Popular in the developing world, John Paul II is a liability for Catholicism in the west. Will the new Pope be liberal or conservative, Italian or, even, black?by / December 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2002 issue of Prospect Magazine
It is supposed to happen once every decade or two. It happened, amazingly, twice in 1978, but never since then. It is so rare that it has given rise to an Italian phrase-equivalent to “once in a blue moon”-“every death of a Pope.”
The rare event is, though, undeniably near at hand. In recent months the Italian press has been anxiously reporting on the health of John Paul II, and quietly pondering who his successor might be. Most nights on Italian television we are treated to the sad spectacle of the pontiff, shaking with Parkinson’s, leaning heavily on his staff. He can barely manage to raise his head, which only makes him look more stern as he stares at people through his white eyebrows. When he speaks, his Italian-boomed out through public speakers-is so slurred it is hard to understand.
This year, for the first time in his pontificate, Karol Wojtyla was unable to join the Easter procession, or to participate in the traditional washing and kissing of the feet of other priests. There have been health scares before (in the last ten years, he has had a colon tumour removed, broken his femur and had his appendix removed) but, by now, his suffering is such that one cardinal, the Honduran Oscar Maradiaga, has even mooted the idea of a Papal resignation.
In Italy, the papal succession holds the fascination that, say, a coronation has in Britain, with the difference that, in Rome, no one knows who is about to sit on the throne, nor even who the possible candidates are, since there is no open campaigning. Moreover, it’s hard to guess at what the “election issues” might be. In the last few months, however, Vatican-watchers have been trying to understand what might happen when Wojtyla dies. How will he be remembered? How will his successor be elected? What does the future hold for an institution which has, over the last two decades, become ever more conservative and centralised, remaining almost medieval in the face of modernity? Above all, who could possibly inherit Wojtyla’s formidable and controversial legacy, and what will that say about the direction of one of the world’s few remaining spiritual superpowers?
Following the death of the pontiff, there will be nine days of official mourning, called novemdiales. His body will be placed in three coffins-pine, oak and lead-and buried in the tombs below St Peter’s. A mass (Pro Eligendo Papa) will be held not less than 15 and not more than 20 days after the death. On the afternoon after the mass, the assembly of cardinals will process to the Sistine Chapel chanting “Veni Creator” (“Come Holy Spirit”). With the proclamation “extra omnes” (“everyone out”), the cardinals will be left locked in the chapel conclave to decide the direction of the Catholic church.
The election process is, like everything in Italy, exceptionally complicated and confusing. In 1059, Pope Nicholas II restricted the papal electorate to cardinals. In 1586, Pope Sixtus V fixed the number of voting cardinals at 70. Subsequently, Paul VI excluded cardinals over the age of 80 from the election. Today, there are 156 cardinals, of which 106-given that age restriction-are allowed to vote. Of that 106, all but 12 have been appointed by Wojtyla himself. The future “Bishop of Rome” has to achieve two thirds of the ballot. Each elector writes the words Eligo in Summum Pontificem (I elect as supreme pontiff) on his ballot paper, followed by the name of his candidate. He then walks to the altar, placing his slip in the ballot box with the words, “I call as my witness Christ the Lord who will be my judge that my vote is given to the one whom before God I think should be elected.” There are four ballots per day. If after a series of ballots, interspersed with prayer, a successor has not emerged, an outright majority-50 per cent plus one-becomes sufficient and the famous white smoke will puff the news of the election to the waiting media.
Wojtyla’s legacy will be keenly felt at the conclave, quite apart from the fact that almost all the electorate will have been appointed by him. The cardinals will have to decide whether to go for continuity-a supporter of cast-iron conformity, the Catholicism of miracles, weeping Madonnas and doctrinal dictatorship-or whether to appoint someone more “modern.” Talk to any Catholic, in Italy or outside, and you can observe that cleavage of opinion about both Wojtyla and the future of Catholicism.
On one side, people echo the famous aside by Andr?rossard from 1978: “this isn’t a Pope from Poland, but from Galilee.” Here was a man devoutly dedicated to pastoral care, with the advantage that he was energetic, sporting, good looking. Many, like George Weigel, author of the papal biography Witness to Hope, have been gushing in their admiration. He calls Wojtyla a man of “mystical sensibility,” consistently opposed to tyranny: in occupied Poland, in Cuba, Chile, especially Russia. He has, according to Weigel, “rallied the young around the world as no rock star in history has done.”
He has, say his admirers, rejuvenated the church. “Twenty years ago,” says Marco Tosatti, the Vat-ican correspondent of La Stampa, “we had this Polish Pope who was almost unecclesiastical: he was so lively, he skied, spoke about football. So it was only natural that he also travelled.” It’s probably that wanderlust, the theatricality of descending from aircraft to kiss the ground, that will be most remembered about John Paul II. It is, say his supporters, an example of papal “out-reach.”
