Persons around the world are watching to see whom the Cardinals will choose to take over Catholic Church leadership. The Catholic Church today is in a situation not all that different from countries all over the Islamic world. They are having an Arab Spring. They are struggling to find leadership who can bring about needed reforms, without further alienating more people and without losing core beliefs and traditions.
In both Arab nations and the Catholic Church the big questions are: whom to chose to lead?; which elements of the past can be set aside and which ones have to be preserved for truth and identity?
A major change in the Catholic Church was proposed in the 1960s by Pope John XXIII who called the 2nd Vatican Council in order to open the Church to communication with the modern world. He was somewhat successful, despite strong opposition from traditionalists, who suffer from a drip-down infallibility mentality. If everything you believe is infallible, why would you change anything? Once that Pope was gone and the Council ended, conservative Catholic forces turned as much as they could back to where the Church had been before. Now the next Pope will be faced with a fragmented Catholic community: some wanting to update and modernize the Church, and some opposed to change of any sort.
The Catholic Church has been around for centuries longer than other world institutions. The Church has been through more than its share of crises. One of the most serious situations facing the next Pope, is the way some Church leaders handled the priest sex scandals. This caused many Catholics to leave the Church. Younger people in Europe and the U.S. are today less interested in the Church or in religion. One scandal after another has created anger, doubt, and alienation even among those who are trying to remain faithful Catholics. This is just one of many challenges which the next Pope will face. The Church that should be an undivided image of Jesus is divided, fragmented and badly in need of change in order to be itself.
The next Pope will have to have personal qualities that earn him broad respect. He will have to be willing to listen to what ordinary people have to say. One of his objectives will have to be to bring people back to Church. Can he create a Church climate which is more open, more receptive, and more tolerant? Will there be apologies from the Pope for the concealment of sexual abuse that caused added scandal? Will there be admissions of administrative failure for the way the scandals were handled? Perhaps the biggest challenge will be whether the Pope can refashion the Church experience to make it address the influence and inadequacies of a surrounding atheistic culture, in which life has no meaning or purpose and death is the end of everything.
The next Pope has to be both creative and courageous, a saint and a salesman. Hopefully he will be courageous enough to reach out to other Christian Churches. We are coming up on 500 years since the Protestant Reformation. It is time for Catholics and Protestants to stop the criticisms and heal the separations.
The Catholic community today is not much different from the communities of mainline Protestant denominations. Together they make up Christianity. All are alike in declining congregations and in tensions between conservatives and progressives. The next Pope should try to bring both groups closer together. He will have to be more open to different theological perspectives. The Eucharist for example could be understood as consecrated bread and wine, and become the Sacrament of Christian Unity, instead of being a way to exclude all but the true believers.
Protestants can join Catholics in hoping that the new Pope is courageous enough to return the Christian emphasis to love and to unity rather than playing the old game about who is right. The next Pope and the Church authorities in Protestant denominations both have to be creative and courageous enough to communicate Christian truth to persons living in today's increasingly atheistic world. Islam is not the only religion struggling to achieve a new spring.
By James F. Drane
Bioethics Institute, Edinboro University of PA