The cardinals will celebrate Mass on Tuesday, March 12, and then process into the Sistine Chapel, close and lock the doors, and begin the job of electing a new Pope. The question is what kind of Pope? Will he be chosen for administrative capabilities with a mission to reform and clean up the Curia, the Church's civil servants? Will he be someone to minister to Africa, Asia and Latin America where the Church is growing? Will he impress the assembly with his affinity for social media, a telegenic personality, and the new worldwide face of the Church? Will they search for someone who can reverse the losses of Catholics in America and Europe? These are some of the questions for the conclave. They have to elect a Pope who has an idea how to staunch the bleeding from the priest sex abuse scandal. He will have to cope with a 300-page report, sealed in his private safe, chronicling corruption in the Curia along with allegations of extortion and a cabal of gay priests. Even with all of the above agenda, it would appear there is not much hope the cardinals will select a Pope to address the real world concerns of Catholics, Christians or anyone who cares about individuals in their community.
The New York Times published a poll of American Catholics which should give some guidance to this nation's cardinals. American Catholics overwhelmingly believe the Church hierarchy is out of touch and the Church needs a new direction. While a majority support the Church's continued opposition to abortion and the death penalty, (positions the same majorities disagree with) they want a young Pope elected who will turn the Church towards something inspiring which will draw people back to the pews. A majority of American Catholics want the Pope to allow priests to get married and women to be offered a chance to be ordained. They want support for the use of contraceptives and the Pope to encourage the use of condoms to prevent the spread of H.I.V. Majorities are in favor of same sex couples being married in the Church and more acceptance of homosexuality. While Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI pushed a regressive agenda, American Catholics want a new Pope to liberalize the message and focus of the Church. You could probably find the same results in a poll of European Catholics. However, the growing populations of Catholics in Africa, Asia and Latin America would not be as socially progressive. A Pope chosen from these areas will be just as regressive, socially, as his two predecessors.
Ironically, the poll of American Catholics does not ask a single question based on the essence of Jesus' message. If you look to Matthew 25, the clear mission of a Christian is to draw closer to God. This is accomplished by how we treat each other. We are to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit prisoners and heal the sick. This is the key to redemption and salvation. Yes, a married priesthood and women priests are long overdo...yes, a church which opens its arms to people of all sexual orientations makes religious sense...yes, a church which encourages real family planning and helps prevent the transmission of a deadly disease is doing God's work, but it's not the meat of what we are all supposed to be about. It's the equivalent of re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
The message of the Jewish carpenter from Nazareth is the most radical ever proposed. Not only do you have an obligation towards the least of your brothers and sisters, you have a duty to love one another, forgive your enemies, turn the other cheek and go sell all you have to follow Jesus. How about a Pope who is concerned about all of this?
The gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow in the developed world and the gap between the wealth of some nations and everyone else also continues to widen. There is a worldwide movement, by corporations and their minions, to sacramentalize "free market" capitalism. It is very much a rival religious movement and is as much a threat to the Church as Islam or any other system. Temples to the worship of money and power are being built every day. This is a movement which bristles at attempts to regulate, modify or rein it in. Its patron saints are Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman and Frederick Hayack. Its goal is to create vast amounts of wealth for the few and to tempt everyone else into chasing the non-attainable achievement of becoming one of the 1% while ignoring any obligation or care for each other.
What would American, African, Asian or Latin American Catholics say to a Pope who stands with the poor and working people and calls for economic equality and condemns "free market" unregulated capitalism as immoral? How would the world react to a Pope who challenges the international corporate hegemony currently in place...a Pope who calls on all Catholics to press for economic justice and fairness...a Pope who calls on Catholics to be stewards of the Earth and leave it in better shape than they found it...a Pope who supports worker collectives (unions) and micro lending...a Pope who declares usury a sin again...a Pope who says it is immoral to spend trillions of dollars on the weapons of war while all over the world people go to bed hungry, thirsty and without a roof over their heads...in Africa, a Pope who condemns war and terrorism and exploitation of natural resources for the benefit of multi-national corporations, and developed nations, for the increased wealth of the powerful, at the expense of everyone else...a Pope who calls on America to shelter all of its citizens and make sure workers earn a living wage. It would be a risky message, and could cost the Church donations from the 1% outraged at a Pope butting in where he has no business being, but it would inspire and witness to the true Spirit in the Church.
My children's generation is searching for purpose in life. What would their response be to a Pope who challenges them to throw off Madison Avenue, and its call to consume, and instead offered them ways to teach and build and work in communities all over the nation who are in dire straights...to become lawyers people can afford, who take on the corporate power structure and doctors committed to care about patients and not overwhelmed by paperwork? Can you imagine such a Pope saying Mass in East Oakland, Compton, East St. Louis, Detroit and in the poorest and deepest parts of Mississippi and the South and calling for a new spirit, new commitment, new evangelization to these and any place in this country in need of good works and good news?
I would love a new Pope who welcomes married and women priests. The priesthood is dying in America and Europe. I'd love one who cleans up corruption and responds effectively to scandal. It would be nice to have a Pope who actually lives in the 21st century. All of this would be desirable. But, I really want a Pope who is animated by that Jewish carpenter and who is burning to spread the Good News and have it touch every corner of the Earth. I want a Pope who will witness, and call others, to the radical imperative to love God and your neighbor, make peace and care for all. I don't expect my wish to happen, as the collective inertia of these cardinals is enough to prevent even the Spirit of God from penetrating the walls of the chapel, and the last miracle of this scale was on Pentecost. It's still worth hoping.