VATICAN CITY — Ask any Vatican official or leading Church figure in Rome what one of the most important characteristics of the new pope should be, and, chances are, they’ll say he must have an ability to govern.
Amid the many tributes being paid to Pope Benedict XVI, among the few criticisms is the observation that governance wasn’t the Holy Father’s strong point.
Although he has been widely praised for certain aspects of governance — namely his episcopal appointments, his efforts to crack down on clerical sex abuse and measures to make the Vatican’s finances more transparent — running the Roman Curia was his Achilles heel, made harder by his infirmity and old age.
He appeared to allude to this in his letter of resignation, when he said he had “come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry” and that, “in order to govern the barque of St. Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary.”
“Benedict XVI was an excellent theologian [and he] will leave us with a tremendous wealth in the field of the magisterium,” said Cardinal Ruben Salazar Gomez of Bogota, Colombia, according to a Feb. 18 report by the German Catholic news agency KNA. “But from the perspective of government, this was not a strong papacy.”
Since the Vatileaks scandal last year and the dysfunction it revealed, other cardinal electors are openly talking about the need for reform of the Roman Curia.
“It has to be attended to,” Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said, according to a Feb. 21 Associated Press article. And in a Feb. 20 interview with the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera, Cardinal Walter Kasper, who retired in 2010 as prefect of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, called for “more coordination between the [dicasteries], more collegiality and communication.” He added, “Often, the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.”
Opus Dei Father Robert Gahl, a professor of moral philosophy at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, believes the next pope must be able to tackle the Curial factions “warring against one another” over “petty issues.” These factions are “not arguing over big theological issues,” he observed, but, instead, over “struggles to advance their own careers and reinforce their own power.”
“Those are all reasons why the kind of governance the next pope will have to deal with is reforming the Curia,” he continued, “and making sure that in the future the Curia acts in a spirit of service rather than one of personal ambition.” Currently, he added, parts of the Vatican are victims to a “feudal turf war.”
“The management style of the Vatican remains that of Italian feudalism, similar to that of 18th or even 17th-century Italian politics — way before the existence of the Italian republic,” he said. “And yet, clearly, there have been tremendous advancements in management theory, practice and technology, so there’s a need for reform of that governance model.”
The kind of governance being proposed is one that moves away from a rigidly hierarchical pyramid that management experts have long held to be a very inefficient and incompetent way of running an organization. Such a system of management leads to information only passing through a superior, while those officials at the same lower levels in different offices do not communicate with one another.
This overdue reform of Curial management is considered all the more important in today’s environment of rapid information flow, where there’s a need for information to be communicated through multiple channels.
For these reasons, it’s likely the cardinal electors will be looking for someone with diocesan and pastoral experience who has a track record of good governance.
“I really don’t see them choosing someone who at least hasn’t had a foot in a diocese,” a veteran Vatican official told the Register. “Someone with Curia experience would also be helpful.”
Some argue that such a pope needs to be a reform-minded Italian; others disagree, believing that a non-Italian would be best, as he would be well outside the institutional infighting.
Whatever their nationality, the cardinal electors will be looking for someone with energy, who is media savvy and, most importantly, a man of deep faith. They will be looking for someone who can unite the Church — the key papal task — and, most importantly, someone of prayer, for whom the transcendent reality is a daily reality.
In short, the cardinal electors, led by the Holy Spirit, will be looking for someone with holiness and Christlike qualities — pastoral and with deep compassion for the poor, the suffering and the most vulnerable, especially the unborn.
“Among the cardinals, there are so many who are worthy and capable,” said Benedict XVI’s brother, Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, in a Feb. 21 interview with Corriere della Sera. “But I would say that the new pope should be a person deeply rooted in the faith and that faith must guide his life. It’s necessary to have a great respect for the weak.”
He added that another “indispensable quality is realism: to understand what is possible and what is impossible to do. He will have to have enormous energy, because it takes a lot to direct such a large community and to get the message across with strength. Perhaps they should choose a younger man.”
The ideal age of the new pope, according to many observers, would be around 65 and certainly below the age of 75. The average age of the cardinal electors is 72, and only 43 of the 116 voting cardinals are under the age of 70.
Relative youth will be needed to confront an array of challenges, such as the growth of secularism and moral relativism in post-Christian Europe and North America and their effects; the emergence of radical Islam and an increasingly troubled Arab world; and the social fallout of debt-ridden, troubled economies. Ecumenism and interreligious dialogue will be added challenges.
It’s unclear whether the majority of the cardinal electors will choose a European or North American to tackle those areas where the Church is in greatest crisis or settle on someone from Asia or Africa, where the Church is growing fastest.
“Let’s be honest: The future of the Church is in Africa and Asia; it’s not in Europe or North America,” said the Vatican official. “It’s just not there. They’re dead [in terms of faith growth], and it would make more sense to go for a place that’s got life, liveliness and hope.”
But he said his view was not typical of the Italian-dominated Curia, which tends to believe that only Europeans should be pope.
An American Pope?
An American pope is also possible, though its superpower status could be an obstacle. Ever since the French Pope Clement V became a tool of the French monarchy (then the world’s most powerful nation) and transferred the entire papacy to Avignon in 1309, the Church has been reluctant to elect a pope from a ruling superpower.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York disagrees, however. In a Feb. 19 interview on Sirius XM satellite radio, he said that when he was growing up it was presumed the pope would be an Italian.
“We don’t even think that anymore, do we?” he said. “The pope is the earthly, universal pastor of the Church. To think that there might be a pope from North America, to think that there might be a pope from Latin America, a pope from Asia, a pope from Africa — I think that’s highly possible, don’t you?”
Father Gahl similarly thinks an American has a fair chance of being elected.
“Americans always bring up the difficulty of electing an American pope — no one else,” he noted. He believes this is a remnant from the Cold War and the Bush era of America being a hyper-superpower. Now that the Church is in “open contrast” with the White House, Father Gahl believes “it removes entirely that objection.”
Furthermore, some see Cardinal Dolan as having just the attributes needed, given his admired ability to unite the Church in support of religious freedom and yet remain separate from partisan politics. His personality, too, is suited to today’s media age. Some, of course, disagree.
Cardinal Dolan himself played down his own chances when asked in the Sirius interview if he could be elected. “I could be the next shortstop of the Yankees too,” he said. “Anything is possible!”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.