myths about pick­ing a pope.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - BY THOMAS J. REESE out­look@wash­post.com


Pope Bene­dict re­signed, rather than re­main in of­fice un­til death, so he could in­flu­ence the car­di­nals to elect some­one like him.

In Washington, we tend to be sus­pi­cious of the ex­pla­na­tions politi­cians give for any­thing, but in the case of the pope’s res­ig­na­tion, the ex­pla­na­tion — his de­te­ri­o­rat­ing health — ap­pears to be ac­cu­rate. Bene­dict rec­og­nizes that he is no longer up to the job, and he should be hon­ored for giv­ing up power and po­si­tion for the good of the church. He is mov­ing out of Rome af­ter he steps down to avoid the ap­pear­ance of try­ing to in­flu­ence the elec­tion. “He will not in­ter­fere in any way,” a Vat­i­can spokesman said the day af­ter the an­nounce­ment.

So how will the car­di­nals de­cide? Each will look for some­one who agrees with the car­di­nals’ val­ues and vi­sion for the church. He will also want some­one with whom he will have a good re­la­tion­ship. Fi­nally, since all pol­i­tics is lo­cal, each car­di­nal wants some­one who will be well re­ceived in his coun­try. Amer­i­cans want some­one who un­der­stands the sex abuse cri­sis; Nige­ri­ans want some­one who un­der­stands Is­lam.

The car­di­nals re­al­ize that this elec­tion will be one of the most im­por­tant things they ever do. One pope, Felix IV (526-30), tried to in­flu­ence the se­lec­tion of his re­place­ment; the Ro­man Se­nate ob­jected and passed an edict for­bid­ding any dis­cus­sion of a pope’s suc­ces­sor dur­ing his life­time.

Bene­dict has ap­pointed 57 per­cent of the car­di­nal electors (John Paul II named the rest), so they will most likely elect some­one with sim­i­lar views. In Amer­i­can terms, that means some­one to the right of Newt Gingrich on so­cial is­sues and to the left of Nancy Pelosi on eco­nomic is­sues.


The next pope is likely to be African or Latin Amer­i­can.

Catholi­cism has been grow­ing dra­mat­i­cally in the de­vel­op­ing world, but with 52 per­cent of the car­di­nals coming from Europe, chances are the next pope will be Euro­pean.

The Ital­ians have the largest bloc of votes, al­most one-fourth of the 116 electors. John Paul II, who was Pol­ish, was elected be­cause the Ital­ian car­di­nals were di­vided. Cur­rent ev­i­dence, in­clud­ing doc­u­ments leaked from the Vat­i­can, in­di­cates that the Ital­ian car­di­nals are again split. A non-Ital­ian is again pos­si­ble.

Those who sup­port a pope from Africa ar­gue that the vi­brant and grow­ing African church is Catholi­cism’s fu­ture. Oth­ers say that the church in Africa is do­ing fine and that Catholics need a leader who can save the church in the devel­oped world. In the United States, about one out of three peo­ple raised Catholic has left the church. The church in Europe has been in trou­ble since the 19th cen­tury. To­day, more peo­ple in Paris go to mosques on Fri­day than go to Mass on Sun­day.

Both John Paul and Bene­dict railed against sec­u­lar­ism and rel­a­tivism in Europe but were un­able to turn the tide. If there is a car­di­nal who can turn the church around in Europe and the United States, he de­serves the job.


Next month, 116 car­di­nals from across the globe will gather in­side the Vat­i­can’s Sis­tine Chapel, in­voke the Holy Spirit and elect a pope to re­place Bene­dict XVI, who’s re­sign­ing at the end of this month. Be­hind closed doors, cut off from the out­side world, they will choose a leader who will have an im­pact on not only the Catholic Church but the en­tire planet. Let’s look at some of the mis­con­cep­tions about how the car­di­nals will se­lect the lat­est suc­ces­sor to Saint Peter. The car­di­nals will elect a bril­liant theologian like John Paul and Bene­dict. At the past two con­claves, the car­di­nals elected the smartest man in the room. Now, it may be time to choose a man who will lis­ten to all the other smart peo­ple in the church.

The prob­lem with most aca­demics and in­tel­lec­tu­als, es­pe­cially philoso­phers and the­olo­gians, is that they have al­ready made up their minds on im­por­tant is­sues and rarely change them. It might be time for a skilled diplo­mat who has ex­pe­ri­ence in ne­go­ti­at­ing and build­ing con­sen­sus, use­ful skills for re­spond­ing to the priest short­age, de­clin­ing church at­ten­dance and in­ter­nal di­vi­sions.

Both John Paul and Bene­dict got into trou­ble be­cause they were sur­rounded by peo­ple who thought the popes were the smartest men in the world. Such peo­ple are re­luc­tant to chal­lenge their bosses. For ex­am­ple, in 2006 Bene­dict gave an ad­dress that in­cluded a quote from a Byzan­tine em­peror den­i­grat­ing Is­lam. If an ex­pert on Is­lam had read the text be­fore­hand, he could have warned that there would be a neg­a­tive re­ac­tion from the Arab street.


Don’t ex­pect big sur­prises from the next con­clave.

In the new pa­pacy, there will prob­a­bly be more con­ti­nu­ity than rad­i­cal change. Don’t ex­pect fe­male priests next month. But the Holy Spirit can al­ways sur­prise us, as it did with the 1958 elec­tion of John XXIII, whom the car­di­nals thought would be a “do noth­ing” pope; in­stead, he con­vened the Sec­ond Vat­i­can Coun­cil, which trans­formed mod­ern Catholi­cism. Ev­ery­one was also sur­prised by the 1978 elec­tion of John Paul II, the first non-Ital­ian in cen­turies.

While the car­di­nals will be loyal to the pope, the new pon­tiff, once elected, has no one from whom to take his cues. He has to think, con­sult and pray be­fore each big de­ci­sion. Where that will lead him is any­one’s guess.


It doesn’t mat­ter who is elected pope; no­body lis­tens to him. While the pope can no longer com­mand ab­so­lute obe­di­ence among the faith­ful, he is still the leader of an or­ga­ni­za­tion with more than 1 bil­lion mem­bers. What he says and does mat­ters, whether it is re­gard­ing the Mid­dle East, AIDS, cli­mate change or many other is­sues that touch not only Catholics but ev­ery­one.

The most im­por­tant chal­lenge for the pope and the church is to fig­ure out how to preach the Gospel in a way that is un­der­stand­able and at­trac­tive to peo­ple of the 21st cen­tury, es­pe­cially young peo­ple, who can be turned off by re­li­gion. Bene­dict got it right when he said Chris­tian­ity should not be pre­sented as a se­ries of “no’s” but as a “yes” to Je­sus and his mes­sage of love, life, jus­tice, peace and com­mu­nity. If the new pope does this, he could re­vi­tal­ize the church. He needs to use all the mod­ern means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, even Twit­ter, to get his mes­sage across.

In preach­ing the Gospel, the church needs to im­i­tate, not just quote, great the­olo­gians such as Au­gus­tine and Thomas Aquinas. Both took the best think­ing of their times — for Au­gus­tine it was Neo­pla­ton­ism, for Thomas it was the writ­ings of Aris­to­tle — and used it to ex­plain Chris­tian­ity.

Thomas J. Reese, a Je­suit priest, is a se­nior fel­low at the Woodstock The­o­log­i­cal Cen­ter at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity. He is the au­thor of “In­side the Vat­i­can: The Pol­i­tics and Or­ga­ni­za­tion of the Catholic Church.”

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