We are all aware of the challenges that being a Catholic can bring. The Church is often presented in a negative light by the media due to huge scandals like the sex abuse crisis and controversy over statements like Benedict’s comments regarding homosexuality last Christmas. But in the past week, the tone of that attention has changed and brought the Church into a more positive light, as the world has been captivated by the excitement within the Roman Catholic Church over the election of a new pope. Every news station, even local ones, seems to have sent correspondents to Rome, people constantly posted Facebook statuses related to the transition, and some even placed bets on who would be selected.
But it all has me wondering: why does the secular world care?
Think about it. When else has another religion received as much media attention as the Catholic Church has received in the past few weeks? I can’t help but wonder what non-Catholics have been thinking over these past few weeks. Can this interest be explained by some kind of collective appreciation of the public for how historically significant the resignation of Benedict XVI was? Do non-Catholics understand why the election of a Jesuit pope is such a novel moment in Church history?
Perhaps I ponder the perspective of non-Catholics all the more because I am a history teacher by trade, always interested in viewing history through varying perspectives. Furthermore, I currently teach 10th grade European history, and in every unit we have studied so far, the role of the Catholic Church often takes a prominent place in the historical narrative. But the Church of the past is not the Church of the present. The Holy Roman Empire, an entity that enabled the Vatican to be closely linked to heads of state of several major nations, ceased to exist in 1806. No one is trying to sneakily imprison the Pope like Napoleon Bonaparte did in 1809, and despite what some may fear, we don’t see the Church taking orders from political leaders. So I ask again, if, as seen through history, the role of the Church in world affairs has consistently decreased over time due to any number of factors (such as the rise of secularism), why is it that the rest of the world is so invested in what happens in our beloved Church?
I’ve sat and pondered the many possible answers to this question. Let’s face it– many do not care all that much for history, so I don’t quite think it is purely the historical significance of this process that has people so interested. There is often a call for greater separation of church and state, so I highly doubt that the coverage has anything to do with some kind of religious fervor. Maybe it has to do with the universality of the Church. Maybe we can liken the media frenzy over the election of a new pope to the Olympics or a new decree of the United Nations – people all over the world have some kind of stake in all these examples, with varying degrees of interest of course.
But no, I do not believe these reasons fully answer the question. I believe the wide-spread interest we’ve seen in the past few weeks can be attributed to a few different reasons. I heard one reporter state that the election of a pope isn’t really about democracy like some may think, but I beg to differ. The Conclave, which is representative of some of the oldest and newest nations in the world, the rich and the poor, countries with rising Catholic populations and dwindling ones, came to discuss who among them could best lead the Universal Church and then democratically selected that individual (albeit one without entirely equal representation). Anyone had a fair chance of being chosen. Sure, tradition dictates that a pope usually comes from Europe, but there’s certainly no rule about that. Being chosen pope does not come down to wealth or connections or sponsorships, determinants that usually lead to the rise of so many other fixtures of our society. Instead, it is about pure potential and proven leadership, and of course, a whole lot of faith.
And that leads me to the greater takeaway from this election: electing a pope is the perfect blending of faith and reason.
The kind of faith the Conclave had in God our Father that He would guide their hearts and minds throughout the process of choosing a new pope, and the use of their reason to make the best choice.
The kind of faith that the Catholic faithful placed in the Conclave, and the reason that told them that faith is the only thing they could all offer at that time of uncertainty and transition.
The kind of faith we hold so dear in our hearts and do our very best to bear witness to each and every day, and the reason we use in defending others’ right to do the same.
And perhaps most importantly, the process offers a reflection on the kind of faith that at its very core serves as a beacon to the world for love for one’s neighbor, service to the poor, and justice for the least among us, and the reason that allows us to subscribe to such a faith.
The election of a new pope and all the events surrounding it offer much for individuals all across the world to connect to. It signals hope in progressive change and the potential for increased social justice. But perhaps what makes the election all the more meaningful to Catholics and non-Catholics alike is the evidence it provides to support the truth that religion and equality, tradition and progress, and faith and reason can peacefully and productively co-exist in this secular and beautifully diverse world of ours.
Brianna Murphy is a history teacher at a public charter school in Massachusetts and a part-time graduate student at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College.