Wojtyla’s simple humanity is also admired. He has frequently invited the world’s religious leaders to Italy to “retreat” and pray together for a peaceful future. His most frequently used words are “unity,” “community” and “human.” For all his alleged conservatism, he has called Jews “our older brothers in faith.” He has urged the Orthodox and Catholic churches to become the left and right lungs of Christianity. Wojtyla might be very far from being a democrat, but he has, paradoxically, enriched our democracies. He has been relentlessly outspoken in his opposition to the iniquities of both communism and capitalism. He has consistently admonished Frankenstein scientists and rapacious warmongers.
Others, though, have been uncomfortable with the charismatic advocacy and media manipulation. John Cornwell, author of a stinging critique of Wojtyla, Breaking Faith, accuses Wojtyla of narcissism. “I believe he has been a disastrous Pope,” he says. “The centralisation of the modern papacy makes a monster out of a Pope. Pick up any Catholic paper and on every page there will be ‘the Pope does this, the Pope does that.’ It becomes a diversion from the figure of Christ Himself. Which is exactly what critics of the papacy were saying at the time of the Reformation.” I recently spoke to Cardinal Ersilio Tonini, a man whom many see as the soul of Italian Catholicism. He is now in his late 80s, but he speaks with both urgency and passion. While expressing admiration for Wojtyla, he said: “we should all be careful about gigantismo [cult of personality]. We are all children of the church.” Meanwhile, Woj- tyla continues to travel relentlessly. He has publicly renounced the possibility of resignation and has recently returned from Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Canada and Poland.
The other defining aspect of Wojtyla’s papacy is equally mired in controversy. He has assiduously promoted that side of Catholicism which is most at odds with rationalism-its obsession with miraculous happenings. Wojtyla has created more saints in his pontificate than in the previous five centuries. The number of miracles required as evidence has been halved, and more than 1,200 people have been beatified. His papacy has been steeped in the belief that the deity directly intervenes in earthly life: the bullet which almost killed him in 1981 is now placed in the crown of the Fatima Madonna in Portugal who, says Wojtyla, saved him: “one hand shot the bullet,” he once said, “another guided it.”
The Fatima Madonna in Portugal is the central reference point of Wojtyla’s papacy. His compulsive preaching of the Catholic message to Russia stems not only from Poland’s suffering at the hands of communism, but also from the Fatima Madonna’s warnings in 1917 about a “godless Russia.” In 1984, Wojtyla duly dedicated the entirety of the Soviet Union to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. In 2000, part of the long-hidden “third Fatima secret,” was revealed with much pomp by the Vatican: a miraculous prediction, made over 50 years ago, of the assassination attempt on “the man in white.” That tendency for the Pope to be the circus-master of the miracle industry occurred again this October. To mark the 24th anniversary of his succession to the throne of St Peter, Wojtyla added five more “miracles of light” to the Catholic rosary. Fifteen “mysteries” had sufficed for the last 900 years. Now there are 20.
The miracles, the mysteries, the magical Madonnas all make Wojtyla’s Catholicism a crowd-puller across the developing world. But it makes many others, especially in Europe and north America, cringe. Films and television soaps about Padre Pio-the Capuchin monk with stigmata-dominate Italian television. Padre Pio, too, has recently been made a saint by Wojtyla. Dignitaries from Opus Dei have been beatified. There is a weekly programme on one of Berlusconi’s channels called Miracoli. As many weary Catholic priests in Parma complain to me, people are now more excited about miracles, “the medium,” than the actual message. According to Woj-tyla’s critics, it creates a religion full of flashy showmanship, focusing on the human over the divine.
More importantly, there have been serious internal spats. The “liberation theology” associated with the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) has by now been entirely thrown out by the austere hierarchy of the Vatican. The Second Vatican Council was, in some ways, an attempt at a Catholic Magna Carta: an attempt at collegiality, at decentralisation, a plea to involve bishops and congregations in the decisions of the church. The phrase most frequently heard then was that the church was “the people of God,” rather than incarnate in one, infallible persona. That idea, though, has been eradicated by more than two decades of Wojtyla’s papacy. He has frequently, proudly proclaimed that the church is not a democracy and his encyclicals drill the point home. Apostolos Suos, from 1998, denied the Synod of Bishops any theological relevance; another encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, demanded disciplinary action against any voice which dissented from Papal diktat. Wojtyla’s papacy has been characterised by endless excommunications; not of random troublemakers, but of high-profile, devout priests who dared to query Papal teaching. Wojtyla’s attitude reflects Cardinal Newman’s line that “liberalism is a halfway house to atheism.” That hardline approach is then backed up by a sinister body called the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (formerly the Inquisition), headed by an extremist German cardinal called Joseph Ratzinger.
