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Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
4 Apr 2005

Non Habemus Papam

by Peter Miller

Pope John Paul II's Body Lies in State
Pope John Paul II's Body Lies in State

As the entire world is by now aware, Pope John Paul II was pronounced dead this past weekend. Although his health has been deteriorating in recent years and the prospect of his passing has become even more of a reality in the last several months, it is hard to prepare for the feeling a Catholic receives when watching news accounts of a Pope's death, or seeing photographs of his body lying in state, or realizing that there is currently no one sitting on the Throne of St. Peter. At the present time, we have no Pope.

But this is also a time of great hope. Each Conclave brings with it a new man with the potential and power to guide the course of the Church. Barring unforeseen delays, we will know by the end of the month, whom this man is, chosen to lead Catholics in the years to come.

While the coming weeks promise to be an eventful time for those who follow Church affairs, even at this early stage of the process, some of the significant story lines are beginning to take shape.

The Media

The news of the Pope's departure was immediately met with respectful words of selective praise from news anchors, reporters, nominal experts and world leaders. Secularists saw the Pope as primarily an advocate of peace and opponent of war. "Human rights" advocates praised his efforts to end torture and the death penalty. To President Bush, the Pope was a champion of democracy. Frequently were heard comments of praise qualified with phrases such as "I didn't agree with him on everything" or "sometimes we didn't see eye to eye."

I wondered how long it would take for this selective and qualified praise to be joined by the ubiquitous discussion of how the Pope was "out of touch" on "social issues" or "opposed civil rights" by not enthusiastically joining in with the latest pet liberal causes. It turned out to be just over an hour, as the conversation quickly turned to discussing the contrast between "John Paul II's views" and the beliefs and practices of American Catholics with regards to contraception, abortion, divorce and homosexuality. The more mild liberals dismissing the Pope as "out of touch" will soon give way to the fanatical extremists who accuse the Pope of everything from "genocide" to "oppression of women" to "hate crimes". Just as the attacks on Mel Gibson's The Passion were thinly veiled attacks upon the Gospels themselves, attacks on John Paul II for his defense of Catholic faith and morals are quite clearly attacks upon the Church itself — and both are very much visible examples of attacks upon Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Interestingly enough, however, it is being repeated in a variety of ways by media personalities that John Paul II was a "progressive" and "forward-thinking" Pope for his efforts toward democracy, other religions, science, etc. John Paul II, who throughout his life was almost exclusively vilified in the American media as a medieval anachronism, is starting to be hailed as a man of great progress. As I'm resistant to give anyone in the secular media much credit for accurately ascertaining complicated Church issues, this seems much more likely to be a ploy to lend "encouragement" for the next Pope to continue the legacy of John Paul II by being even more "progressive" according to how they define the term.

Before such efforts can be dismissed as expected silliness, it should be remembered that, for better or worse, the modern media is a much more significant and influential entity than it was at the last Conclave. The information saturation of cable news networks, the rapid news and data dissemination possible on the Internet, and the emotive power of modern multimedia productions are but a few of the considerations that make media communications during this time very different than in 1978. The Vatican is aware of the importance of press relations and has spent a considerable amount of effort in its evolving communications elements. While reporters may not have any direct influence in the choice of the next Pope, one of the primary considerations on the minds of voting Cardinals will be how a given candidate will be received by various countries and cultures. The media is certainly a key factor in this equation.

As the names of papal candidates begin to circulate, it's just a matter of time before the networks choose their favorites and begin their lobbying efforts, making it clear who should and should not be considered acceptable candidates for the next Vicar of Christ. From the favorable biographical production of the more liberal candidates to the loaded interviews exploring the horror and drastic fallout awaiting the world under a "Pope Ratzinger", this can be expected to be anything but subtle.

These efforts will be bolstered by the omnipresent "experts" who will be quite busy over the next several weeks commenting on any and every development or rumor that finds its way into a news report. While some networks are attempting to demonstrate their balance by bringing in a few commentators who at least believe basic Catholic doctrine, by and large, those selected to appear on television panels are liberal priests who only wear Roman collars on camera, or dissident theologians from nominally Catholic universities who always seem to be in great supply when a Catholic is needed to help bash the Church.

One does not need the gift of prophecy to foresee what the parade of talking mannequins in the media and their dissident accomplices with questionable credentials will prescribe for the Catholic Church and the new Pope. Like the advice traditionalists are given on how to be "taken seriously" in the modern Church, the new Vatican administration will be advised that in order to be "taken seriously" in the modern world, they need to become more liberal and/or keep their mouths shut. This message will be backed up with the latest opinion poll numbers of American Catholics showing a mandate for doctrinal change, and will be delivered with all the sincerity and heartfelt concern for the good of the Church that a liberal can muster on camera.

