Thursday, February 21, 2013

Electing a Pope

As the days slip by we are approaching ever closer to the end of the month when the resignation (as it has been officially termed) of Pope Benedict XVI will officially take effect, leaving the Holy See vacant until the end of the next conclave. One of the problems I have with this is illustrated by the specific choice of the term “resign” rather than “abdicate”. As I have said before, I am not very wild about monarchs abdicating in general for the very reasons, often enough, that are usually offered to justify it. One of my worries is that if such a thing becomes the norm, with pope resigning once they reach a certain age or level of physical weakness, it makes the See of Peter seem more like “just a job” rather than the sacred, dreadful calling that I had always thought the position of Sovereign Pontiff to be. With secular monarchs it is a little bit different because the hereditary succession will always make them stand apart. However, if papal resignations become standard operating procedure, taken together with the fact that the pope is elected and that the papal coronation has been done away with (probably permanently, though I hope such is not the case) and it seems to me that the risk is taken of the papacy being seen as a much more earthly and ordinary occupation than it should be. I prefer a matrimonial view of monarchy (and the papacy) as a commitment to the throne ‘till death do you part’. A husband or wife should not separate or divorce just because they are no longer physically able to perform their “marital duties” after all.

So far, I seem to be the odd man out on this score though, which is probably for the best. I actually received more criticism of the Queen of The Netherlands abdicating than I have of the Pope “resigning”. Surprised me. I hardly expected the very vocal internet-champions of tradition to be so positive about such an un-traditional move. However, even under the normal circumstances, papal elections are never a good time for me. Not because of anything the Church necessarily does but by the way the media invariably covers it. Everything seems to take on a very political, secular and just rather dirty and unsavory atmosphere when these things happen. Who is ahead? Who has said or done things likely to disqualify them? To what extent has the last Pope “packed the college”? What countries will have the most influence? It all seems very degrading to what is supposed to be a very solemn, sacred and ancient duty. Of course, I could be wrong, as so far most seem to have no problem with the papal resignation, most seem very positive about it and maybe I have just always held an incorrect view of what the papacy is supposed to be. Wouldn’t be the first time, but until I find out otherwise, I can only go on from here and I still don’t like the way people behave concerning the election and, compared to the recent past at least, it seems to me to be getting worse.

I will explain why in my usual, frustrating, way. One of the names that I have heard tossed around is the Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Angelo Scola, a native of Lombardy and former Patriarch of Venice. I don’t know much about him but I have heard that some at least think that he is a favorite of Benedict XVI. As far as I’m concerned, I would be positive about Cardinal Scola simply for being an Italian. Why does that matter? It should not, but here is why; I have been rather alarmed at some of what I have heard about another so-called front runner for the papacy in Cardinal Peter Turkson yet he is often talked about because he is from Ghana and everyone in the media (possibly due to a case of Obama-fever?) is excited about having a Black Pope -and they don’t mean the guy in charge of the Jesuits either. I do hope we have not become that race-obsessed. There have been popes from Africa before and they might have been Black for all we know. But it is not only that. We also have people talking about the possibility of the first Canadian Pope, who would also be the first “North American Pope”, some have suggested the Archbishop Dolan of New York as a potential first American Pope and, given the numerical dominance of the population in the Catholic Church, many people are saying “it is time” for the first Latino Pope.

Now, call me crazy (it’s true), but on that front, haven’t the vast majority of popes throughout history been Latinos? I know it is not what they mean, but if we are being accurate here, would not the Italians be considered the original Latinos? This whole thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth and it makes me long for the days when it was just taken for granted that the Roman Pontiff would almost invariably be an Italian and everyone accepted that. It hardly seems unreasonable given that his primary “office” is being Bishop of Rome, but I am certainly not saying the Italians are any more capable than anyone else; indeed, given Italian predominance in the Curia, many consider it a handicap after the state of things there, but the election of a Polish pope, followed by a German pope seems to have made many think that the centuries of Italians being the norm are over and now everyone is dividing up along national or racial lines to push for a pope who is one of “their” people. Again, I may be out of step on this subject, but it seems in terribly bad taste to me and displays a totally incorrect attitude for someone to say that “it is time” that “we” had a Black, Latino or American Bishop of Rome. And, again, this, combined with my (hopefully unfounded) fear that resignations will become more common now, just makes the Throne of St Peter seem more like just another job which I would think most people should be able to see (regardless of their religious background) that it is not.


  1. Ok, here is a champion of tradition to say a word on the resignation of the pope, by the way i didn't say something because i am of holydays and i don't have too much time in the computer.

    Actually i am sad and angry with His Holyness because of the resignation, in fact i think that god is upset with this event because a lightning felt in the vatican shortly after the abdication of the Pope, i think that a pope can't abdicate because his duty is sacred and only god can dissmis him, i think that this shakes the very foundations of the church, and nothing good will came from this.

    Lets hope that the next pope (i think that the best candidate is the Milanese one, but that is up to god if the conclave isn't touched by human hands) resumes the old ways.

