The Next Pope? (Read It Here First)
CAS prof on the Church’s future and the man it needs
Pope Benedict XVI’s abdication in two days—because of infirmity, the 85-year-old says—has set off a worldwide guessing game about his successor, and has cardinals from around the world converging on Rome to choose a new pope. The first papal resignation in six centuries has experts predicting that the new pontiff will be neither American nor inclined to liberalize Roman Catholic teachings on homosexuality, women as priests, or clerical celibacy.
BU Christianity historian Phillip Haberkern concurs. (Cardinals are wary of elevating a citizen of the world’s superpower to a religiously superpower job, the thinking goes, and as for altering traditional social teachings, “There are no liberals left” among the cardinals, one veteran Vatican viewer says.) But Haberkern, a College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of history, is reluctant to assess the upcoming papal conclave in simple liberal-versus-conservative terms.
“I believe that this papal election will emphasize the need for further ecumenical dialogue between the Church, Muslims, and Jews, for instance, and will include vital conversations about the Church’s commitment in the fight against global poverty,” he says—points that could arguably be called liberal. The Vatican has said only that it hopes to have a new pope named by March 24, one week before Easter.
Haberkern specializes in medieval and early modern Christianity. (He’s also a practicing Christian who married into a Catholic family.) Catholicism finds itself at a critical juncture today: with approximately 1.19 billion believers, it’s growing in the developing world while rapidly shrinking in Europe. Here in the United States, the Church is mired in an ongoing clergy sex abuse scandal. Last month, Cardinal Roger Mahony, former archbishop of Los Angeles, was criticized by his successor for covering up such abuse and stripped of his official duties. Meanwhile, the Vatican denied Italian media reports that a secret dossier disclosing an activist clique of gay bishops and at least one cardinal, and the threat they could be blackmailed, hastened Benedict’s resignation.
BU Today asked Haberkern to discuss the Church’s needs and the man who might meet them.
BU Today: What is the most pressing need facing the Church, and what are the qualities the next pope needs to address it?
Haberkern: It seems like much of the conversation right now revolves around the decline of the Church (in terms of attendance, the ordination of priests, and cultural influence) in Europe, as well as in the United States. There is also concern about the gains made by charismatic Protestant groups in Latin America and Africa, which could suggest the emergence of a siege mentality among the Church’s leadership. That outlook would only be strengthened by the continuing sexual abuse scandal and the intensive dialogue among American Catholics (among others) about controversial topics such as clerical marriage or the possible ordination of women. The next pope’s greatest challenge will be to reorient the hierarchy’s embattled mentality, and instead open them up to continued dialogue, and hopefully greater transparency, with the world outside the Vatican. To do so, he will need to balance having the trust of the Church’s leaders with the courage, candor, and communication skills to reach out to disaffected Catholics and skeptics outside of the Church.
Should the Church seek its new pope from the developing world, as some suggest?
It seems clear that non-European, non-American candidates will garner serious consideration during this election. Cardinals Peter Turkson of Ghana, Leonardo Sandri of Argentina, Odilo Pedro Scherer of Brazil, and Francis Arinze of Nigeria are all possibilities. Any of these choices would send a strong message about the Church’s recognition of where its greatest human resources now lie, and would suggest a willingness by the hierarchy to reimagine the Church’s role in a global society.
How would you assess Benedict’s eight years as pope? What was his biggest success, and his biggest failure?
The answer about his greatest success will be linked historically to his resignation, I suspect. Sadly, I think Benedict will initially be remembered for the succession of scandals that marred his papacy, and I would consider his greatest failure to be his inability, or perhaps unwillingness, to demonstrate that he accepted the Church’s accountability for the sexual abuse scandal among the clergy and was committed to justice for the victims. It always seemed as if he were more concerned with the Church’s autonomy from, and inscrutability by, outside authorities, rather than addressing this crisis. Whether there is any truth to these recent allegations remains to be seen, but the fact that they resonate so strongly with the media and public opinion is very telling.
In the long term, however, I think Benedict will be viewed as the pope who fundamentally altered for the better how popes considered the end of their reigns. There is little provision in canon law for what happens if a pope becomes debilitated by disease, like dementia, but remains alive. Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II, made specific provisions for this, but there is no definitive process in the law of the Church. So, I believe that Benedict is trying to set a precedent for proactive resignation to help head off at the pass a potentially devastating leadership vacuum in the Church. By setting an example for salutary retirement, I think Benedict is helping to chart a course for the papacy in a world of modern medicine that could preserve a pope’s life to the detriment of the Church’s leadership.
Care to go out on a limb and predict who the next pope will be?
It is important to remember that the last non-Italian pope prior to John Paul II was Adrian VI (reigned 1522–1523), who was Dutch. After two non-Italians in a row, my gut says, go with an Italian. In particular, the Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Angelo Scola, seems ideally situated for election. He has worked extensively on problems of European secularism and interfaith dialogue, and is “only” in his early 70s.
U.S. Catholics largely ignore Church teachings on matters like contraception and divorce, and Europe has secularized. Can the Church survive if its culture doesn’t make some accommodation for the concerns of wealthy countries?
The Church is essentially a gerontocracy, where its leaders have to prove themselves by a long, distinguished career within the institution before they can be considered for the ultimate leadership position. Because of that, the popes are often more insulated from calls for reform than we might believe. Also, the Church is aware of where its greatest numbers lie, as the consideration of Latin American and African cardinals for the papacy suggests, and I suspect that the agreement between the more conservative social politics of those Catholics and the hierarchy’s will gravitate against accommodation.
In the 13th and 16th centuries, dissident Christian groups challenged Catholic hegemony, as did the rise of secular nationalisms in the 19th century. In all of these circumstances, the Church successfully retrenched itself and sought to expand its influence by rearticulating its core commitments to hierarchy and uniformity, while being institutionally creative about harnessing religious idealism. I don’t know what form that sort of retrenchment might take in the 21st century, but I don’t see it depending on accommodation.
What impact might the alleged dossier scandal, if found to be true, have on the Church’s teaching on homosexuality ?
I would be shocked if this produced any major reconsiderations on homosexuality. I hope this rocky transition will force the Church to deal more openly with sex scandals and how it takes accountability for its oversight of the clergy. But even that, I suspect, would result from internal processes that the Church would try to veil from the public eye.22 Comments