Shock Therapy

Could the Next Pope Learn from Benedict?

By resigning, Pope Benedict served the church well. He has spared it another prolonged period of mounting disarray. He has "humanized" the papacy, as Joseph Komonchak and others have pointed out. He has jolted the church into allowing that something generally considered unthinkable for centuries is really not beyond doing after all. And he has set the stage for his successor to do likewise.

That is important. The Catholic Church needs shock therapy. True, among the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, millions of saints are leading lives of prayer and charity so ardent, brave, sacrificial, creative, and enduring that they bring tears to normal eyes. They are the best of us—and then there are the rest of us. Except in parts of Africa, the much-heralded growth of Catholicism is simply in line with the growth in population—or not even that. Latin American Catholics are increasingly turning to Pentecostalism or drifting away from religious practice and affiliation altogether, although not yet to the extent occurring in Europe and North America. It would be comforting to think that what might be lost in numbers is being gained in depth, but as Catholic identity, floundering in a sea of alternative visions, weakens from generation to generation, that seems unlikely.

The church needs shock treatment, and until the mini-shock of his resignation, Benedict, to the relief of many, did not seem like the man to administer it. Ratzinger, yes; Benedict, no. What shocks have come during his papacy were usually by blunder rather than intention. Evaluations of his tenure have balanced the pros and cons of his deeds according to the lights of the balancer. What is still untallied, except for his failure to unmistakably demand accountability in regard to clerical sexual abuse, is what has remained undone. Underlying conditions like the limitations, in numbers, quality, and age, of the clergy or the massively eroding credibility of church teachings on sexuality are no better than when he took office in 2005. Much of the hierarchy deludes itself with slogans in search of substance like “The New Evangelization,” or rationalizes inaction with the familiar alibi, “The church works in centuries.” In fact, history teaches that the church often suffers for centuries from its failure to act during critical passages.

Will Benedict's successor do any better? Back in 2005, observing the long painful and paralyzing decline of John Paul II, some of us felt that the next pope should immediately establish a procedure for a pope to conclude his service while still alive. Establishing such a rule for the surrender of papal power at the very outset of a papacy would forestall suspicions of behind-the-scenes manipulation in the case of an ad hoc resignation like Benedict's. (It is remarkable that so few such speculations have arisen, at least to date, in Benedict's case.)

This time the white smoke will presumably greet us almost on the brink of Holy Week, so first things first. The new pope should focus his own and the world's attention on the Paschal Mystery. From entry into Jerusalem through Last Supper, passion, death, and Resurrection, from palms to holy oils, consecrated bread and wine, shrouded statues, venerated cross, new fire, and baptismal water, let the new pontiff simply be vested in the sacred rites.

Between Easter and Pentecost he can deliver the necessary shock therapy. To begin, Pope Novus, as we might call him, should declare that his predecessor's wisdom in resigning reveals a permanent insight into the realities of a modern papacy. Henceforth, popes will either serve a term of twelve years or resign at the age of eighty-two, the choice depending on each pope's reading of the church's needs at the moment. Papal interventions to determine the church's choice of a successor, something Benedict has adjured but another pope might not, will be formally prohibited.

Because the beginning of a papacy is the opportune time to deal with the delicate question of such transitions, Pope Novus should move to make future conclaves more representative. He might create a new position of “cardinal electors”; their only function would be to vote in a conclave. Cardinal electors would constitute one third of those voting. They would include the heads of the ten largest religious orders. The rest would be chosen biannually—and their names kept in petto—by the presidents of the bishops conferences of each continent. The number of cardinal electors would be proportionate to each continent's Catholic population. At least half of them would be women. Heads of Vatican offices, although eminently eligible for election to the papacy, would not participate in the conclave unless they had become cardinals while serving as ordinaries.

The specifics are arguable, but the general idea is clear: continuity but not cloning.

Reforming the tenure and election of popes would signal that the church is open to change, even though it only affects the future. That needs to be complemented with a dramatic gesture of immediate consequence. One idea would be a papal establishment of a massive Catholic Pietà Fund to be devoted to the health, education, and safety of women around the world. The goal would be to raise $1.2 billion, or a dollar for each of the world’s Catholics. While pledging to maintain the church's role as a steward of artistic heritage, Pope Novus might initiate this fund by offering to sell one or several of the Vatican's signature artworks (the Pietà itself?). Perhaps Catholics or others could outbid buyers to keep these objects in Rome. In any case, contributions to the Pietà Fund would become a feature of papal journeys and international events like World Youth Day. Would this diminish Peter’s Pence? On the contrary, it would probably swell it. And by placing administration of the fund in the hands of Catholic women, Pope Novus would also signal openness to reexamining the role of women in the church. Had John Paul II taken a dramatic initiative like this early in his papacy, the church's voice on several major issues would have won a much greater hearing.

Two other initiatives could be reserved for Pentecost, May 19. On that day, the pope would invite bishops, theologians, and knowledgeable laity to submit their thoughts on two topics. One would be very practical: how to make the world synods of bishops an effective institution. The other would be very fundamental: aggiornamento and ressourcement on the church’s understanding of sexuality.

Pope Novus would pledge to act within several years to reform the synods. He would be wise to warn that the discussion of sexuality would take time and no one should expect hasty conclusions about specific norms.

Is all this fantasizing? Obviously. Is it fantastic? These initiatives are moderately disruptive insofar as they admit of change in the church, hardly a heretical notion. They are only slightly more controversial in encouraging broader participation in the shaping of that change. They are otherwise open-ended—and about as unthinkable as a pope resigning.

