The biggest enemy of the papacy is the Roman Curia. Its internal strife has alienated two successive popes. The first one, a Polish pope, sought refuge by going out into the world. The second, a German pope, turned to introspection. John Paul II imbued the papacy with a potent media charisma. Benedict XVI produced theological writings that will long outlive him. Both attempted to reform the Curia in Rome, and both failed in their endeavor.
Both of them were European popes who internationalized the papacy and thus loosened the grip that the Italian cardinals usually hold over the highest office of the Catholic Church. Yet the popes’ language remained familiar to the Catholics in the “Latin” countries of the world – to people in non-Catholic Christian countries who are nonetheless united by their hellenistic heritage. They live in the same hemisphere and have experienced the same political and cultural turmoil over the course of history. They speak a common language.
Yet the internationalization of the papacy also drew enemies. Compared to the worldly popes of recent years, Italians appear parochial, even lagging behind. Some cardinals will turn pale when they extrapolate the recent trajectory into the future, beyond the borders of the European continent: Can St. Peter’s chair be occupied by a pope from Africa, from Oceania, from Latin America? Such a pope wouldn’t be familiar to us Europeans, neither in his native language nor in the agenda he would bring to the Vatican. We would not be able to understand each other. And what’s more: A non-European pope would be a sure sign of the declining importance of the Old World not only in secular and economic terms but in the religious marketplace as well. Suddenly, all Europeans would appear a bit parochial, a bit lagging. Like precarious holdovers from a bygone age.
A globalized, digitalized Christendom
The Catholic Church, which likes to see itself as history’s first global player, will happily accept to pay the price. Indeed, it will have to accept it if it wants to remain relevant today. Two reasons come to mind:
Not only has the world become more international, it has also become more networked. A global and digital public – conceived as the global community of Christendom or as the bigger, general public – will no longer accept the shady dealings of the Vatican Bank and its money laundering practices. Neither does the bank adhere to the basic ethical guidelines internalized by the Catholic Church, nor does it meet the standard of commonsensical moral maxims that have taken hold among the peoples of the world over the last centuries and have spawned intricate legal frameworks.
Inside the Vatican, the only spotless white can be found on the papal robes (to put it bluntly). But the few bad apples whose behavior is tarnishing the work of many devoted Catholics can only be defeated if they are prevented from usurping the power of the papacy. This is easier said than done: In addition to the two popes mentioned above, John Paul I also tried to hold the Curia and the Vatican Bank on a tighter leash. Until today, conspiracy theorists argue that he died after only 33 days in office because he tried to confront the dark powers at the center of the Vatican.
The second reason is rooted in the fact that the Catholic Church finds itself in a crisis that is so deep and so thorough as the crisis it experienced during the Reformation. History is repeating itself: As in Luther’s time, the Italian cardinals have been unable to see the writing on the wall. Cardinal Sodano, one of the Vatican’s most powerful men, recently dismissed the abuse scandal as a media campaign directed against the Church. Yet the scandal – which has sparked similar reactions wherever it erupted around the world – illustrates the existence of structures inside the Church that allowed for or even furthered abusive practices. For decades, those structures have remained hidden. They are comparable in their pervasiveness to the faults of the late medieval Church. Just like the Reformation, abuse accusations against the Church aren’t a local phenomenon but regional or global.
It’s an undeniable accomplishment of Benedict XVI that he continued to struggle to reform the Church’s internal structures and understand the ecosystem that allowed abuse to flourish; first as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then as pope. He met repeatedly with abuse victims. But eventually the strength of the 85-year old pope was insufficient to continue his work. When he resigned, he said that he will continue to bear the burden of the cross. He might have been thinking about the abuse scandal, which still has the potential to destroy the church unless it is handled properly.
Those are the reasons why a non-Italian pope would suit the Catholic Church well. Do they also imply the need for a non-European pope? No. But Christianity is expanding outside of Europe and the papacy will have to account for that trend. The Catholic world might not (yet) be ready for an African pope: It’s too evident to many cardinals that the African practice of the faith has driven the global Anglican Church to the brink of collapse. They want to avoid a similar fate for the Catholic Church. A pope from Latin America is easier to justify.
A new language of faith
Europeans will struggle to understand a pope from Latin America. He will focus on social justice, he will speak out against human trafficking and against the drug trade which destroys communities everywhere. Unlike Benedict, he will produce fewer reflective texts on ecclesiastical matters but will instead write about the plight in the _favelas_, which remains foreign to European clerics and Catholics used to a world of relative prosperity.
He will preside over the Church in a world which has grown more skeptical about absolute truth as a result of digitalization and globalization. A global syncretism is on the horizon, even if its prevalence and importance varies across regions. But some observers already argue that the rise of Islam is nothing but the last rebellion against a wave of secularization which will eventually sweep across the Arab world.
In order to prevent religious relativism, the Catholic Church must thus embrace a pope who shields the two elementary dogmas of the Catholic faith: the Godliness and resurrection of Christ. The next pope will have to reiterate again and again that Jesus isn’t merely a prophet or a cool guy, but an incarnation of God himself. This will require a new discourse from the pope and his theologians, because as much as the hellenistic and European philosophical tradition has served the Church in the past, it has also become increasingly anachronistic. Europe was yesterday. New formulas are required to affirm the faith.
Resurrection is a testament to the Godly nature of Christ. According to the New Testament, resurrection isn’t merely a phenomenological impression or a mental coping strategy of Jesus’ disciples but an actual physical event. The tortured body arises anew from the grave. Detailed understanding and the incorporation of the story of resurrection into one’s personal faith matter less than the symbolic significance. Those who affirm the story of resurrection remove Jesus from the regular line-up of prophets and founders of other religions. The new pope will have to remind Catholics of this symbolic significance. Buddha, after all, is a cool guy as well. It’s still far from certain that the operation will succeed. Maybe religion will become reduced to a social and cultural happening by the end of the 21st century.
In another ironic historical twist, the pope speaks for the representatives of other religions as well. If he fails to talk about God in a new language, other religious leaders will become disillusioned as well. A bit of market logic holds true even in religious matters: If one religion booms, everyone can reap some benefits. This papal election thus isn’t just about the future of the Catholic Church but about the future of faith itself. And the significance of the election vastly transcends the parochial world view of the Italian cardinals.