In November 1962, as the Second Vatican Council was opening in Rome, the English writer, Evelyn Waugh, published a famous essay entitled “The Same Again, Please.” An attempt by Waugh to influence the direction of the council, the essay would be widely reprinted on the eve of what was to be the most momentous ecclesiastical gathering in the 20th century.
Now, as we stand on the eve of another monumental event, the funeral of Pope John Paul II and the election of his successor, the temptation is to hope for someone just like him to be elected to fill his slot. That is an understandable temptation, but it is one to be resisted.
FOCUSING ON THE LAMB OF GOD
It is to be resisted because John Paul himself would resist it, and for two reasons. John Paul would be the first to say that he is not and should never be the focus: The focus is Christ, whose ambassador and vicar the pope is. The first part of his name, John, reminds one of the two pivotal Johns in the life of Christ: John the Forerunner and Baptist, and John the Evangelist, the “beloved disciple.” Both of these central figures always made it clear by their humility that they sought to draw attention not to themselves but to Christ. As John the Baptist put it, pointing to Christ, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” So it was with John Paul: For all his “superstardom” he only ever sought to point to Christ, and indeed used the enormous attention his life and work garnered for one purpose, evangelization, spreading the Good News of Christ.
John Paul would himself resist any attempt to elect a clone for a second reason: his great emphasis, from his days as a student, and later as a philosopher, on the individuality of the “acting person,” as he put it. George Weigel, the semi-official biographer of John Paul, notes several anecdotes from John Paul’s time as priest and bishop in which, pressed for a request from someone for advice on how to act, would always gently but firmly turn the question back to his interlocutor with a “But you must decide.”
That is also the message to the cardinals from this pope. Though we have often been told that John Paul appointed almost all of the cardinals who will elect his successor, which is certainly true, we are also told that he therefore exerts considerable influence over their choice, which is far less true. Attending to the history of papal elections and conclaves reveals that one thing is certain: Each conclave produces surprises, and the cardinals, even those loyal to the one who appointed them, are no sheep but shepherds in their own right, able to decide and differ as and when circumstances require. In the conclave of 1903, for example, after Pope Leo XIII died following a 25-year reign in which he appointed almost all his electors, the cardinals elected a man who was very different from Leo and certainly not the one Leo had in mind. The same happened in 1958 when Pope John XXIII was elected. And, of course, 1978 was the biggest surprise of all.
As one engaged in writing a doctoral dissertation on the papacy, I remind people that though the Church is manifestly–and often deplorably–an all-too-human institution, full of the usual chicanery and foibles, it is also of divine origin, and one can never predict exactly how the Holy Spirit will work and whom He will anoint. There is always the surprise factor, and those who are overconfident in their predictions about conclaves inevitably look like fools.
It is, therefore, fatuous to expect that we will have, in substance if not name, a Pope John Paul III. The idea that we will have “the same again” or that we should have “the same again, please” is mistaken.
SOME THINGS CANNOT BE DONE DIFFERENTLY
Equally mistaken, however, is the idea that the next pope will be able to change the many things which the media list with such tedious, thoughtless regularity: abortion, contraception, ordination of women, same-sex marriage. Reading such wearisome recyclage, I am put in mind of Conrad Black’s acerbic description of most journalists as “ignorant, lazy, opinionated, and intellectually dishonest. The profession is heavily cluttered with aged hacks toiling through a miasma of mounting decrepitude and…arrogant and abrasive youngsters who substitute ‘commitment’ for insight. The product of their impassioned intervention in public affairs is more often confusion than lucidity.”
Is it too recondite a point for journalists to grasp that the next pope–and any number after him–will not change these teachings because he cannot? Are we so far removed from Logic 101 in this day and age that people fail to understand the immutability of the truth properly so called? For the media impertinently to demand that the Church change doctrines like the defense of the unborn is to expect something which is simply impossible: The pope can no more turn falsehood into truth than President Bush can turn al Qaeda into a bunch of Quakers simply by declaring them to be so. The powers of the papacy are formidable, but they do not include verbal fiats that perform the impossible.
What is clear, then, is that the new Pope will not be the liberal reformer for which the media pray to a God they give no evidence of believing in. On the other hand, he will not be a mindless clone of Pope John Paul II, doing everything like the automaton of other media nightmares. He will be a man, selected by his peers in response–we hope–to the call of the Holy Spirit, able to act in his own right while also being the servant, and not the master, of Tradition. He will be free to act in certain ways though not in others. Let us now consider some areas in which we hope he might act. There are two major areas requiring special attention.
NEW CHALLENGES FOR A NEW POPE
The first and perhaps most important area is the Roman liturgy. John Paul II was manifestly a man of many superlatives, but one of the few things he was not was a liturgist. He attempted to reign in some of the vulgar experimentation and outright silliness that has reigned in the Church’s worship since the Latin Mass was unceremoniously abolished in 1970, but on the whole showed himself unconcerned with this area of the Church’s life. He made only a few changes, trying to restore a measure of the sobriety and laconic dignity that is the unique genius of the Roman patrimony, but on the whole the quality of the celebrations in the average Roman Catholic parish continues to range from the mediocre to the shabby to the outright scandalous. If, as the Second Vatican Council taught, the liturgy is the source and summit of Christian life, then it is little wonder that the life of the Church in some parts of the world is under great stress when it is sustained by such liturgy. Clearly, then, much work must be undertaken in this department by a new pope.
The second area requiring attention is the administration of the Church, above all with the appointment of bishops. It is an extremely late (not finalized until 1917, in fact) development that claims for the bishop of Rome the right to appoint every other bishop in the entire world. This is an absurd practice, having neither historical nor theological justification and being a practical nightmare. To wit, how can one man possibly know the qualifications of over 3,000 men before appointing them to every corner of this vast earth with its vastly different contexts? The only way such a “system” can work is to rely on the inbreeding characteristic of episcopal conferences, which are incestuous bodies notoriously tilted to the left and staffed, as often as not, by contumacious clerics and weedy nuns. Given such a provenance, is it any wonder that many bishops (with a notable few exceptions) in the past quarter century have been mediocre at best, and downright disastrous at worst, putting one in mind of Anne Roche Muggeridge’s question, “With shepherds like these, who needs wolves?” Clearly a new system must be devised, preferably one that grants the local churches much greater input.
There are, of course, other areas in which one could agitate for change, but these two are arguably the most important and therefore require the most immediate attention. Beyond them, one would be delighted indeed with much of the same as we saw in Pope John Paul II: great holiness, great zeal for evangelism, great concern for unity. In short, a worthy successor to John Paul the Great.
–Adam DeVille is a Ph.D. candidate at the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies at Saint Paul University in Ottawa, Canada, where he is writing a dissertation on the papacy.