Shaking up the Conclave

Madison. Hamilton. Adams. Dennis the Constitutional Peasant. The list of men who have contributed to our understanding of the ideal form of government is as long as it is distinguished. And, as the great sage of the muck has noted, “strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.”

Now far be it from me to compare the esteemed College of Cardinals to some “watery tart,” but we should recognize that just as Dennis did not get to vote for his king, neither do we as Catholics get a vote for our pope. This isn’t an issue I’ve given much thought to in the past, but during this historic interregnum I’m not the only one considering why 115 old men should get to decide who will be the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

As a slightly less brilliant thinker than Dennis once similarly declared, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Most of the world’s Catholics not only look very different than the group of men gathering this month in the Sistine Chapel, they also live very different lives with dramatically different experiences and worldviews. None of us are even consulted, much less give our consent, as to who should be the next supreme pontiff.

Of course there are some obvious differences. We are electing a pope, not a president, for one thing. Still, why should 25% of the votes go to the small country of Italy and less than 10% go to the entire continent of Africa, especially when the Church in Italy is in decline and in Africa it is growing by the day?

More importantly, why should the franchise be limited to a small select group of bishops? Why not appoint a layman, perhaps a distinguished theologian or leader of a lay ecclesiastical movement, as a cardinal elector? The Knights of Columbus has over 1.8 million members, and the Community of Sant’Egidio has members in 70 countries. Leaders of these or similar worldwide associations of the faithful would make excellent electors.

Why not include, or perhaps even set aside 50% of the seats for, women? The Boston Globe recently ran an article describing how our nation and the Church have depended on the energy and expertise of nuns. Should they not also get a say in who the next pope will be?

The heads of the largest religious orders, or various patriarchs, or others, would seem to be a natural choices as ex officio members. Once a month or so I meet with a former Superior General of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, a very unassuming man who now serves in the campus ministry office of a small college. I am certain he would bring a very different perspective than the small number of bishops who will be casting ballots.

Taking it a step further, we could make the College of Cardinals a bit more like the Electoral College. That is to say, each nation or continent could select its own cardinals, keeping the number proportional to the number of Catholics in their borders. I wouldn’t want to see a plebiscite for the position (“And remember, when the plate comes around for the second collection, be sure you toss in your ballot for Cardinal.”), but I think that is something each bishops’ conference could easily handle. Or, to move it in another direction, the college could select their own members. There’s no reason that the bishop of Rome has to be the only appointing authority.

I’m not sure what the ideal method to elect a pope is, and I don’t want to return to a point where there are outside political influences or rival antipopes, and I certainly don’t want to turn the election of a pope into the circus that is the US political system. Clearly there are a lot of considerations that must be factored in to any reforms of the college.

On the other hand, there are many constituencies who have a huge stake in who sits in the chair of Peter, but only one gets a vote. The current system has served us well for many years; the time has come to unhinge the conclave and open the door a little bit wider.


Benedict the Meek: How A Quiet Man’s Pontificate Has Shaped the Millennial Generation

121744714__382982bAs we come to the final hours of the papacy of Benedict XVI, his reign has been analyzed from every possible vista: as a spiritual leader, as a theologian, as a writer, as a politician, as a manager and on and on.

But it seems to me that there has been a voice missing in this conversation: that of the young. This is unfortunate, because perhaps more than anyone, our lives were affected by Joseph Ratzinger. We were too young to be part of the “JP II (John Paul II) generation.”

Instead, we came to age in the era of Benedict. And indeed that era was different. The rock star pope was replaced by the introvert pope, the poet by the academic.

But his quiet voice didn’t decrease his ability to affect the young faithful. In fact, it amplified it.

There was a saying that became popular in Rome during the last eight years of Benedict’s pontificate. It went something like this: the young people used to come to St. Peter’s Square to see John Paul, but they came to listen to Benedict.

And listen they did. Benedict, who was once castigated by the media as “God’s Rottweiler” during his years as the Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, has perked the ears of young people across the world with his eloquent writings about the purpose of living, the dignity of all human persons—especially the poor and marginalized—and the contributions religion can make in a pluralistic society.

Who would have expected “God’s Rottweiler” to dedicate his first major encyclical on human love? In it, he writes that being a Christian “is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, [with true love] which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

Though Benedict’s papacy was marred by public relations nightmares, when he himself spoke, people responded. His foreign apostolic trips were mostly successful, especially his trips to the United States in 2008, to the United Kingdom in 2010 and to Mexico and Cuba in 2012. Each time, Benedict exceeded public expectations.  Of particular note is his trip to the United Kingdom. There Benedict delivered a speech in Westminster Hall, standing in the same spot where Saint Thomas More was tried and condemned to death in 1535. In an audience featuring all the living former prime ministers of England and the elite of British civil society, Benedict gave an address that received enthusiastic reviews. Even secular agnostics described the speech as “bloody brilliant.” Upon his departure, Prime Minister David Cameron said the Holy Father had compelled the increasingly-secular English society, especially its youth, “to sit up and listen.”

Benedict’s words—and especially his questions—have struck us in a way that is perhaps even more poignant than those of his predecessor:

Where do I find standards to live by, what are the criteria that govern responsible cooperation in building the present and the future of our world? On whom can I rely? To whom shall I entrust myself? Where is the [person] who can offer me the response capable of satisfying my heart’s deepest desires?

His questions probe our hearts, especially in a time where such questions are buried under an ever increasing “globalization of superficiality” that doesn’t allow time and space for the deeper questions of life.

Benedict continues:

The fact that we ask questions like these means that we realize our journey is not over until we meet the One who has the power to establish that universal Kingdom of justice and peace to which all people aspire, but which they are unable to build by themselves. Asking such questions also means searching for Someone who can neither deceive nor be deceived, and who therefore can offer a certainty so solid that we can live for it and, if need be, even die for it.

Benedict has lived, suffered and now quite frankly, is dying for the Church. He lived, suffered and is now dying for that “Kingdom of justice and peace” which is the primary goal of all human activity. While Benedict’s speeches, encyclicals, prayers, and writings have taught us much, his last action was perhaps the greatest lesson of his pontificate. In renouncing the throne of Saint Peter, Benedict taught a world obsessed with the cult of personality that the greatest heroes are the ones who give it all up for the sake of others.

Benedict’s message with his resignation was simple: I love you. I choose you. Your well-being matters to me more than anything else.

Thank you, Holy Father. We, the children of your generation, the generation of Benedict the Meek, will never forget you. You will always be in our prayers, and we will remember what you taught us in word and—most importantly—in deed: “the happiness that you [seek], the happiness you have a right to enjoy has a name and a face: it is Jesus of Nazareth …[and] in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed.”