The whole world is watching as leaders consider new pontiff
to this the rumors of financial and sexual scandals among men vowed to
chastity, the entire scene becomes a veritable perfect storm.
Shakespeare might have condemned it "as improbable fiction" were it
portrayed on a stage (Twelfth Night). But this is real life.
the sets and grandeur of Bernini's colonnades and under the frescos of
Michelangelo sit human beings, much like other human beings, with all
the same foibles, ambitions, vices, as well as sincere piety and hope
for the future of an institution they do indeed love, have given their
lives to and, yes, even sometimes betray.
And so we come to both
the drama and the reality of the election of a new pope. As has already
been widely noted, this election is rare in that a successor is being
selected even while his predecessor is still alive, something that last
occurred almost two centuries before Columbus set sail to find new trade
routes to the Indies.
To say the retirement of a pope is a break
with tradition is an understatement, and this is made all the more
notable in that it has been undertaken by a man most noted for his
adherence to Tradition.
But there is tradition and there is
Tradition in the Catholic religion. What Benedict XVI was bound to,
indeed what any member of the faithful is bound to, is the Tradition of
the Apostles, that is, orthodoxy or 'right belief" — doctrines and dogma
(that's right, even in this age of inclusivity, Christians still make
truth claims expressed in their creeds and doctrines). All this is to
say that Benedict, while embracing an option available to him that had
been rarely exercised, is not abandoning the Tradition. Canon Law
provided for this possibility, and for reasons explained by the Pope
Emeritus himself, and speculated upon by pundits and conspiracy
theorists of all stripes.
Still, the potential consequences of
such a decision are complex and forms part of the discussion that is
taking place among the College of Cardinals in their General
Congregations, which began Monday. Such General Congregations, a normal
part of the process leading up to a conclave, gives all cardinals
(including those over 80 who are not electors in the conclave) an
opportunity to assess the state and needs of the church as well as one
Probably the topic of most speculation since the
announcement of Benedict's resignation is who the next pope will be. No
one, not even the most well-informed Cardinal or Vatican journalist, has
a clear answer to that question. Anyone telling you otherwise is
dreaming. From one pontificate to the next, the difficulty of predicting
the outcome varies. This time, for a number of reasons, a prediction is
as difficult as can be. A quick conclave, over in four ballots (which
is what it took to elect Benedict), is unlikely.
The first is that
the usual decline in health of a pope provides a period of sifting:
Inquiries into the background, experience, competencies and style of
those who might be pope (termed papabili, literally "popeable").
Benedict's abrupt resignation eliminated both that gestation period and
the time the cardinals would have over the traditional nine days of
mourning, celebrating masses together in Rome. Instead, the cardinals
have gone directly into the General Congregations.
A second factor
is that unlike the transition from John Paul II to Benedict, there is
no obvious front-runner, no single cardinal that universally stands out
as an obvious successor.
What does all this mean for the days
ahead? Time. Time for the sifting process to allow the cardinals to get
to know one another in this new light; time to get to the bottom of the
problems related to the spirituality and governance of the Roman Curia
(the bureaucracy that is supposed to help formulate, administer and
communicate the decisions of the pope), which, even before the
"Vatileaks" exposure, was well-known for its rivalries and cronyism; and
time for the actual election process itself, due to procedural changes
introduced since the last conclave, now requiring a two-thirds vote of
the cardinals to elect a pope for up to 33 ballots.
In the next
two weeks or so, you will hear much of the media asking a rotating list
of questions as to the profile for the next pope: Will he allow priests
to marry, ordain women, permit contraception? Such questions, while of
interest to those mildly intrigued or bemused by the church, nonetheless
betray a fundamental misunderstanding of how authentic Catholics see
For them, the church is not some kind of hybrid
spiritual-political movement needing to be attentive to its
constituencies priorities and preferences, one that was started to
respond to various trends in society and culture. The church does see
not see itself an institution or a club that must alter its beliefs to
reflect the lifestyles of its members or clients. The church is not
something Christians design or make up, but something that Christians
inherit. It is seen as the revelation of God requiring a loving
acceptance of the truth it discloses to the world. People are free to
reject that truth, of course. But the church exists to propose (not
impose) its claims. In this sense, the church does not reflect or so
much respond to culture as it creates culture, centered on Christ and
his intransigent claim on the human heart.
For some, this will be
repulsive. I hope it, at least, will be informative. But for others, for
millions upon millions down the two millennia, it will constitute one's
I suspect that the cardinals meeting in Rome will
be looking to find one of their number sufficiently grounded in this
view of existence, in this Tradition, who they believe will be confident
and even winsome in communicating these ancient claims to an
increasingly secular and skeptical world; a man who will have sufficient
insight into the human condition to enable him to uncover the many
competent and even saintly gems that exist within the Curia — along with
the backbone to eliminate the others. I suspect they will look for a
man of sufficient dedication, passion and charity who will emulate the
flawed fisherman whose shoes he will fill.