Watching the Next Pope — What His First Decisions Will Tell You

The liturgy has ended, and the cardinals have all gone home. The crowds have abandoned St. Peter’s Square to the pigeons and the tourists. You’re sitting alone unwinding in your apartment in the Apostolic Palace, a newly minted pope, when suddenly the question hits you: Now what?

There’s always some indeterminacy in the Roman air when a new pope takes over. That will be especially true next time around, whenever it may come, since the next pontificate will follow the long reign of a strong pope who generally managed to keep the lid on issues he didn’t want discussed. Intense politicking, public and private, is certain.

Although anybody likely to be elected pope will have his own ideas about what he wants to do, getting it done won’t necessarily be easy and certainly won’t happen automatically. The new man will face a complex mix of nuts-and-bolts decisions and questions of high policy. He will need to take some steps right off the bat.

Big Shoes to Fill

Early on, the next occupant of Peter’s throne must situate himself in relation to John Paul II. That’s not as simple as it sounds. Every pope declares himself to be in continuity with his predecessor, but continuity is a matter of degree.

Think of some recent popes. In many matters of substance as well as style, the upbeat, expansive John XXIII was in notable discontinuity with the autocratic Pius XII. John Paul II shared Paul VI’s commitment to the Second Vatican Council, but he was also bent on tightening up in areas of Catholic life that came unglued under his introspective predecessor, who sometimes appeared torn between his liberal and conservative impulses. The next pope similarly will lavish praise on John Paul and declare that he means to carry on his work. Whether he does that or something else will pretty much be the story of his pontificate.

Another early necessity, closely related to the first, concerns people and jobs. Not just filling the high-visibility positions in charge of Vatican dicasteries but also the lower-level staff jobs that make the machinery run. Unlike Pope John Paul I, whom we now know to have been isolated and at sea during his one-month reign in 1978, John Paul II soon replaced the Irish Mafia of Paul VI’s latter years with people of his own. The next pope must do the same if he hopes to get much done.

As for those high-visibility positions—secretary of state, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), and the like—protocol argues against making too many changes too rapidly. Even though Vatican department heads automatically lose their positions when a pope dies, it is customary for the new pope to reappoint them, at least for a time, pending their real resignations. After all, cardinals must be allowed to step down with dignity (and some who served John Paul II will want to step down for reasons of age and health). But one way or another, some familiar figures in the Roman curia will leave office fairly soon. How he decides to replace them will say a lot about the new pope.

At the doctrinal congregation, for instance, it will matter enormously whether the resolute Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (supposing he has not retired before the new pontificate begins) is succeeded by a relatively progressive figure like Walter Cardinal Kasper, president of the Council for Promoting Christian Unity, by someone on the model of Sydney’s staunchly orthodox Archbishop George Pell, or by a moderate conservative like Christoph Cardinal Schonborn, O.P., of Vienna. For the secretariat of state, the appointment of Giovanni Battista Cardinal Re would suggest a relatively liberal administration and of Dario Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos, a conservative one. Cardinal Re currently heads the Congregation for Bishops, and Cardinal Castrillon, the Congregation for the Clergy.

Beyond personnel decisions, the new pope will be pressured from many directions on a number of policy questions. Some of these matters may have figured in the deliberations of the conclave that elected him.

They include such things as whether to authorize—perhaps on an experimental basis in western European countries where bishops request it—the ordination of older married men (viri probati), in an attempt to cope with the shortage of priests; responding to the demands for women’s ordination (ordination to the priesthood is out, but ordination to the diaconate may be within the realm of possibility, even though it wouldn’t satisfy those who want women priests). Making it easier for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments and softening the condemnation of contraception are also hot topics.

The new pope is hardly likely to do all these things and very well may do none. Still, a pontiff with liberal leanings could ease the way for change simply by keeping quiet about certain matters his predecessor chose to address. There will, for example, be intense interest in what the new man says about birth control—or what he doesn’t say.

If the pope is prudent, he will resist the temptation to supply quick decisions on a great many issues right at the start and will try to fit narrow questions into their broader contexts, where relationships can be seen. These broader contexts can be described in various ways, but here are three formulations that may help: (1) the Church’s encounter with post-modernity, (2) being a world Church in a shrinking world, and (3) working out the implications of communio ecclesiology. As we shall see, they have many links.

The Challenge of Postmodernity

Ever since the 18th century—and indeed beginning much earlier—the Catholic Church found itself obliged to swim against the tide of secular thought. One of John Paul II’s cherished goals has been to change that by demonstrating to the world the harmony of faith and reason. A trained philosopher whose life experience made him one of the exemplary European intellectuals of his time, John Paul was equipped to pull that off like no one else. But the secular intellectuals of the West have not listened.

