Reprinted from the June 2002 issue of The Washington Monthly with permission.

The Vatican, the 109-acre international headquarters of Roman Catholicism, works at the leisurely pace of an institution that has seen it all over 2,000 years of history. This is a place that closes shop every day at 1 p.m., where decisions that might take weeks in other organizations can be "studied" for years, awaiting an "opportune" moment to be announced. It is not accustomed to working under pressure of tight deadlines, as it showed in late April, when all 13 American cardinals were summoned for a meeting with John Paul II and top Vatican officials to discuss the sexual-abuse crisis in the American church.

At only a week's notice, the speed with which the summit came together was startling. The Vatican simply does not turn on a dime like this, and hence the event signaled that business as usual wasn't cutting it. Media scrutiny from the United States was intense. Banks of satellite trucks were parked in front of the Vatican press office streaming 24/7 coverage back to the States. CNN broadcast the press briefings live and flew in its new star, Connie Chung, to cover the proceedings.

At times like these, when an institution is under unusual pressure, outsiders can sometimes catch a glimpse of the normally hidden political tensions that could decide its future. Such was the case on the second and final day of the summit. At around 9:30 p.m., the press office handed reporters a communiqué setting forth the summit's conclusions regarding the church's mishandling of priests who commit sexual abuse. Half an hour later, a contingent of U.S. cardinals and bishops stepped before the microphones to answer questions.

What quickly became clear was that American church leaders had not had sufficient time to read the hurriedly prepared document, and that a certain amount of political intrigue had gone into its drafting. The Americans on the panel, for example, had been convinced the document contained a call for greater lay involvement, including a national blue-ribbon commission to set standards and accountability procedures, and were embarrassed to find that the reference to the laity was missing. (A startled Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., flipped quickly through the text, then concluded that there must have been an "editing error.")

Most controversially, the communiqué took sides in the debate between the Catholic left and right to explain priestly sex abuse. The left views the problem in terms of mandatory clerical celibacy, the refusal to ordain women (both of which limit the pool of candidates for the priesthood), and a repressive streak toward sexuality in Catholic thought. The right sees it as an issue of doctrinal dissent and tolerance of a gay subculture in the priesthood and in Catholic seminaries.

Most American bishops, struggling to hold the church together, have avoided getting swept up in these polemics. The communiqué, however, showed no such caution. It called for a new crackdown on doctrinal dissent, and recommended a papal investigation of American seminaries, the subtext of which was to blame gays. Afterward, it emerged that the language on dissent was inserted by two staunch theological conservatives: Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, a Colombian who heads the office for clergy, and Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, an Italian who is the number two official in the office for doctrine. In the wake of the summit, one American cardinal has advised reporters to "forget" the communiqué, to pretend it never came out, and to focus on preparations for the June meeting of the U.S. bishops in Dallas.

The story offers two morals. First, when it comes to doctrinal questions, the architects of John Paul II's pontificate miss few opportunities to assert their conservative views. Second, there is discontent with the style and approach of this pontificate--if not its substance--even within the ranks of the cardinals.

This latter point is especially important, because the sex-abuse summit will not be the last time cardinals gather in Rome to make important decisions. It was, in fact, an anticipation of what will almost surely be the next great Vatican event: the conclave, when cardinals from all over the world gather in the Sistine Chapel to elect a successor to John Paul II.

The next pope will have to address a host of complex issues that have grown more and more contentious during John Paul II's reign. They include power distribution within Catholicism, the role of women and the laity in the church of the 21st century, the church's stance on complex bioethical questions, and its role in the process of globalization. In many parts of the Catholic world, the answers being urged by the faithful depart significantly from those offered by the leadership. How the next pope responds to these challenges will have broad consequences for secular politics and contemporary culture wars, in which the Catholic Church--the world's largest religious denomination, with one billion members--is still an important player.

There is a broad assumption in the press that the outcome of the next papal election has already been determined: Since so many of the cardinals who will elect the next pope are appointees of John Paul II (116 of 123), it is easy to conclude that his successor will be a like-minded conservative cut of the same cloth. The popular phrase is that John Paul II has "stacked the deck." Like many bits of political conventional wisdom, this idea is compelling, rational, logical . . . and most probably wrong. History suggests that colleges of cardinals appointed by one pope do not elect a carbon copy as his successor. In fact, the race is wide open, and there are deep-seated political and bureaucratic reasons to expect the next Successor of St. Peter to be a moderate.

