In picking successor, Vatican must decide what’s needed in a 21st-century pope

February 11, 2013

For centuries, the job of a pope was a relatively manageable affair. Candidates were largely Italian, the flock Western. One could even disappear from public, as Pope Pius XI did for a couple of years in the 1930s so people wouldn’t see that he’d been using a wheelchair. In the 13th century, the position was vacant for 31 / 2 years.

By contrast, the cardinals preparing to select a replacement for Pope Benedict XVI are seeking one whopper of a résumé. The role now calls for a spiritual figure able to inspire and unify a 1.1 billion-member global church that’s simultaneously booming and collapsing, and whose flock seems to agree on little. Management acumen is essential, Twitter fluency preferable. Hours: 24-7.

In some ways, the selection of a new pope will have more potential to influence the future of Catholicism than the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then 78, in 2005.

In the eight years since Pope Benedict took office, the divisions in the Catholic world have become more solidified. The West, including Europe and the United States, has been locked in a culture war over contraception, homosexuality and the role of women in the church, among other issues. Meanwhile, more theologically traditional Catholics in Africa and parts of Asia have fueled much of the church’s growth, threatening a standoff with Islam.

In other words, the next pope will have to carefully pick his audience and decide how best to communicate with it without alienating the rest of the faith’s followers.

Benedict was known for saying he expected the Catholic Church to become smaller and more cohesive — a comment “big tent” Catholics found alienating. Yet he never truly seemed comfortable making that call, saying and writing that there should be room for all Catholics. His successor may face more explicit choices.

“If you run any business, whether it’s the papacy or a pizza shop, you have to consider if you focus on your core or where you’re expanding. The Catholic Church is doing magnificently in some areas, but the core is collapsing,” said Philip Jenkins, an expert on global Christianity at Baylor University. “If the papacy is anything, it’s a bully pulpit. The question is, who you are going to appeal to?”

Early candidate names don’t give away much. It seems highly likely that the Vatican’s choice will be in the conservative mold; popes John Paul II and Benedict all but assured that by promoting cardinals who prioritized traditional doctrine.

But other qualities are up for grabs, with possible candidates varying considerably in style and background, as well as nationality — a detail that has grown in importance as the church’s following has diversified.

Close watchers of the Vatican say the cardinals who will select Benedict’s successor are watching the media-savvy leader of the massive Milan archdiocese, Cardinal Angelo Scola; top Vatican administrator Marc Ouellet of Canada; and Peter Turkson of Ghana. Also in the mix is jovial New York City Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who if he overcame the odds would make history as a superpower pope, something that has been frowned upon.

The list is highly speculative. Unlike in a presidential race, Vatican practice for centuries has barred public discussion about possible successors while a pope is alive, or anything that even whiffs of open campaigning. Italians make up a quarter of the cardinals who will participate in the voting meeting, or conclave, in March. Europeans make up more than half. Because this pope is alive, the cardinals are in uncharted waters and will probably meet in small groups to quietly brainstorm and discuss the possibilities until the conclave begins.

That’s when they will decide what kind of theologian they want, what kind of manager, what kind of communicator. Do they want to try to revive the powerful and secularizing West or turn toward the developing world, where two-thirds of Catholics now live?

Even within regions, there is great diversity. For example, some African Catholics aren’t as orthodox on contraception, which can protect from AIDS, but are conservative on homosexuality.

“We’ve had two popes in a row who have been academics. It might be smart to look for someone who is a diplomat or someone with some management skills,” said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, former editor of the Catholic magazine America. “In the last two conclaves, they’ve elected the smartest man in the room. It might be better to elect someone who will listen to all the other smart people in the church.”

Catholic debate in the United States often centers on issues such as whether the church should allow the ordination of women or married priests. But those are not the debates of the cardinals, all of whom were picked by Benedict or his like-minded predecessor, Pope John Paul II. They are in agreement on such matters as allowing female priests, contraception, or equality for gay men and lesbians: no, no and no.

The real factors behind the selection of a new pope are “not the kind of stuff that comes up on talk shows,” said John L. Allen Jr., who has written seven books on the Catholic Church and popes.

The top priority, Allen and others say, is to make Catholics evangelizers again. The church has spent much of the past ­half-century, since the modernizing and controversial Second Vatican Council, locked in internal debates and not out spreading the gospel. Many blame an antiquated communications style and system, one epitomized by the pope’s news-halting announcement Monday, which he delivered in Latin at a meeting of cardinals.

Pope Benedict did try in his own scholarly way to communicate, by writing more books than almost any other pope and calling for “a new evangelization.” Recently, he joined Twitter, immediately amassing hundreds of thousands of followers. But it seems the least traditional thing he did in his tenure was decide to resign from office.

Dennis Doyle, a religious studies professor at the University of Dayton in Ohio, said that many liberal Catholics want someone who can “appreciate a wide spectrum of positions and who can contribute to overcoming polarization. And who can, without losing focus, allow the church to be a big tent. And who can span the developed countries and the Southern Hemisphere. I think we need someone from Krypton.”

Some note that the selection of a new pope is one of the most-watched moments for the Catholic Church and so presents an opportunity for the Vatican to show how adept it can be at communicating its mission and values to the world.

There are numerous questions to answer, including a basic one that a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops spokeswoman couldn’t answer Monday: What do you call a retired pope?

“Trying to figure that out now,” Sister Mary Ann Walsh said in an e-mail.

And how much influence will he have on a successor?

“One of the biggest challenges he’ll leave his successor is how to act toward a retired pope. How much voice will a retired pope have, if any? Do you draw on his wisdom? Do you ask him to participate?” said John Thavis, a journalist who recently published “The Vatican Diaries,” about the inner workings in Rome. “What if you disagree with one of the policies? Do you make sure no one knows because it could cause confusion? These are unanswered questions.”

Michelle Boorstein is the Post’s religion reporter, where she reports on the busy marketplace of American religion.
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