The next’s pope to-do list


A cross is seen on a Cardinal as he arrives for a meeting at the Synod Hall in the Vatican March 6, 2013. (TONY GENTILE/REUTERS)

It is easy to treat the election of the pope as a horse race that places odds of winning on one or other cardinal. Or one can treat the conclave as a sort of political convention, with one party vying with others for power. Since I don’t pretend to be either a tout for each of the papabili or an insider to ecclesiastical politics, I can only offer my take on issues that the pope must address. Here’s my “papal to-do list.”

The first thing is to reform the Vatican curia. I would not say that that the curia is corrupt, but I do think it is corrupting because it is structurally ill fitted for the modern world. Vatican bureaucracy worked when information gathering was based on letters arriving on a slow boat from China or by stage coach from Krakow. Departments were set up in Rome to deal with specific kinds of issues, ranging from marriage dispensations to the building of new churches.

It was hoped that naming church officials to these posts would keep the process righteous and the pope informed. However, transparency is not the Vatican’s strong suit. Structural obstacles of the past 500 years mean that placing good people inside a corrupting system is not enough by itself to produce the needed reform.

In a global village united by email and Internet communications, this bureaucratic model is clearly outdated and the secret report ordered by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI supposedly puts names and dates to continuing corruption in administration and finances. That report will be on the desk of the next pope, screaming for decisive reform.

The second imperative is to ordain more priests. Many parishes today do not have a resident priest for Sunday Mass for the faithful. Without challenging the efficacy of prayer for vocations, the chorus is rising to meet the priest shortage by ordaining married men. (The ordination of women is another and more complicated issue.) There were married priests in Catholicism for more than a thousand years, making a married clergy as ancient as the only-celibate priesthood which now appears to have run its course of usefulness. Moreover, a pool of prospective married priests is already present in the permanent deacons that were trained for ministry after the II Vatican Council. As long as it is slowly phased in by local bishops, the re-introduction of married men to the priesthood would be welcomed by most Catholics. Rather than a radical step away from the essence of Catholicism it is, as Garry Wills suggests, a decisive theological move towards restoring an ancient tradition.

The third pressing issue is redefinition of the Catholic stand on use of the birth control pill. The use of “artificial birth control” as a means of achieving responsible parenthood has its theological support. In fact, the commission established to report about “the pill” offered a majority opinion in favor of its legitimate use. The advances of science in rendering the pill safe means that its use can be compared to taking insulin for diabetes or injections to forestall HIV complications. While still denouncing the pill as instrument of sexual license or abdication of the responsibility to have children, Catholic theology can refashion the conditions for use of birth control to enhance Catholic family values. In a sense, these changes have already taken place at a pastoral level: it’s time for the pope and bishops to catch-up with the Catholic laity.

Achieving any one of these on a papal to-do list would be historic; implementing all three would be cosmic. I suggest the next pope convoke another ecumenical council and enlist all the world’s Catholics as participants in his to-do list. By putting all the world’s bishops under the same roof, the dominance of the curia officials would be broken. Pastoral voices from every corner would be heard; the weight of the full church would crush narrow interests. Of such power is the Holy Spirit.

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