    Hi from Argentina.

  2. With regard to the resignation, I must say that as a relatively new Catholic, I was a bit disappointed by Benedict stepping down as well. He was my first pope, and I had (and still have) a high regard for him and his efforts at championing orthodoxy. I'm a bit conflicted here because I do like him so much, but I also sort of agree with you. Everyone else seems sad but understanding, and I'm trying hard not to act like I, rather than His Holiness, know what is best for the Church. On the other hand, I sort of wonder if the understanding that a lot of conservative Catholics have for the pope's decision comes from the fact that they DO love him and consider him one of their own. If the pope were less traditional, would they still approve? It seems to me that a non-traditional move is being forgiven because it is done by a traditional man.

    While I still firmly love Benedict and trust that he has thought everything through and is content in his own conscience of his reasons for the "resignation," I am very concerned about what effect it will have in the long run. In an era when so many other areas of life are slowly being desacralized, I'm not sure it's a good idea to encourage the trend of viewing the Holy See in a trivialized manner, particularly given the standard media silliness.

    Regarding the election, I must admit I don't know much about the presumed candidates and I don't really want to get too caught up in the debate, lest I by accident form an overly hasty opinion of the man who may soon be my spiritual father. I do, however, have a rather different take on the "race" issue. While I certainly don't want the papacy to be swayed by the spirit of the times, I don't think that's the only reason to elect a non-white pope. Many people argue that Catholics in the developing world seem to be more orthodox and traditional in their faith, so it may prove a useful way to confront the post-Christian Western world with the truths of the Faith all over again. Plus (on a less charitable or Christian note) it would really be fun to see the media tear themselves up in confusion, not knowing whether to approve of the fact that the pope is a non-white (so politically correct), or condemn the fact that he would uphold the traditional moral convictions of the Church on sexual matters (so NOT politically correct!). The strain may well cause an implosion in the religion departments of the mainstream media, which can only be a boon for Christendom at large.

    As a Europhile, I tend to root for the European candidates more, but I also think it is more important for Europe to regain its soul than for it to have a monopoly on the papal chair. The Faith is part of Europe's heritage, and if it takes a non-European pope to present it to Europeans afresh, then so be it. I only pray that as the Church expands into the developing world, she will not abandon the West as the West has apparently abandoned her. In this, if nothing else, we can be greedy. Let's have our cake and eat it too: the West and the developing world should be part of the Christian fold.

    Anyway, sorry for the long-winded response; I rarely write normal-length comments, which is why I don't usually submit them. I just wanted to say that I've been following your blog for awhile now. I'm a doctoral history student (Medieval Europe, especially England and France), and I love all your articles. It's also really nice to know someone else looks at history and is willing to challenge the assumptions of the modrern world. Most historians like to think that they do so, but far fewer really go as far as to suggest that modern disdain for monarchy may be ill-founded, or that the colonists may not have been fully justified in revolting against the king and country to whom they owed allegiance. I was beginning to wonder if I was alone in these thoughts.

    1. Glad you did. I have lately thought the same thing about the reaction, at least from certain quarters. I have asked myself a few times if the response would be the same if it had been Paul VI who "resigned". My usual answer is 'no'. For the rest, I'm not quite there. Last time it was Cardinal Arinze who was touted as a possible "first Black Pope" and he seemed a fine candidate to me, I had heard nothing that would put me off of him. With Cardinal Turkson, he has said some things that seem to be in "liberation theology" territory that would make me wary but I don't think, were he the choice, the msm would go any easier on him just for being an African. I've already seen one hit-piece on him for saying that the abuse crisis was the result of too many homosexuals in the priesthood. The revolutionary crowd thrives on new victims and, from what I have seen, these days "gay" trumps Black.

      It might put off some people in Europe, but probably only those already moaning about non-European peoples populating Europe (the 'foreigners are taking over the place crowd') as those types might start to see the Church as something that is not their own. I don't think, frankly, that there are that many people in Europe who even care if their "people" survive (and they're not) so I doubt that would play too much into it. A Latino Pope would probably be the least controversial but while the demographic argument is undeniable, Latin America is not nearly so Catholic as many people think. Overall Catholicism is shrinking in favor of Protestant Evangelicals, religion overall is on the decline as in most places and, partly because of the liberation theology movement which was big in Latin America, many traditional people see the Catholic Church as part of the left-wing power establishment.

      In a historical contest I think the Catholic Church got nervous because of her opposition to the independence movements in Latin America, tried to race the other way to make up for that and be the friend of "the people" and maybe went a bit too far at times. However, as I said, my only real concern (and it may be too late) is that once you start down that road everyone will want one of "their" people as pope and the Catholic Church will not seem so "catholic" anymore. It will happen eventually, if for no other reason than the European peoples are set to go the way of the Dinosaurs but it might be better to hold off on that until Asians/African are the majority in Europe, at which point it will be a natural transition.


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