I’m not a Vatican watcher. I have no particular expertise about the current state of the Roman Catholic Church, though a growing number of family connections with the RCC give me some sense of developments on the ground. But any Christian, it seems to me, should be interested in the future direction of the world’s largest communion, currently with about 1.2 billion members. Non-Roman Catholic Christians are not always aware of it, but often their own prayer life, public worship and theology have been affected by the trickle-down of developments in Roman spirituality, liturgy and doctrine, especially in the 20th century and both before and after Vatican II.
Further, the role of a pope in the contemporary world is without peer. On one hand, a pope’s role can appear much diminished from the medieval period in Europe, when the pope held temporal as well as spiritual sway and was a force that the monarchs had perforce to reckon with. Temporal power, however, fundamentally compromised the spiritual role of the office and made popes vulnerable to temporal challenges that could and sometimes did eclipse their spiritual as well as temporal influence.
Today, on the other hand, a pope has no temporal power, but the RCC is distributed far beyond Europe and the West to every corner of the globe. Moreover, the hierarchical structure of the RCC means that that a pope has extraordinary influence in shaping the church from top to bottom, witness the conservative hue of the next conclave in view of John Paul II’s appointment of 50 cardinals and Benedict XVI’s appointment of 67. As a friend of mine, a former Roman priest, often says, “Every Roman bishop (or archbishop) is a suffragan bishop” – with theoretically any decision vulnerable to veto from Rome.
Arguably, therefore, the pope leads more people than any other person on earth – except the president of China and the prime minister of India. Yes, in matters of religion rather than matters of state, but, as we have seen, religion in the 21st century is not the wan and waning phenomenon that many predicted in the 20th, but a robust and controversial element on the international stage – an actor, not simply acted upon; a shaper of cultures as well as shaped by cultures; a motivator for many who shape events temporally, whether in Washington or Moscow, Tehran or Delhi, Nairobi or Kuala Lumpur, Cairo or Peshawar – and even Beijing.
So a papal conclave rightly commands our attention. What does the next one portend? What does it portend for many things: for women in the church, for resolution (for want of a better word) of the sex-abuse scandals, for doctrinal narrowness or breadth, for the church’s youth, and so on? Commentators agree that the likely trajectory in many of these areas is more of the same relatively narrow conservatism that we’ve seen over the last two papacies.
But what about mission? Will the church be looking primarily inward to sort out internal problems? Or will the church be looking outward to wrestle with how to proclaim the gospel in a world of difference? If, as some Roman leaders seem to believe, the church’s mission in the world is the central matter to consider, the upcoming conclave could produce a leader who could make a missional difference.
Listen, for instance, to Monsignor Anthony Figueiredo, director of the Institute for Continuing Theological Education at the North American College, in Rome: “What’s going to be very key in this conclave is the person, the personality. Is he a man who can really speak to the hearts of people in this secularized, de-Christianized world where people, let’s face it, are leaving the church and need to be attracted to the message?”
“The questions are usually about the qualities you want to see in a pope,” Cardinal Francis George of Chicago is quoted as saying. “Is he a man of prayer, is he deeply rooted in the apostolic faith, can he govern, is he deeply concerned about the poor? It matters far less where he happens to be living or where he’s from.”
These are good questions, the right questions. There’s a lot of buzz about whether this time round there will actually be a non-European pope, and there are plenty of Africans, Asians and Latin Americans who feel it is their turn to have one of their own in the seat of St. Peter. That would indeed validate the life of the Two-Thirds World church as the church’s center of gravity both demographically and spiritually in this century. It could also energize the church’s mission to the West, the main place where Figueiredo’s adjectives, “secularized” and “de-Christianized,” apply.
I pray it may be so.