The Next Pope

December 1, 2003 Topic: Society Tags: Heads Of StateIslam

The Next Pope

Mini Teaser: What to look for in the next pontiff.

by Author(s): Uwe Siemon-Netto

THE END IS near. Before long, the College of Cardinals will have to elect a successor to Pope John Paul II. His will be a tough act to follow. To begin with, the new man on Saint Peter's throne must be able to preach the Christian social ethic without succumbing to the lure of radical liberation theology. In other words, he will be expected to do what is theologically imperative yet stay clear of left-wing clericalism. This quality is all the more essential if one considers these demographic projections: By 2025, some 2.6 billion people in the world will be Christians of all stripes. Of these, 67 percent (and about 75 percent of Roman Catholics) will live in Africa, Latin America and Asia, according to Philip Jenkins, author of The Next Christendom.1 These are precisely the continents where Christianity has been experiencing a relentless growth--and where poverty still abounds.

Should the next pope be any less sensitive to global social concerns than John Paul II--or should he, conversely, proclaim a social Gospel rather than preaching social responsibility from the Gospel--the consequences might be catastrophic. The shepherd of a billion people could easily divide his own flock by siding with one half against the other. This could perhaps cause huge numbers in the global North to turn away from the Church of Rome altogether in favor of secularism or, conversely, drive the disappointed "have-nots" into the arms of a competing belief system, such as Islam.

Thus, the College of Cardinals will undoubtedly look for a candidate who understands these issues and knows how to tackle them with diplomatic finesse and theological clarity. Three of the most urgent concerns arise from the current situation: the challenge from Islam, the re-evangelization of the global North (especially Europe) and the need to overcome postmodern chaos--in particular by continuing to reach out to the young, an endeavor in which John Paul II particularly excelled.

Dealing with Islam

ARGUABLY, John Paul II has so far played a pivotal role in preventing the current conflict between radical Islamists and the West from degenerating into a global fracas between Islam and Christianity more generally. One of his pontificate's accomplishments has been the maintenance of relatively harmonious relations with most Muslim nations and moderate Islamic thinkers without jeopardizing Israel's existence. This topic merits a separate study; suffice it for now to point to a few remarkable events.

There was, for example, the alliance between the Vatican and Muslim nations against the Clinton Administration's attempt to establish a right to abortion as a global human entitlement at the Cairo World Population Conference in 1994. In a sense, this alliance lives on in a remarkable way. Muslim organizations have joined the efforts of evangelical Protestants and Mormons to defend the Holy See's permanent observer status at the United Nations. This status, which is accorded to states without full UN membership, is under attack from feminist and pro-abortion groups advocating the Vatican's demotion at the UN to the level of an NGO. The issue here is really whether the world body should or should not continue to recognize the Vatican's statehood. This problem will doubtlessly endure well into the next pontificate.

There was also evidence of the Vatican's diplomatic skills when it played a key role in resolving the standoff between Israeli forces and armed Palestinian activists holed up in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity in 2002. And there was the display of mutual respect between the pope and Muslim--as well as other--religious leaders during the Assisi prayers for peace.

In Assisi, the pope adroitly avoided the charge of religious relativism by eschewing interfaith prayers, which are anathema to orthodox Christians and Muslims alike. Each faith group worshipped at a different location--Christians with Christians (Catholic or otherwise), Muslims with Muslims, Buddhists with Buddhists, Hindus with Hindus. These encounters may not have sat well with some unyielding evangelical and Catholic traditionalists, but they were exemplary in that they explored the extent to which different religions can seek common ground on penultimate issues--such as the quest for peace--without compromising their theologies. And a process was set in motion to explore the world religions' shared principles as a tool of an ancient craft that had lain dormant for a long time and is now enjoying a renaissance: faith-based diplomacy.

It was John Paul II who introduced the concept of the "Abrahamic religions" as a family of faiths, sometimes courting the accusation that he blurred the uniqueness of Christ, truth incarnate. However, all major Christian denominations acknowledge the presence of elements--if not the fullness--of revealed truth in other religions, particularly in Islam. The underlying principle here is the Christian dictum, "God never leaves himself without witness", meaning in the present context that He has left His traces in other faiths as well. How the next pope handles this issue can be of vast geopolitical consequence. Will he or will he not build on John Paul's accomplishments?

