Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Next Pope–and Why He Matters to All of Us

Published in Notre Dame Magazine


George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies


[This article was originally delivered as EPPC's Fourth Annual William E. Simon Lecture on January 12, 2005. It will be printed in the Spring 2005 issue of Notre Dame Magazine, and is used here with permission.]

Let me begin with a disclaimer – anyone who came here this evening expecting hot tips on the front-runners for the papacy is going to leave disappointed. People sometimes ask, “What’s the Ethics and Public Policy Center?” Well, here’s one part of the answer – the Center isn’t Ladbroke’s, or the Potomac office of Off-Track Betting!

I should also say at the outset that the title of this lecture is not intended to suggest that Pope John Paul II is in imminent danger of death. I had dinner with the Holy Father on December 15, and while he is obviously suffering from the effects of his neurological disease, he’s alert and otherwise healthy; his schedule, while somewhat diminished, remains a full and taxing one; and eight days of work in Rome last month convinced me that John Paul remains the center of initiative at the center of the Catholic Church.

By the same token, it’s obvious that we are much closer to the end of this extraordinary pontificate than to its beginning. And as the Pope himself has talked about the impending completion of his mission on several occasions in recent years, there is nothing unseemly in deepening the conversation about what we might call “the work John Paul II will leave for the rest of us.” “The rest of us,” of course, includes the next pope – whoever the 265th Bishop of Rome may be, wherever he may have been born, and whatever his previous experience has been.

All conclaves tend to confound the predictions of pre-conclave prognosticators, but there is one thing of which we can be absolutely certain in thinking about the conclave that will elect the next pope: it will be a conclave in which the legacy of John Paul II looms very, very large.

A New Conversation. The fact that we are even having this discussion – here in Washington, under the sponsorship of a major foundation and an ecumenical and interreligious research institute – is itself a testimony to the accomplishment of John Paul II. Some years ago, a prominent national political commentator who is not a Christian said to me, “You know, in 1978 I could have cared less who the next pope would be. Now it means something to me personally.” I suspect my friend’s sentiments are replicated in hundreds of millions of hearts and minds throughout the world. The papacy has traditionally claimed a global role; the pontificate of John Paul II has given specific meaning and empirical texture to that claim. The cardinals who will elect the next pope know this. And as they ponder the implications of that remarkable fact, they will know something else: they will know that, in an important sense, they will be electing a pope for the world as well as for the Church.

The papacy now matters to virtually everyone. It matters to those for whom it represents the center of the divinely-mandated ordering of Christ’s Church. It matters to those for whom the papacy represents a global focal point of Christian unity and witness. It matters to those for whom the pope is a defender of universal human rights with a global platform. It matters, if in a rather different way, to those Chinese, Cuban, Vietnamese, and North Korean totalitarians who fear the capacity of the Catholic Church to inspire liberation movements, as it has done during this pontificate in east central Europe, Latin America, and East Asia. And it matters to those who deplore the Catholic Church and its moral teaching as perhaps the last great institutional barrier to the triumph of a utilitarian ethic and the advance of what some genetics researchers unblushingly call the “immortality project.”1 Voltaire would be spinning in his grave at the thought of the papacy as a defender of the “rights of man;” and I rather doubt that Huxley imagined the papacy as a counterweight to the evolution of the brave new world. Yet precisely such hopes – and fears – may be found throughout the world today, in this twenty-seventh year of the pontificate of John Paul II. All conclaves are, by definition, “unprecedented.” But those hopes and fears will help make the conclave that elects John Paul’s successor an unprecedented one in a distinctive way.

A Complex Process. Several other factors will likely make the next conclave a complex and perhaps lengthy business, and it’s worth noting them briefly by way of completing the preliminaries.

As you all know, the next pope will be elected by the College of Cardinals, which has had the exclusive right to elect the Bishop of Rome since the twelfth century. The apostolic constitution governing the next conclave, which was issued by John Paul II in 1996, continues the practice, initiated by Pope Paul VI, of limiting cardinal-electors to those members of the College who have not reached their eightieth birthday on the day the Pope dies.2 Thus we can anticipate an electorate of between 110 and 120 cardinals – the largest in conclave history, an electorate twice the size of that which elected John XXIII in 1958, and one-quarter larger than that which elected John Paul II. But size is not the only distinguishing characteristic of this electorate and this conclave.

