Things I’ve Heard About The New Pope

Since I attend a Catholic seminary, and I myself am some kind of a holy person, people have been asking me recently what I think is going to happen in the Vatican when the Red Hats get together to decide on the next Pope.

I usually remind people that few cardinals consult me, a lapsed Catholic training to be a Presbyterian minister, about who they should vote for. If I am feeling especially stringent, I might also point out that the Holy Spirit makes the decision so our speculations could look very stupid when divine wisdom gets involved (and appoints Roberto Mancini).

People often respond by volunteering their opinions on who the next Pope should be. A surprisingly large proportion of people, including my dad and my sister, think I should be the next Pope. Someone let the Vatican know that I’ll take the job if I get to keep my New Balance trainers. I’ll even ditch the wife if that is a hindrance.

If the Pope election had something to do with the vox populi, this is the data I have gathered:

  • The next Pope should be black.
  • The next Pope should be Irish.
  • The next Pope should be from the Majority World.
  • The next Pope should be in “favour of gays”.
  • The next Pope should be “liberal”.
  • The next Pope should be a woman.

and most hilariously of all, some seminarians I had coffee with this week told me:

The resignation of Benedict XVI was a surprise to everyone. I was having coffee with a systematic theology lecturer, trying to convince him to join Twitter, when my Twitter feed notified me that BXVI had served his notice. Most people have to give four weeks before they leave a job, but God is gracious and accepted that Bene needed to leave early. Most people in senior executive positions are forced to leave their post immediately upon informing their bosses that they are leaving, but God is gracious and accepted that Bene needed time to tie up some loose ends.

Since then, practically every single thing I have read about the Papacy has been stupid. This blog post is not invulnerable to that idiocy-effect of these unusual circumstances. I have read the usually excellent Andrew Sullivan trade in tawdry rumour, I have read a respected Washington Post writer opine that the next Pope should be a nun and I have read Paul Elie suggest that if the Pope can resign from his church position, then Catholics could resign from the church entirely.

Did you Catholics know that? You can leave? It’s true – a guy in the New York Times wrote about it! He even used the word telos, so you know he is an intellectual. He attends a “welcoming, open-minded authentically religious place” as his local church by the way.


As the cardinals prepare to go into conclave here are some humble things I think I can suggest that are not total bullshit.

1. The Conclave is a worship service

When the doors close on St. Peter’s and they start their process of choosing the next Pontiff, the men inside don’t cite Papal manifestos and 3 point plans to rejuvenate priestly-pension funds. They pray. Then they write a name on a piece of paper, presumably under the impression that the Holy Spirit is guiding them, and then when it is their turn they go to the front of the room and recite a clear formula, testifying to the sincerity and transparency of their action, and they submit their opinion. The Conclave is liturgical. It might also be political. Perhaps it is even Machiavellian. But it is first and foremost a worship service of discernment.

2. The “election” is not a mirror of democracy

When they are in conclave, the cardinals are not hosting informal, impromptu hustings to decide who is best suited to the Big Man’s job. There is politicking going on outside conclave, but the vast majority of those involved will be seeking to consciously quell their worldly desire to get their friends into power and instead to come to a communal decision for the good of the church. They may have nutty ideas about what the good of the church is that utterly conflicts with your ideas, but the conclave shouldn’t be seen in democratic terms, as a selection process based on preference. This conclave pre-dates modern democracy. We shouldn’t view it through an anachronistic lens.

3. “Liberal” and “Conservative” are not meaningful terms

The overwhelming sentiment I have heard from friends is that the next Pope should be “liberal”. I don’t quite know what they mean when they say this and I doubt they know either. Whether it is someone I meet on the street or a journalist speaking on a national news station, the idea that “liberal” and “conservative” has any meaning is codswallop. BXVI was a “conservative Pope”. That is received wisdom. But it is wisdom informed by coverage of the Pope in the press. He says something about homosexuality being “intrinsically disordered” and his photo is on the front page of the newspaper in the morning. But when he says that contemporary market economics give rise to “ferocious competition, strong inequalities and degradation of the environment” he goes unnoticed. Now I am not for a moment suggesting that everything the Pope Emeritus said was true but his position on the things you might think he talks about a lot (sex, contraception, Islam) are not “conservative” in any political meaning of the word and some of the things he actually talks about a lot (development, secularism, economics) are not “liberal” although they might look that way.

The Pope is a theological figure, not a political one (forgive my crude simplifications). Conservative and liberal are terms that are quickly dwindling to meaninglessness.

4. The church is not the hierarchy

All our public discourse on the Catholic church involves the hierarchy. In part, this is essential because, well, the Catholic church is inherently a hierarchy. And it is a hierarchy involved in generations-long further centralisation. But the Catholic church is not the hierarchy. The Catholic church is the laity. And in the absence of a Pope, priests and deacons and lay people got up this morning and went about their callings to prayer and worship and service. And when the new Pope gets named, those ordinary, invisible people will continue their work in prayer and worship and service. Just as our understanding of “politics” is warped beyond functionality by thinking it is something done by politicians, our grasp of what the church is is deeply broken if we think that it is a thing done by men in red hats.

I am tempted, in my ecumenical passion, to say that the only thing that matters is the restoration of communion between Christians. My deepest desire is that the new Pope would heal the wounds of the Reformation (from his side) and receive me and my stream of Christianity back into communion. Of course, that is impossible at this time. And so what I personally want from the next Papacy doesn’t really count.

And until we find out who the next successor of Peter actually is, all such comment including this one, is largely a waste of words.

So until then, here’s Monty Python:

Your Correspondent, Thinks the Pope should be Catholic