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Reading the Tea Leaves
by Paul Wilkes
Thursday, April 14, 2005

Now that the funeral of Pope John Paul II is behind us and the cardinals have taken a vow of (media) silence, it’s to take stock of the key issues facing the Catholic Church, and then attempt to point where the Church might be heading.

You may be interested in speculating about who will be the next pope. Join the millions worldwide, and know that few of us have much credible information. Only those cardinals now meeting behind closed doors, eating together, talking in the hallways, and making calls to their own advisors have some sense of the direction of this conclave. And if past history is any guide, even they are in the dark.

Journalists here in Rome are hounding old and new sources to try to read the tea leaves of Vatican intrigue and deal-making (if, indeed, there is either—there usually is) so in a certain way, anybody’s guess is as good as anybody else’s.

One day it appears a South American, Claudio Hummes of Brazil, or a Central American, Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, is a front-runner because of the huge numbers of Catholics in that part of the world. Then, surprisingly, the talk in the cafes surrounding the Vatican and the many pontifical colleges more recently turned to favor Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a German, who appeared unbending as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith but who is regarded as an intellectual perhaps more open to inquiry than his previous superior allowed him to manifest. Will the cardinals choose an Italian who could be a caretaker for a short reign—to allow the papacy to regain its footing after a long, dynamic and extremely public reign of John Paul II? Are the cardinals ready to engage Islam?

Not even a syllable is muttered about an American pope. America does not have a strong candidate, and the feeling within Vatican circles is that the world’s superpower already has enough weight to throw around.

So what will the cardinals be looking for? In the days ahead, I’ll be writing about some of the key factors that will shape their choice of the next pope.

1. Issues versus charisma: Will issues drive the conclave—and will the person deemed most likely to address those specific issues be chosen? Or will the broader power of a certain kind of personality (pastoral, spiritual, diplomatic, traditionalist, charismatic?) win out?

2. Authority versus power in the Church: There is a heated debate within the church concerning the Vatican Curia, the bureaucracy that runs the Church on a day-to-day basis. Has it been allowed to spin out of control during the long reign of a pope who preferred evangelical trips to minding the business at home? Is a good dose of decentralization needed? Equally, what about the state of Catholic theologians, who are charged with creatively exploring both the roots and development of faith and tradition, but who have been restricted in their inquiry (some would say silenced) during John Paul’s long papacy? And what of “the voice of the people”—should there be a more significant role for non-clerical, non-hierarchical input?

3. North versus South: Are there actually two Catholic churches—one in the developed world, the other in the developing world? For instance, Issues that are crucial in the Church in Americah (women’s ordination, sex abuse, contraception, lay roles) are not even on the radar screen for much of the rest of the Catholic world. American Catholics wonder if the Vatican “gets it” about the issues that divide them. How can each part of the Church be heard and healed? And what of those nations where the dialogue with Islam is a major concern?

4. Collegiality: Or better put, cooperation. A key thrust of Vatican II was to reach out to the wisdom of the universal church—hierarchy, priests, and laity—and not have Rome make all the decisions. John Paul II was a strong and uncompromising leader who did not always encourage dialogue within the church. Bishops and cardinals, especially, have felt marginalized as more and more power was vested in Rome. Some have even called the bishops “branch managers” and not primary teachers and discerners in their own part of the world. What will they do to assure they have a strong voice in the next papacy?

In the coming days, I’ll talk to experts here in Rome and in America in order to shed light on each of these areas.

 

Paul Wilkes is a veteran journalist whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly and The New York Times magazine. He has authored 18 books on Catholicism, including the bestselling Excellent Catholic Parishes. He is the author of The Seven Secrets of Successful Catholics and the creator of New Beginnings, a parish revitalization program, which is distributed by St. Anthony Messenger Press. 

 

 

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