The cardinal-electors will be the most diverse such group in history. At present, they range in age from 52-year old Peter Erdt, the primate of Hungary, to 79-year old Alexandre do Nascimento, the archbishop emeritus of Luanda, Angola, once held hostage by rebel forces in his native country during his efforts to mediate Angola’s civil war. The average age of the electors today is 66. 11% of the electorate will come from North America; 19% from Latin America; 50% from Europe (but only 17% from Italy, the lowest percentage in modern conclave history); 10% from Africa; 11% from Asia and Oceania. The overwhelming majority of the electors, almost 80%, are local pastors, not figures in the Roman Curia; and several prominent Curial cardinals were successful local pastors before being called to Rome. 18% are members of religious orders, with the Franciscans boasting the largest number of cardinal-electors (four), while the Salesians and the Jesuits have three each; two cardinal-electors are affiliated with Opus Dei – a number that will doubtless disappoint true believers in the fevered speculations of The Da Vinci Code.

This unprecedented diversity will not only make the conclave more complex logistically; it will make it more complex linguistically. The cardinal-electors don’t share a common language (one after-effect of the decline of Latin in the Church) – and the results of that, for the pre-conclave discussion of issues and the conclave itself, remain to be seen. Then there is the fact that these men, brought together from all over the world, don’t really know each other; the last time most of them were in the same place at the same time was when John Paul II created new cardinals in October 2003, immediately after his own silver jubilee. And while there was some time for conversation during those celebrations, it would be a stretch to suggest that the cardinals, old and new, had then, or have had since, the opportunity to take each other’s measure. (This suggests, among other things, that the world media, and the images it creates of different personalities in the Church, may play a larger role in shaping the deliberations of this conclave than in the past.)

Moreover, the diversity of the cardinal-electors will be magnified in the pre-conclave discussions by the presence of some sixty-five cardinals who, having turned eighty, have lost their vote, but who will be very much part of the conversations about issues and the assessment of possible candidates in the two or three weeks that will pass between John Paul II’s death and the sealing of the conclave to elect his successor.

The cardinal-electors, even when “immured” in the conclave, will also be living far more comfortably than in the past. Previously, Curial offices in the Apostolic Palace were divided into ramshackle cubicles to house the cardinal-electors, most of whom were unaccustomed to sleeping on cots and using chamber pots. Now, thanks to the Domus Sanctae Marthae guest house inside the Vatican, built by John Paul II, the cardinal-electors will live in three-room suites in what amounts to a quite decent hotel with a more-than-adequate kitchen. According to a long-standing tradition, the actual election will take place in the Sistine Chapel; but unlike previous conclaves, the cardinal-electors will, if they like, be able to walk between the Domus Sanctae Marthae and the Sistine Chapel, and indeed in a substantial part of the Vatican grounds, should they choose to do so before or after the day’s electoral work is done. All of which is to say that, in very human terms, the pressures felt in previous conclaves to get the job done expeditiously will not be felt in the next conclave; call it the absence of the “chamber pot factor.”

Above and beyond these material considerations, the next conclave will, as I suggested at the outset, operate within a different structure of expectations than its predecessors. John Paul II’s retrieval and renewal of the evangelical and pastoral papacy – a papacy of preaching, teaching, witness, and encouragement – has changed the Church’s expectations of popes, and the world’s, too. These expectations are already creating a refined set of criteria for assessing possible candidates for the papacy. There is, for example, an emerging consensus among a significant number of cardinal-electors that one of the next pontificate’s principal tasks will be to concretize in the life of the Church the profound and challenging vision articulated by the pontificate of John Paul II: which is another way of saying that the next pope, in the minds of many electors, might well exercise a stronger administrative hand than his predecessor. At the same time, it is virtually inconceivable that the cardinal-electors, given this changed structure of expectations, will elect a man whose only, or even primary, qualification for the job is a reputation for making the trains run on time. The cardinals are well aware that personal holiness, intellectual depth, pastoral imagination, and communications skills are crucial in a 21st century pope – and will be measured quickly, by the world and the Church, in those first crucial moments when the new pope speaks urbi et orbi, “to the city and the world,” on the day of his election and at his inaugural Mass. It would perhaps be too much to expect that the next pope will announce himself in so riveting a way as John Paul II, the self-described man “from a far country” who boldly challenged the world to “be not afraid,” and to “open the doors to Christ.”3 But neither does anyone expect, or really want, the new pope to announce himself by laying out a detailed plan for the bureaucratic reform of the Church – important as certain such reforms may be.

