Sr. Joan Chittister: An American Catholic in Rome
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Posted April 17, 2005 at 3:30 p.m. CDT

Never mind the papabile, consider the papacy

By Joan Chittister, OSB


In Rome today, one part of the population is completely involved in a kind of “Can-you-name-that-Pope” game.  Newspaper and television programs provide daily biographies of the 15-20 most likely candidates hour after hour, day after day. The only problem is that nobody really knows who these so-called “candidates” are. Cardinals stopped on the street simply say that no clear prospects have emerged yet.

The question, of course, is why?

In this largest-ever papal conclave, the cardinal electors, especially those from third world countries, are simply unknown to one another. Only those already regularly involved in the European scene have even had the opportunity for early discussions or mutual review of the more prominent papal frontrunners.

Read Joan Chittister's weekly columns
Previous and current columns from An American Catholic in Rome

Adolescence or adulthood: which? Posted April 22, 2005 at 3:30 p.m. CDT
And he shall be called . . .  Posted April 20, 2005 at 4:30 p.m. CDT
I missed the smoke; I got the idea Posted April 19, 2005 at 10:00 a.m. CDT
Never mind the papabile, consider the papacy Posted April 17, 2005 at 3:30 p.m. CDT
The underside of the issue Posted April 16, 2005 at 4:10 p.m. CDT
Antigone or Ismene: The new choice Posted April 15, 2005 at 6:24 a.m. CDT
Win a couple, lose a couple Posted April 13, 2005 at 2:05 p.m. CDT
When demonstrations are not demonstrations Posted  
Posted April 12, 2005 at 11:56 a.m. CDT
The purpose of the interregnum Posted April 11, 2005 at 3:37 p.m. CDT
Be aware of Greeks bearing gifts
Posted April 10, 2005 at 10:42 a.m. CDT
He was the grandfather of their souls Posted April 8, 2005 at 10:21 a.m. CDT
Poignant and paradoxical Posted April 7, 2005 at 8:09 a.m. CDT

Two years ago this week, Sr. Chittister began writing a weekly Web column for NCR. Click on this link to read From Where I Stand by Sr. Joan Chittister,OSB.

Point: Talking about particular candidates in this conclave, unlike many before it, is at best blind handicapping, and, at most, anybody’s guessing game. It’s the ecclesiastical version of a national political campaign in which all the candidates appear on television behind black screens and none of them have been nominated by anybody.

There are other kinds of discussions going on here, however, that have more to do with the nature of the papacy itself than with the personalities or theological orientations of possible papal candidates. These discussions strike me as the most creative of all.

For a church on the brink of a new age, serious conversation about the purpose of the papacy rather than the personalities of possible popes may, in the long run, be the most meaningful and productive of all.

Issues raised at the press conferences sponsored by the governing board of the international movement entitled “We Are Church” this week imply a model of papal leadership that reaches back to the early church as well as ahead to the development of new structures and the emergence of new issues. Pointing both to church history and to the papacy of John Paul II, they suggested that adaptations in structure and theological emphasis are demanded by a fast-changing world now if the church is to remain a vital force in both public life and personal spirituality in years to come.

The conversation had the feel of truth to it.

First, the speakers suggested, a pope, like other leaders, both ecclesiastical and civil, should have a term limit. Tissa Balisuriya, Sri Lankan theologian, suggested a time interval of ten years at most in order to safeguard the church from a spate of  papal personality cults in the mega-media age. We must not “make the pope God,” he said.

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Second, Paul Collins, Australian theologian and broadcaster argued, the curia itself must be abolished. As a relatively late invention of the 17 century, spawned in a period of absolute monarchies, the centralized departmental structure “is not constructed in a way that can respond to modern questions.” Nor, he implied, can they, coming out of a mind set formed in a royal court, reform themselves. A small secretariat for papal affairs, rather than a Curia that sets out to supervise the whole church, would lead to new leadership and creativity in national Bishops’ conferences and enable openness in ecclesiastical matters.

Third, they argued, the church needs another Ecumenical Council to look at the very nature of the church itself in a modern world. Given the seriousness and scientific dimensions of current issues–the use of condoms in societies being ravaged by AIDS, for instance, or the emergence of new medical technologies in human reproduction--the need for global reflection on the moral and theological dimensions of these issues is imperative. A new council, they said, should be held outside of Rome–a signal to the world of the church’s independence from both Western domination and the Roman curia.

Finally, speakers called strongly for “increased authority and participation for women in the church.” The church had lay Cardinals until the 19the century, Collins said. “It’s time for a woman.”

Whatever symptoms the specific proposals are meant to cure, the health of the church, these thinkers say, is in danger of suffering from too much papalism, excessive centralization beyond any historical norm, the need for real collegiality, openness and a male-centeredness that makes invisible half the population of the world.

“I want a pope who is modest,” Balisuriya said. “I want a pope who is prepared to learn,” Collins said. The message was clear: Never mind either the name or the nationality of a new pope. It’s how a new pope sees both the church and the world that will determine the effectiveness of the church in this world to come.          

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