The world has been stunned by the shock resignation of Pope Benedict. Once this sinks in, the inevitable question is who will replace him? Who can best represent the one billion Catholics in the world? Who will be able to make the reforms the Church needs to avoid sinking into irrelevance? Who can repair the Church’s severely damaged credibility? Who will face the Church’s dark history of abuse? Who can make the Church relevant in a world that is increasingly abandoning faith? Can anyone?
There will be great debate on where the next Pope will be from. Despite the fact that Catholicism is a global religion, the Popes have always come from a narrow group. For 500 years until 1978, every Pope was Italian. There hasn’t been an English Pope in 850 years (the last one blessed the English invasion of Ireland, so this was probably for the best) and there has never been an American Pope. You know an institution is in trouble when appointing an old, white, American man would be considered an act increasing diversity. There will be strong calls for appointing an African or a Hispanic Pope. The world is no longer ruled solely by white men, so it is long overdue that Africans and Hispanics got some recognition. This would be a sign that the Church is willing to modernise and keep up with the times.
However, there could be a problem. You see there are many benefits to an African Pope, but also a major disadvantage. You see, African Churches are the most conservative Catholics. While almost all of Europe has accepted gay marriage, in some parts of Africa homosexuality is still illegal. It is widely believed that homosexuality is a grievous sin and is unacceptable. A Pew Global survey (page 39) found that in African countries except South Africa, 95% of people said society should not accept homosexuality. To many African Catholics, divorce is unacceptable, something that seems absurd in secular Europe. Any potential Pope who had to climb this system will have skeletons and nasty quotes in their past that could come back to haunt them. Appointing an African Pope could set the Church back decades and re-affirm the view of it as a conservative institution in a liberal world.
What the Church needs is a modern Pope with some common sense. Pope Benedict reminded you of a creepy uncle who thought anything fun is sinful. The Church needs to drop its backward and dogmatic ways. In the 21st century, people will no longer accept it. Even in Catholic Ireland, there are few who thinks the Pope makes any sense. The Vatican is 50 years behind everyone else, fighting battles that have long since been lost. There is a real chance that the Church will turn away from the modern and take comfort in an old fashioned conservative. The Catholic Church is hemorrhaging members in Europe and faces near collapse within a generation if nothing is done. The Church may very well choose to ignore this problem and instead retreat to a narrow conservatism popular in America and Africa.
The first thing the next Pope has to do is apologise for the abuses committed by priests. I mean genuinely apologise. Not a mealy mouthed politician’s apology that implies that the priests are somehow the victims. Not an apology that puts child abuse on the same level as female priests (like what Benedict did). A sincere and meaningful apology that admitted the Vatican was wrong in failing to punish these priests and helping to cover up there abuses. If the next Pope fails to do this, then he will have no credibility and be seen as irrelevant in our lives.
The Pope should follow this up with some common sense changes. Firstly, stop discouraging condoms. It is not the 1950s or even the 1850s. Condoms are good; they prevent the spread of STDs and are crucial in fight against AIDS. Refusal to do so not only condemns millions to die unnecessarily, but also destroys the Church. If the Church will put its prudish dogma ahead of people’s lives, then it loses moral authority. The next Pope can follow this up by admitting there is nothing wrong with homosexuality. Some people are gay whether the Pope likes it or not and the Vatican needs to stop pretending that gay people are evil. Do you know what would happen if the next Pope let gay people marry? Everyone would say wow, that guy isn’t so bad, he’s got some common sense and is trying to modernise the Church. People would actually respect the Pope (something they haven’t done in a long time).
Likewise if he allowed women priests. The Church is in serious trouble and most priests are very elderly and have no one to replace them. Allowing women priests would give the Church a burst of new energy, new members and make it more relevant to the world. Why continue to ignore half the world for vague and pointless dogma? In fact imagine if the next Pope was a woman? This is the 21st century after all and we now let women do everything men can do. However the outdated backwardness of the Vatican puts it more in line with Saudi Arabia.
All of these proposals have little chance of happening. The current hierarchy puts tradition and dogma ahead of relevance and the needs of the ordinary people. In this way it reminds me of the Soviet Union in the 70s. It was run by aged bureaucrats devoid of ideas and fresh thinking. The only people who managed to climb to the top were those who taught the dogma was right; reformers were pushed to the side. It was rotting from within and growing more out of touch with every passing day. When reform came, it was more than the creaking and stale structure could bear and the entire establishment collapsed.
Are the problems the Church faces simply too great? Are we merely re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic? What role can a religious leader play in a world where religion is in sharp decline? Can any Pope stand against the tide of secularism? Are the sins of the past simply too great? Is it possible for any Pope to apologise for ignoring and covering up abuses or is will it be too little too late? The Pope and the Vatican are based on the Roman Empire; does this have any relevance in the 21st century? Can anyone change the hierarchy? Is there any place for someone who claims to be God’s representative on Earth and infallible in the age of liberalism? Is the task too great, the burden too heavy no matter who the next Pope will be?