Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Who Will Sit in Peter's Chair?

With my prediction of the pope's death on April 8 coming closer and closer to being on the mark, perhaps I ought venture forward to the matter of a successor. I'd like to cover the situation the basic responses, the candidates, and finally, my prediction of who will be the next pope.


There is little doubt to anyone observing the Catholic Church that, as an ecclesiastical organization, it is in a very deep state of decomposition. It's not just this papacy, although that hasn't helped, nor just this generation or two, nor this precise moment, nor one particular issue.

When Andrew Greeley wrote a book about his attempt to handicap the conclaves in 1978 via computer, one of the observations that stuck in my mind was how the Church, meaning the ecclesiastical structure, was wobbly from the relatively long period in which Paul VI was ill and powerless. It's been clear to me that the same could be said of the last decade or so in this papacy, in which heads of Vatican congregations, or ministries, have disagreed in public, clearly because no one was in charge.

It was certainly so in the last years of PiusXII, and Pius XI's illness prevented the anti-Nazi encyclical his successor scotched. John XXIII, hale and hearty almost to the end, is the exception. This attempt to look back some 70-80 years back is to note that this state of things is not new.

The ecclesiastical church lost its footing as a public moral authority sometime shortly after the French Revolution and it never recovered.

The American memory of immigrants fiercely loyal to the Church is part of American exceptionalism: the immigrants were persecuted and discriminated against for their religion, as well as their ethnicity, and the Church seemed like a protective ghetto; the proof is that the generation since the election of John F. Kennedy, the signal event that finally Catholics had arrived, has had markedly lower church attendance, shown dramatically lower vocations to clerical and religious roles, and made significantly smaller financial contributions.

Worldwide, the Church faces decomposition in the form of a deaf, lazy and navel- gazing, misogynist clergy and hierarchy; an ecclesiastical structure incapable of communicating values because it so clearly does not lead by example; a structure whose survival depends on putting the genie of free inquiry and democracy back in the bottle; not to mention the pedophilia scandal.

As to the latter, let's not forget that someone hired thugs to intimidate Polish reporters looking into the child rapes one Karol Wojtyla swept under the carpet when he was archbishop of Krakow. Governor Keating had it right: the person who looks closely at the ecclesiastical structure can barely distinguish its MO from that of the Mafia.

The laity is voting against the clergy with its pocketbooks and its feet.


Among the issues that will confront a future pope are:

-- JP2's demarche from Vatican II;

-- the coercion exerted against scholars and the matter of free academic inquiry;

-- the ordination of women and the question of celibacy;

-- the persistent exclusion of the laity from significant roles despite the increasing decline in the number and proportion of priests, including the stasis that allows the priesthood to be the least accountable sinecure in the world;

-- creeping infallibilism in the Roman Curia;

-- the vast disparity in the resources and emphasis placed by the Church on the value of life of the unborn and the infirm contrasted with the almost cavalier attitude toward the death penalty, the mass economic slaughter brought on by growing disparity between rich and poor, and war.


From the bottom of the well in which the Church finds itself, I see two options developed by the two basic camps within Catholicism.

Liberals are open to increased lay participation, a democratization of the institution and a deep renewal that would start with a general housecleaning and the beginning of an effort to preach by example. Conservatives are willing to cling to the caesropapaist authoritarian structures inherited from the past at the cost of decimating the ranks of Catholics to even a tenth of their present numbers -- the "pure remnant" (this is an OT notion) of the "remnant" will carry on with "the truth."

I see no effective middle ground, although the present castrated, sycophantic cadre of clerics could continue bumbling for decades to come ... ever more insignificant, until it all withers away some time within the next century. Impossible? The cult of Isis existed over thousands of years, who worships Isis today?


Most of us have heard of two candidates. Liberals talk a lot about Carlo Maria Martini, SJ, achbishop of Milan. Conservatives crow about Francis Arinze, of Nigeria, who has the added advantage of being (obviously) black to shut up liberals.

Neither are real papabbiles ("papable" or viable candidates). Martini is a Jesuit and an Italian. Arinze is a member of the Curia (Prefect of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments). Both have been mentioned in print far too many times, they are in their 70s, they are known quantities (Martini is liberal and might be expected to ordain women; Arinze is more conservative than the JP2).

In ecclesiastical politics, which is byzantine in form if not history, the most effective campaigns for power are anti-campaigns. Look for the quiet prelate with his hands folded as if in prayer, asserting vociferously that he loves his present job "serving" his "flock"; that's the ruthless climber who will succeed.

Such a candidate will make his ad limine visits, drop in on all the key monsignori laboring in out of the way second-rung offices and regale them with "offerings" for Masses requested by the candidate's (rich) "lambs." Spread enough money around and you get named to be redactor of committee reports at meetings, which gives you a low-profile access to all the movers and shakers, whose views the redactor most poll (this was Wojtyla's job at the Evangelization synod in the early 1970s). The Winning Candidate flees publicity and the press as he flees the Devil (at least in public).

So, let's see what are the chances of folks.

An Italian pope is unlikely. They broke the 400-year streak last time and no one really wants to go back. Besides, the Italians are now a minority in the college of cardinals. The same goes for an East European, for the opposite reason. They rarely chose repeats.

There are several Western Europeans who are viable, particularly as compromise candidates, but I won't name them because I think they're OK -- or at least not the worst.

Africa has another cardinal, Alexandre do Nascimento, but he's older than either Martini or Arinze and he's a moderate and not very influential. Besides Africa already has a clerical rape scandal and is about to have a clerical polygamy scandal any day now.

Asia has a few good cardinals who are moderate and exemplary. Christianity is still a largely persecuted minority religion, except in the Philippines, and this appears to have a cleansing effect. But,again, not likely.

In the American continent, the U.S. church is tainted by the mishandling of the pedophile scandal and, besides, the rest of the Church sees the USA as an unruly source of money, but not much else. The U.S. cardinals are all relatively new, none stellar. Canadians are out: too liberal to a man (they got their lectionary out before Arinze could stop them). South America has a number of irredentist hyperconservatives who love the Opus Dei and TFP; that's too far right and too obvious. There are a couple of moderates, however, who could be dark horses -- I'm not naming them.

That brings us to Central America, where my man is. He's a man pretty much of the same cloth a JP2, he has access to U.S. support (as did Wojtyla). Although he had a close relationship to U.S. ambassador John Negroponte, and associations with his nation's military, he managed to keep his hands spotless -- unlike his Nicaraguan neighbor Obando y Bravo, a non-papabbile if there ever was one. He is not histerical about his views, he is little known outside the Curia and the college of cardinals, his election would effect the shift away from a Eurocentric hierarchy, while upsetting few conservatives. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the next pope Oscar Andrés Rodríguez de Madariaga, cardinal archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras.