Catholic Church in Transition: Hopes For the Next Pope

PHOTO: Posters bidding Pope Benedict XVI farewell
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In columns past, I have often recommended what presidential candidates might focus on in their campaigns or ways they should address the country after they get elected. I thought it timely to do same for the upcoming Papal election and what the next Pope might want to focus on in the world.

I have never run a Papal election, but I did grow up Catholic as one of 11 children, was named after two of the Gospels (Matthew and John), attended Catholic school and College, was an altar boy, and have some working knowledge of Latin. That doesn't make me an official of the church, but it gives me a little credibility, I hope.

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Even though this is an election that only involves some 115 Cardinals of the Catholic Church (and we pray the inspiration of God), it is an incredibly important moment for the Church and for Catholics and non-Catholics worldwide. With the number of Catholic faithful shrinking in many developed parts of the world, with women feeling they lack a role in the Church, with youth unenthusiastic about Catholicism, and with scandals that have rocked the Church to its core, this is a crucial moment for this institution.

The choice seems clear: the Catholic Church can retrench in its ways, not adapt to the modern world, close itself off to change and progress, and just appeal to an ever decreasing and conservative group of believers, or it can decide to move forward openly and boldly into the world that exists today.

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To me, the Catholic Church and the Republican Party in the United States are at very similar points. Right now both institutions are dominated by an older white leadership, they lack appeal to youth, women, and minorities in the developed world, and they seem to be throwback to a different time. As I have said before, both the Catholic Church and the Republican Party are "Mad Men" institutions in a "Modern Family" world.

So, if the Church desired to take the path of progress and not retrenchment, what type of Pope should the Cardinals choose? What values should that Pope instill in the Church, and what are some immediate things he could do? (Even though my friend EJ Dionne in a recent column laid out a great and interesting scenario of picking a nun as the next Pope, we all know that is probably a bridge too far at this time though I hope it comes at some point in the Church's history.)

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Besides all the values we know the Catholic Church is supposed to represent, the Cardinals should pick someone who can embody and speak to the following values in this world: authenticity, openness (transparency), simplicity (humbleness), passion, and diversity.

Authenticity. It is time for the Church to really go back to the fundamental principles of its founding. Not back to the Middle Ages, but back to the first century AD and the principals laid out in the Sermon on the Mount. The Church has traveled a long distance from that time, and reached great heights, but it no longer is seen by many as authentic to the vision and sermons of Jesus Christ. And as we know in politics, without authenticity, followers will stop following and search for that authenticity elsewhere, even if they have held on to a certain institution for years.

Openness (Transparency). This is pretty self-explanatory, and it is something the Church should choose to do voluntarily. Too much of what the Church does is kept secret, hidden from the flock and closed off from the public. If people believe the Church is imbued with the Holy Spirit, then why would openness be a problem? The truth and God are supposed to be one, so transparency should always be the first inclination. Much of the fallout from recent scandals comes from the darkness of secrets kept. Turn the lights on, and let the chips fall where they may. The first thing the next Pope should do is open all the files, open all the doors, and let the fresh air of truth sweep through the Church.

Simplicity. Again, another value not needing much explanation. It is time the Church in its outward manifestation return to a more simple time. The next Pope should strip Rome and every Church around the world of all the extravagant tastes and possessions built up. Sell off the gold and silver and jeweled possessions. Give away those things and all possessions not central to the mission of the Church. Strip away those expensive manifestations, and begin to teach the flock that the only way to the Kingdom of God is not through retail therapy, but a life of simplicity and non-attachment to material things.

Passion. Many folks see this value as in conflict with the Church. It is not. Without passion, the Church becomes stale and withered like an old book in the recesses of a library. Passion allows us to fight injustice. It gives us the courage to do the right thing. It causes us to believe we can make a difference and we matter. For too long the Vatican has been an institution of the head, extolling rational sermons and reasoned promulgations. The Vatican must become more of an institution of the heart. The next Pope should be heart centered, not head centered. It is through heart connections or gut connections that institutions can link with today's flock. If you capture folks' hearts through a connection based in love, then you have an enthusiastic and passionate Church.

Diversity. This may be the toughest one for the Church, which seems to keep coming up with theological reasons why there can't be more involvement by the laity and a more diverse leadership. If the next Pope wants the Church to grow and thrive and matter to today's world, then it must figure a way to broaden the role of women, youth, and the laity as a whole. In many churches around the world, there is laity sitting in the pews that could give much better sermons than existing priests. Why shouldn't we ask about the possibility of married priest, or women priests? And without outreach to today's youth, then the Church is destined to die of just looking at demographics. The next Pope should quickly call a series of conclaves or conferences addressing women, youth, and laity, and their role going forward. This would be a huge step forward.

Those are my thoughts. I hope as the Cardinals gather they spend some time thinking through how to be a vibrant and growing and connected Church around the world. The world needs it. Pax vobiscum.

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