ROME--As speculation grows about a papal election, one sees little concern for what the Catholic laity around the world might want in the next Pope. Who are the laity anyway? What right do they have to an opinion? The Holy Spirit can work through the College of Cardinals without any help from the billion or so Catholic lay people. After all, didn't Jesus establish the Sacred College and give it the right to select the Pope? Doesn't everyone know that the Catholic Church isn't a democracy?

In truth, two of the most important early Popes would have thought that the present method of papal elections was gravely wrong--Leo the Great and Gregory the Great. The methods they prescribed for the election of bishops for all dioceses, Rome included, were summed up in the succinct Latin dictum "Qui praesidet super omnes, ab omnibus eligatur." For those unfamiliar with the mother tongue, that means "who presides over all must be chosen by all." If that's not democracy, I don't know what is. The Sacred College came along more than a millennium after these sainted gentlemen. Even then the idea was democratic. They were the parish priests of Rome. They elected a Pope, brought him out on the balcony of St. John Lateran for the approval of the people. In the early middle ages if the people were too noisy in their objections, the parish priests of Rome then went back in and tried again--direct democracy with a vengeance!

Even today there is a remnant of that older democracy--the Cardinals are technically pastors of churches in Rome. That is only a legal fiction. The Cardinals are not in fact parish priests either in Rome or anywhere else. Many of them never have been. They are a collection of elderly males who speak only for themselves, a good number of them (but not all) are clueless. Judging by recent conclaves, many of them will stand around waiting for the Holy Spirit to whisper in their ears how to vote. The history of the papacy provides ample proof that the Holy Spirit can be and has been resisted frequently in the choice of the Pope. It is unfair for the Spirit to be blamed for some of the disasters.

A drastic reform of papal elections is absolutely necessary so that there will be a return to the inherent democracy of the church. Such a reform would be profoundly conservative. As Winston Churchill remarked, democracy is a terrible way to run anything until one considers the alternatives. Ss Leo and Gregory would have agreed.

A group of my colleagues in six countries--the United States, Spain, West Germany, Ireland, Italy, and Poland--did a survey to determine the "job description" the laity have in mind for a new Pope. The questions provide a choice between two poles, as in "Would you like the next Pope to be more open to change or do you think things are OK the way they are?" Strong majorities in all the countries, by the way, favored more change in that question.

In all the countries, the majority of the laity also approved of a Pope who would show more concern for the life of the people, who would approve the election of local bishops by the priests and people of the diocese, who would give representatives of the laypeople more voice in the Church, who would give more decisionmaking power to local bishops, and who would permit the ordination of married men.

The strongest support for these changes were in Spain, Germany, and Ireland, with the average support for change on these items was respectively 78%, 74%, and 73%. Hence, the widespread conviction here in Rome that it is only in the United States where the laity are making trouble is untrue. In the United States, the average is 65%, in Italy 61%, and in Poland 55%. None of the changes would touch on Catholic doctrine.

There is not a ghost of a chance that the next Pope will fit that job description. The lay people remain hungry for reform. As an organization made up of human beings, the church must always be reformed. Ecclesia semper reformanda, as the Latin puts it. The temper in this city now is strongly against more reform. The laity have no choice but to like what they get and not get what they like.

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