Electing a pope in the midst of institutional and cultural crisis

The cardinals have gathered although the papal conclave hasn’t begun. Journalists from all over the world have descended on the Vatican for the election, and speculation is running rampant.

There are two issues that I find important about Benedict’s resignation and the next pope. First, the resignation itself. As many have pointed out, it is a remarkable event in itself, a sign of Benedict’s understanding of himself, his office, and the needs of the Church. Whatever else one might say about Benedict’s reign as pope, and his time as head of the Congregation on the Faith, this humble act sheds new light on everything he’s done so far. It’s radical, ground-breaking, and it will force future popes to take seriously the possibility of resignation. The power and prestige of the office has been changed forever.

The second issue is the conclave and the speculation about who will succeed Benedict. To say the Roman Catholic Church is in crisis is obvious. It is also an understatement. The dysfunction within the Vatican that led to the Vatileaks; the ongoing crisis over clerical sexual abuse, but even more the hierarchy’s complicity in that abuse, have brought shame upon the church and deep despair among both clergy and laity. The episode this past week, with Britain’s only cardinal elector forced to step down and not attend the conclave because of his own past sexual discretions is one sign of the rot at the heart of the system. That another cardinal, Mahony of LA, will attend in spite of his mishandling of the crisis, suggests that whoever is elected will have to work hard to rebuild trust in the hierarchy and the Church overall.

All this suggests that the hierarchy, the cardinals, and the curia have lost touch with the cultures in which the Church lives and have lost touch with much of the clergy and laity as well. As many of those who I link to point out, the Roman Catholic Church is in deep need of reform. The real question is whether the participants in the conclave realize how urgent the need is. Just as the Vatileaks scandal revealed how out of touch Pope Benedict was with the inner workings of the Vatican, and Pope John Paul II’s incapacity in his later years, it may be that those involved in the election have no idea of the depth of the crisis in the wider church and the wider world. We will no the answer to that question when we find out who they elect.

Diarmaid MacCulloch on the crisis in the Roman Catholic Church

Andrew Brown on the three challenges facing the next pope:

  1. the need to reform the Vatican bureaucracy
  2. the crisis among clergy
  3. the crisis among the laity: shrinking membership

An interview with Hans Küng and his Op-ed in the New York Times:

In this dramatic situation the church needs a pope who’s not living intellectually in the Middle Ages, who doesn’t champion any kind of medieval theology, liturgy or church constitution. It needs a pope who is open to the concerns of the Reformation, to modernity. A pope who stands up for the freedom of the church in the world not just by giving sermons but by fighting with words and deeds for freedom and human rights within the church, for theologians, for women, for all Catholics who want to speak the truth openly. A pope who no longer forces the bishops to toe a reactionary party line, who puts into practice an appropriate democracy in the church, one shaped on the model of primitive Christianity. A pope who doesn’t let himself be influenced by a Vatican-based “shadow pope” like Benedict and his loyal followers.

From GQ: background reading on the “Vatileaks” scandal, a profile of the papal butler and the journalist who broke the story

So much from outsiders. Here are some voices from within the church

From Cardinal George of Chicago (who will be participating in the conclave):

So what we expect as Catholics from the pope is simply that he be the successor of Peter — that he be faithful to the charge given him and be the rock who will keep us from floating away into the sea of relativism that is often what we live in, in this particular kind of postmodern culture. That’s the biggest gift he’s going to have.

John Allen has a must-read piece on how this conclave differs from the 74 before it; and especially from the one in 2005 in which Cardinal Ratzinger was elected.

Peter Steinfels writes in Commonweal:

By resigning, Pope Benedict served the church well. He has spared it another prolonged period of mounting disarray. He has “humanized” the papacy, as Joseph Komonchak and others have pointed out. He has jolted the church into allowing that something generally considered unthinkable for centuries is really not beyond doing after all. And he has set the stage for his successor to do likewise.

That is important. The Catholic Church needs shock therapy. True, among the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, millions of saints are leading lives of prayer and charity so ardent, brave, sacrificial, creative, and enduring that they bring tears to normal eyes. They are the best of us—and then there are the rest of us. Except in parts of Africa, the much-heralded growth of Catholicism is simply in line with the growth in population—or not even that. Latin American Catholics are increasingly turning to Pentecostalism or drifting away from religious practice and affiliation altogether, although not yet to the extent occurring in Europe and North America.

I’ll be following America‘s coverage of the conclave.

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One thought on “Electing a pope in the midst of institutional and cultural crisis

  1. To a certain extent, I think the issue of the characteristics of the next pope is somewhat of a red herring in that it focuses on the individual instead of the organizational system/culture.

    One topic not adequately highlighted by any of these commentators is the issue of polity and secrecy, authority and power in the Roman system. Perhaps “changes in the Curia” is a shorthand for the kind of change I’m thinking about, maybe not.

    Polity, specifically the role of laity in TEC was a core part of my decision 30 years ago to join the TEC instead of returning to the Roman Catholic church. I saw then, and still see “Rome” as a closed organizational system based on secrecy: secrecy in how decisions are made, how candidates for orders are assessed, how decisions are made, and how theologians are censured and silenced for undisclosed offenses, etc.

    Contrast that with, as an example, the processes by which individuals in TEC are screened, evaluated, and called forward to ordination: an open process involving all people, laity as well as ordained. Or, as other examples, how bishops are chosen, clergy called to serve parishes, or vestries and clergy share authority. I’m not holding up TEC as a model of perfection, but as certainly providing some positive, interesting contrasts to the RC church.

    From family systems perspective, as well as Ignatius’ rules for discernment, secrecy is about power and generally not in the positive sense. So my hope for Rome is a polity that more fully embraces openness, collegiality, and meaningful power-sharing in the least hierarchical manner possible.

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