Even so, some important groundwork may have been laid within the Church. Take for example John Paul’s “purification of memory” project. This has involved admitting and trying to correct mistakes of the past, such as confessing the Church’s blunders in the Galileo case. A recent instance was the CDF’s admission last June that its predecessor, the Holy Office, erred in 1887 in condemning 40 propositions attributed to the innovative Italian thinker and religious founder Rev. Antonio Rosmini-Serbati, who died in 1855. The propositions are wrong, the CDF said, but it was unfair to blame them on Rosmini. Some Catholics may find such gestures embarrassing, but others agree that they are required by fairness and intellectual honesty.

In his 1998 encyclical, Fides et Ratio, John Paul provided a top-level policy statement concerning the Church’s stance toward the postmodern weltanschauung. Despite the obvious gulf between faith and reason in modern times, he said, there is a starting point for dialogue as well as a basis for hope in the fact that people ask the same questions about the meaning of life that they have always asked: Who am I? Where have I come from, and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life?

For John Paul, of course, the only finally satisfying answer is found in Christian anthropology: In the words of Vatican Council II (Gaudium et Spes), it is Jesus Christ who “fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling.”

Believers find this true and moving. Does anyone else? Clearly, one of the questions for the next pope will be how to get the Church a hearing in secular intellectual circles. Some obvious facts underline the difficulty. Catholic Christianity is growing in parts of the developing world (though it also has serious problems there), but it is in numerical decline in the secularized West. Even in the United States, where the Church is a great deal healthier than it is in western Europe, only one Catholic in three is religiously active if one measures by weekly Mass attendance. For years, John Paul has preached a “new evangelization” aimed at re-Christianizing the post-Christian West, but the idea has yet to take hold among most Catholics. Meanwhile indifference to religion, rather than spiritual angst arising from a sense that something important is missing, appears to prevail in secular settings.

Getting down to specifics, a tough-minded observer might point out that Catholic teaching on sexuality and marriage is ignored, even derided, not only by the secular culture but by many nominal Catholics. The revolution in biotechnology threatens to have a similar result—the Church wagging its finger like a grumpy nanny while the world tinkers with the stuff of life. And on the central question of life itself, it is far from certain what outcome the profound struggle between Catholicism and the culture of death will have.

Reaffirming the truth of absolute moral norms and condemning proportionalism, as John Paul did in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor (1993), are indispensable but accomplish little of a positive nature. The utilitarian ethic underlying the culture of death has invaded the Church itself. Serious housecleaning would require a much tougher approach to personnel questions—episcopal appointments, seminary faculties, the staffing of institutions of some religious orders—than even John Paul and Cardinal Ratzinger have attempted.

Will the next pope have the stomach for that? What consequences would a tougher papal line on dissent and dissenters have for dialogue with secular thought? On the other hand, if a new pope were to feel inclined to go easy on dissent, he would need to think twice. Adopting a soft line on something like contraception or women’s ordination would be a giant step toward aligning the Church with those liberalizing denominations—the Anglicans are a case in point—whose efforts to be up-to-date have undermined their credibility.

Becoming a World Church

If navigating the encounter with post-modernity raises a host of intractable problems, figuring out how the Church should be a world Church will be no easier.

John Paul put the faith on the side of the poor and oppressed in the debate about globalization, thereby giving his successor a strong hand on this urgent question. Beyond the socioeconomic sphere, however, the Church’s position is more difficult.

The interaction of disparate cultures in the post-colonial era has lent credence to a new theological relativism, implying that in the final analysis one world religion is as good as another. More perhaps than is generally recognized, this version of religious pluralism has both fed into and been fed by currents of theological thought in Catholic circles since Vatican Council II. That was the CDF’s central concern in its tussles during the last several years with Sri Lankan theologian Rev. Tissa Balasuriya, O.M.I., and Belgian theologian Rev. Jacques Dupuis, S.J., who taught for a quarter-century in India before coming to the Gregorian University in Rome.

On the ecumenical front, Catholicism’s quest for unity with other Christian denominations has contributed to a certain relativizing of its own. Rightly or wrongly, the worry that already existed in some quarters over this matter was heightened by John Paul’s 1995 ecumenical encyclical, Ut Unum Sint, in which he went so far as to hint at changes in the exercise of papal primacy for unity’s sake. Some anxious conservatives were not sure what this meant or whether the pope himself even knew.

Against this background, the doctrinal congregation’s controversial document Dominus Iesus, published in September 2000, can be seen as Cardinal Ratzinger’s attempt to shore up a deteriorating situation by reaffirming the unique salvific necessity of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church. Although its wording may have been less than tactful in places, it is clear that something of the sort was needed.

This is the context in which the next pope will have to decide what to do about Christian ecumenism, about relations with non-Christian religions, and about the inculturation of Catholicism in traditionally non-Christian regions like Africa and Asia. It goes without saying that there will be no abandonment of the parallel ecumenical and interreligious quests. But within the framework of those fundamental commitments dating back to Vatican Council II, some urgent new questions must be answered—and soon.