Being a non-Catholic Christian in Italy is to witness that intolerance first hand. I frequently lose my temper with Catholic priests who denounce Methodists or Waldensians, as if their short history made them irrelevant when compared to millennia of Roman Catholicism. I’m then told in haughty terms that extra ecclesiam nulla salus-no one outside the Catholic church can be saved. In the aftermath of 11th September, one Catholic leader compared bin Laden to Luther and was warmly applauded. Even amongst Catholics there’s exasperation at the direction of Wojtyla’s papacy. Peter Hebblethwaite, in his book The Next Pope, described Wojtyla as coming from the “extreme right.” “This pontificate,” he wrote, “has demonstrated that a tough-minded, hard-nosed authoritarian papacy cannot commend itself to the modern world. The conservative option has been tried. It has failed. It is time for something different.”
Catholics, though, especially the upper echelons of the church, don’t talk in terms of “conservative” and “authoritarian.” For them, either there is one absolute, immanent truth, or else there is a postmodern mess. “Contemporary society is locked in a perverse game,” says Cardinal Tonini. “Since it has lost all hope, there’s only cynicism, the Nietzschean quest for omnipotence, the desire for indefinite development. Catholicism, by contrast, is still trying to say words which everyone else has forgotten: ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ The church was born as a counterculture, and, today, it finds itself so once more.”
But in saying a firm “no” to contraception, Wojtyla has done immense damage not only to Catholic communities in Aids-ravaged Africa, but to the church as a whole. There is now a yawning gap between orthodoxy and orthopraxy, in which a very large section of the Catholic congregation entirely ignores Catholic teaching. The fact that Italy and Spain have the lowest birth rates in Europe is simply the crudest example. More subtly, the papal obsession with contraception means that by now the actual message of the Bible is bizarrely obscured by conversations about what is sold at the chemists. As Davide, one of my students at Parma University says: “You can never talk about Christianity in Italy without, sooner or later, the conversation coming round to condoms.”
The problem has then been compounded by the fact that, whilst Wojtyla earnestly defends the sanctity of coital conception, the actual episcopate has yielded any moral high ground it might once have had as regards sexual conduct. Since spring this year, and from all corners of the globe, the phenomenon of paedophile priests has haunted Catholicism as the sheer numbers of priests who molest minors has become apparent. Twelve priests have been suspended in California; in March, the Bishop of Palm Beach resigned after admitting abuse; in April, a priest shot himself in Ohio after accusations of abuse. The total accused in the US alone is more than 300. The list could get longer, taking in cases from Ireland, Australia and Poland.
Rather than purge itself of paedophiles, the church has too often denied their existence. The Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Edward Egan, stands accused of covering up abuse claims when he was Bishop of Bridgeport. Cardinal Bernard Law, Archbishop of Boston, has been accused of protecting and promoting known paedophiles. This year, the Archbishop of Sydney, the Most Reverend George Pell, admitted offering money to an abuse victim. Throughout the crisis, the church has appeared at best callous, at worst criminal. As Thomas Keneally, himself a former trainee priest, wrote in the New Yorker, the church has come to appear “a cold and largely self-interested corporate institution.”
These scandals have not helped to staunch the haemorrhaging of numbers, of both priests and congregations. Visit any church in Italy and nine tenths of the pews will be empty; the average age will be somewhere near 70. People in Emilia Romagna-the region which includes Ravenna, Bologna and Parma-are more likely to eat a “priest strangler” (a kind of pasta) or exchange creative blasphemies than go to church. The seminaries are filled, like the football teams, by foreign imports from Africa and South America. Even Italian politics, which for half a century was dominated by former Vatican insiders (Alcide De Gasperi, Giulio Andreotti, Aldo Moro) now seems divorced from Catholicism. In the 2001 general election, the centrist alliance of Catholic parties scraped 3.2 per cent of the vote (compared to the 30 to 40 per cent the Christian Democrats used to win). Italy now finds itself in a sort of moral vacuum, in which Silvio Berlusconi is the object of adulation, and the church, by contrast, is a sideshow.
Almost inevitably, the Italian press has concentrated on the personality, rather than the politics, of the apostolic successor. There are certain factors which make cardinals more or less papabile. Apart from the obvious curriculum requirements-strong theological grounding, grasp of Latin and Italian, experience within the Vatican and the Roman Curia-the most decisive factor is the nationality of a cardinal. An American Pope is almost inconceivable; an Italian one is almost obligatory. Since 1378, there have been only three non-Italian Popes: Alexander VI from Spain (1492-1503), Adrian VI from Utrecht (1522-23) and the present incumbent. Another factor is age: since the job is to death, choosing a young Pope implies a long pontificate. After Wojtyla’s long tenure (24 years so far; the record since St Peter stands at 32) many suspect that the conclave will lean towards an older cardinal.
