Since 1978, when John Paul II was named Pope, every bishop named to a Roman Catholic diocese has been bound to three rather parenthetical beliefs: Women may never become priests, contraception is strictly prohibited and abortion must be universally condemned. None of these is at the core of Christian belief, but they became essential if one aspired to a position of bishop, cardinal or Pope.
This March, likely before Easter, a new Pope will become the chosen leader of almost 2 billion Roman Catholics throughout the world. Candidates, when they were named bishop, were not asked — nor will they likely be now — if they believe in Jesus and want to base their life and work on his teachings. Nor are they likely to be quizzed on Vatican II’s final document on the role of the Church in the modern world or their position on the Church’s strong and consistent teachings in social justice.
The hope that this new Pope will entail any dramatic change in the practical theology, pastoral practice, internal politics or public image of the church would be foolish. Such a view can only be rooted in the belief that the Holy Spirit can somehow work miraculously beyond human explanation.
Imagine a school in which every teacher had been appointed by the same principal for 35 years. Each agrees with the educational philosophy of that principal – that’s why they were hired – and now one among their ranks is to succeed him. Or, alternately, picture a Supreme Court, every member of which has been named by the same President for the last 35 years. Little change could be expected.
Consider a local reality. The pastor of our largest and most vibrant Catholic parish, St. James Cathedral, is an exceptional, wise, articulate, even holy priest. He has, over a quarter century, built up a parish community that provides excellent worship, wide ecumenical and civic cooperation, financial stability and vast social outreach to the poor and disenfranchised. He is everything a priest should be.
The tragedy is that he is not a bishop. Neither is any other priest like him in the United States — or even in the world. For 35 years, the best and brightest and holiest, even the most fiscally-astute priests have not been named bishops, are not cardinals and will not be involved in choosing our next leader.
Thank God that church life, like politics, is local. Throughout the Catholic Church, many vibrant and dynamic pastoral parishes, schools and hospitals still flourish. Many Catholic people still love and follow the teachings of Jesus, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick. As the Church itself teaches, the People (not the Pope) are the Church
No one can predict who the next Pope will be. We can only lament that it is unlikely to matter.