Saturday, March 9, 2013

Handicapping the Papal Election

On Tuesday, 115 cardinals out of 117 eligible to vote for his successor will meet in the Sistine Chapel conclave to select a successor to Pope Benedict XVI. From among their number, one will be named the 266th pontiff, whom Catholics believe to be the successor of Saint Peter.

One cannot enter the mind of Benedict to determine whether he wanted to be pope. Only the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger knows the answer to such speculation. What is known is that he did not refuse his election. Benedict said he wanted to “re-Christianize Europe.”  If anything, his papacy, just shy of eight years, accomplished the opposite, driving people from the pews through mismanagement of sexual and financial scandals, showing more concern for the Church as Institution rather than the Church as People.

For more than a week, cardinals have been sizing each other up to consider whom they view as “papabile,” or “popeable.” Since Benedict and his successor, Pope John Paul II, appointed all of the cardinal electors, it’s likely that the next pope will be from the same theological vein as the man who appointed him. Do not expect any dramatic change on the hot button topics of women or married priests, a welcoming of gay and lesbian lay participation in the Church, more financial transparency (though individual parishes have been exemplary in this regard), birth control, or changes in the Vatican bureaucracy that protects careerist clerics and stifles reform.

One thing about the Vatican, public opinion holds little sway over the Church – its theology, its archaic system of governance, its image. The belief is the Church has weathered many storms over the years and in time, the public will forget about the latest scandals.  Few Church leaders are prosecuted for crimes. With the exception of Ireland, which took the Vatican to task for the way it handled decades of various scandals, most politicians fear speaking against the Church because of what a potential backlash from the Catholic electorate.

However, Catholic parishioners are voting with their feet and their wallets and pocketbooks. They are leaving the Church in droves or cutting off their financial support. The areas where the Church is growing most around the world are also areas where large populations do not have access to higher levels of education. Those nations are the Church’s future, while Europe, the United States and Canada are its past.

Some on the theological far right are calling for a smaller and purer Church. They may get their wish on the smaller aspect, but if the actions of its highest rankling prelates are any indication, the Church as institution will be far from purer.

Whoever the cardinals choose, the new pope’s background will be scrutinized for any participation, in word and deed or through commission or omission, in any of the scandals that have impacted the Church over the past two decades. He will also face a more skeptical media, more so in Italy than in the United States, where many reporters still remain deferential, if not reverential to Catholic hierarchy. Watch this week’s conclave coverage for examples.

Will it be an American? Doubtful, though New York’s Timothy Dolan and Boston’s Sean O’Malley have been hyped by the media. Will it be a Canadian, like Marc Ouellete, who heads the Vatican Congregation that selects bishops and who has ties to Latin America? Will it be an African like Nigeria’s Francis Arize or Ghana’s Peter Turkson? Some of their political statements, especially on homosexuality, are troubling and will turn off Western Catholics, particularly younger parishioners who have no issue with LGBT rights, including the right to marry. Will it be the Argentine Leonardo Sandri? He combines being an insider and diplomat with being from Latin America, where the Church, while growing, is facing stiff competition from Mormonism and Evangelical sects. Will an Italian, such as Milan’s Angelo Scola, reclaim the chair of Peter? Scola, formerly patriarch of Venice, is not considered a dynamic speaker, and the thought is the cardinals are looking for a showman like John Paul rather than a theologian-professor like Benedict.

There could be a post-election surprise. One of Scola’s predecessors in Venice, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, was elected pope in 1958 at age 77.  He was considered to be a caretaker after the 19-year reign of the imperious Pius XII.  Yet, as Pope John XXIII, he changed the direction of the Church through the Second Vatican Council, redefining the role of the Church in the modern world, giving greater voice to the laity, absolving Jews for the death of Jesus, and opening dialogue among various faiths. Serving only 4 1/2 years, the Council’s work continued until Pope Paul VI. John Paul and Benedict, particularly the latter, tried to roll back the work of that Council, euphemistically calling the revisions “reforms.”

We may know who is chosen pope in the coming week, but as more Catholics choose their own direction in their faith journey, whoever succeeds Benedict will have less impact on the lives of 1.2 billion followers. Papal elections still make for good theater and news coverage.

One last thing…thank you to various members of the media who have allowed me to “pontificate” on my own, offering me a forum to discuss my view of Benedict’s decision to abdicate, the process leading to the election of his successor, and the state of the Church today: Mike Moss ofWTOP, the all-news CBS affiliate in Washington, DC; Michelangelo Signorile, ofSirius-XM OutQ; David Badash of The New Civil Rights Movement; and all at the Poughkeepsie Journal, notably Local Editor John Nelson.

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