To my mind, and measuring these things in purely human terms (as I have no pipeline to the Holy Spirit’s plans for the conclave), all of this adds up to a complex, possibly difficult, and probably lengthy conclave – one that I could imagine going on for three, four, even five days of voting. John Paul II’s apostolic constitution governing the next conclave permits the electors to move to a simple majority vote from the two-thirds majority requirement, after almost two weeks and some thirty-plus ballots. But I regard this as a very remote possibility indeed; for after five days, much less two weeks, the world media would begin reporting the story of a “Church in crisis,” and I cannot imagine the cardinal-electors wanting that story-line to set the stage for a man who is already going to have a next-to-impossible job – filling the exceedingly large shoes worn by John Paul II.

Could a consensus quickly form around a single candidate in the pre-conclave discussions, as it did in the first conclave of 1978, producing the one-day election of John Paul I? The only candidate in whose favor one might imagine such a scenario unfolding would be the most well-known (and, arguably, most well-respected) of the cardinals, Joseph Ratzinger. But Cardinal Ratzinger will be 78 in April, and, perhaps more to the point, he has critics within the College who may admire his personal sanctity and brilliance but who would not vote for him as pope. Whether those opponents could muster a blocking 41 votes is not something that can be pre-judged. It does seem likely, though, that the only “quick-conclave” scenario is one that produces a Ratzinger papacy.

Clarifying the Issues. But this is to proceed into territory – the terrain of personalities and candidacies – which I said at the outset that I would avoid. Not because such speculations aren’t interesting, but because they are, in the nature of the case, uninformed – even among informed observers. Moreover, and from the point of view of a papacy that “matters to all of us,” some of the most urgent questions will be addressed before the conclave, in the “general congregations” of cardinals that will begin meeting the day after the Pope’s death, and in those informal but important discussions known in Italian as the prattiche (which roughly translates as “exercises”). Here, “the issues” – or, as I put it above, “the work that John Paul II will leave the rest of us” – will be thrashed out. How those discussions evolve, and are resolved, will have a great deal to do with who becomes the 264th successor to St. Peter and the 265th Bishop of Rome. To borrow from Morris West’s famous image: the way in which the cardinals design and measure the shoes of the fisherman will have a lot to do with their choice of a man with the particular qualities needed to fit those particular shoes.

What, then, are the great issues facing the Catholic Church in the early 21st century? And how will the Church’s grappling with those issues affect “all of us?”

At the outset, it may help to clarify what the issues are not. Neither the next conclave nor the next pope is going to change the Catholic Church’s teaching on the morally appropriate way to regulate births, although the cardinals may well discuss how to present that teaching with greater pastoral effectiveness.4 Neither the next conclave nor the next pope is going to endorse abortion-on-demand or euthanasia; the inviolability of innocent life is a bedrock principle of both natural and revealed law, and the Church has no authority to declare the use of lethal violence against innocents morally justifiable.5 Similarly, while the pre-conclave prattiche and the conclave itself may involve some discussion of the effects of the revolution in women’s lives (and the concurrent revolution in men’s lives) on the Church and the world, the Church’s practice of calling only men to the ministerial priesthood is not going to change, because, as John Paul II stated eleven years ago, the Church is not authorized to change that practice.6 There will likely be some discussion of the advisability of ordaining viri probati, proven and tested older married men, to the ministerial priesthood in situations where the shortage of priests is drastically impeding the Church’s sacramental life – but the cardinals well know that this solution, if in fact it be that, will create some problems as well as address others, and we need not expect (nor, from my point of view, should we want) a full-scale retreat from the ancient linkage of celibacy and ordained ministry in the Catholic Church.7

Which is to say that virtually all of what the New York Times imagines are “the issues” for the Catholic Church aren’t, in fact, the issues, and aren’t going to play a significant role in shaping the next conclave and the next pontificate

So what are the issues?

