Debate over the soul of the church

As the cardinals begin their deliberations, they are likely to consider a black or tan pope, but not a progressive one.

Published April 4, 2005 3:32PM (EDT)

To outsiders, it may have seemed like the understandable overstatement of a loyal lieutenant bidding farewell to his fallen leader. But when Cardinal Angelo Sodano inserted the phrase "John Paul the Great" into the written version of his homily delivered at Sunday's requiem mass in St. Peter's Square, he was firing the opening shot in a battle for the soul of the world's biggest church.

The fact that he then balked at -- or was deterred from -- saying the words out loud may be a first indication of just how furiously that battle will be fought, out of sight of the public and the media, as the "princes" of the church search for a successor.

Nothing less than the character of Roman Catholicism is at stake. Karol Wojtyla was on the throne of St. Peter for so long that much of the world's population has come to view his church as irrevocably reactionary on a range of issues, from birth control to the validity of other faiths and its own lack of internal democracy. It has been forgotten there is another, more tolerant, less dogmatic tradition that is still very much alive.

The Catholics who belong to this tradition have long feared that on the death of the Polish pope, his conservative followers would try to endow John Paul II with a status that would prevent any return to the past. The words of Cardinal Sodano, who forged close links between the Vatican and Augusto Pinochet's Chile, made real those fears.

John Wilkins, a former editor of the Catholic weekly Tablet, said Sunday: "It's part of a rush to attempt to commit the pope's successor to what policies he should follow and an attempt to push the cardinals in their conclave in a certain direction."

As the cardinal's homily showed, this is a twin-track operation. One could lead to aggrandizement. The last pontiff to be styled "Great" reigned more than 1,000 years ago. Nicholas I (858-867) was besieged and almost starved to death rather than agree that a king could swap his wife for a mistress.

The second track is what might be termed preemptive hagiography: treating the pope as if he had already been made a saint. Again, the words of Cardinal Sodano are worth deconstructing. A saint is believed to go straight to heaven. The cardinal ended his service saying: "Let the angels carry him to paradise."

Catholic religious commentator Clifford Longley said: "There will undoubtedly be pressure to canonize, and maybe there is an argument in favor of getting that out of way, so that the church can move on. He personally was probably a saint: He was certainly extremely devout."

The reverence being accorded John Paul II creates difficulties for his critics because, for all his theological conservatism, he was a brave voice for peace, most notably and recently in Iraq, and, more in word than in deed, an opponent of unrestrained capitalism.

Even so, conservatives in the Catholic hierarchy and in groups such as Opus Dei have plenty to worry about. The church is known for its swings, summed up in the adage that "a fat pope follows a thin one." Doubts have been expressed as to whether a College of Cardinals almost entirely chosen by John Paul II could possibly elect anyone who did not share his views. Certainly, an outright progressive is unlikely, but the college includes plenty of moderate, liberal men such as the Belgian Godfried Danneels, who is among the front-runners.

What's more, the debate over progressiveness and reaction could entail another debate: over whether the conclave turns to the developing world for its next leader. The politics of the conclave will also be about the rich North and poor South.

The Roman Catholic Church has become an anomaly -- an organization with a predominantly developing-world membership but a largely first-world leadership. Fewer than 35 percent of baptized Catholics live in Europe, the United States, Canada, Japan and Australasia. Some of the African and Asian churches are regarded as immature, but powerful figures such as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's chief theologian, have openly backed the idea of electing a black pope. Then there is the prospect of a tanned one. Latin America, home to more than 40 percent of baptized Catholics, is widely regarded as an even more attractive option and has the largest geographic bloc of cardinals after the Europeans.

Electing a pope from the poorer South would not guarantee a progressive. Most churches in the developing world are conservative on the issues that concern progressive intellectuals in the North. One of Opus Dei's best hopes is the primate of Peru, Juan Luís Cipriani. One of the most dynamic candidates is Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, the archbishop of Tegucigalpa in Honduras, who is renowned for his anti-capitalist fervor.

But the developing world is not where most of the church's problems are, though there is a lively debate over how far the Vatican should go in accepting local cultural and spiritual traditions in Africa and Asia, and Latin Americans are increasingly turning their backs on the church's teaching on birth control. Many are being drawn toward evangelical Protestantism.

But the biggest headaches for the next pontiff are likely to be posed by his rebellious flocks in western Europe and North America. It is by no means impossible that the College of Cardinals could opt for an Italian. But that might give a disastrous impression to the Catholic church at large -- an impression that the men who run it can find no better solution to its problems than to try to turn back the clock.

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