For the first time in six centuries, the head of the Catholic Church is stepping down. Some, like Huffington Post Religion’s Senior Editor Paul Raushenbush, have suggested this is an indication that the stodgy religious institution is creeping its way toward modernism. Could it be that the role of Pope will be considered to be that more like a CEO than a sovereign ruler? Is there room within today’s church for its leadership to step down when they feel they can no longer adequately fill the tremendous demands heaped upon them?
Can Popes retire? And if so, do they have to give up those cool red shoes?
So if, indeed, the Catholic Church is moving in a new direction, why not consider a more thorough overhaul? Some have suggested that the next Pope should come from the southern hemisphere, given that this is where the faith is growing the most (actually, it’s not really growing much at all in the northern half of the world). But as some have suggested within the church, the process of selecting a Pope is not necessarily driven by creating a representative leadership.
That said, it seems a rare opportunity to do something exciting. I, like many people, assumed that the successor to Pope Benedict would have to come from within the College of Cardinals. But though this has been tradition for most of the life of the Church, Pope Clement V is a rare exception. He was plucked from a monastery to become Pope, with the hope of overcoming much of the perceived corruption within the College.
And though the College of Cardinals is not explicitly mired in scandal at the moment, the Church itself certainly has suffered some blows in the court of public opinion, as well as in the court of law, in some cases. So given that precedent, perhaps it’s time for another radical departure from tradition; one that will signal to the world that the Church is more committed than ever before to its mandate to care for the poor, and support the marginalized.
Who better to exemplify this than a woman of color who comes from modest means? Who better to embody the Christ-like compassionate suffering alongside the poor than one who knows the experience first-hand? But the question remains whether a woman ever could be the Pope. Given the historic exclusion of women from the priesthood, and therefore the process that leads one to become part of the College of Cardinals, it’s an admitted long shot. But as I mentioned above, the Cardinals technically can call whomever they choose to serve as Pope.
There are even legends of a female Pope, Pope Joan, who allegedly disguised herself as a man in the Middle Ages, but this is largely dismissed as myth by historians and leadership within the Church. But given the enduring popularity of the legend, it’s clear that more than a handful of people are intrigued by the idea, if not the reality, of what the Church would look like if a woman took the helm.
We need compassion. I love the idea that those in the priesthood take a vow of poverty, but the reality of that is more farce than fact. Yes, priests, bishops and the Pope may not technically own anything, but from parsonages to cars and drivers to expense accounts, their lives hardly reflect the kind of poverty much of the world experiences on a daily basis. Dimensions of Catholicism, like Catholic Charities, are committed to care for the poor.
And yet the leadership seems to experience a general disconnect from such struggles. To have someone from a developing nation serve as the next Pope, if not someone who actually has lived in poverty, might send a message to the world about the Church’s priorities, while also refocusing the church on one of its most important missions.
We need Sophia. Orthodox and Roman Catholic tradition has, in the past, embraced the notion of the Holy Spirit being a feminine manifestation of God within the Trinity. And yet, when it comes to earthly leadership and discernment, we lean too heavily only on male perspectives. Reality is that, at least in the West, more women are in church today than men; this is a trend that holds up across the board throughout Christianity. At a grassroots community level, women are keeping our churches going and holding the faith communities together. Some of that wisdom could serve the church well from a position of great power in the Vatican.
We need to celebrate the feminine sacred. For centuries, the images of Mary, breast exposed and nursing the infant Jesus, were prominent on sanctuaries. They were seen as a symbol of provision, nourishment and comfort, especially in distressed periods like the Dark Ages. But with the advent of both the printing press and the growing popularity of human autopsies, the human body became both demystified and scandalized. After all, where there is mass production of media, there is pornography.
Suddenly, the breast was tantalizing, an object of shame. Subsequently, the images of Maria Lactans were replaced with crosses. But in the process, we all experienced a loss of a dimension of the Divine we ought to reclaim. How better to orient people toward that than to have a woman in the Vatican?
We need healing. Plenty of damage has been done in the name of the Christian faith, specifically with regard to ongoing sex scandals within the Catholic Church. In a special program produced by HBO called “Mea Maxima Culpa,” blame for the protection of perpetrators over the advocacy for the rights of victims goes all the way to the Pope himself. In the greater culture, the vast majority of sexual offenders are male, Even if it’s a matter of perception, there’s a sense that the Catholic patriarchy is principally in the business of protecting its own, rather than advocating tirelessly for the vulnerable. And while the Vatican offers rhetorical regret for the wrongdoings within its institutions, little seems to change. A feminine perspective inherently comes with the experience of being disempowered and vulnerable. Though it’s no guarantee, that understanding could help speak much about the Church’s value of reconciliation without actually saying a word.