Three large-scale issues are already under discussion within the College of Cardinals and among other senior churchmen, and will certainly weigh heavily in the conclaves’s deliberations, in the next pontificate, and in the Catholic Church’s interface with the 21st century world. The first of these is the virtual collapse of Christianity in its historic heartland – western Europe. The second great issue is the Church’s response to the multi-faceted challenge posed by the rise of militant Islam. And the third involves the questions posed by the biotech revolution. Questions of the Church’s intellectual discipline will also be discussed in the next conclave, and I hope to show in a moment why those questions, properly understood, are of considerable consequence for “all of us”. Then there is a question that may or may not come up in the prattiche, the general congregations, and the conclave deliberations of the cardinal-electors, but which, in my judgment, should be addressed: and that is the question of the Church’s diplomacy, or, to be more precise, the set of ideas that have guided the “foreign policy” of the Holy See for more than two generations now.

Let me address each of these briefly, without by any means exhausting each topic, but drawing out the implications embedded within each of these issues for “all of us.”

Europe. In last year’s Simon Lecture, I proposed a “culture-first” analysis of Europe’s current problems – and particularly the critical problem of European depopulation – and I traced the origins of these dilemmas to the triumph of what Henri de Lubac termed “atheistic humanism” in the high culture of 19th century Europe: an atheistic humanism that displaced the God of the Bible in the name of human liberation. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was right, I suggested, when he argued that Europe’s disastrous 20th century had taken place because men had “forgotten God” and had imagined the possibility, indeed the imperative, of politics-without-God.8

The worst material effects of atheistic humanism were defeated in two world wars and the Cold War. But the residues of atheistic humanism – now expressed in the kinder, gentler phenomenon that Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls “exclusive humanism” (i.e., a humanism committed to keeping all transcendent moral referents out of public life) – are much in evidence today. They were evident when the European constitutional treaty signed this past October willfully denied that fifteen hundred years of Christian history had anything to do with contemporary Europe’s commitments to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. They were evident when Rocco Buttiglione, a man who would have been considered an adornment of any sane government between the days of Cato the Elder and, well, this past November, was denied an opportunity to serve as European Minister of Justice, not because of his public commitments and record, but because of his personal convictions (informed by both natural law and Catholic moral theology) about the morality of homosexual acts and the nature of marriage. They have been evident in the recent controversy in Britain over Ruth Kelly’s service as Education Secretary in the Blair Cabinet, during which, as the Times of London put it, “Some MPs fear that her religion may cloud her judgment:” her religion being a robust Catholicism and her judgment (which Ms. Kelly believes is informed, not clouded, by her Catholic faith) being on matters of embryo-destructive stem-cell research.9 They are evident when a leading British newspaper warns that Christian churches will forfeit what little moral leadership they now enjoy if they do not recognize that “tolerance” (by which the paper in question means the moral approbation of any sexual activity between any configuration of, and perhaps any number of, consenting adults) is more important than the Church maintaining the historic and biblical integrity of its teaching.10

Apostasy is not the only story-line of 19th and 20th century Europe; there is also a history of Christian renewal movements, tremendous Christian missionary energy, and Christian martyrdom to be conjured with in assessing Europe’s immediate past and immediate future. But, for the moment, the apostates – the exclusivist humanists who believe that only a Europe “neutral between worldviews” (as Jürgen Habermas and the late Jacques Derrida put it) is safe for democracy and human rights – have won. They have won in part because of the collapse of Europe’s Christian communities as effective transmitters of the faith and effective public advocates for religiously-informed moral reason.

No pope in history has been more of a pan-European than John Paul II; no pope in history invested more time, intellectual energy, and personal struggle in calling Europe back to the promises of its baptism. And while the seeds that John Paul has planted may flower in the future, especially among today’s young Catholics, the critical moment for Europe is likely to come in the next twenty or thirty years. Will a depopulating Europe, incapable of taking the hard political decisions that would prevent fiscal chaos and social catastrophe, and increasingly beset from within by an assertive Islamic minority that sees in 21st century Europe an opportunity to reverse the defeat of 1683, become, as Niall Ferguson, Bernard Lewis, and Bat Ye’or have warned, “Eurabia” – an extension of the culture and politics of the Arab Islamic world? What would it mean for the Christian world of the 21st century if its historic heartland were to go the way of the “seven churches” to which St. John wrote the Book of Revelation – if, in other words, European Christianity of the late 21st century looks very much like the Christianity of Asia Minor today?

