Boston College Magazine Spring 2004  

Cardinal rule

Don't bet on who the next pope will be

Because John Paul II has appointed so many of the cardinals who will elect his successor (118 out of 122 eligible to vote), it is commonly assumed that the next pope will be a man much like him. But Colleges of Cardinals have rarely sought to clone the pope that appointed them.

In 1958, for example, 49 of 51 cardinals had been appointed by the austere Pius XII, and they gave us the affable John XXIII. The third-longest serving pope was Leo XIII (serving 1878–1903), who launched modern Catholic social doctrine and embraced secular democracy. And the cardinals he appointed chose Pius X, who was one of the most conservative, some would say reactionary, popes in modern history.

The cardinals will have two major goals when they gather to elect the next pope. They will look to remedy the defects of the current pontificate, and they will try to anticipate the challenges of the next one (almost always a prescription for change). Historians call this the pendulum dynamic. Italians say that you always follow a fat pope with a thin one.

Cardinal Angelo Scola. Photo by AFP/Getty Images

Cardinal Angelo Scola. Photo by AFP/Getty Images

So, what do the present cardinals think is the main deficiency of this pontificate? Of the 122 cardinals eligible to vote, I've interviewed probably 65. This pope has been, in their view, a terrific missionary and evangelist, and a great thinker, but a fairly mediocre governor. The internal business of the Church has, in some ways, been allowed to drift—not just because of illness in recent years, but because that is the pope's style. He's a delegator. There are large areas of the internal life of the Church that he has never personally engaged. For instance, he has not made a single decision about liturgy under his own initiative in the 26 years of his pontificate. There is a sense in the Vatican that the next pope is going to have to play a more active role in internal Church governance.

As for new challenges, most cardinals think that the relationship with Islam is going to be consequential. Very few issues, they believe, are going to have more impact on the world than whether or not the West and Islam are able to work out some kind of modus vivendi. Some would say that we need to reach out to Muslim moderates and solve the problems of justice, such as the Palestinian question. Others would say that we need to practice tough love: If it's okay for the Saudi government to build a $65 million mosque in Rome, then maybe it ought to be okay for Christians to bring Bibles into Saudi Arabia, an act that is currently illegal.

A second matter on the cardinals' minds is a cluster of bioethical issues—cloning, stem cell research, and the new technologies of reproduction. The expectation for the next pope is not that he will resolve those issues, but that he will lead a conversation about them. He has to be active intellectually and comfortable talking with experts in many fields.

Where all this leads remains anyone's guess. The trash heap of Church history is littered with the carcasses of journalists who tried to predict the next pope. But one man who gets mentioned a great deal is Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice.

Scola is 63, the founder of the Italian version of Communio, a theological journal somewhat to the right of center. He is a genuine intellectual, but appears also to have done an impressive job as rector of Pontifical Lateran University in Rome, which had serious problems when he took over its leadership. He's charismatic and charming, well-traveled and multilingual. And he is an optimist. He believes that the Church still has the capacity to enter the cultural argument and win. Typically in Rome, it is the optimists who win elections.

John L. Allen, Jr.


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