In particular, will this new pope subtly buttress moderate Muslim scholars and thus entice them to abandon their quiescent ways? Will he, in other words, help them overcome their fear of being pilloried and possibly killed as apostates by the noisy and lethal minority of radical Islamists? Will he, using the Vatican's immense experience in diplomacy and intelligence, strive to establish a kind of rapid-reaction team of outstanding Christian, Jewish, Muslim and other leaders to intervene jointly and immediately when religious peace--which in the current global context might possibly mean world peace--is in jeopardy?

Muslim sages will be unable to take the lead in this. For them, the perils are simply too great, which is why they have failed so far to act courageously to forestall abominations in Islamic lands.

A case in point is Nigeria, the epicenter of Christian growth in Africa but also of an increasingly dangerous confrontation between the two burgeoning monotheistic faiths--a country where faith-based diplomacy is urgently needed. Take the recent worldwide uproar over of alleged "adulteresses" sentenced to be stoned to death. These verdicts were reversed, primarily thanks to the intervention of organizations such as France's Avocats Sans Frontieres, the European Parliament and the news media. It would have been preferable had Muslim sheikhs, imams and jurists gone there and proclaimed that such sentences are in violation of and hurtful to Islam. (When I interviewed some of these scholars, they all agreed privately that they really should go and speak up, but they did not do so for fear of being killed as heretics.)

Thus, it will be crucial for the next pope, using his unique standing in the world's religious community, to shore up Islamic leaders by acting jointly with them--and with other Christians, of course, principally the powerful Anglicans in Nigeria--to temper the clash of civilizations, which no longer appears as an analytic warning but a fact.

Re-Evangelizing Europe

IF A CLASH of civilizations were to emerge, however, will the West be in a condition to resist attacks on Christianity while at the same time avoiding civilizational chauvinism? Under John Paul II, the Catholic Church in Europe has been careful not to play the "anti-Islam card." As archbishop Andre Vingt-Trois of Tours once told me, "We Christians need not fear the rapid growth of Muslim communities in our midst due to mass immigration. All we have to do is develop once again a strong Christian faith." But can that condition be met? Will Europe return to its Christian roots or further decline into a relativistic postmodern entity oblivious to its own history and mission? Will France's post-Revolutionary ideology of total secularism prevail, or will faith be reborn there and in Europe more broadly? All of these open questions increase the need for wise religious leadership and heighten the political significance of the next pope in Europe.

Many observers see a new religious awakening in the United States, but there are also signs--faint and uncertain though they may now be--of a revival of perhaps an even more profound Christian thought and practice in continental Europe. The astonishingly lively debate over whether or not the words "God" and "Christianity" should be mentioned in the new constitution for the European Union is one sign that the Old World may be slowly shifting away from its doctrinaire secularism.

Consider that on November 13, 2003, an impressive group of 22 European leaders--including former presidents Richard yon Weizsacker of Germany, Mario Soares of Portugal and Arpad Goncz of Hungary; the former chancellor of Austria Franz Vranitsky; Constantin Mitsotakis, former Greek prime minister; and Rene-Samuel Sirat, the former chief rabbi of France--published a critique of "the limits of a narrowly 'secularist' vision of European societies." They argued that "ignorance about religious matters has become a danger both for a country's democratic life and cohesion, and for the full development of the European project." This constituted a direct attack on the French elites' vision of a secularized Europe.2

More than twenty years ago, Jean-Marie Lustiger, then a parish priest, won the pope's admiration by proposing the re-evangelization of France "from the head down", meaning that first the much-revered and immensely influential intellectual elite must be won over. When John Paul II promoted Lustiger to become archbishop of Paris, and then cardinal, this Jewish-born convert to Catholicism put his plan into action by preaching every Sunday night to the maitres-penseurs and students at Notre Dame cathedral. Not until earlier this year did the French media note how much has changed as a result. Le Figaro ran a surprising eight-part series of articles on the reappearance of Christian intellectuals from the cerebral catacombs where they had been buried for many decades.