The Pope and the Pendulum

The Pope and the Pendulum

In 1179, papal elections were placed squarely in the hands of the College of Cardinals--the better to keep lords, monarchs, and noble Roman families from manipulating the selection process, as they had done in previous centuries. To avoid infighting among the cardinals, rules specify that they must be locked up and forbidden to come out until they elect a pope. A cardinal is usually the head of a major Catholic archdiocese somewhere in the world, or the head of an agency in the Vatican. There are currently 176 cardinals worldwide, but since John Paul II's rules specify that one must be under 80 to participate in the conclave, if the election were held today only 123 could vote.

History offers plentiful examples of conclaves where the cardinals appointed by one pope elected a very different successor. The classic case is the conclave of 1958. There were 51 cardinals in that group, nearly all of them handpicked by Pope Pius XII, who is remembered today largely for the debate surrounding his alleged silence regarding the Holocaust during World War II. Toward the end of his reign he was increasingly cautious and conservative on church issues. Yet his cardinals chose John XXIII to succeed him, the pope who would later call for the Second Vatican Council (aka "Vatican II") and trigger a wave of modernization, from greater internal pluralism to replacing Gregorian chants and Latin with guitar Masses that sounded more like Peter, Paul, and Mary.

Two more contrasting popes than Pius XII and John XXIII would be difficult to identify. Even on a personal level they were mirror opposites. Eugenio Pacelli, who became Pius XII, was the son of ancient Roman nobility--aloof, ethereal, and quasi-divine. Angelo Roncalli, who became John XXIII, was from earthy peasant stock, constantly cracking jokes at his own expense. (A young boy once wrote him asking if he should become a policeman or pope. John XXIII counseled him to aspire to be a policeman, because there are standards one must meet. "On the other hand, anybody can become pope," he wrote. "I'm the proof.")

The conclave of 1958 is hardly the only example. If we wind the clock back to the beginning of the 20th century, we find Leo XIII occupying the papal throne. Leo, possibly the most progressive pope the Catholic Church ever elected, began the tradition of Catholic social teaching with his encyclical Rerum Novarum. He encouraged Catholic Biblical scholarship to catch up to what German Protestants had been doing for 100 years. And he moved the church beyond its nostalgic desire to revive the old "sacred alliance" of Catholic monarchies into a cautious détente with modern democracy.

The obvious candidate to carry forward Leo's project, and the man widely considered the obvious successor, was his secretary of state, Cardinal Mariano Rampolla, who shared Leo's progressive theological instincts. Instead, the conclave of 1903 elected Pius X, whom the Italian government had dubbed "the most intransigent of the intransigents." Pius X launched a vast crackdown against "modernism," meaning virtually every attempt to reconcile Catholic thought with the new century, silencing some theologians, excommunicating others, and setting up a network of informants to identify those entertaining unacceptable thoughts. He was, by many reckonings, the most reactionary pope of the 20th century.

Who did the cardinals select to succeed him in 1914? Not Pius X's key aide, but Benedict XV, the strongest anti-war pope the Catholic Church ever elected, and moderate to progressive on most theological matters.

And so it goes. Historians have a term for this back-and-forth dynamic. They call it the "pendulum law," meaning that the politics of the pope the cardinals elect tends to oscillate rather than to follow directly from the previous pontificate. Why? Because popes don't change as often as U.S. presidents do. At the end of a long papacy, there is always a sense of unfinished business, which the pope either couldn't or wouldn't address. Even cardinals who love the present pope tend to think that his approach has had a long time to work, and welcome fresh ideas. The Italians, as they always do, have a better phrase to capture this dynamic: "You always follow a fat pope with a thin one."

Third World Popes

The successor to John Paul II is, therefore, almost certain to be a different kind of man. Indeed, it is quite possible that the next pope will be more moderate on theological issues, and less authoritarian in his style of governance. The right question to ask is this: What is this pontificate's unfinished business? Where might the cardinals begin thinking about what kind of change would be most desirable under a new pope?

To some extent, journalists rely on private contacts with cardinals in framing answers to these questions. But we are not entirely dependent on unnamed sources, because in the last 12 months two events occurred that helped build a public record. One was a special consistory, or gathering of cardinals, in May 2001 in Rome; the second was a synod, or meeting of almost 300 bishops from all over the world, in September 2001.

In both cases, a key issue was what Catholic theologians call "collegiality," which essentially means decentralization of power. Many cardinals and bishops voiced a strong sense that there is too much power in Rome, too many centralized decisions, and that the papacy must allow local churches more freedom to craft policies and styles of life that make sense in local contexts. It was not just First World liberals making this argument, but church leaders from Brazil, South Africa, and elsewhere. Collegiality is also an issue that plays across many of the traditional left/right divides, since even conservative cardinals who support a strong papacy resent having their hands tied by Vatican micromanagers when it comes to making decisions in their own bailiwick.

