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Electing the Next Pope

Who Will Be the Next Pope?

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It seems unlikely that the elector cardinals will choose as pope someone who will continue with the exact same polices as John Paul II. Although he has been widely praised and he has made every effort to appoint conservatives to the College of Cardinals, we can’t assume that those same cardinals will be uncritical. John Paul II’s management style, for example, has disturbed quite a few people.

Change may not be possible under the new rules, however. In the past the requirement of a two-thirds majority for a successful vote meant that neither liberals nor conservatives (but primarily conservatives) could push through a candidate without compromising. Now it is possible to elect a pope with an majority of fifty percent plus one, and that makes an ideological candidate rather than a moderate much more likely.

Perhaps the most basic criterion for evaluating the way the next pope will influence the course of Roman Catholicism is whether his primary attitude towards the church and its members qualifies as “preconciliar” or “postconciliar.” A preconciliar pope is one who rejects many of the basic reforms of the Second Vatican Council and defines the “freedom” of the Roman Catholic Church as the right of the church’s leadership to have a free hand not only with internal church matters, but even with the external politics of the surrounding society.

A postconciliar pope is one who accepts at least many of the basic reforms of the Second Vatican Council and defines “freedom” as the freedom of Catholics themselves to help define what Catholicism means, how Catholicism operates, and the very structure and nature of the church itself. This means giving lay Catholics a greater role in determining how their parishes are run, who the priests and bishops are, and so on.

Pope John Paul II has, in many important ways, been a preconciliar pope. To cite just one example, he has imposed bishops on European dioceses in a manner that has trampled upon long-standing agreements and traditions. Why? Because he wished to “impose order” upon local congregations which, in his opinion, had strayed too far from his vision of Catholicism. Their vision of Catholicism was deemed unworthy of discussion and local clergy were judged unfit to fill the vacancies. Insults and protests abounded, widening the rift between individual Catholics and the Vatican.

Will the College of Cardinals want to elect a man who will continue these policies or who will try something new? There will surely be a bit of both, so the critical question is whether either group will have enough support and influence to push through their vision of the papacy without having to compromise with others. If so, that will not only result in a more ideological pope but also in hard feelings among the cardinals. That, in turn, may make matters even strained in the Vatican.

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