Analysis: Vatican Must Find New Century Pope
Now that Pope Benedict XVI has made (modern) history by stepping down from office, so begins one of the Western World’s oldest parlor games: Guessing who will be the next pope.
Close watchers of the Vatican say the 118 cardinals who will select Benedict’s successor are watching the media-savvy leader of the massive Milan archdiocese, Cardinal Angelo Scola; top Vatican administrator Marc Ouellet of Canada, and Peter Turkson of Ghana. Also in the mix is jovial New York City Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who would make history, as a superpower pope has been frowned upon thus far.
The list is highly speculative. Unlike a presidential race, Vatican practice for centuries has barred public discussion about possible successors while a pope is alive, or anything that even whiffs of open campaigning. Since this pope is still alive, the voting cardinals are in unchartered waters and will likely meet in small groups to quietly brainstorm and discuss the possibilities until March, when their voting meeting, or conclave, will begin.
And when they vote, they will be doing more than picking a person; they’ll also be answering a question: What does it take to be a 21st-century pope?
Should the person be from the West, where Catholicism is locked in a liberal vs. conservative culture war, or from the developing world, where two-thirds of Catholics now live? Should he be someone who has spent time at the Vatican and can whip the struggling old bureaucracy into shape, or an outsider?
“It’s an inside-the-Beltway vs. outside kind of thing,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, former editor of the Catholic magazine America. “We’ve had two popes in a row who have been academics. It might be smart to look for someone who is a diplomat, or someone with some management skills. In the last two conclaves they’ve elected the smartest man in the room. It might be better to elect someone who will listen to all the other smart people in the church.”
The pope says he is stepping down at the end of February, and a conclave to pick his successor will begin two weeks later. There have been epic conclaves — including one that went on for 2 1/2 years — but most expect this to be speedy and for Catholics to have a new pope within a month.
Catholic debate in the United States often centers on whether the leader of the largest Christian community in the world should be more or less open to things such as allowing the ordination of female priests. But experts note that the cardinals were all picked by Benedict or his like-minded predecessor, Pope John Paul II, and are in agreement on issues like allowing female priests, contraception or equality for gays and lesbians (no, no and no).
The real factors behind the selection of a new pope are “not the kind of stuff that comes up on talk shows,” said John L. Allen Jr., who has written seven books on the Catholic Church and popes.
The top priority, Allen and others say, is to make Catholics evangelizers again. The church has spent much of the last half-century, since the modernizing and controversial Second Vatican Council, locked in internal debates and not out spreading the gospel. Many blame an antiquated communications style and system, one epitomized by the pope’s news-halting announcement yesterday, which he delivered in Latin at a meeting of cardinals.
Pope Benedict did try in his own, scholarly way to communicate, by authoring more books than almost any other pope, and recently, he joined Twitter, immediately amassing hundreds of thousands of followers. But it seems the least traditional thing he did in his tenure was decide to resign from office.
Some note that the selection of a new pope is one of the most-watched moments for the Catholic Church and, as such, presents an opportunity for the Vatican to show how adept it can be at communicating its mission and values to the world.
There are numerous questions to answer, including a basic one a U.S. Catholic of Conference Bishops spokeswoman couldn’t answer yesterday: What do you call a living retired pope?
“Trying to figure that out now,” Sister Mary Ann Walsh said in an e-mail.
And how much influence will he have on a successor?
“One of the biggest challenges he’ll leave his successor is: How to act toward a retired pope? How much voice will a retired pope have, if any? Do you draw on his wisdom? Do you ask him to participate? What if you disagree with one of the policies? Do you make sure no one knows because it could cause confusion? These are unanswered questions,” said John Thavis, a journalist who recently published The Vatican Diaries, about the inner-workings in Rome.