National Catholic Reporter ®

April 19, 2002 
Vol. 1, No. 34

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Influence the next conclave – write a letter;
Catholic visions for the future; asking pardon

A footnote. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the church’s top doctrinal official, was asked a few years ago on Bavarian television about the role of the Holy Spirit in a conclave. He said the Spirit leaves considerable room for the free exercise of human judgment, probably guaranteeing only that, in the end, the church will not be ruined. 

     “It would be a mistake to believe that the Holy Spirit picks the pope,” Ratzinger said, “because there are too many examples of popes the Holy Spirit would obviously not have chosen.”


Oddly enough, sometimes we realize what we’ve said only when someone responds to it. It’s when people tell us what they learned, what moved them or disturbed them or left them puzzled, that we fully grasp what we have communicated.

     This relationship between what is pitched and what is caught is much on my mind these days. I write in the middle of a 13-city, 20-speaking engagement tour of the United States. Some of these appearances are with my colleague Robert Blair Kaiser of Newsweek, and others are talks to groups of NCR readers. I’m talking about the next conclave and the next pope.

     Near the end of the tour, I can report that I’ve found a big difference between what I thought I came to say, and what people seem to hear me saying. To put it succinctly: I thought I came to offer information, but I find I am also presenting hope.

     As a journalist, I’m not crossing the country in order to run a campaign or to push a particular set of issues. Instead, I’m trying to offer the best analysis I can of the different political factions in the College of Cardinals, of which issues will be important when the next papal election rolls around, and who some of the leading candidates might be. 

     To the extent I have a message, it’s one of good citizenship in the church. I argue that the outcome of the next conclave is not pre-determined, that it’s not true that the Italians have the election wired or that John Paul II has “stacked the deck” by appointing so many like-minded cardinals. In fact, Italians today are only 16 percent of the College of Cardinals, and history teaches that conclaves made up of cardinals appointed by one pope do not elect photocopies of that pope as his successor. 

     The successor to John Paul II will almost certainly be a different kind of man. How he will be different, the new directions in which he will take the church, is the stuff of debate.

     The story of the next conclave, I believe, is being written right now, in part by the public conversation in the church. Catholics have both the right and the duty to contribute to this conversation by making their needs, hopes and dreams known, especially to the cardinals who will elect the next pope. They should study the issues, study the candidates, and encourage those leaders who seem to be articulating a vision for the church that makes sense.

     I tell the story of my recent visit to Vienna to spend time with Cardinal Franz König, the only man alive who has voted in three conclaves: the 1962 election of Paul VI, and the two in 1978 that gave us John Paul I and John Paul II. König spoke with me about the bags of mail he received before the conclaves of 1978, and how those letters helped shape his thinking. He said that public opinion will play an even greater role the next time around, since the cardinals no longer know one another as well personally, and hence are more reliant on the press to introduce themselves to one another. The kinds of questions the press asks, the kinds of stories the press writes, in turn are driven by the interests reporters perceive in the broader Catholic world.

     All this to me seems good analysis. But as I present it, I find it is more. Catholics find these points energizing, because they suggest that change is possible, and that ordinary believers might be able to play a role in bringing about that change. 

     I had not fully appreciated, prior to this tour, how disenfranchised many Catholics feel from the governance of their church on the universal level. They feel that decision-making in Rome is something that happens to them, not a process in which they can participate. Lacking a visible, structural means for expressing their voice, the people of the church often feel shut out.

     When someone says, therefore, that the outcome of the next conclave depends in part on the aspirations of the faithful, that’s an empowering thought. I find that it resonates even with the most marginalized and frustrated Catholics, who, despite it all, care deeply about their church and would like to participate in fixing what they see as its problems.

     Let’s hope that Catholics all over the world will add their voices to the conversation … and that the cardinals are listening. 

* * *

     As I move around the country, several Catholics are using the opportunity to share with me their visions for the future of the church. It’s an exercise that seems especially relevant in light of the current sexual abuse crisis, which has put fundamental questions about accountability and governance on the table.

     Sometimes these visions are remarkably detailed. Kaiser and I spoke in Scottsdale, Arizona, at St. Patrick’s Church on April 13, where I met Jay Kilroy, an old friend of Bob’s. (Kaiser’s network of friends and admirers seems almost infinite, a reflection of his remarkable career). Kilroy handed me something he has written called “The Roman Catholic Church of the 21st Century.” It’s a blueprint for a restructured Catholic church.

     In it, Kilory calls for a revised method of electing the pope “which would be more representative of the present universality of the church.” His proposal includes broadening the electoral college to include major superiors of men and women’s religious orders, as well as a fixed term of office for popes. Kilroy extends the principle of quasi-democratic election to the selection of bishops and pastors.

     In Palo Alto, we had the good fortune of meeting Richard Placone, a successful manager and entrepreneur in the field of health care who’d like to bring the same gifts for systems analysis to bear on the church. He shared with us a 15-page “Proposal for the Re-development of the Catholic Diocese of San Jose, California,” that he had submitted to Bishop Patrick McGrath.