The Conclave

One positive effect of the expansion of news and information is the education in Catholicism the average person will receive over the next month. This will be especially true as it pertains to the operation of a Conclave.

The rules for the Conclave will follow the 1996 Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis. The two revisions of most significance are that (a) the Cardinals will be able to leave the Sistine Chapel in the evenings to a separate facility to sleep; and (b) that if after a certain number of ballots a candidate cannot be elected by a two-thirds a majority, the option to shift the election process to a simple majority exists. The latter modification brings a new element of strategy into the process in that it presents another option for Cardinals. Had that option have been available in the past, it appears that recent Conclaves would have produced different results. In the case of a candidate with a majority less than two-thirds that showed no signs of increasing, groups of his supporters would not necessarily need to refocus their efforts towards another candidate and could try to persist until this change in decision criteria takes effect.

Although the Holy Ghost guides Conclaves as He guides the Church, the proximate causes of elections have much to do with the practical efforts and considerations of the Cardinals involved. As such, strategy, lobbying, negotiations, alliances, and agreements are all part of the process. In this regard, the reporting of informed Rome correspondents such as John Allen Jr., Sandro Magister and Robert Moynihan will be invaluable in the coming weeks. Some of the initial positioning efforts by Cardinals have already been discussed in their reports from earlier in the year.

The Legacy

In what ended up to be the third longest pontificate in Church history, it's been twenty-six years since anyone could view an image of someone other than Karol Wojtyla and see the Pope. For many Catholics, John Paul II has become personally identified with the papacy. This was a man of strong charisma and magnetic personality, who would draw huge crowds of people, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, wherever in the world he traveled. He was very much an international celebrity figure, easily recognized and certainly adored by millions. These unique characteristics were not shared by his predecessors and will in all likelihood not be shared by his successor. However, after a quarter century in which he defined for millions of people what a Pope should be, a significant shift away from this personable and popular persona would most likely be resisted by the Cardinals voting in the Conclave.

Secondly, it is generally acknowledged that John Paul II did not focus his efforts towards the managerial operation of the Church. Despite the media portrait painted of him as a draconian dictator, this Pope opted to delegate most operational duties, deciding instead to focus his efforts toward leading the Church through his words, example and presence, rather than through policies and discipline. The prospect of the pendulum shifting back to a more bureaucratic leader is one that seems to be increasing in popularity. This is sure to be a consideration on the minds of Cardinals — both from the standpoint of those who have benefited from the permissiveness and wish to see it continued or expanded, and those who regard it as contributing to some of the current problems.

Finally, a major focus of Pope John Paul II's pontificate was ecumenism and the relations between the Catholic Church and other religions. Although he was very optimistic at the start of his reign that a real reconciliation with the Eastern Orthodox and some tangible progress with the Anglicans were both possible, neither of these results would come to fruition. Despite repeated attempts to avoid or move beyond it, the ongoing struggle between ecumenical progress and doctrinal realities proved very difficult to resolve. This was perhaps best illustrated by the ARCIC confrontation with the CDF and the negative reaction from all levels to Dominus Iesus. Despite the lack of tangible progress, the Vatican's optimism and commitment toward these endeavors remain strong. There is little reason to doubt that the next Pope will continue these efforts along similar lines, as John Paul II continued the work of his predecessors John XXIII and Paul VI.

With the notable exception of Blessed Pius IX, most Popes in recent history have set the course of their pontificates from very early on. From his first speeches and documents to the way he handles the first disciplinary challenge or serious dilemma, the new Pope will give a fairly accurate indication of what can be expected from him. These indications will start even before he says anything publicly — with the choice of a name. Following his immediate predecessor's example, John Paul II chose to take the names of John XXIII and Paul VI, indicating his desire to carry on their legacy and the work of the Second Vatican Council. While in that regard, it would be somewhat of a surprise not to have a John Paul III emerge from the Conclave, it has been raised as a possibility that the new Pope may choose a different name, either to pay tribute to the unique legacy of John Paul II, or to avoid certain expectations and direct comparisons.

The Laity

While the death of a Pope is a time of sorrow and uncertainty, it is also a time for true hope and action. These are not events that are happening thousands of miles away to be followed via news reports with the passive curiosity of a spectator. This is something happening right now to each and every Catholic in the world. We are all part of the Church Militant and have a critical role to play in this process. If there is ever a time to be on your knees in prayer and spending time in front of the Blessed Sacrament, this is it!

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