Smoke and mirrors at the Vatican
SOURCE: The Spectator
SMH, Wednesday, 13 May 1998, Page 15
Who will be the next Pope? ANDREW BROWN reviews John Paul II’s likely successor, and ponders what the new pontiff will do about issues such as the crisis over the celibacy of priests and the ordination of women.
IT IS a mortal sin to wish for the death of a Pope, something which must have made it easier for the Devil to harvest liberal Catholic souls over the past 20 years. Pope John Paul II is neither a liberal nor a democrat and has fought against almost everything that the middle classes in liberal democracies believe, and especially against their interpretation of feminism.
His energy has been astounding, even surviving being shot. His tireless travels around the world would bring men half his age to their knees - though that may be the position in which he finds strength. It seems nothing can stop him and since he is determined to see in the millennium, most Vatican-watchers are confident that he will succeed.
Yet for all his strength and steeliness, he is 78, and the symptoms of his Parkinsons disease are terrible to see. Perhaps the medications have the disease under control. It fluctuates, according to the journalists who watch him all the time. But the man has done so many incredible things that he might yet astonish the world one last time by dying.
Who could succeed him when he does? This, oddly enough, is much easier to answer than "who will succeed him?" The honest answer to the second question is no-one knows, not even the 120 cardinals who will choose his successor from their own number. There was a flurry of excitement earlier this spring when Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Secretary of State, or Foreign Minister, mentioned the name of the dissident Swiss theologian Hans Kung in a public lecture. He didn’t say anything very complimentary, nor did he propose a reconciliation between the theologian and the Church, but just to mention the name was daring in the conformist atmosphere of the Vatican. But it is not enough to install Sodano as a favourite.
Since John Paul II was only 58 when elected, it is likely his successor will be much older. No-one wants another 20-year pontificate. This rules out one of the most interesting conservative candidates, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, of Vienna, who is only 53. If it were not for his age, he might have made one of the most interesting successors, since he has much in common with the present Pope, but comes from a Church as unlike Poland’s as possible.
Schoenborn himself is an iron conservative in doctrinal matters. When asked about his policy on the remarriage of divorcees, he replied that for divorcees to remarry was as impossible as for a rider paralysed in a smash to mount his bike again. But he is also a gentleman: a week later, he apologised to a remarried woman who had been in the audience when he said that.
In Austria, he has had to deal with one of the most public outbreaks of discontent anywhere in the Catholic Church. More than a third of the country’s church-going population signed a petition calling for women priests as well as married clergy and greater democracy in the Church. These are the three causes against which Pope John Paul II has set his face most firmly and they are the three questions that his successor will have to deal with most urgently.
Women priests are almost certainly impossible. This Pope has done everything in his power to ensure they will remain so forever. Married priests are another matter; in fact, their introduction is probably the most pressing task facing the next Pope. A married parish clergy would not solve all the Church’s problems. Married men cost a lot of money, they get divorced and they cannot be moved around as easily as celibates. In the long run, a married parish clergy would profoundly change the character of the Catholic Church, tending to blur the distinction between clergy and laity. But that is a price worth paying: the crisis over celibacy is deep, dreadful and worldwide.
Almost the first act of John Paul II was to stop all applications to leave the priesthood from men who wanted to get married: about 100,000 had gone in the 30 years following the second Vatican Council. Solid research conducted by Richard Sipe, a psychiatrist who was for 20 years a monk before leaving to get married, suggests that about half the notionally celibate priesthood is involved in sexual relationships at any one time. In the parts of the world where the rule of celibacy is outwardly observed, vocations are collapsing. In Africa, and to a lesser extent Latin America, the rule is just ignored.
Celibacy among the parish clergy is only a disciplinary norm: sacrificing it would change no profound doctrine. The moral price of maintaining this discipline is paid in double standards, hypocrisy and human suffering. This is one reason why the speculation naming the leader of Britains Catholics, Cardinal Basil Hume, for the job should be taken seriously. He has been extraordinarily skilful in introducing married priests to Britain while minimising the grumbling from the clergy still condemned to celibacy, many of whom are deeply suspicious of the motives of the married Anglicans who came over to escape from women priests.
Cardinal Hume’s real qualification for the role, though, may lie in his attitude to church democracy. He’s against it, but in the most charming way. He practises autocracy with consent and it works. He is almost the only candidate from the affluent West to preside over a Church that is not in a state of cold civil war. The Austrian petition for church democracy (and against the Pope) was also offered round the German Church, where one and a half million signed it, despite the active opposition of the bishops.
But when it came to Britain it fizzled without trace, not for lack of support for such policies, but because the Cardinal has somehow managed to ensure that his liberal opposition is entirely loyal. That’s partly because almost all are employed by his Church, and partly because his mixture of exquisite manners, headmasterly autocracy and shining personal holiness disarms all but the most determined critics.
All this has been accomplished without any interference from Rome. So to some observers he seems to be a candidate for decentralisation, if not for democracy. Since the electorate is composed of cardinals who would, many of them, benefit from a decentralised regime in which they could run their dioceses without the constant threat of delation to Rome by their opponents, this is a point in his favour.
In North America, the split between conservatives and liberals is so absolute that Cardinal Mahony, of Los Angeles, who is accounted a liberal, has formally reported to the Vatican authorities the terrifying figure of Mother Angelica, a nun who runs the largest religious cable TV network in the world from a position somewhere to the right of Torquemada and who has been attacking his theology on air. No-one from that continent would be possible since there are no neutrals: the same considerations apply with greater force in Latin America, where radicals tend to be shot rather than merely execrated.
The further difficulty with Latin American candidates is that they come from a continent where the Reformation is being re-enacted. Pentecostal Protestantism is spreading like wildfire. Because Pentecostals make their own clergy and are radically decentralised, they respond to a market economy in religion much better than the command structure of an established church can do. Though they seem extremely patriarchal, they offer women better treatment and, often, more responsibility than can the Catholic Church.
There are other European candidates besides Cardinal Hume, such as Cardinal Miroslav Vlk, of Prague. But he would be another central European, too much like the present Pope. Cardinal Martini, a Jesuit from Milan, is probably the strongest contender. He is wise, holy, brilliant, and carries all the hopes of the liberals, but the present Pope has changed the rules for election so that a candidate no longer needs a two-thirds majority: after 12 ballots, a simple majority will do; and some observers think that this might give extremist candidates a chance.
What the next Pope needs to be is a complicated conservative who can recognise the inevitability of change. I’m afraid Cardinal Hume fits the bill, even though he is nearly too old at 75, and it would wreck his plans for a quiet funeral.
CAPTION: Drawing: By Amanda Upton
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