For example, in regard to relations with other Christians: Just how much papering-over of differences (as in the case of the Lutheran-Catholic agreement on justification in 1999) is allowable for the sake of ecumenical progress? How much latitude, if any, can the Catholic Church permit to Anglicanism, in the name of unity, on matters like ordaining women priests and bishops, decentralized governance, and doctrinal amorphousness in general? How far would it be possible to go in soothing Orthodoxy’s historic mistrust of Rome without compromising the primacy of the pope?

And in regard to relations with non-Christians: Has the Catholic Church given up on the idea of converting Jews on the grounds that, as an adviser to the U.S. bishops recently said, Jews can be saved through Judaism as well as Christianity? In seeking rapprochement with Islam and Hinduism, what should we make of the unpleasant fact that Catholics and other Christians in a number of places have become targets for violence at the hands of militant followers of both religions? Back in 1990, in the encyclical Redemptoris Missio, John Paul insisted that traditional missionary work—the mission ad gentes is still needed; yet it seems to have been largely abandoned in many cases, even as more aggressive churches pursue the evangelization of Catholics by persuasion or force. Will the next pope turn the other cheek or respond in some other way—and if the latter, how?

Is the Church Local or Universal?

Questions like these blend into a third set of issues that the next pope will face: working out the ecclesiology of cornmunio.

The fundamental idea of communio ecclesiology is easy to state: The Church is a single, universal communion of local (particular) churches that arise from and are organized around the celebration of the Eucharist. But though that is easy to say, elaborating the implications of this ecclesiological vision in a manner consistent with the true nature of the Church isn’t easy at all.

Just how difficult it can be is clear from the surprisingly public debate between the two leading theological luminaries of the Roman curia, Cardinal Ratzinger and Cardinal Kasper. The point immediately in dispute between them is whether the universal Church is “ontologically and temporally prior to” the local churches, as Cardinal Ratzinger contends, or whether particular churches come first, as Cardinal Kasper would have it.

Although at first glance this may seem to be the kind of question only German theologians can love, serious practical consequences hang on the answer—”ethical issues, sacramental discipline, and ecumenical practices,” Cardinal Kasper says. Furthermore, from a slightly different angle, the issue here can be seen to be the relationship between papal primacy and episcopal collegiality. To put it bluntly: Who decides things—and which things—the bishops or the pope?

Some notable episodes show that the discussion of this question is no textbook exercise.

As bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart from 1989 to 1999, Cardinal Kasper was one of three German bishops who floated a plan to let divorced and remarried Catholics receive the sacraments under certain circumstances without having their first marriages annulled; the Vatican said no. Lately, Catholics in the United States have been treated to a noisy dustup in Milwaukee, where the Vatican has backed conservatives who wanted to block Archbishop Rembert Weakland’s plan for renovating the local cathedral. At the national level, a recent Vatican document on liturgical translations sided with critics of translations prepared by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy and approved by the American bishops—the message being that bishops’ decisions on liturgical and pastoral matters can be overridden by Rome (see John Burger’s story on page 40).

How to balance the respective claims of the universal and the local also has serious ramifications for ecumenical relations, especially with the Orthodox. After the loss of the Eastern patriarchates in the Great Schism of 1054, the Catholic Church became more focused on the patriarch of the West—the pope. Would it be desirable—supposing that it is feasible—to return to an ecclesial system resembling that of the pre-schism first millennium? Even though John Paul II has run a decidedly centralized pontificate himself, he has suggested something along these lines as an olive branch to the Orthodox (and perhaps the Anglicans, too).

Some hope—and others fear—that moving in this direction for the sake of reunion would involve abandoning or downplaying papal infallibility and papal primacy as well as the Marian dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. The next pope will need to decide whether his predecessor’s back-to-the-first-millennium program can be safely pursued or should be quietly shelved.

Progressives who want to see the many questions involved in the universal/local, primacy/collegiality debates settled in their favor look to a new ecumenical council, an expanded Synod of Bishops, or some other new structure of collegiality to hasten this result. Almost certainly the next pope will have to make some move in this direction, at least by reforming the Synod, where bishops are now overshadowed by the bishop of Rome and sometimes manipulated by the curia. But in view of current tensions, it would take a brave pontiff indeed to emulate Blessed John XXIII by convoking Vatican Council III at the start of his pontificate.

Still, the new man will have to do something early on to take charge of the situation. Dramatic foreign travel, on the model of John Paul II? The next pope will travel some but isn’t likely to travel as much as his predecessor did. Early trips will signal priorities, whether they are to the West (new evangelization), the Third World (globalization, development, inculturation), or the Orthodox world (the dream of reunion).

What about an encyclical? Certainly there will be one. John Paul II laid out the blueprint of his pontificate in his first, Redemptor Hominis. Appearing less than five months after his election, it was a masterful and much-applauded way for a new pope to tell the Church and the world who he was and what he meant to do.

…Sitting in that high-ceilinged room overlooking the Bernini colonnade, catching your breath in the fading light, you reflect on all these things. You sigh slowly and press a buzzer on the table beside your easy chair. A priest-secretary quietly enters. “Enrico,” you say, “bring me a yellow pad and a pen.”

  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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