This column originally appeared on Beliefnet in May 2001.

Because of the role they will play in selecting John Paul II's successor, the recent additions to the College of Cardinals have turned many minds to thoughts of the next pope. (Of course, only youngsters under 80 will be eligible to vote, and that rule excludes several of the recent recipients of the red hat, including the American Jesuit Avery Dulles, who is 82.) The secular media understandably see the choice of a new pope in political terms and trot out the old liberal/conservative dichotomy. John Paul II is labeled a conservative, and speculation turns on a possible liberal successor.

Journalists pick up such cues from those inside the walls, at least in part, and there has been a very vocal opposition to John Paul II on the part of theological dissidents who regard this papacy as the negation of Vatican II. Given the pope's constant affirmation of the importance of Vatican II, given the definition of the Jubilee Year in terms of the council, given the implicit and explicit implementations of the wishes of the council in the papal magisterium, this charge is difficult to understand. But not impossible. Such dissidents have a view of the council that is the opposite of that held by the teaching church. They thought the council abandoned the hierarchical view of the church and generally repudiated the past.

Though their views were officially characterized by the Second Extraordinary Synod in 1985 as the "false spirit" of the council, these dissidents still hope their vision of the church will become a reality when a new pope is chosen.

The hope that a new pope will, however subtly, jettison the magisterium of John Paul II would seem to be precluded by the fact that he has created 125 of the 135 cardinals who will choose his successor. Are they clones of the pope?

Popes have a way of making surprising appointments to the College of Cardinals. Paul VI named two French Jesuits, Jean Danielou and Henri De Lubac, who had not seemed among his stalwart defenders. Subsequently, Cardinal De Lubac regularly came to the defense of Paul VI, seeming to appear almost weekly in Osservatore Romano. And among those just given red hats are the German Lehman and the American Avery Dulles. Lehman seemed to waffle on abortion, and Dulles, in his earlier books, sometimes took positions that pained many who would be called conservative. But then Cardinal Ratzinger was counted among the liberals immediately after Vatican II.

One cynic has explained the creation of Cardinal Dulles by his "lurch to the right." The red hat is his reward for selling out to the papal magisterium. There is little doubt that Dulles, in his early books, sometimes read like Richard McBrien--the bumptious dissident theologian--with class. His "Catholicism"--a work frowned on by the American bishops and banned in Australia--and his 1983 book, "A Church to Believe In," seem clearly in dissident territory.

But in recent years, Dulles seems to have become aware of the company he was keeping. He echoed Cardinal Law's remark that the liberal Catholic Theological Society of America is a wasteland, and in his Fordham lectures he has become increasingly explicit in calling theologians back to their noble vocation. Dissidents who once thought he was one of theirs now despise him.

Of course, there is no need for sharp theological differences in order for the selection of a pope to be exciting and susceptible to the usual political analysis. How else could secular journalists write about it? The formation of groups; the lists of possible popes, or papabili; the real or supposed maneuvers that go on--all this is irresistible to journalists, and to novelists. The workings of papal conclaves, like the inner workings of the White House, have become staples of some fiction. I myself have indulged, in "The Red Hat"; the novel culminates in the next papal conclave.

Popes seldom look like their predecessors, and sometimes the differences are striking. The aristocratic, seemingly aloof Pius XII was followed by the portly, puckish John XXIII, who looked like everyone's most forgiving uncle. It was John who summoned, to everyone's enormous surprise, the Second Vatican Council. But the differences turn out to be largely superficial. The continuity of teaching through such supposed dramatic changes is striking.

How do Catholics see all this? The next pope will be the successor of St. Peter and of all the intervening popes up to and including John Paul II. He will stand in a tradition, and his task will be to interpret and to pass on, whole and entire, what St. Paul called the "deposit of faith."

Of that faith passed on by the apostles, the Catholic Church is, by the grace of God, the custodian. She is the chosen conduit of the graces Christ won for the salvation of mankind. High churchmen are of course vessels of clay, but when the cardinals meet to elect the next pope--and may it be a distant day--they will not meet alone. For all its human dimension, the church is a divine institution, a mystery. And its founder will be with it until the end of time. That means Christ himself will guide the selection of his next vicar. Christ, and the Comforter he sent us.

Catholics will see it all as Gerard Manley Hopkins did:

And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs --
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! Bright wings.

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