“Eurabia” would pose enormous strategic and economic problems for the United States and the rest of the democratic world. But even absent such a draconian finish to the story, Europe’s current apostasy – which carries with it, not an indifference to biblical religion but an antipathy toward it – is already hurting the United States. As I indicated in last year’s lecture, the import into the United States of European legal ideas deeply shaped by exclusivist humanism is already making a mark in our federal courts, notably in Lawrence v. Texas. Today and tomorrow, then, Americans and indeed all free peoples have a stake in whether Europe’s current, sad decline can be reversed – and thus a stake in whether the only plausible candidate for leading such a reversal, namely, an evangelically revived and culturally formative Christian Church, in fact emerges in the next two generations. How that might happen is beyond the scope of this lecture; finding ways to make it happen is one of the great issues for the Catholic Church that John Paul II will leave behind. A capacity to jump-start the re-evangelization of Europe will be one of the qualities the cardinal-electors will seek in the next pope. Whether they find such a man will have a lot to do with the rest of 21st century history, for all of us.

Islam. If one looks at the Church in global terms, as the cardinal-electors must, one cannot help but notice a band of conflict that runs from the west coast of Africa eastward, ending in Southeast Asia at East Timor. “Band of conflict” is perhaps too mild a term, however, for the regions south and north of that globe-spanning dividing line are like two enormous tectonic plates, grating on each other – with the occasional, bloody upheavals that such geologic collisions sometimes produce. North of the dividing line are societies and cultures increasingly swayed by militant forms of Islam; south of that dividing line are Christian communities that, from Nigeria through Sudan to Pakistan and on into the Philippines and Indonesia, are often under assault from their Muslim neighbors, and/or governments that abet or turn a blind eye to Islamic extremism.

The Catholic Church’s religious and theological dialogue with the worlds-within-worlds of Islam was shaped in the mid-1960s, at the end of the Second Vatican Council, a time of buoyant (some might say, overly-buoyant) optimism in the Church and of relative calm in the Islamic world. The latter has now changed, dramatically, in no small part because of strains of Islam influenced by the Islamic Brotherhood, the Wahhabi sect, and other proponents of cultural aggression, civic intolerance, and, too often, violence in the name of the one God and his one Prophet. The conflicts engendered by these changes have been evident along the fault-line running from Senegal to East Timor for more than a decade; after 9/11 and the Bali, Istanbul, and Madrid bombings, it should now be clear that this conflict is global in scope. That suggests that the dialogue between Catholicism and the multifaceted Islamic world must also change, dramatically. Which is to say that the Catholic-Islamic dialogue in the immediate future must be framed, from the Catholic point of view, in frankly strategic terms, if it is not to degenerate into yet another exercise in political correctness, with unhappy consequences for both the Church and the world.

To put the case for strategy most simply: can the Catholic Church be of some modest assistance to those Islamic scholars, lawyers, and religious leaders who are working – often at great risk – to develop a genuinely Islamic case for religious toleration in something approximating what we in the West call “civil society”? If a world safe for diversity and pluralism requires a billion Muslims to become good Rawlsian secular liberals, then we really do face the grim prospect of a global “clash of civilizations.” Thus one crucial question for the Islamic future, from the vantage point of the Catholic Church (and, I dare suggest, for free societies throughout the world), is whether Islam can find within its sacred texts and legal traditions the internal resources to ground an Islamic case for important facets of the free and virtuous society, including religious toleration and a commitment to the method of persuasion in politics.