Of the Italian cardinals, Carlo Maria Martini was until recently thought to be the most papabile. He was Archbishop of Milan, in his mid-70s, a moderate who was admired as an “inclusive intellectual.” Only he is a Jesuit, and there has never been a Jesuit Pope. Moreover, since his resignation from the Milanese bishopric, and his admission that he suffers from the early symptoms of Parkinson’s, his successor-Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi (66) -seems more probable. Cardinal Angelo Sodano is another possible Italian: he is currently the Vatican’s Secretary of State. Also in his mid-70s, he is fiercely traditional, a former nuncio in Chile and on friendly terms with General Pinochet. Cardinal Giacomo Biffi (74) is the third Italian “candidate,” currently Archbishop in Bologna and another chilling conservative who opposes non-Catholic immigration to Italy.
Of the other Europeans, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (75) is by a long way the favourite: the Bavarian has been responsible for many of the most bigoted announcements of recent years. Cardinal Christoph Sch?rn (57) is another possible contender. He is Archbishop of Vienna, and editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Other possible Europeans (with minimally more liberal leanings) are Walter Kasper (69), the German Cardinal who is president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity; and Cardinal Godried Danneels (69), a Belgian who is president of Pax Christi. Of the South Americans, the Colombian Cardinal Dar? Castrill?Hoyos (73) is the most likely: Gabriel Garc? M?uez once described him as a “rustic man with the profile of an eagle.” Despite impeccable conservative credentials, he has often hiked through the Colombian jungle to meet drugs barons or guerrilla groups.
Then there’s the African possibility. One of my favourite Italian pop songs from a few years ago has a chorus line which goes: “Sar?vero… un Papa nero?” (“Will it come true, a black Pope?”). Electing a black Pope would be an act of breathtaking audacity. This time round there is a serious contender: Cardinal Francis Arinze (69), a Nigerian who is president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, working-topically enough-on co-operation between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria. His election would certainly show that the Holy Spirit is a lot more daring than it has ever been given credit for.
But more important than the guessing game about the identity of the next Pope is the direction in which he might take his church. Will it relax the celibacy vow, thereby admitting defeat in its battle with crude sexual energy? Will it permit heterodoxy-women, contraception, even communion with Protestants-or impose only infallible orthodoxy? The choice is broadly similar to the one facing the present Tory party: appeal to the rump of traditionalists and alienate progressives or vice versa.
The choice, though, is easier for the church than for the Tories: it has no need for electoral appeal and its communicants are instinctively loyal to their leader. Moreover, no other institution in the world is so adept at accommodating contradiction: the etymological root of Catholicism, katholikos, implies exactly that: it is comprehensive, universal, general. It implies not just a “broad church,” but a church which covers every inch of ground, no matter how far apart. The very word pontiff implies a “bridge builder.” Everyone, from simple Jesuits to cassocked cardinals, is included. “Everyone belongs to the Catholic church,” Cardinal Tonini told me, “even those who believe they are outside it.”
To some, that sounds like spiritual colonialism; to others, a bid for ecumenicalism. (It’s possibly both: most Catholic cardinals love talking about ecumenicalism as long as it means that everyone becomes Catholic.) “The only possible future for the Catholic church,” says Tonini, “is to shout loudly that all men are equal. History might have divided us, but it also unites us. We have to rediscover a Christian unity. More than a Christian unity, a human unity. The disgrace of Sharon and the Palestinian terrorists is that notion of ‘this land belongs to me.’ We have to go beyond that. An ecumenical Catholicism would say ‘all human beings are sublime, we belong to each other. We are all children of God.'”
Even for non-Catholics, the choice of the next Pope will be important. Because Catholicism is a religion that has always gone way beyond a purely religious remit. Living in Italy you become, almost subliminally, converted; not to its creed, but to its style. As Hyppolite Taine once wrote, Catholicism is part of Italians’ “eyes, ears, imagination and taste.” Slowly, you get used to those Italian “tastes” and even begin to enjoy them: the pious frescos, the breathtaking generosity, the incredibly Byzantine intelligence, all descend ultimately from the Catholic church. Politically, too, the election of the next Pope will have a relevance way beyond Catholic communicants. Because, like the Dalai Lama or the Aga Khan, the Pope is a religious figurehead without geopolitical boundaries. His influence on world leaders might be marginal, but his power-spiritual and temporal-over their electorates is often immense. Which is why the world should pray that the 264th Pope is a good one.