One quick example will illustrate the point. The archbishop of a major Western diocese recently decided to sponsor an ecumenical service in his cathedral, which was to feature dancing. Knowing that dance in worship services is frowned upon by the Vatican, he asked his staff to clear the event with Rome. They tried for more than a week, getting no response. The archbishop eventually gave the go-ahead to publish the program. Within 24 hours, a fax arrived from Rome forbidding him to sponsor the service because it included dance. The archbishop, certainly no flaming radical, emerged from the experience convinced that something has to give in the way power is allocated and exercised in the church.

Another way the College of Cardinals traditionally thinks about what kind of change to make after a long pontificate is through the lens of geography. This, for example, is the primary factor that led them to elect Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Cracow, Poland, in 1978. They wanted to give a shot in the arm to the suffering church behind the Iron Curtain.

In similar fashion, a number of cardinals today would like to give a boost to the suffering church amid the world's poor, which means a pope from the Third World. Latin America seems especially primed to offer the Catholic Church a pope. Almost 50 percent of Catholics today live there, and together with the cardinals from Spain and Portugal, the "Ibero-Latin American block" in the College of Cardinals represents 36 percent of the votes. (They represent 43 percent of the 65-and-under group, meaning their influence will grow with time.)

So, who are the Latin Americans committed to collegiality? Men such as Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, or Claudio Hummes of Brazil, or Juan Sandoval Iñiguez of Mexico (we might even include José da Cruz Policarpo of Portugal as part of this broad Latin American block). If one of these men were to become pope, the result would certainly not be radical doctrinal innovation. Indeed, there are no theological liberals in the College of Cardinals, at least as measured by First World standards--no one who would ordain women to the priesthood, or change the teaching on homosexuality. But what any of these men, all basically theological moderates, could provide is a more open atmosphere for debate. Much of the head-hunting that has occurred under this pontificate--the theologians who have been fired or silenced, the publishing houses that have been intimidated--would end as part of the "less government from the center" approach. This would not make for quick change on any of the disputed doctrinal or disciplinary issues, though it could pave the way for eventual reform.

Moreover, all of these men are ardent advocates of social justice, and hence come across as quite progressive in the realm of secular politics. Rodriguez, for example, is one of the world's leading champions of debt relief for developing nations. In June 1999, Rodriguez and rock star Bono, from U2, joined forces at a G8 meeting to present a petition with 17 million signatures demanding debt relief. Rodriguez is also an advocate for women and improved race relations, and generally strives to be a voice of conscience within the process of globalization. The other two Latin Americans basically share this outlook, reflecting their pastoral experience of ministering to some of the most impoverished people on earth. In that sense, they are building on the progressive side of the legacy of John Paul II, who has himself been strong on human rights and a critique of "savage capitalism."

If Rodriguez, Hummes, or a man fitting the same profile were elected, the Catholic Church would have as pope a theological moderate, a decentralizer, and someone whose real passion lies in social justice issues. There is a hard-headed electoral logic that could produce such an outcome.

Of course, this result is not written in the stars. There is a strong faction of doctrinal conservatives in the College of Cardinals worried that Catholicism is being corrupted by secularism and relativism, and this faction will seek to elect a pope who is even stronger on doctrine than John Paul II. (Indeed, some right-wing critics say this pope has been strong on moral issues, such as abortion and homosexuality, but weak on doctrine. They see his penchant for calling pan-religious summits in Assisi, for example, as an unacceptable flirtation with syncretism--blending elements of different religions into one New Age mix.) Among the Latin Americans, this view is especially strong, and there are formidable candidates who would push a much more traditionalist agenda--for example, Castrillon Hoyos of Colombia.

Yet, whatever else happens, it seems likely that the push for collegiality will produce a pope who is less ubiquitous and globetrotting, more a symbol of unity than the CEO of Catholicism, Inc.

Oddly enough, we may be seeing a preview of such a papacy right now in the United States. Since the beginning of the sexual-abuse scandal, the Vatican has taken the position that the problem will have to be fixed in the United States, given its unique legal and cultural situation. After the recent summit failed to deliver the plan for action that many were expecting, Vatican officials reiterated that the real work will have to be done by the American bishops at their June meeting in Dallas.

On this issue, in other words, and against the general grain of John Paul II's pontificate, American Catholics are being told: "Look not to Rome but to yourselves." If papal candidates had bumper stickers, that might not be a bad one heading into the next conclave.

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