Presumably, you’re aware that cardinals of the Catholic Church are convening in Rome to elect the next pope:
(CBS News) Catholic cardinals are holding the first of their official meetings on Monday since the retirement of the former pope Benedict, now known as Pope Emeritus.
During those meetings, the cardinals will set a date for their conclave to choose a new pope. The cardinals have begun to meet, but before they get down to the business of choosing a new pope, they’ve got plenty of other business to discuss.
The Catholic Church has been hit by the combined earthquakes of a retired pope, and the child abuse and other scandals. Its response has been deliberate and traditional, and will be a major topic of discussion in the coming days.
I don’t plan to post much on this story and, indeed, this may be my only post on the subject. That doesn’t minimize how important a story it is. How important?
Roughly one sixth of all human beings are Catholics. Not Christians. Catholics. It makes no more sense to ignore their existence and their faith than it did to ignore China in 1970. Most of the comments I see about Catholicism are astonishingly and virulently bigoted. Disparaging Catholicism is no more adequate a view of it than disparaging China was 40 years ago.
Here’s my sole observation. Look to the conclave as a weathervane of what the cardinals believe to be the primary challenge facing the Church and for the tenure of the next pope. It was no coincidence that a Polish bishop was elected to the papacy in 1978. The Eurocentric college of cardinals envisioned a communist world and the challenge was to keep the Church alive in that world. What pope could do so better than a bishop who had confronted such a world successfully on a daily basis for many years?
In my view the election of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was an engineered one (by Ratzinger himself). Despite that I think it’s clear that the cardinals saw a more assertive Islam as a primary challenge to the Church’s survival and the overtures made by Benedict XVI early in his papacy are evidence of that. They were peculiar and ineffectual overtures to be sure but overtures nonetheless.
There is no comparable “pope-in-waiting” today so whomever is elected by this conclave will constitute a surer signal of where the cardinals see today’s challenge. The College of Cardinals remains alarmingly Eurocentric. Of the 117 electors from 50 countries 61 are Europeans even though Europeans only comprise about 27% of Catholics with their numbers dwindling every day.
Half of all Catholics live in the Americas; 40% in Latin America. 12% live in Africa; 10% in Asia.
The last non-European pope was Gregory III in the 8th century. I would like to see a Latin American pope, if only because it would underscore the Church’s commitment to a “preferential option for the poor”, an essential component of modern Catholic social teaching. A North American pope would be a very long shot and I’m not convinced a desireable one.
If the next pope is a European or, worse, a member of the Curia or other portion of the Vatican bureaucracy it will be a signal that the cardinals are circling the wagons. I view that, unfortunately, as pretty likely. IMO what is needed is a radical shakeup of that bureaucracy.