Catholic Church faces brave new world
By Francesco Sisci
ROME - With a gesture that breaks with thousands of years of tradition, the Pope, usually considered a bulwark of conservatism in the world, has projected the Catholic Church into the third millennium and presented Western culture with a challenge.
The West has been put under pressure by the rise of Asian and African cultures. Now an Asian Pope, long out of the realms of possibility, is one option being considered by the cardinals frantically talking to each other ahead of one of the most momentous conclaves in history.
If there is a pope from Asia, a continent home to the majority of
the world's population but only 4-5% of the world's one billion Catholics, he would have a deep, global political role.
If the Church does decide to innovate in this way, so should all institutions in the West challenged by the rise of a new brave world in Asia.
Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger, on Monday announced his resignation. Vatican experts hurried to explain that there had been similar examples. In the 13th century, Pope Celestine V abdicated, after being chosen in the last non-conclave papal election in history. But he left while in full health after just five months and eight days for what Dante called “il gran rifiuto,” the grand refusal, an act of cowardice according to many contemporaries. Thus, the Florentine poet placed him in Hell in his Divine Comedy.
More recently, when Rome was occupied by the Nazis and Pius XII was under threat of being deported to a concentration camp, he considered abdicating so that the Nazis could not say they had imprisoned the head of the Catholic Church.
This abdication is totally different. Ratzinger has been Pope for almost eight years, and he is now in poor health at a very delicate moment for the church.
Catholics are under attack worldwide for a number of reasons: covering up child molestation, not allowing gay marriages, and refusing priesthood for nuns. They are considered too conservative in the rich West, where they stand for customs of the past; but too innovative in developing countries, where they side with the less fortunate.
The Cardinals of the Curia, the top Vatican officials, are fighting one another. There is no money, as the Americans, who for decades provided most of the funds, are almost bankrupt from paying to silence the accusations of molestation.
At this moment, the Church needs a strong leader, but Benedict XVI cannot provide leadership because of his poor health. He could have chosen to carry on with his papacy, since modern medicine can prolong his life for very long time, but this would leave the Catholic church without an effective guide. This would also have let the present wounds in the Church fester. By resigning, he can open the way for a new, younger, stronger Pope.
In doing the latter he has provided an example of great courage for the conclave that will choose his successor. The Church is at a juncture where it needs very bold moves, says the Pope with his abdication, and this is a signal for the next conclave to make its choice.
Yet the Church is also traditional, and this very innovative pope stood for tradition on many crucial issues about faith. The pope abdicated on the eve of the Lent, the traditional period of fasting, repentance and meditation on one’s sins that has its roots in a Jewish custom dating back possibly to the third millennium BC.
Thus, the Pope's innovative gesture symbolizes that while the Church is not afraid to renew itself, it is also not afraid to maintain its stance on some core issues. The new Pope will have the tough task of striking a new balance between innovation and tradition and clearing his house. Abdication also could remain an extremely rare and extreme option for popes in future centuries.
Regarding Pope Benedict’s successor, one has to start with some basic facts. Ratzinger announced he will abdicate on February 28. Two days earlier, Cardinal Huzar of Ukraine turned 80, and thus he will not join the conclave. The conclave will open 15 to 20 days after that and thus shortly before Easter. All Cardinals who will not have turned 80 at the time of the resignation will attend the conclave and thus Cardinal Kasper of Germany will be the oldest.
This could leave a neat odd number of 117 cardinals taking part in the election of the next pope. Of them, six were chosen for a Concistoro in November. It was the first time since 1929 that there were two Concistoro in one year. 1929 was a landmark year: the Lateran Pacts were signed with the Italian state, and with that the Holy See de facto renounced ruling a state after over 1,000 years. It seems that all the names were personally selected by Pope Benedict without much consultation with the Curia cardinals. They are an American, an African, an Arab, an Indian, a Latin American, and a Filipino of Chinese origin. This was the first time that none of the new cardinals was European. All are signs of innovation.
The new Pope, under the new rules established by Pope Benedict, will need a two-thirds majority - that is, at least 77 votes. This means that the cardinals will have to find a solid consensus. This consensus must coalesce around a project, then on a man who will interpret the project. The first thing is to see if the cardinals will heed the indications of the present pope, if he decides to be clear about those indications, or whether they will decide differently. Anyway, the tradition is of alternating young and old popes. After choosing Benedict, elected in 2005 at 78, a younger cardinal should now step in.
In Rome, names are already swirling around. Scola, Cardinal of Milan and born in September 1941, tops the list. Reportedly he was one of the two cardinals who was informed by the Pope of his decision about the resignation. The other one was Bertone, who, as Secretary of State, thus number two in the Vatican hierarchy, had to know. In theory, Scola would not need to know.
However, among the Italian cardinals, the single largest “national constituency”, 28, many dislike Scola, and after two “foreign” popes (Wojtyla, a pole, and Ratzinger, a German) many in Rome hope again for a foreign pope. Being the pope the bishop of Rome, the wishes of people from the city are not totally indifferent.
The issue is not the person but the “agenda”. A pope from Italy, the traditional cradle of the Holy See, would stress the need of the church to get its house in order and to find again its center, an opportune gesture after the shock of the abdication. However, other concerns may come first, according to opinions in Rome. A Pope from Latin America, would give at long last recognition to this church which is in number second only to Europe and stem inroads of protestants spreading in the continent once almost a catholic reserve. Yet a Pontiff from there could be too close to the US and thus symbolically align Rome too much with the existing superpower.
Another choice could be a Pope from Africa, the new frontier of evangelization. Yet while expanding rapidly, the church there has still many problems. Many priests are de facto married and cast an image that is just too far from the traditional catholic morals. This leaves Asia, the frontier for the church and the dynamo of political, economic, social and cultural growth in this century. Here Catholics are a minority. In the Indian subcontinent they are number over 20 million, have five highly respected cardinals, and a tradition dating back to the first century AD. In India the Hindu faith is also part of the national identity, and thus conversion to Catholicism can be see almost as a betrayal - an Indian pope could be considered a provocation and a challenge to India. Inroads are also difficult in Pakistan or Bangladesh, with Muslim majorities.
China is the new frontier, starved as it is of religion and home of a foreign religion, Buddhism, and thus without any innate prejudice against Christianity. Yet here Catholics are just too few, less than 1% of the population, and there is only one cardinal, John Tong, from Hong Hong, who can’t speak good Italian, a shortcoming for a man who would be the Bishop of Rome.
A cardinal from the Philippines could be a choice. The country has a Catholic majority and a strong candidate, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, 55, who is also an appreciated theologian, a necessary virtue for a pope. He is very young, as a pope, even "young" Wojtyla was elected when he was 58, and he is still untested, he was ordained cardinal only three months ago. Moreover, is the church willing to bet on a man who could rule for 30 years, a time when the world is changing at an extremely fast pace? In 15, 20 years he might be too jaded to face the new challenges ahead of him and yet still in good health - and thus in power.
A pope could come from Europe and be a man who symbolizes the church's achievements, such as Cardinal Marx, head of the European bishops, from Trier, Karl Marx's home town. The church would choose with him symbolically "a Jew and a communist" as its leader, thus perhaps also indicate a return to its ancient origins.
Pros and cons will be carefully weighed in the next weeks in the Congregazioni, the traditional meetings preparing for the conclave. There, a profile of the papal candidate will be sketched. But it will be only the beginning, because as has happened many times in the past, two blocks may fight each other and a surprise third candidate may emerge to reconcile the church and get all the necessary 77 votes to be elected.
Francesco Sisci is a columnist for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org