The once mighty French church has changed its strategy and self-image from that of a national powerhouse to a church in mission. This has begun to filter down to the parish level. I spend a considerable part of the year in the Charente region of southwestern France. For the most part, this region has been thoroughly secular since the French Revolution. Thus, it was considered a sensation in my village to have an energetic, 31-year-old priest assigned to our local church--and forty other altars nearby. When I asked him about signs of renewed spiritual life, he replied, "I see myself as a missionary, and wherever I go, young people come to me in great numbers, seeking to reconnect with the faith of their ancestors, which they see as the only way out of the materialistic hopelessness around them."

This French movement is spilling over into neighboring countries, especially Germany. According to a study by Paul M. Zulehner, dean of the theology department at the University of Vienna and a sociologist of religion, a growing thirst for things spiritual--but not necessarily all Christian--has become evident in Europe's urban centers.

John Paul II, determined to bring the Gospel back to Europe, used this spiritual thirst in many ways. One such way was the speed with which the Catholic Church moved into eastern Europe and especially eastern Germany--the land of Luther--following the collapse of communism. It accomplished much, to the visible chagrin of Protestant churches numbed by this sudden turn of events and waffling over whether they should, for example, fulfill the Great Commission by providing chaplains to the military (even though this presented a splendid opportunity to reach the young, some of whom literally believed that the crucifix represented a gymnast).

THE CATHOLIC Church has had no such hesitation; it moved right in and created ecclesiastical infrastructures aimed at the youth. The rewards of this strategy may only become discernable decades from now, but this is in line with the Catholic Church's goal to groom a new German elite capable of offering its country real religious leadership.

Will the next pope maintain this momentum created by John Paul II? Will he share his predecessor's passion for Europe's unification and renewal? Or will he treat the Continent with benign neglect, paying more attention to the global South instead--with the potentially dangerous and unsettling political consequence of leading Africans, Asians and Latin Americans to conclude that God has perhaps turned his back on Europe?

John Paul II will certainly be remembered as an apostle to the world--but chiefly to youth. "You are my hope", he told tens of thousands of young people assembled in St. Peter's Square in Rome in 1978, and these words have remained his motto throughout his pontificate. I remember how flabbergasted French political leaders and trade unionists were when nearly a million people, including many non-Catholics, crowded the pontiff in Paris on World Youth Day of 1997. Nobody else has ever drawn such an audience. At the closing Mass, 500,000 young believers received the sacrament--all neat and disciplined young Christians representing, in the minds of some observers, the true but generally hidden France. Five years later, these scenes repeated themselves at the World Youth Day in Toronto, where between 600,000 and 800,000 young people came to see an ailing pope, twitching from Parkinson's with spittle running from a corner of his mouth. He impressed them nonetheless by the strength of his endurance.

John Paul has always been the consummate pedagogue--by his own example and the example of others, such as the huge number of people he has beatified and canonized. The reason for this is profound: the pope has consciously attempted to present the youth with alternative models to emulate--not rock stars, but an Edith Stein or a Mother Teresa. It was the pope's conviction that a huge institution like the Church could not be directed with rules and principles alone; flesh and blood models of an ethical life were equally important. This he learned studying the German philosopher Max Scheler (1874-1928), about whom he wrote his second doctoral dissertation.

The youthful yearning for such models--in the church as in any other walk of life, especially politics--has, if anything, increased over the course of his reign. Marc Yaconelli, a Presbyterian lay minister and leader of the highly successful Youth Ministry and Spiritual Project, based in San Francisco, never ceases to quote the desperate cry of his teenage wards: "They are prepared to listen, but they tell their parents' generation: 'Show us! Show us by your own example that you mean what you say.'" John Paul II has shown the young that he meant what he said. It will be left to his successor to help translate this Scheler-based principle deeper into the realms of politics, economics, the judiciary and culture.

An African Pope?

MANY HAVE begun to speculate about the identity of the next elected pope. Some Vatican-watchers believe that this time the Italians will make sure that one of their own will once again ascend St. Peter's throne. Should this be the case, the new pontiff would surely continue John Paul's work in trying to accelerate the re-evangelization of Europe. To what extent any of the potential Italian candidates will excel in coping with Islam and is appealing to the imagination of the young is an open question.