     Space here does not allow me to do justice to Placone’s concept, which includes giving parishes a much more robust role in selecting their pastors and governing their activities, and building a system of accountability on all levels. Placone also calls for “moving women into positions of authority and decision making throughout the parish and diocese,” and for restoring the priesthood to a position of service rather than authority. 

     “With these changes the diocese will become a model for the rest of the church, so that instead of exporting only silicon chips, this great valley of ours will export to the world the very essence of the message of Jesus Christ,” Placone concludes.

     My point here is not to argue that every detail of either Kilroy or Placone’s vision is correct. It is rather to point out that there is a vast reservoir of creative thinking out there among Catholics, who have considerable personal and professional experience that could be relevant to addressing the church’s problems. The bishops would do well to take a look.

* * *

     Last week I wrote about the “tribal morality” of clerical culture, which can be touching in its efforts to prop up faltering members of the club, and astonishingly insensitive to the sufferings of those outside. 

     I drew this response from Fr. Nokter Wolf, abbot primate of the Benedictine order:

     “Church leaders tend to be compassionate to weak members. Please, read the Rule of St. Benedict, chapter 27, a wonderful chapter. But during my 23 years of being abbot and abbot president I had — painfully — to learn that you have to be compassionate not only to the weak confreres but also to these who are affected by their weaknesses. This is one thing I think church leaders have to learn.

     “We should not condemn superiors or leaders who are compassionate. I have seen in the German society that personnel managers often have a very good and Christian heart when they are confronted with weak persons, for example alcoholics. They try whatever they can do to save a person. This is just what the bishops in the United States were doing — and are doing in other places as well, forgetting that they have a responsibility also towards those who are affected by weak individuals.”

     I think Wolf is a terrific point of reference in the church for many reasons, and this kind of insight is among them. 

* * *

     At that Scottsdale appearance, Kaiser and I for the first time faced a band of conservative Catholics in the audience, some of whom had come expecting to hear things they didn’t like. There were occasional flashes of anger, but by and large I thought everyone asked reasonable questions, and I was proud of the way the organizers allowed the conversation to go on, while ensuring that all had a chance to contribute.

     One complaint that surfaced from this quarter is that it is inappropriate, even disrespectful, to treat the election of the pope like a horse race. “Is it too naïve to think,” one questioner asked, “that this is a spiritual event in which the Holy Spirit plays some part?”

     Beneath the comment lies a fear that we are teaching people to see the church only as a political faction or social group, and not as a spiritual reality. The faith, some conservatives worry, can be neglected or marginalized through facile journalistic analysis.

     I was glad for the chance to address the question. In my view, journalism is a secular enterprise, and there is no specifically Catholic way to do it. You try to tell the story as best you can, covering the church the way you would City Hall or the White House. Obviously people’s beliefs about the spiritual depths of the church, the idea that God works through these human instruments, is part of the Catholic story, and we neglect that to our peril.

     Yet that does not make political analysis any less relevant. The traditional Catholic notion is that grace builds on nature, it does not cancel it out. When you have human nature, you have politics. I will keep making this point, though I will try to do so in a way that respects the profound convictions of Catholics (and not just conservatives) about the mystical dimension of the church.

     A footnote. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the church’s top doctrinal official, was asked a few years ago on Bavarian television about the role of the Holy Spirit in a conclave. He said the Spirit leaves considerable room for the free exercise of human judgment, probably guaranteeing only that, in the end, the church will not be ruined. 

     “It would be a mistake to believe that the Holy Spirit picks the pope,” Ratzinger said, “because there are too many examples of popes the Holy Spirit would obviously not have chosen.”

* * *

     Back to the relationship between what is pitched and what is caught. Three weeks ago I wrote about the Vatican’s perspective on the sexual abuse crisis in the United States, suggesting that some curial officials believe the aggressive media response here has been exaggerated by progressive critics of the church. 

     I wrote: “The fact that progressive commentators such as Eugene Kennedy and Richard McBrien have been quasi-ubiquitous in the press since the story began reinforces these perceptions.” Later I added: “Are Vatican officials wrong to think these things? Probably not. No doubt some activists are trying to exploit the crisis to push their agendas.”

     Some readers took these comments as criticism of Kennedy and McBrien, and re-rereading the column now, I see how my words open themselves to that interpretation. In fact, I did not mean to include Kennedy and McBrien among “activists … trying to exploit the crisis.” Both men have been making the case for church reform for decades, well ahead of the present troubles. Indeed, one could argue that the church might never have found itself in this position if their views had found a greater echo.

     As I wrote those lines I was reflecting on a recent experience of walking into a curial official’s office, who looked up from his newspaper and said to me, “I see Dick McBrien is in the paper again.” I take that as a high compliment to McBrien, who obviously is being read very carefully.

     Without endorsing every detail of Kennedy or McBrien’s analysis, I recognize the debt Catholics owe to both men, who have spent their lives serving the church, often at considerable personal cost. I regret any offense I caused.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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