smart people in the church.
The problem with most academics and intellectuals, especially philosophers and theologians, is that they already have made up their minds about important issues and rarely change them. It might be time for a skilled diplomat who has experience in negotiating and building consensus, useful skills for responding to the priest shortage, declining church attendance and internal divisions.
John Paul and Benedict both got into trouble because they were surrounded by people who thought the popes were the smartest men in the world. Such people are reluctant to challenge their bosses. For example, in 2006 Benedict gave an address that included a quote from a Byzantine emperor denigrating Islam. If an expert on Islam had read the text beforehand, he could have warned that there would be a negative reaction from the Arab street.
4. Don’t expect big surprises from the next conclave.
In the new papacy, there probably will be more continuity than radical change. Don’t expect female priests next month. The Holy Spirit can always surprise us, however, as it did with the election of John XXIII, whom the cardinals thought would be a “do nothing” pope; instead, he convened the Second Vatican Council, which transformed modern Catholicism. Everyone also was surprised by the 1978 election of John Paul II, the first non-Italian in centuries.
While the cardinals will be loyal to the pope, the new pontiff, once elected, has no one from whom to take his cues. He has to think, consult and pray before each big decision. Where that will lead him is anyone’s guess.
5. It doesn’t matter who is elected pope, nobody listens to him.
While the pope can no longer command absolute obedience among the faithful, he is still the leader of a 2.2 billion-member organization.
What he says and does matters, whether it is regarding the Middle East, AIDS, climate change or many other issues that touch everyone, not only Catholics.
The most important challenge for the pope and the church is to figure out how to preach the Gospel in a way that is understandable and attractive to people of the 21st century, especially young people, who can be turned off by religion.
Benedict got it right when he said Christianity should not be presented as a series of “no’s” but as a “yes” to Jesus and his message of love, life, justice, peace and community. If the new pope does this, he could revitalize the church. He needs to use all the modern means of communication, even Twitter, to get his message across.
In preaching the Gospel, the church needs to imitate, not just quote, great theologians such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Both took the best thinking of their times — for Augustine it was Neoplatonism, for Thomas it was the writings of Aristotle — and used it to explain Christianity.
Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest, is a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University in Washington. He is the author of “Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church.” This column was distributed by The Washington Post, where it first appeared.