Pope Benedict XVI has announced that he will relinquish his office at the end of February, an event that has not been seen since the 13th century. As the outgoing pope delivered his final Sunday blessing this week, the Conclave prepares to meet to elect his successor (see this neat (if imperfectly translated) graphic). By the time the Papal Conclave convenes in March, the “media conclave” will have cast scores of votes electing the next Bishop of Rome.
The rumors were barely confirmed before lists of non-European priests were bandied about as potential successors, the subtext being that it sure would be nice for the church to have a black pope. What progress we could mark if only the Bishop of Rome were a native of Ghana! Now, there is no reason why a South American or African (or Asian or Canadian or Iraqi) cardinal should not be among the candidates for the office. It is a curious fact that so many Italians have held the post, and even the two recent exceptions were Europeans. Indeed, this criticism resonates with the old Protestant criticism of the Papacy as simply a player in the Game of Thrones.
So now I add my own voice to the chorus: the new Pope should be an ordained Protestant minister.
The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne’s latest column has inspired me to make this bold call. In his column, he calls for the selection of a woman – specifically, a nun – as the next pope. His chief arguments are practical: a nun would emphasize the church’s mercy work and wrap velvet around the church’s cold iron dogma on “women’s” issues like abortion and contraceptives. He also asserts uncritically that a female pope would resolve the tension between Catholic veneration of Mary and the church’s hierarchical strictures.
My call for a protestant pope sees his utilitarianism and raises. Protestants are conspicuously more lenient on contraceptives. We respect Mary but do not “venerate” her in the beatific sense. And hey! Some protestant churches even ordain women. Looks like we can all win here, E.J.!
Hoping to flesh out my proposal with some of Dionne’s further arguments, I was a bit crestfallen as I read on. Nowhere does Dionne address the reasons the church maintains a celibate male priesthood, leaving readers to wonder whether he thinks there are any. In one breezy paragraph, he explains the qualifications canon law places on the papacy and in the next assures readers that the Vatican could simply consecrate the selected woman as a bishop in order to make her eligible. Well, if that’s all that’s in the way…
One might suspect Dionne is being intentionally provocative when he says that he is “running ahead of the Spirit on this one.” But by the end of his article, it becomes clear that his advice is tragically sincere:
I hardly expect the cardinals to follow my advice on this. But I hope that they at least consider electing the kind of man who has the characteristics of my ideal female pontiff. The church needs a leader who has worked closely with the poor and the outcast, who understands that battling over doctrine is less important for the church’s future than modeling Christian behavior — and who sees that the proper Christian attitude toward the modern world is not fear but hope.
Is that what the church needs? I likewise have no illusions that the cardinals will heed my call. Perhaps then they should consider electing the kind of Catholic who has the characteristics of my ideal protestant minister. The church, after all, needs a leader steeped in presuppositional apologetics or who has experience writing sufficiently vague doctrinal statements so as not to alienate too many people – and who sees that the proper Christian attitude toward salvation is not Tradition but Scripture.
I had a sneaking feeling I would part company with Dionne eventually. I’m no canon law expert, but I will hazard to say that the male celibate priesthood is rooted in the church’s teachings on human nature and the sacerdotal office. Dionne’s blind spot is created by his own conception of what counts as “progress” and a specific conceptualization of gender equality, one that the Catholic Church emphatically does not share. (Catholics ardently proclaim the equal dignity of all persons, they just also affirm the different natures of men and women.) There is no doubt that Catholic teaching is at odds with much modern thought, and that many self-described Catholics normally choose the world’s wisdom over their church’s teachings. But that is no excuse for slipshod and imperialist argument.
You see, we believe along with Catholics that the central malady of mankind is spiritual. If you are a run-of-the-mill Western public intellectual, you seize on Jesus’s words to care for the least of these and read in your own materialism. If what Jesus says is true – and it is! – then there is no better way to care for our downtrodden neighbors than by advancing the kingdom of God on Earth. Feeding the hungry in His name is part of that campaign, but no more so than proclaiming the Word from the pulpit and shepherding the flock in truth and love. If the Lord of Hosts has revealed eternal truths and entrusted them to His people, suddenly “batting over doctrine” looks less like petty in-fighting and more like an essential for survival.
Articles like Dionne’s should force us all to check our blind spots, as though we were watching the car in front of us change lanes without looking. We tend to contort every story so that it fits our own agenda, that it somehow can be brought to bear on our own peculiar system of values. This is symptomatically egotistical and analytically sloppy, but for those of us who were bought at a price, it is inexcusably uncharitable. No one is seriously calling for the election of a protestant as pope, but how much of our conversation fails on the same level as Dionne’s?
The worst offenders when it comes to church matters are usually those outside it, typically lefty pundits and Manhattan-bred news media. But we’re not immune. Certain stripes of evangelical can be awfully uncharitable when it comes to the Roman Catholic church (I was almost one of them for a time). And even if we are suitably cautious when discussing church matters, too often we fail to understand the values of non-Christians or our political adversaries. If it sounds laughably naive to tell the Vatican to select a nun as pope, you should think about what it sounds like when someone says that “the Bible” determines state marriage policy.
We want others to understand our worldview and assumptions before they engage us. We must therefore do so unto others.