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The Next Pope? (Read It Here First)

CAS prof on the Church’s future and the man it needs

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Pope Benedict XVI

Experts predict that Pope Benedict XVI's successor will be neither American nor inclined to liberalize Roman Catholic teachings on homosexuality, women as priests, or clerical celibacy. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

22 Comments on The Next Pope? (Read It Here First)

  • Andrew Wolfe on 02.26.2013 at 7:54 am

    Been a practicing Catholic all my life—weekly Mass, a handful of pilgrimages, lay groups, the whole thing. I have met Boston’s last three archbishops and have many friends in many parishes.

    Haberkern’s understanding of the Church is completely unrecognizable to me.

    Perhaps it would be useful to talk with B.U.’s beloved former chaplain, Mother Olga Yaqob.

    - Andrew Wolfe

  • Ryan Mulvey on 02.26.2013 at 8:34 am

    I agree with Mr. Wolfe. This article would have been much better had the author interviewed a Catholic scholar, or even one of the Catholic chaplains (present or past) that serve BU.

    Pope Benedict XVI, in the long run, will be remembered for his resignation, no doubt. But he will also be remembered for his restoration of the ancient liturgical practices of the Church, his teachings on rightly interpreting Vatican II, and his ecumenical overtures to disaffected Anglicans, traditionalist Catholics, and to the Orthodox. Furthermore, he has produced some of the most theologically rich encyclicals of the past few hundred years.

    Any serious scholar of Catholicism should have dismissed the suggestions of political realism in the determination of core teachings. The “liberalization” of social doctrine isn’t going to come with a “liberal” pontiff. First, the Church doesn’t follow the American left-right spectrum, so approaching it with that mindset is fruitless. More importantly, these teachings are grounded in 2,000 years of magisterial teaching. They will not be abandoned. Popes and cardinals may be politically savvy, but they won’t compromise the core of the Faith.

    • Anne N. on 02.26.2013 at 3:56 pm

      I’m interested by these intelligent Catholic responses. I don’t know if any (or all) of the respondents are students, but if so, would you recommend BU to a traditionalist Catholic with broad cultural interests and accomplishments (incl. music, languages)looking for a serious liberal arts education?

      • Andrew Wolfe on 02.27.2013 at 1:43 pm

        Wish I could help you, Anne. I’m an instructor at MET so I don’t have much visibility into undergrad life.

      • Ryan Mulvey on 02.27.2013 at 5:42 pm

        Anne: I am only a graduate student, so, like Mr. Wolfe, I cannot speak to the BU undergraduate experience. That being said, I would not recommend the university to someone looking for a distinctly Catholic education. Don’t get me wrong, I think a BU education is one of the finest out there. But there are many liberal arts college across the country (Thomas Aquinas College, Christendom College, Magdalen College) that specifically cater to those interested in a Catholic college experience. There are also a few major universities like CUA out there. The Cardinal Newman Society has a list of such institutions. Just Google for their college guide.

  • Michel CHAMBON on 02.26.2013 at 8:35 am

    This article and Haberkern speech are just repeating what we can read all around, including prejudice and narrow view… (infirmity, scandals, liberal/conservatism dualism, sex/power, etc).
    I think BU students deserve more than that….

    • Not Surprised on 02.26.2013 at 9:55 am

      Considering the fact that CNN yesterday had Fr. Cutie on the show, I am not surprised that BU Today interviewed a Professor of Christian History to talk about the Papal Conclave. Fr. Cutie, dressed in what looked like a clerical collar, is not a Catholic priest either. He once was a priest (now an Episcopal minister), but was dismissed because he was caught with a woman, whom he later married. All this unknown to the casual viewer who sees a man dressed in a clerical collar and referred to as “Fr.” The deception of the a bias media makes reading the news a daytime job for those who seek truth and look deeper than the seeming “commentary” that news has become.

      Thank you for your comments. I was surprised by those, that there existed some at BU who are interested in good objective journalism. I remember when I took a class on “Christianity”, and the Professor was Jewish. Absolutely baffling! Here I am, a Catholic myself, being taught by a Jewish Professor about my own religion. It is important thus that we say, “I think BU students deserve more than that…”, as you do Michael. There need to be more voices in this orchestra who do not merely agree with everything that is popularly agreed upon in the general public, but rather chooses to look deeper, to ask questions.

      If you want to know about the largest happening in the Catholic Church right now, I would suggest following Catholic news: http://www.catholicnews.com/

      • Orly? on 02.27.2013 at 9:53 am

        A Jewish professor is only capable of teaching Judaism? “Christianity” is your religion. I thought you were a “Catholic.” Why would you take a class on your own religion if you’re so appalled at the idea of being taught by someone else?

        You want to learn Catholicism from Catholics, go to church. You want to learn Christianity from Christians, go to church. You want to take a college course, listen to your college professor who, believe it or not, is not permitted to merely walk in off the street and pick up some chalk and pretend. Good thing you’re not perpetuating a stereotype about Catholics with your insular, ignorant, academia-phobic response.

        • Andrew Wolfe on 02.27.2013 at 2:00 pm

          “insular, ignorant, academia-phobic” – that response doesn’t reflect well on you.

          There are academic schools of thought in every subject, and different groups congregate at departments in different universities. Students definitely choose graduate schools based on who’s there to teach what, so why not undergraduate education? And Christianity is more than just a school of thought – I assume every religion is – it’s a perspective and worldview. I’d certainly expect a better understanding and exposition of that worldview from someone who shared it, wouldn’t you?

