Distilled to their essence, elections turn on the rigidity of numbers, concrete and comforting, imposed onto the chaos of human opinion. We stew when they do not go our way, but in these matters, majorities rule, minorities shout, and votes rarely occur without the employment of cajoling and cunning by candidates.
The same will hold true when, following the February 28 resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, a papal conclave convenes and the College of Cardinals confines itself to the Sistine Chapel until the next pontiff is chosen. Cue images of white smoke issuing from chimneys as crimson-robed old men cast their ballots, all set to a dark, baroque soundtrack. As mesmerizing or as laughable as the ritual may seem—true to form, on issues involving the Church, opinion is divided—the outcome of this most special of elections inarguably affects not only the lives of more than a billion Catholics around the world but non-Catholics as well, and will for the next number of years as the new pope is sure to be younger than Benedict XVI was when he was elected at age 78. While the church’s once-mighty position as a political actor on the world stage has diminished, it remains a powerful voice in the popular culture (on the opposite end of the spectrum from, say, Lady Gaga, in case you were wondering). This omnipresence is frustrating to many, especially those on the liberal end of the continuum—the church’s views on sexuality and gender equality are hopelessly retrograde—but those who ignore its vast ability to do good are foolish to do so. And they should be watching this election with particular interest. Benedict’s resignation, besides being a great shock, may well mark a new understanding of the papacy’s relationship to modernity, a sea-change imperceptible in the ever-blinking media coverage: The papacy is an earthly office to which ties can be severed. In an institution that moves as slow as molasses in January, this move could do more than we know to push the Church hierarchy into recognizing its limitations as a human institution—even one with divine intent. Humility, in this case, might be the greatest modernizer of all.
Of course, if you are a progressive Catholic watching the conclave, pure numbers must tell you that you are likely to be displeased in the short term with the outcome; more than half of the cardinals eligible to vote for the new pope were appointed by Benedict himself, a man whose devotion to orthodoxy guided much of his career. (He famously earned the nickname “God’s Rottweiler” as head of the Church’s Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, which polices adherence to the rules of the Church and issues assessments on Catholic groups, including one from 2012 that pronounced the largest American organization of nuns to be promoting “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”) Barring some unforeseen act of rebellion, the kind of thing the institution has been assiduously avoiding ever since the whole Babylonian Captivity fiasco—a period during which there were adversarial popes in Avignon, France, and Rome, and which ended only with the resignation of a pontiff—the next Vicar of Christ will be as conservative as his two predecessors, though one hopes with more of the telegenic charm of John Paul II. Benedict, possessed of the kind of deep-set eyes that might have been generously classified as “bedroom” if they came on a woman’s face, has been famously caricatured as cartoonish and evil.
Perhaps the next pope will be brown or black—South America and Africa are the new hope for the Church since church attendance across Europe and North America is rapidly diminishing—but the diversifying efforts of the institution will end at that; there will likely be no female priests during our lifetimes, nor married ones. The Church will not give up its official teachings on the “disordered” nature of homosexuality. These are almost-certain facts. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some home for progressivism within Catholicism. The best one can hope for, however, is a shift in emphasis onto the social-justice values of the church (Benedict, like so many of his predecessors, rightly viewed unchecked capitalism as a moral hazard) and a greater role for the laity in pastoral life.
These are not sexy aims and they do not fit into the secular, liberal notions of reform, but consider the fact that female laity have come to play a significant role in the day-to-day organization of parish life, roles that are growing all the more important as the number of priests rapidly shrinks. “I think the evolution of priestly ministry in and of itself will change,” said Jim FitzGerald, Executive Director of the Catholic reform group Call to Action when I talked to him this fall for a story on progressive Catholics. “I think it’s going to emerge from the laity. The seminaries are packed with lay people, mostly women. Probably 20 years from now what we’re going to see is an extraordinarily professional, prepared laity ready to run parishes.”
But change is not without its detractors, and the Church, an inherently conservative institution with an inclination to see tradition as virtue greater than transformation, is filled with doubting Thomases. Responding to Benedict XVI’s surprise move yesterday, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote, “if papal resignations became commonplace and expected, I worry that they might end up burdening the papacy with a weight it cannot bear—encouraging Catholics to lay far too much stress on the human qualities of the see of Peter’s occupant.” Douthat’s concern that papal abdications will become commonplace, subject to the public’s opinion of the pontiff, is a valid argument from a political point of view, but one that misses entirely the strength, not weakness, of those “human qualities” of the papal see; the pope is God’s representative on the throne of St. Peter that stands in all its worldly majesty in Rome, but isn’t Sister Mary Anonymous of Poughkeepsie also God’s representative? Aren’t Joe and Jane Schmo with six kids and a mortgage who are just trying to do the right thing an example of God’s love? Isn’t a whore or a homo who comforts a friend in need doing God’s work? In short, who died and made the Pope the only one who has a say in how we should structure the Church? The Vatican II progressives with whom Douthat surely disagrees would say more precisely that it is Jesus who died and made us all responsible for the common good of humanity. This does not diminish the need for the structure of the mass—the inherent weakness of human nature means that the discipline provided by communal prayer won’t cease to be necessary—but history and common sense tell us that there’s no reason why the person on the altar has to be a man.
But of course, come conclave time, all papal electors will be men. We will wait with bated breath to see what decision the Godly cabal of cardinals comes back with, and life will go on much as it has, with marriages and last rites and mothers baptizing their babies in hospital rooms long before a priest ever does, just in case, because God won’t really mind, will He? And Benedict will watch the world carry on, and yes, change, all from the confines of a cloister in Vatican City—except he won’t be Benedict but Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, no longer the occupant of St. Peter’s throne, simply a man of God with an impressive résumé.
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