It began last Monday almost as soon as the final words announcing his unexpected resignation had left Pope Benedict’s lips: The media speculation regarding his successor.
— Might the next pope be an African or someone from Latin America?
— Will he be a doctrinal conservative like Benedict, or will he be someone willing to change the Church’s benighted teachings on issues such as contraception, same-sex “marriage,” and the ordination of women?
— Does an American cardinal have a shot at this election?
Sometimes these commentators sound as though they are evaluating a slate of potential candidates heading into a U.S. presidential primary season rather than discussing the outcome of a solemn and prayerful exercise in apostolic succession.
Too many secular journalists neither understand nor appreciate how the Catholic Church operates, nor do some of them particularly care. They don’t see the Church as an institution of divine establishment, founded by Christ in order to continue his salvific mission on earth and with the guarantee of guidance in truth by the Holy Spirit. For them, the papal conclave is not an apparatus by which God inspires the College of Cardinals to select the next successor to St. Peter, who was appointed by Christ to a position of primacy among the Apostles. For some of them, the conclave involves little more than a gaggle of doddering old celibate men who slip behind closed doors to choose the next leader of an oppressive patriarchal religion that has little or no relevance in our 21st-century world.
That’s not to say we should disengage from the process. A papal conclave is something in which Catholics should take great interest; it is always a historic event of immense significance, filled with rich tradition and pageantry, and it rightly deserves our rapt attention. But we ought not be looking ahead to the papal election through the politically tinged lenses worn by many in the secular news media.
So let’s ignore the inevitable speculation, at least as it is popularly presented. Sure, it would be an interesting experience if a pope from Africa, or South America, or Asia, or even the United States were to appear on the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square as the bells toll joyfully and the white smoke rises into the sky. And it’s not a bad time to get to know some of the likely key players in this conclave on a basic biographical level, as historian Matthew Bunson provides here. But let’s not get caught up in conjecture over whether we’ll get a “conservative,” “moderate,” or “liberal” pope and what kind of intransigence or sweeping reforms we may be headed for on account of it.
A papal transition, any papal transition, does not signal the kind of public-policy shifts we have come to associate with sweeping political changes, such as happens whenever the White House or Congress swings from Democratic to Republican control or vice versa. We perhaps can expect differences in the personal or oratorical style of the new pontiff, or in the ordering of his pastoral priorities. The next pope may generate a greater or lesser degree of enthusiasm among the faithful because of his unique charisms and vigor, as we experienced during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II. But the essential mission he inherits will remain the same: The authentic and faithful transmission of the Deposit of Faith and the proclamation of the Gospel to a world in need of redemption. And as the Catholic faithful, we trust that the Holy Spirit will guide the cardinal-electors to make the best choice. We know we will get the pope that God wills for his Church.
From here until Habemus papam, then, let us pray for the cardinal-electors who will discern the identity of the 265th successor to St. Peter. Then pray all the more fervently for our new pope, whoever he may be. He surely will need our prayers in these most challenging of times.
And all the while, pray also for Pope Benedict XVI, that God may bless him with good health and peace for his lifetime of selfless service to the Church and the world.
~ Gerald Korson