Some may wonder whether the Catholic Church has anything of particular interest to bring to this discussion. What it has to offer, I suggest, is its own recent history – for it took the Catholic Church until 1965 to develop and articulate a thoroughly Catholic concept of religious freedom and its implications for the organization of public life.11 Indeed, one can draw a rough (all right, very rough) analogy between pro-civil society Islamic scholars and religious leaders today and those Catholic intellectuals and bishops who were probing toward some sort of intellectual rapprochement with religious freedom and democracy as the ancien régime was crumbling in Europe throughout the nineteenth century. There may be lessons to be learned from this experience – which eventually led to a dramatic development of social doctrine in Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom [Dignitatis Humanae] – that could and should be brought into the Catholic Church’s global dialogue with the multi-faceted worlds of Islam.

Because of its concern for imperiled Christian communities in Islamic-dominated lands, on the one hand, and a rather anodyne approach to interreligious dialogue, on the other, the Vatican has been reluctant to press its Islamic interlocutors to condemn terrorism forthrightly and publicly. But surely the cardinal-electors, well-aware of the threat that aggressive and militant forms of Islam pose to the world Church, will want to examine this reluctance carefully, and consider whether a more forthright approach to manifest aggression is not in order, not least because militant Islam seems to be most aggressive where it perceives weakness. Should the cardinals also agree that the next pontificate must fashion a new strategic approach to the Catholic Church’s relationship with its Islamic interlocutors, this would in turn require a change in the client-centered approach to this relationship that has, in recent decades, dominated the Islamic work of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. The point, it would seem, is not to be in dialogue with everyone; the point is to be in dialogue with those Islamic partners best positioned to leverage needed change in their co-religionists’ self-understanding of Islam’s role in public life.

There are, of course, no guarantees that a new, strategic approach to the Catholic-Islamic dialogue will have the desired effects within the Islamic world, given the multiple other pressures at play. Nor am I suggesting that new forms of interreligious dialogue are, in and of themselves, “the answer” to the worldwide threat of militant Islam. They may well be part of the answer, however. Putting them into play is an urgent task for the Church and for the world, a task not only for the next pontificate but for those that follow it in this century, and perhaps beyond.

The Bio-Tech Revolution. Like not a few of us, many cardinal-electors have the sense that the world has, at best, a ten-to-twenty year window in which to build the legal and regulatory structures necessary to channel humanity’s new genetic knowledge, and its marriage to technology, in directions that will lead to healing and genuine human flourishing rather than to Huxley’s nightmare. The cardinal-electors will also be aware, as many of us are, that the dominant public moral vocabulary for wrestling with the issues posed by the biotech revolution is a popularized form of utilitarianism – a utilitarianism reinforced by misplaced notions of compassion, on the one hand, and by scientific hubris, on the other. Changing the grammar and vocabulary of the biotech revolution is thus an urgent issue for both the Church and the world in the next generation. How could the next pontificate address that issue?

Perhaps the greatest contribution the Catholic Church can make to this debate is to demonstrate how careful moral reasoning on the biotech issues, far from being an “imposition” of “sectarian” values on a pluralistic society, in fact contributes to a morally serious theory and practice of democracy. In the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, John Paul II alerted the world to the dangers inherent in a purely instrumental or mechanical view of democratic governance.12 In the 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor, he suggested that a robust public moral culture, recognizing the moral truths inscribed in the human condition, is essential in defending such bedrock democratic principles as equality-before-the-law, as well as in managing passions and interests, fighting corruption, and maintaining democratic “inclusiveness.”13 In the 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, the Pope demonstrated how legalized regimes of abortion and euthanasia, by placing certain classes of human beings outside the protection of the law, threaten the very moral structure of the democratic project.14 Can the Church develop these insights into a public moral language capable of challenging the utilitarianism that dominates debate on the “culture of life” questions today?

To take one important example: Catholicism proposes a “dignitarian” view of the human person, and challenges certain biotechological procedures, including cloning, on the moral ground that they violate the innate “human dignity” of persons. What, precisely, is the content of that “human dignity?” What are its component parts? How is it violated by certain practices? What are the consequences for democracy of these violations? John Paul II has given us a supple, rigorous framework for reflection on these questions. It is imperative that the Church, in conversation with all those who recognize the dangers in a purely utilitarian approach to devising the human future, begin to fill in that framework in order to shift the terms of the public moral debate.

