A Papal Biographer Considers Qualities Needed for the Next Vicar of Christ

BOOK PICK: Based on his intimate conversations with three pontiffs, George Weigel explores The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission.

(photo: Cropped book cover/Ignatius Press)

One of my favorite scenes from the original Mary Poppins (1962) movie occurs when Jane and Michael Banks read to their father a draft advertisement for their next nanny. “If you want this choice position, have a cheery disposition …” Of course, Poppins — “practically perfect in every way” — fit the bill. George Weigel’s latest, The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission, reads similarly. It’s an exacting list of the qualities Catholics should look for in the next vicar of Christ. 

Now, Pope Francis isn’t ailing nor has he signaled an intent to step aside any time soon. And The Next Pope is not Weigel’s list of top candidates for the papacy. Weigel instead invites Catholics to seriously consider the “must-have” qualities of the man who will next hold “the keys to the kingdom of heaven.”  

A couple of influential American Catholics have already cast aspersions on Weigel and The Next Pope. Michael Sean Winters, for example, writes in the National Catholic Reporter that the recommendations are “passive-aggressive attacks on Pope Francis.” Msgr. John Strynkowski, writing for the Jesuits’ America magazine, calls The Next Pope “hardly a subtle critique of the present bishop of Rome.” Even if Weigel meant to criticize Pope Francis as his detractors allege, I appreciate his prudence.  

What comes forth clearly in The Next Pope is that Weigel does not want to add to the Church’s current “fratricidal strife.” Insteadhe suggests fundamental changes to the way the Church is run and the role of the pope in running it. They are Weigel’s ideas for saving an institution in deep crisis. Is it too much to expect a fair hearing? 


Doctrine vs. Dissolution

Central to the thesis of The Next Pope is a simple observation. Catholic belief collapses where attempts are made to present “a Catholicism of indeterminate convictions and porous behavioral boundaries.”

“Catholic Lite,” as Weigel calls it, is “an evangelical and pastoral failure throughout Western Europe, as it is an evangelical and pastoral failure in North America, Latin America, Australia, and New Zeeland.” Oh, but on the flip side, the Catholic Church is alive and vibrant among “those that have made the proclamation of the Gospel their priority; that teach the Catholic faith in full.” This can be found, says Weigel, in “the newer local Churches of sub-Saharan Africa” and “the growing end of the Church in North America” and “those shoots of new Christian life that are sprouting up through the hard, secularized soil of Europe.” 

For the Catholic Church to have relevance and moral authority throughout the rest of the world, the faithful — including the next pope — must also authentically live out the faith by a complete commitment to the New Evangelization. This is a practical as well as a theological imperative: Where the Church clumsily accommodates itself to the demands of secular thought police, it shrivels — because, put simply, it has nothing distinctive to offer. 

But what does it mean to be fully committed to the New Evangelization? The Catholic Church must be “a Christ-centered Church, born of the Gospel in full.” That is something that the future Holy Father must personally exemplify and articulate. “It is a serious mistake to imagine the papacy as an authoritarian office from which the pope issues imperious decisions that reflect his will alone,” writes Weigel. Rather, “the Petrine Office is an authoritative office whose holder is the custodian of an authoritative tradition.” 

The future pontiff must promote doctrinal clarity and divine mercy, he continues: This can be made easier if the next pope makes effective use of the intellectual legacy of John Paul II. The latter’s “theology of the human person” transcends failed ideologies that focus on the redistribution of worldly power. 

Merely by making this point, of course, Weigel seems to be implicitly criticizing Pope Francis. But, to repeat, any direct criticism is left unspoken, and for a good reason. Catholics are divided enough already. If we want to heal those divisions, then we could make a start by recognizing that Christian humanism — developed but certainly not invented by St. John Paul II — is an antidote to the politicization that is poisoning many Catholics. 


Call to All Bishops 

Weigel also draws attention to an essential organ of the Church in dire need of reform by the next pope: the episcopate. Again, this might surprise Catholics for whom “the bishops” are respectively either the architects of Church decline or, in a genuine exercise of “synodality,” a prophetic safeguard against reactionary clericalism. 

The Next Pope offers us another vision: of bishops as “radically converted disciples who have demonstrated in their lives a personal conversion to Jesus Christ and a conscious choice to abandon everything to follow the Lord Jesus.” The key words here are “in their lives.” Long before Pope Francis took office, the requirement that a bishop should be an outstandingly holy person seems to have been tragically dispensed in too many instances.

Weigel believes that the only person who can rectify this situation is the next pontiff. It will not be a pretty sight, and nor should it be. The next pope must be willing to remove bishops “whose personal behavior has become a countersign to the Gospel,” “who teach a doctrine other than that of the Catholic Church,” or “whose manifest incompetence in governance has irretrievably damaged their capacity to lead.” 

Weigel also argues that the clerical abuse scandal is “fundamentally a crisis of fidelity and identity.” I couldn’t agree more. The next pope must therefore “intensify the reform of the priesthood and the consecrated life.” 

To be sure, The Next Pope is heavy on generalities. But, when it comes to administrative and financial reform of the Vatican, Weigel’s recommendations are presented with particular urgency. “Within his first six months in office,” the next pope should mandate a thorough review of “matching resources to responsibilities in the Roman Curia.” He should also consider whether the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has sufficient resources to competently redress the “crimes, sins, and scandals of clerical sexual abuse.” 

George Banks tore up the advertisement for the perfect nanny drafted by his two young children. A gust of wind, fortunately, carried the torn pieces he had thrown into the fireplace to Mary Poppins in the nick of time. Catholics, especially the members of the College of Cardinals who have each received a copy of The Next Pope, should take the opportunity to read and heed a different George’s advertisement for the future papacy.


Andrea Picciotti-Bayer is a legal analyst for the Judicial Education Project. 



The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission

By George Weigel

Ignatius Press, 2020

 141 pages, $19.95

To order: ignatius.com or (800) 651-1531