The next pope’s dilemma—and ours
By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 27, 2023
If you are looking forward to the next papal election, you are not alone—but you are overwhelmingly likely to be a Catholic who accepts everything the Church teaches. If this describes you, you may also be worrying about whether Pope Francis has changed the complexion of the College of Cardinals sufficiently to elect a clone, which may cloud your expectations. But on that score, at least, you needn’t worry. Papal elections have never been predictable in the same way that political elections are.
Moreover, from a purely human point of view, whatever else he has done, Pope Francis has favored the creation of third-world cardinals. It is one of the secular liberal myths of our time that the third world is the ideological ally of secular liberals. That is exceedingly rare. To the contrary, the secularization of the Church—and therefore its putative demise—is being orchestrated primarily from the center of Europe, where there is loads of money and little faith, and by scattered churchmen who share the intense secularism characteristic of some drifting religious orders today, most prominently the Jesuits. The growth of the Church is neither in Europe nor in any wayward religious order, where Catholicism is dwindling rapidly.
So let’s say that you really are looking forward to the next papal election, at the very least because it is exceedingly unlikely that things at the top could be worse than they are now. What is the next pope’s great dilemma?
The dilemma is that the Church is extraordinarily difficult to govern. In comparison with today’s nation states, Church bureaucracy is miniscule, but ecclesiastical governance still shares many characteristics of the bureaucratic state. The national episcopal conferences are a relatively new development and a prime example: Committee after committee working on almost everything under the sun, establishing guidelines, issuing statements, and rearranging the furniture. Many dioceses and even some parishes operate in a similar manner.
The same is true of the Curia in Rome, which has been the focus of almost unceasing attention and structural tinkering over the past seventy-five years. The study and practice of curial bureaucratic management has been a signal feature of the current pontificate, through the deliberations of Pope Francis’ Council of Cardinals. And yet the more things change, the more they remain the same.
I can personally remember the last seven popes. Each had a different personality and a different governing style. Pius XII was the last pope who could take anything for granted in the four-hundred-year Counter Reformation era, inaugurated in response to Protestantism. I viewed him through the eyes of a child, of course, but he still seemed to me to be simply “the Pope”, and not a particular personality. John XXIII was convinced that the static, fortress mentality had to change, mostly because Western culture was clearly throwing off the last vestiges of its Christian identity, and so he called for Catholic renewal with a broad missionary thrust at every level of the Church. It was this vision, not without considerable angst, that animated the final documents of the Second Vatican Council under Paul VI.
But Paul VI was primarily an intellectual; governance was not his strong suit. He could defend the Faith personally, and he did, but he could neither inspire nor implement a clear and consistent missionary effort on the part of the Church, for the Church was already full of diminished, culture-bound Catholics who, especially in academia, equated mission with openness to false ideas. Between Catholics who embraced the journalistic narrative of the Council as a massive act of worldly emulation and Catholics who damned the Council as if this narrative were true, Paul VI was gripped by paralysis when it came to governance.
John Paul I was pope for only a month. Though he was apparently saintly, all we learned of him was what the media endlessly reported—that he had an engaging smile and his favorite author was Mark Twain.
John Paul II, of course, offered much of what the Church needed at that time. He clearly recognized the problem of massive secularization infecting the Church, and through vigorous apostolic journeys, constant teaching documents which touched all the critical spiritual and moral issues of the day, and a magnificently inspiring presence magnified by modern media, he sparked the renewal for which Vatican II had so laboriously called. The result was a huge increase in vocations to the priesthood around the world, perhaps most notably in the secular West. God in heaven granted John Paul II a very long pontificate—and not without reasons which could be understood here on earth.
But John Paul II exercised his disciplinary authority only relatively seldom, a pattern he regretted late in life. Instead, he sought to restore the truth primarily through teaching and encouragement. It was left to Benedict XVI—who despite his long service as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was by preference a deep and somewhat retiring Catholic scholar—to remove bishops from office at a far greater rate than his predecessor, even though his teaching documents were more theological than moral. The pre-election media hype characterized the future Benedict XVI as a vicious dog. But his Pontificate was outwardly relatively serene in the aftermath of his great predecessor. Unsurprisingly, however, it was plagued by Curial politics and a lavender mafia, problems which led in part to his conviction that, as he aged, he no longer had the strength to govern.
So he resigned, and in the blink of an eye came Pope Francis. The trials of his pontificate are manifest—trials felt deeply by the most faithful and knowledgeable priests, religious, and laity. In contrast to the clarity and circumspection of his predecessor, Francis unwittingly communicates that he is in desperate need of our prayers—with every personal statement, every personnel decision, and each bout of curial tinkering (the more things change, the more they remain the same). Yet he too has his own style, and it is obvious that he places a high priority on emphasizing Christ’s common humanity as a sign of openness and respect for all. Unfortunately, in contrast with what we might call Christ’s uncommon humanity, he seldom (but not never) makes a moral point that is distinctively Catholic, that might rub the wrong way those who are both in and of the world.