But there are also non-Italian candidates. Philippe Barbarin, the 53-year-old archbishop of Lyon, resembles John Paul II in personal holiness, which appeals to today's young generation and impresses Muslims. He is also a consummate pastor and a model of the contemporary leader of France's "church in mission." Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, the 59-year-old archbishop of Vienna, has similar qualifies. As behooves a Dominican friar, he is also a pulpit prince, a brilliant theologian and a specialist on Catholic-Orthodox reconciliation. What's more, he is familiar with Islam and popular with the powerful Italian block in the College of Cardinals. But should the Spirit move the conclave to elect yet another Slav who has suffered under Nazism and Communism, who is committed to ecumenism, interfaith dialogue and the re-evangelization of Europe, then Cardinal Mirsolav Vlk, the 71-year-old archbishop of Prague is considered a good prospect.

That said, a well-qualified non-European candidate appears alongside the above mentioned list of papabili. He is Cardinal Francis Arinze, age 71 and currently prefect of the Vatican's Congregation on Divine Worship. Arinze is an Ibo, a member of a Nigerian tribe reputed for its energy and high level of education. As former president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious dialogue, he ranks as a leading expert on conversing with Muslim leaders, among whom he enjoys tremendous respect.

Like John Paul II, Arinze is noted for great intellectual clarity, especially when dealing with non-Christians. He makes plain that those who do not know Christ are still included in God's plan of salvation, yet he steers well clear of syncretism. In his own words: "the other religions are expressions of the human soul seeking God, with some beautiful spiritual insights, but also not without error. Christianity is rather God seeking humanity."

From his speeches, it is clear that Arinze shares John Paul's commitment to guiding the developed world back to faith. Nor does he shy away from reading self-indulgent Westerners the riot act. Earlier in 2003, he shocked students and professors at Georgetown University when he told them in a commencement speech:

In many parts of the world, the family is under siege, opposed by an anti-life mentalit as seen in contraception, abortion, infanticide and euthanasia. It is scorned and banalized by  pornography, desecrated by fornication and adultery, mocked by homosexuality, sabotaged by irregular unions, and cut in two by divorce.

Like John Paul, he is able to win a wide audience with such plain talk because he has charisma, humor, enjoys a good laugh and is an avid sportsman (with a preference for soccer and tennis). What's more, he has one important asset John Paul lacked when he became pope: nearly twenty years of experience at the papal curia, which, in addition to his studies in England, has given him ample knowledge of the ways of Europe.

A Vatican insider from Nigeria, which is currently the venue of Christianity's fastest growth; an expert on dealing with Islam; a strong voice against postmodernism; and a man capable of inspiring the young--all these qualities could make this African cardinal one of the most powerful political and spiritual figures in the world. With Christianity flourishing in the Third World, and with Europe perhaps on the verge of a religious revival but nonetheless standing to benefit from missionary advice from its former colonies, Arinze would be my choice for pope. But then one must allow that Lutheran laymen do not have a vote in the Conclave.

1The Next Christendom was reviewed by Kenneth Minogue, "Religion, Reason and Conflict in the 21st Century", The National Interest (Summer 2003).

2 There are other reasons to suspect a re-evangelizing of Europe: the huge interest in new Bible translations and adult catechism classes in France; the 3,000 or more grownups baptized in Catholic and Protestant churches every Easter Night; the fact that every ninth day a new evangelical congregation is born in France; the plea by ex-revolutionary Regis Debray, formerly Che Guevara's companion, for a return to the instruction of religion in public schools; the massive lay enrollment at the Institut Catholique, the renowned theology school in Paris; the abundance of Protestant seminarians and pastors and their Church's shift from political causes back to orthodox theology; the tens of thousands of Catholic lay leaders taking over pastoral functions in the absence of a sufficient number of priests.

Uwe Siemon-Netto, who holds a Ph.D. from Boston University in theology and sociology of religion, is UPI's religion editor and lives in Washington and France. 

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