The Next Pope

by Benjamin Studebaker

So Pope Benedict XVI (whom I have written about previously) has decided to resign on account of declining health and old age.  This poses an interesting question–who should the catholic church next select for its highest office? Naturally, I have a few ideas.

It is important when we discuss who should be the next pope that we examine the question from the perspective of the catholic interest. This means that we do not simply seek the candidate who most aligns with our own views, but choose the candidate that, normatively speaking, a wise cardinal who wishes to advance his church’s interest ought to vote for.

To do this, we must define for ourselves the catholic interest. We must find the proper objectives of the modern catholic church, and then search for cardinals whose positions on the issues facing the church are most conducive to pursuing those objectives. So what are the potential objectives for the church?

  1. Maximisation of Church Membership–increasing both the number of members as well as their participation within the church.
  2. Pursuing the Implementation of Church Economic Policy–encouraging redistribution of wealth and the elimination of global poverty.
  3. Pursuing the Implementation of Church Social Policy–discouraging sexual promiscuity, homosexuality, and so on.

These objectives may not, however, always be mutually obtainable. So let us imagine if you will that each goal is our priority in succession and see what the various prioritisations provide us in terms of answers.

Maximisation of Church Membership:

There are two differing interpretations of this goal:

  1. To restore the church’s membership and activity in North America and Europe.
  2. To hasten the expansion of the church in the developing world.

I would argue that the former is more important than the latter and better defines what this goal entails. Why? Because in the long run, the world’s poor and ignorant will not remain poor and ignorant. They will gradually become wealthier, better educated, and more similar to their fellows in the developed world. If the church is not able to maintain church numbers and activity in rich, liberal, highly educated societies, sooner or later it will encounter a crisis in the sustainability of its numerical figures even in the poor, undeveloped countries in which it presently experiences the highest growth. The smartest strategy in pursuit of this goal is one that sets the church on a sustainable course for growth even as the people within the church make gains economically and educationally. This means that the church, in order ultimately to survive, must repair its rift with members and former members in the developed world. This has major implications–if it were simply in the interest of the church to speed the adding of members in the developed world, particularly Africa, the best route would be to select an African pope. If however we agree that the priority is to heal rifts within the developed world, the goal then is to choose a pope who appeals to those disaffected. What sort of pope would make that appeal effectively?

Disaffected church members and former church members in the developed world are irritated with the church for several key reasons:

  1. The Sex Abuse Scandal
  2. Opposition to Condoms in AIDS-stricken Africa
  3. Opposition to Homosexuality
  4. Opposition to Abortion

In other words, what makes the catholic church unable to sustain its position of influence within the developed world is, more or less, its social policy. Changing the church’s social policy would require a liberal cardinal to be named pope. Are there any such cardinals with any potential for selection? The leading liberal cardinal, Carlo Maria Martini, died in this past year (in any event, at 85, he was not eligible to be named pope–cardinals past age 80 are ineligible). There is are two other possible options however:

  1. 68 year old Austrian cardinal Christoph Schonborn
  2. 65 year old Brazilian cardinal Joao Braz de Avis

Schonborn has in the past seemed to support changes to the celibacy requirement, taking a hard line against sex abuse, permitting condoms as an alternative to AIDS, and has allowed a homosexual to serve on a parish council. For his part, Braz de Avis is connected with liberation theology, the belief (popular in Latin America) that the church’s role is to eliminate social and economic injustice. I award the palm to Braz de Avis because his Brazilian background makes him potentially effective not only at healing wounds within the developed world, but in further extending membership in the developing world.

Economic Policy:

There is limited available scope for pursuing the church’s economic policy in so far as it has very little influence over global macroeconomic policy (cardinals are theologians, not economists). What it could do, however, is improve the profile of poor countries by raising someone from a developing country to the papacy. Such a pope could represent on a global stage the economic interest of the world’s poor. Who are the leading cardinals from the poorest countries?

  1. 64 year old Ghanaian cardinal Peter Turkson
  2. 80 year old Nigerian cardinal Francis Arinze
  3. 70 year old Honduran cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga
  4. 65 year old Brazilian cardinal Joao Braz de Avis

Turkson does not have a sufficiently strong record of advocating for economic issues in the past to compete with Maradiaga or Braz de Avis. At 80, Arinze is a short term solution to long term problems. Maradiaga has served as the Vatican’s spokesman in its communications with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank and possesses the superior economic background–while Braz de Avis takes strong positions on economic issues through his connections with and contributions to liberation theology, Maradiaga has more experience working with the relevant players in global economics and comes from a poorer country. He gets the palm here.

Social Policy:

In order to sustain the church’s social views, the new pope would have to be a strong conservative leader able to rouse and coordinate support in the places in which those views are being challenged–primarily the Americas and Europe. Who among the cardinals are strong conservatives with ties to regions challenging conservative church doctrine?

While there are many conservative cardinals, the only really good choice I see for the cardinal seeking to vote on the basis of social policy conservatism is 68 year old French Canadian cardinal Marc Ouellet. Unlike other conservative cardinals, Ouellet is loud, outspoken, and has a background in the politics of liberal society. While there are many conservative cardinals from African countries, these cardinals are less capable of connecting with conservative political forces in the developed world where the challenges to the church’s social policies are strongest. Other European conservative cardinals are simply insufficiently outspoken to galvanise the flagging movement against the increasing popularity of, among other things, gay marriage, contraception, and abortion rights.

Now, we still have a problem here. When I discussed how to maximise church membership and participation, I arrived at the conclusion that it was necessary in the long run for church social positions to change. Yet, it is perfectly compatible with a catholic world view to think that the church’s social positions cannot be separated from the church as a whole without destroying the ethical coherency of the church as it stands. For these people, Catholicism without its various social positions is not Catholicism.

This poses a dilemma. Either the church goes down what amounts to an unsustainable path–it chooses to promote values that will, eventually, alienate and drive away its members. While that may happen sooner in the developed world and later in the developing world, it remains the case that as civilisations grow in economic and educational sophistication, there is a tendency for traditional catholic social values to be intellectually rejected. Unless the church wishes to be against the economic progress of the poor–in which case it violates its economic beliefs and tenets–it cannot subsist in the long run while maintaining its social positions. This poses us with two alternatives:

  1. A church that stays true to its stated beliefs and dies.
  2. A church that changes and at worst survives, and possibly thrives.

Historically, the church has, when push came to shove, been amenable to the second option. Church doctrine has changed and liberalised substantially over the centuries (it no longer kills witches and heretics, it is no longer formally opposed to Judaism, indulgences are no longer taken, and so on). By acting in this way, the catholic church has demonstrated that it is within its nature to change to suit the moral circumstances of its time, and that making such changes is not anti-catholic, but is itself the catholic thing to do. On these grounds I argue that the church should place its commitment to surviving and garnering numbers over and above its doctrinal commitments. With all that in mind, who shall I propose is the best choice for preserving and advancing the interests of the catholic church?

I eliminate Oullet on the grounds that, in the long run, his positions are not conducive to the survival of the church. This leaves me with Braz de Avis, the cardinal I concluded was best for growth, and Maradiaga, the cardinal I concluded was best suited to advancing the Vatican’s economic policy. Braz de Avis was my runner up in the economic category as well, however, while Maradiaga was not on my list of cardinals best suited to shifting the church on social policy and augmenting numbers. On those grounds, I choose Braz de Avis as the best available choice for pope, with Maradiaga as runner-up.