          • MoonBatman on 03.22.2013 at 9:00 am

            If by “better” you mean a thorough, probing, self-conscious, and (more) objective treatment — which is what we do in academia — then, the answer, Mr. Wolfe, is “no.” This is precisely the kind of prejudice from which the liberal arts are meant to liberate the learner. I agree with the previous commenter; if you want to “learn” a worldview, rather than learn about a worldview, go to a church, synagogue, ashram, etc. There, it would be inconceivable to have a person of a different faith leading; it is precisely in the nature of a university that this is not only conceivable, but encouraged. It’s called, simply, “pluralism.”

  • OldFatty on 02.26.2013 at 10:22 am

    If this is a story about the pope, why didn’t you interview a Catholic? I don’t understand how a non Catholic has any authority to comment on what the Catholic church needs. This is terrible journalism. BU Today should be ashamed.

    • Michelle W on 03.08.2013 at 4:35 pm

      I’m studying to become a historian and we learn to look at everything skeptically. A Catholic insight would be a bit more biased than one on the outside, am I correct? I believe that BU Today has done excellent journalism. Shedding light on a topic outside looking in and not the other way around. Just because he is not a Catholic does not mean that he does not know anything of that religion. This professor is a scholar, and it says in the article that he is a Christian historian. Catholicism is a sect of Christianity, is it not?

  • George on 02.26.2013 at 11:59 am

    I think Prof. Haberkern’s views on the state of the Church are, for the most part, correct. The comments seem to be unreasonably hard on the man. I especially agree with him on his predictions about how the church will respond to future calls for accommodation by Catholics from wealthy nations.

    However, I do agree with the other commenters that the input of one of BU’s Catholic chaplains would have been useful and appropriate. Otherwise, this article is much better than the coverage I have seen elsewhere.

  • John Verret on 02.26.2013 at 1:11 pm

    Prof. Haberkern may not be a Catholic however, one does not have to be a Catholic to understand some of the many things wrong with the Catholic Church and its current leadership. As a devout practicing Catholic (and one who was taught Theology by Rabbi Max Wall, one of the best theology teachers I have ever met) and former member of a Catholic religious order, it has been painful to watch the Vatican’s response to the child abuse scandals and their involvement in the horrific coverups that followed. But it even more painful to see how the last two Popes–Benedict XVI and John Paul II–have gone out of their way to destroy the work of Vatican II meant to “open the windows” of the Church.
    I agree with Prof. Haberkern that our current Pope will be remembered for quitting and for covering up the sex abuse scandals that have hurt so many of the faithful and especially the children. What would Jesus have done?

    • Andrew Wolfe on 02.27.2013 at 2:11 pm

      Like Pius XII, Benedict will be remembered as if “responsible” for evil things that he actually fought. When Pius XII repeatedly condemned and provoked Hitler, the contemporary New York Times worried he was courting the destruction of the Vatican. Now Pius XII is called Hitler’s Pope. Similarly, Benedict was in the forefront of cutting out the canon law red tape that protected abusers starting from the late 1980′s. He spearheaded the changes allowing rapid removal from ministry and expulsion from priesthood of abusers.

  • Van H. on 02.26.2013 at 7:03 pm

    Pope Benedict XVI is, in my opinion, the greatest Pope of my lifetime. I agree with Ryan Mulvey on Benedict’s real achievements and what he will be remembered for. For the record, I consider Paul VI having the worst pontificate of the 20th Century. As for the next pope, I am inclined to agree it may go back to the Italians, but I doubt it will be Scola. Both he and Turkson are entering the conclave popes, so both will most certainly leave cardinals. I think it may be Cardinal Bagnasco or Cardinal Piacenza. If it goes to a non-European, I think it will be Cardinal Ranjith, with Cardinals Pell and Tagle possibillites.

    • alan barry on 03.07.2013 at 11:59 pm

      Pell is the best of the lot I belive

  • Chris C. on 02.26.2013 at 8:01 pm

    A little advice for the new pope:

    “To whomever much is given, of him will much be required; and to whom much was entrusted, of him more will be asked.” Luke

    “Always do the right thing.” Da Mayor, as portrayed by Ossie Davis

  • kit on 02.27.2013 at 7:35 pm

    Can the author be a little less biased? Why does the Church have to change? Why can’t the Church have convictions? Furthermore, why is homosexuality the buzz topic of the day? Everywhere I read about this topic and the “rights” of people who choose, yes choose, to justify their lifestyle choices. Do people realize that it is an abomination in some cultures? Only in good ole America is everything okay, except the right to disagree with homosexuality, abortion, etc. According to BU and its liberal base, that’s not okay.So where are my rights?

    • Anonymous on 03.11.2013 at 1:45 pm

      Thanks for the laugh

      • MoonBatman on 03.22.2013 at 9:11 am

        Neither ignorance nor intolerance are rights, regardless of faith. You are permitted to have your primary identity be “person of faith”, and even to “disagree” and persuade, but neither you, nor the church are not entitled to have a say in what others’ choose for their identity. This is not Western liberal bias; this is civilization — egalitarian individualism. Enjoy.

  • JohnC on 03.01.2013 at 12:42 pm

    fantasypope.com has is crowdsourcing a prediction for the next pope….

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