Pope Benedict XV1 enters his final week as the world’s only absolute monarch this week and the 100 or so Roman Catholic cardinals who share in the church’s leadership are preparing to choose his successor.
In doing so, they will find – I expect – both tactical and strategic challenges.
As in any organization, the tactical decisions those cardinals make will make the news and the strategic decisions will make the difference.
The tactical decision is relatively easy: The cardinals will choose a new pope. In theory, they could choose almost anyone; in practice, they will choose someone from among their small number. And they will choose someone who pretty closely reflects Benedict’s philosophy. They will do so because he had a hand in elevating them to their present positions of honor.
The strategic decisions are far more difficult. The cardinals will take the first steps toward determining whether the underlying theological concepts of the church still make sense.
The church may not be facing unprecedented challenges – we don’t have competing popes, for example, though we did the last time a pope resigned his office. The church may not be facing unprecedented challenges but it surely is facing an unprecedented communications environment.
Any problem the church encounters today becomes headline news all over the world within minutes.
And there are a few problems out there. This week, the top prelate of the British Isles, Cardinal Keith O’Brien of Scotland, resigned after being accused of making unwanted sexual advances toward younger priests some years ago.
Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles, plans to help vote on the next pope. Documents released by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles during the past weeks show clearly that Mahoney not only helped cover up illegal actions by his priests but that he, in fact, knew they were illegal.
In addition, all sorts of financial and sexual scandals seem to be based in the Vatican itself. This is not good.
But it’s not just publicity that makes all this a problem. What makes it a problem is that the church considers ordination to be a sacrament. It sees being a priest, a bishop, a pope, as being called by God in a line of succession that traces back to Jesus himself.
If we find a relatively small number of priests being shielded from scrutiny by a relatively large number of bishops who, in turn, are protected by leaders at the highest levels of the hierarchy, then the entire fundamental theology of the priesthood is called into question – and if the legitimacy of the priesthood is called into question, then what is the legitimacy of the church, itself?
These questions will not be resolved by electing a pope who tweets.
But if the cardinals don’t deal with them, a few years from now, the troubles of today will seem like the good old days.