Should Non-Catholics Care Who is Named Pope?

Commentary No. 348, Mar. 1, 2013

Of course. The Vatican is a major geopolitical actor. Just as everyone around the world may feel concerned who becomes the leader of the United States, Germany, Russia, China, or Brazil, so we all feel concerned who becomes Pope. Stalin is supposed to have asked, “how many troops does the Pope have?” But geopolitical strength is more than military strength.

It is true that the Pope is constrained by the long-term interests of the Catholic Church and by its historical trajectory. But so are the designated leaders of every major state. It is also true that it makes a difference who is the particular leader. Within these constraints, the leader can tilt the policies in one direction or another.

In the case of the Vatican, since 1945, five popes have been chosen. The choices more or less followed expectations – except one. John XXIII was supposedly chosen to be an aged, interim pope who would do little, while differences in views among the cardinals were ironed out. However, in his relatively short career, he launched a major shift in Vatican policies (both theological and worldly) in what he called an aggiornamento of the Church at the Second Vatican Council. His impact was so great that one could say that the primary objective of his successors has been to undo what he did, or at least to limit what they considered to be the damage he caused.

To be sure, the theological debates within the Church, and they are manifold and important, are of deep concern almost exclusively to the Church’s faithful. But Church leaders at all levels – in the Vatican, at the level of national structures of bishops, and locally in every diocese and parish – draw worldly conclusions from the theology, and thereupon seek to affect what occurs in the political arena.

There is quite a difference politically whether bishops and priests espouse liberation theology or, at the other extreme, espouse the views of Opus Dei or, even further to the right, those of the Society of Saint Pius X. While the Church has varying numbers of adherents in different zones of the world, there are many zones in which they form a significant part of the national populations: the Americas, much of western and southern Europe, some parts of eastern Europe, various parts of Africa, some parts of east and southeast Asia, and Australia. This is a long list. Catholics are today about 16% of the world’s population, the only larger group being Muslims who are about 22%.

In these countries, Church leaders often implicitly endorse candidates for election. They regularly take strong stands on various kinds of legislation affecting social mores and their permissibility. They often take positions on questions of social welfare. And they sometimes take positions on questions of war and peace. In the world-system as a whole, and certainly within many countries, the rest of us sometimes find allies in Church figures and sometimes find opponents.

To be sure, non-Catholics have no say about who is chosen Pope. But then very few Catholics have a say either. The Vatican is one of the last absolute monarchies. And it has a very special electoral system, wherein those members of the College of Cardinals (all chosen by some previous Pope) who are under 80 years of age vote by secret ballot as they wish, and repeatedly, until one person has a majority.

A majority of the under-80 members of the present College of Cardinals were chosen by Pope Benedict XVI, and it seems his principal criterion was that they largely shared most of those theological positions that he considered of primary importance. But that said, there seem to be many differences of views and emphases among them, some of which may have important political consequences. So it is far from certain who will emerge as the next Pope and what will be the worldwide political consequences of this choice.

It is extremely doubtful that we would get another John XXIII. But then it was extremely doubtful that we would have gotten the first John XXIII. In an electoral system that bears some structural similarities with that of the Vatican, i.e., China’s, we were all uncertain, and to some extent still are, what will be the consequences of recent choices of the next round of leaders.

One thing to notice is that even those prominent Catholics who have been most harshly treated by the Church or who are most disillusioned with the state of the Church – I am thinking of Frei Betto in Brazil, Ernesto Cardenal in Nicaragua, Hans Küng in Germany, or Garry Wills in the United States – do not reject their membership in the Church. They persist in trying to transform it, or in their view to return it to its original and true mission.

The rest of us can no more “give up” on the Vatican than we can give up on China or the United States or anywhere else that is a site of human endeavor and potential social transformation.