HOW HE SEES IT Electing a pope is not a simple matter
By DAVID C. STEINMETZ
The next pope will be elected by a relatively small group of higher clergy known as cardinals. Cardinals are special advisers to the pope. They assist him in the governance of the Roman Catholic Church and, upon his death, elect his successor.
Some cardinals, such as Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, live in Rome and run departments in the Vatican. Others, like Francis George in Chicago, are diocesan clergy charged with the pastoral care of archdioceses.
Of the 117 cardinals eligible to vote for the next pope, only three were not appointed by John Paul II. Their average age is 71.7. Fifty-eight are from Europe, 21 from South America, 14 from North America, 11 from Africa, 11 from Asia and two from Australia.
The fact that there are no clear frontrunners for the post has not stifled speculation about who might succeed the late pope. The Italians, who dominated the papacy from 1523 to 1978, would very much like to have it back. The odds-on favorite candidate from Italy is the rotund and cheerful archbishop of Milan, Dionigi Tettamanzi, whose principal liability seems to be his lack of fluency in English.
However, Europe is no longer the heartland of the Catholic Church. With two-thirds of Catholics living in the Southern Hemisphere, cardinals may wish to consider for the first time a candidate from Latin America or Africa, perhaps Claudio Hummes of Brazil or Francis Arinze of Nigeria. Arinze has the additional advantage of being an expert on relations between Christianity and Islam.
The cardinals are well aware of the problems the new pope will face. Among the most severe is the acute shortage of clergy, brought on in part by the reluctance of young Catholics to assume a celibate life. John Paul II had been adamant on the subject of celibacy. He reiterated the traditional Catholic position that priests must be celibate males.
On this question, the next pope may choose a different path. After all, the tradition that priests must be celibate males is not a dogma, which cannot be changed, but a matter of discipline, which can. Catholic priests in Anglo-Saxon England were often married, and priestly celibacy has not been uniformly enforced throughout the history of the church.
Eastern Orthodox churches, for example, allow priests to marry before ordination. Although, once ordained, they are not allowed to remarry if their spouse should die. Orthodox bishops are usually chosen from the ranks of the celibate, though there are some exceptions. Furthermore, Rome has accepted married priests from the Anglican Communion who converted to Catholicism.
Could the next pope, even though it seems likely he will reject women's ordination, allow both celibate and non-celibate male clergy? And, if so, could he permit former priests who were laicized in order to marry to resume their functions as priests with the approval of local diocesan bishops? The answer may still be no, though it is not a foregone conclusion.
During the next few weeks, the cardinals will be staring at each other across elegant hand-carved tables and wondering who among them will emerge as the best candidate for the daunting task of leading the world's 1 billion Catholics. The diocesan cardinals will undoubtedly favor a pope who gives them a greater degree of autonomy in the running of their churches than John Paul II permitted and who keeps a tight rein on the Vatican bureaucracy.
But, electing a pope is not just a matter of listing ideal characteristics. What the cardinals know from history is that, whomever they choose, he may take off in unanticipated directions while in office. When the genial patriarch of Venice, Angelo Roncalli, was elected pope in 1958, he was thought, at almost 77, to be a transitional figure, a caretaker who would manage the routine business of the church in his brief pontificate.
As Pope John XXIII, Roncalli proved to be a transitional figure in another sense. He called the Second Vatican Council and ushered in a new age in the life of the Catholic Church.
This means that electing a pope is not just a matter of prudential judgment.
It's a matter of faith.
X David C. Steinmetz is the Amos Ragan Kearns professor of the history of Christianity at the Divinity School of Duke University in Durham, N.C. He wrote this commentary for the Orlando Sentinel.