Governing personally in Christ
When those who reject or hate what we might call the revealed reality of the Church approve of the Pope (and those who embrace and love the revealed reality of the Church typically do not), we know that the Church is, humanly speaking, undergoing a severe crisis. I would like to point out that this serves as a means of clarifying divisions that were for some generations largely secret, making it potentially easier at some point in the future to separate the wheat from the chaff.
I do not mean separation as at the end of the world. Nothing anyone does on earth can be as perfectly judged and ultimately definitive as that. But the time is certainly ripe—simply because of the humanly-observable ecclesiastical trajectory of the last nine years—for a pope who combines strength of Faith with a brilliant administrative ability. We have not had a great administrator in the papal office for longer than I can remember. Instead, we have gone increasingly in the direction of a bureaucratic management which buffers and hides personal responsibility. But the key ecclesiastical offices—pope, bishops, pastors, heads of religious orders—depend above all on the ability to exercise ecclesiastical authority not bureaucratically but personally in Christ.
The next pope will inherit an exquisitely bureaucratically layered Church, made all the more intractable by the inroads of the largely false synodality of our times . It ought to be self-evident that our generation cannot think of synodality apart from democracy, while the truth is that only three persons are supposed to have a vote on the structure and purpose of the Church—and they always agree. Sadly, democratic ideologies invariably weaken our understanding of God’s governance, and therefore of good governance. So the next pope will inherit a bureaucratically layered Church in which personal ecclesiastical responsibility has been too often reduced to committee decisions and their accompanying buzz words.
Humanly speaking, the most pressing governance issue for the next pope will be to restore the concept of personal ecclesiastical authority by exercising it fairly and shrewdly himself in the service of the Church’s Divine mission. He must insist on the same personal, fair, shrewd and Catholic purpose-driven governance at every level. This must include, however difficult, an improvement in the accuracy of the designation of good bishops everywhere in the world.
That is the next pope’s dilemma, a problem that in human terms is certainly overwhelming. The solution to this dilemma will require not only holiness in a man with the necessary abilities, but huge numbers of Catholics in every vocation and walk of life who will pour out their prayers for the right man and sustain him through prayer once elected. I mean a pope who will have our backs so that we can have his back. What I am talking about is a fully Catholic man who can actually govern the Church.
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Posted by: nix898049 -
Jan. 30, 2023 5:07 PM ET USA
Thank you for for this essay. For several years now my daily rosary included prayers for PF, BXVI, Cardinal Burke, or whoever will be elected the next pope. I reword a bit now but I can think of nothing more urgent to pray for.
Posted by: Jeff Mirus -
Jan. 29, 2023 9:26 AM ET USA
miketimmer499385: Thanks for your comment. What I was referring to is the need to improve the percentage of episcopal appointments and elevation to the cardinalate, seeking (a) orthodoxy; (b) spiritual depth; and (c) administrative ability. This is hard to do, as no Pope can really know the best candidates around the world. But it depends heavily on whom the Pope appoints as nuncios and other key advisors in the various countries (already a major challenge), and it depends heavily on not deliberately trying to appoint people with a variety of different attitudes toward the teachings of the Church, let alone culture-bound candidates who really do not accept or honor all those teachings. Of course people can dissemble for years in the hope of preferment. But fidelity and competence: Those are the two keys.
Posted by: Randal Mandock -
Jan. 28, 2023 11:05 AM ET USA
"...a fully Catholic man who can actually govern the Church". Clarity of vision, strength of character, and experience are qualities that shape a person's worldview and leadership style. Strong formation in orthodox faith and practice are usually essential in creation of a "fully Catholic" person, but often not sufficient. Experience with people, organizations, and crises are equally essential to good leadership. The ability to appoint and manage subordinates well is as critical as prayer life.
Posted by: miketimmer499385 -
Jan. 28, 2023 9:15 AM ET USA
You write so clearly that I'm embarrassed to ask you to clarify what you mean by "the accuracy of the designation of good bishops everywhere in the world." Are you saying that there are bishops who are inaccurately called good? and by whom? I guess the word "improvement" is my stumbling block. Then again, "designation" has me confused, also.
Posted by: TheJournalist64 -
Jan. 27, 2023 5:53 PM ET USA
Amen, amen. I have essentially the same historical background and believe you are right about what we need out of the next conclave. Whoever it is needs to clarify as Francis refuses to do those points in the dubia and the confusion coming from those interviews when he acts like a Jesuit confessor hearing people in confession, rather than the chief teacher of the faith.