Five Issues for the New Pope to Address — and to guide in his selection
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So the cardinals of the church are meeting to elect the next pope. Who cares? The media obviously do. The Catholic Church is getting a lot of air time and ink. But some of us might be caught yawning.
The yawn issues from the fact that the last two disastrous papacies (John Paul II and Benedict XVI) have so tightly packed the College of Cardinals with reactionary clones of themselves that any hope of rescuing the Romans from their deepest crisis since the Reformation seems remote at the very best.
But if there is hope of such rescue it resides in electing a pontiff who will directly address five issues: (1) summoning an Ecumenical Council, (2) opening priestly ordination to women, (3) abolition of mandatory celibacy for priests, (4) retraction of the prohibition of artificial contraception, and (5) practical adoption of liberation theology and its preferential option for the poor.
To begin with, an Ecumenical Council seems required not only to overcome the impression that the Roman Curia operating in its bubble has become hopelessly corrupt. It is necessary as well to bolster the teaching of the Second Vatican Council about collegiality after the twin papacies just mentioned did all they could to undermine cooperation with rather than dictating to local bishops.
An Ecumenical Council would also demonstrate serious intent to address the crisis of clerical pedophilia which is global in nature and requires global input to solve. Additionally, a general meeting of the world’s bishops would elicit input from theologian-advisers whose creative thought has been devalued over the last 35 years (dumbing-down the church in the process) and whose collective intellectual power transcends the capacity of any new pope who might be elected.
Secondly, the new pope and his Council must address the issue of women’s ordination. Opening the ranks of the priesthood in this way would have a twofold effect. Above all, it would be an act of restorative justice. It would incorporate into roles of church leadership its single most effective and committed constituents – whose contributions have been especially attacked, belittled and denigrated over the final year of Benedict XVI’s reign.
Admitting women to the priesthood would also have the effect of putting into proper perspective papal claims of infallibility. After all, John Paul II recklessly invoked those claims to bolster his untenable position against women’s ordination. By reversing John Paul’s error, any new pope would implicitly abandon the papacy’s indefensible claim to infallibility – and its attendant inability simply to admit error and reverse other mistakes connected with priestly celibacy, contraception, and the handling of priestly pedophiles.
Priestly celibacy is the third issue crying out for attention. To pretend there is no connection between sexual deviance and mandatory celibacy represents a monumental act of denial. Common sense would dictate that suppression of the most basic of evolutionary drives is a recipe for disaster. It is not only connected with pedophilia and misogyny, but with the loneliness that is endemic to the celibate priesthood and central to the ineffectiveness of celibates preaching to congregations overwhelmingly composed of married couples and young people anticipating marriage.
Along with the opening of the priesthood to women, removal of the celibacy requirement would immediately remedy the priest-shortage of the Catholic Church. Simultaneously it would presumably allow the many who have abandoned their calling in favor of marriage to resume the work for which they were trained all those many years. There’s simply no denying that following Vatican II, the cream of the crop was lost to this senseless and counterproductive prerequisite to ordination. It’s time to welcome back the former priests who wish to return.
Equally senseless has been the top-down decision outlawing artificial contraception made by Pope Paul VI and expressed in his 1969 Encyclical “Humanae Vitae.” That document took the decision about contraception out of the hands of the very commission the pope had then appointed to review the church’s traditional teaching. In doing so, Paul VI backed away from Vatican II’s emphasis on episcopal collegiality, and set the stage for the full retreat embraced by the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Reversing “Humanae Vitae” would not only rectify a highly questionable teaching on contraception that obviously undermines the Vatican’s teaching on abortion; it would also move the church back on the track towards the democracy portended by Vatican II, but resisted by Rome since the end of the 18th century.
Finally, and most importantly in terms of relevance to the post-modern world, the new pope and the Council he summons must embrace liberation theology’s preferential option for the poor. I say “most importantly” because this item unlike the others goes directly to the heart of the Christian faith. Even the inveterate enemy of liberation theology, Benedict XVI in his days as Cardinal Ratzinger, recognized that liberation theology’s commitment to the poor is essential to the Judeo-Christian tradition. And with the majority of church members now located in the developing world, it is indispensable to the church’s relevance to insist that global economic and social policy be made on a percolate-up rather than a trickle-down basis.
Correlatively, a church siding with the poor must insist in no uncertain terms that current military expenditure (especially on the part of the United States) represents robbery from the world’s poor. It is also high time for the Vatican to get out of the banking business and its attendant ties to money laundering, the Italian mafia, and banking system’s inevitable preferential option for the rich.
The retreat from Vatican II represented by nearly 35 years of Ratzinger’s overweening influence as right-hand man of John Paul II and as Benedict XVI was premised on a false hope. Evidently the last two popes imagined that a restoration of a vaguely remembered halcyon past would somehow fill pews and restore order to a church irrelevantly led by a hierarchy of out-of-touch old men. So the two popes doubled down on the old order instead of following through on the promise and risks of Vatican II. The disasters of recent years have shown the foolishness of their wager.
It’s now up to the cardinals and the pope they will select to get the church back on track. The unacceptable alternative is to continue along a path that will inevitably lead to further disaster and continued irrelevance.
Mike Rivage-Seul is emeritus professor of peace and social justice, former Roman Catholic priest, activist, and liberation theologian. Visit his blog here.