Pope Novus, whoever he turns out to be, will preach many words between his election and Pentecost. They will evoke familiar images and stir familiar sentiments. But unless they are accompanied by a few vivid, imaginative, and substantial initiatives, they will wash over the listening world and the listening church, with at most an arresting phrase or two lodged in our hearts. We will stumble on. The church does not live by popes alone. The opportunity to build on Pope Benedict's startling gift will have been squandered.

About the Author

Peter Steinfels, co-founder of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and a former editor of Commonweal, is the author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.



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Whereas several of these initiatives may be perfectly acceptable or even advisable, most of them sound like trying to improve the image of the Church in front of the world rather than any kind of shock terapy.


At the end of the day, the only effective 'shock terapy' was the one administered by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Veni Sancte Spiritus.


All of these ideas sound doable, although some more advisable than others.  Really, I think the last thing the Church, or any organization, needs is another commission set up to "study" issues, especially moral issues, and even more especially, moral issues involving sexuality.  Moralists have, in fact, been debating these matters for centuries, and given the latitude to argue they used to take for granted, they'd undoubtedly come up with answers Church authorities time.  The problem is the current shutdown of all argument, the refusal to allow scholars the freedom to venture a serious "it has been taught, but I say," something our predecessors in faith did so well, and often.  If the next Pope continues the theme of returning to our roots, let's hope he means all of them.

Clarification:  Lest anyone think I'm looking at the Church through rose-colored micrographic lens enlargers, I should note that I'm simply taking the Church at its word regarding heretics, namely, that they were persecuted for leading the innocent astray, not for merely coming up with scholarly arguments that might be judged wrongheaded in the long run.   The fact is no theological position could ever be argued if theologians had to fear the possibility of being wrong.  Arguing is what scholars, including theologians, do.  Persecuting heretics is what authorities do when they fear possibilities.  Vatican II put an end to that, or did it?

Heresy may be the result of poor timing.  Jaroslav Pelikan,

"The Christian Tradition:  A History of the Development

of Doctrine", Vol I, "The Emergence of Catholic Tradition."

One fantasy Steinfels did not entertain was that of ending the centuries-old mandate for clerical celibacy.  Contrary to many Catholics' belief, this practice is not rooted in St. Paul's suggestion (1 Corinthians 7:8) that all Christians should remain celibate.  Rather, it comes as a result of Pope Gregory VII's denunciation of simony and nepotism during the Synod of 1074.  While that august pontiff's inspiration may well have been rooted in the Corinthian Epistle, his practical motivation was purely economical.  He simply did not want clerics to create dynasties for themselves by lavishing ecclesiastical offices and investitures on their progeny and those of their relatives.  Given that, in the very next verse (1 Corinthians 7:9), St. Paul exhorts his disciples to "marry rather than burn with passion", it seems to this humble observer that much priestly temptation would be turned away were clerics permitted to marry.

The answer is blowing in the wind: Vatican III. A more propitious time cannot be found. The church in the world is called to proclaim a gospel of good news and love, not persecution and inquisition. The role of the married, of women, of collective action and continuing dialog with other religions, especially Christians, cries out for resolution. A celibate and increasingly scarce clergy to serve the people of God is our number one current problem. A new look at birth control and human sexualty in light of our modern knowledge would engender a new inclusiveness of aspiring faithful. And if the new evangelism does not concentrate on re-attracting youth and young families, the future of the church is to become an antique museum piece and generally irrelevant anachronism.

Peter Steinfels, I thought you were channeling me. Instead of the usual theological generalities (some of these are good), you presented concrete proposals for important changes in Vatican governance. Theological generalities (like those in today's "America" blog by the USF Jesuit) fly over the heads of hierarchs. The specifics you propose, including participation of women at all levels, prod hierarchs. They even disturb them because such changes upset their world and life style. But there is no progressive reform without the prodding. Thanks. Gene Bianchi

Peter’s suggestions seem perfectly “do-able” and full of common sense.


I might suggest that if we really wanted a “change of course” in today’s floundering “Bark of Peter”, let’s just have the Holy Spirit find us a new pope willing to accept on his masthead and in his mind and heart: “HONOR  OUR SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL WITH ALL MY HEART AND MIND EVEN UNTO DEATH.”  The Church has already spoken.  Of the 4 pos-Vat. II popes:  one tried -- and woke up dead in bed.  The other 3 popes worked at castrating our council, each with his own particular knife.


This suggestion is from this 85 year old practicing Catholic:  37 years a Capuchin Franciscan Religious; 25 years a missioner priest to the campesinos and original peoples of the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua and now 32 years into a Catholic ecclesiastic sacramental marriage and family life.  ¡Que viva Un Papa al gusto de Jesus!


Justiniano de Managua

I want a pope who will actively lead pilgrimages to care for suffering people wherever the need is most urgent and to stay there until the resources are in place to continue the healing.  Get rid of the robes and get down on his knees to help those who have been forgotten and marginalized.  That would be true humility in my opinion and it would also be a true expression of God's Love which is the foundation of our faith.  I do not want to see more encyclicals or theological musings, I want to see action.  It is through our actions and especially the actions of our leaders which impacts and influences others.

These are wonderful ideas. If only!

I do think nothing of the sort can take place until the bureaucratic system within the Vatican is reformed, and it will take more than one man to do that--even if he is the Pope.

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