For more than two decades now, the Catholic Church throughout the world has argued that abortion is not a question of sexual morality but of public justice: a question of the fifth commandment, not the sixth (or, for those of you who count differently, the sixth commandment, not the seventh!). In the next pontificate, and with the biotechnology challenge compounding the challenge of the abortion license and euthanasia, the Church’s social doctrine must demonstrate ever more specifically and persuasively how the protection of innocent life is a first principle of justice without which democracy will self-destruct. The next pontificate must, in other words, demonstrate ever more persuasively that the life issues are public issues with immense public consequences, and not simply matters of individual “choice.” If it does so, it will further advance the cause of a richer, nobler theory of democracy – which is also crucial in facing the challenge of militant Islam.

The Church’s Intellectual Life. Claims for Paul VI notwithstanding, John Paul II has been the “first modern pope,” if by that term we mean a pope with a thoroughly contemporary intellectual formation.15 Thus the charge that this has been a pontificate “against” modernity is, frankly, absurd. Rather, this has been a pontificate advancing an alternative modern reading of modernity, one in which the West’s passage through the epistemological trapgate created by Kant and Hume does not necessarily lead to a post-modern skepticism about the human capacity to know the truth of anything. “Faith and reason,” John Paul II wrote in 1998, “are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”16 The quest for truth, the Pope proposed, is innate in us; to deny it is to deny an essential characteristic of our humanity, and the result of that stubborn denial is a stunted humanism eventually trapped in the prison of solipsism. If we want to see the public effects of infidelity toward reason and deeply embedded skepticism about reason’s capacity to know the truth of things with a measure of real clarity, we need look only to Europe – where, as Orthodox theologian David Hart has put it, a once-great civilization is dying of “metaphysical boredom.”17

A few moments ago, I mentioned that Voltaire would be “shocked, shocked” at the thought of the Catholic Church as defender of the rights of man; how much more would he be shocked by the idea of Catholicism as defender of reason? Yet that is the fact of the matter: alone among major western cultural-forming institutions, the Catholic Church still believes that human beings can know what is true, what is good, and what is beautiful, even if we can never know those exhaustively – and, thanks to the intellectual initiatives of John Paul II, the Church can, if it has the will for it, defend those claims in thoroughly modern terms.

“If it has the will for it” is, of course, the crux of the matter. Critics (and, in some cases, diehard opponents) of John Paul II’s intellectual project – critics who cannot seem to grasp that this is not a pontificate against modernity but a pontificate with an alternative modern reading of the human condition – remain firmly in control of Catholic intellectual centers throughout much of western Europe and North America (which, among other things, suggests that the notion of this being a “repressive” pontificate is rather overwrought). Younger scholars on both sides of the Atlantic seem more eager to take up the challenge posed by John Paul II than their elders, many of whom seem stuck in intellectual grooves forged in the late 1960s. Will the next pontificate and the next pope actively encourage these younger scholars and their commitment to extending the John Paul II project? Will the next pope and the next pontificate move more assertively to insure that Catholic institutions of higher education are disenthralled from the snares of exclusivist humanism, in order to more effectively develop the alternative, which is Christian humanism?

If militant Islam is a serious threat to the future of the West and to free societies throughout the world, so is militant irrationality – or, perhaps better, militant post-rationality. The renewal of western culture, which is essential to the defense of the democratic project, requires a new confidence in reason – a new confidence that we can know and defend certain truths about the dignity of man, and about the free and just society. Whether the next pope and the next generation of Catholic intellectuals successfully builds on the legacy of John Paul II in challenging modernity to a richer, nobler concept of itself thus has important consequences for “all of us,” and for the course of history.

The Vatican and the World. These four large-scale issues will certainly be among the questions shaping the deliberations that produce the next pope. In my judgment, a further large question should be added to the mix – and that is the question of the Vatican’s address to world politics.

Is it not time, for example, to revisit the terms of the Holy See’s embrace of international and regional organizations, such as the U.N. and the European Union? During the debate prior to the second Iraq War, senior officials of the Holy See made the argument that the U.N. Security Council was the sole agency capable of morally legitimating the resort to armed force in world politics; thanks to the Duelfer Report and Congressional investigations, we now know that, at precisely the time this claim was being made, members of the Security Council were blindly (or willfully) oblivious to (or complicit in) the largest financial scandal in human history, the Iraq Oil-for-Food program, which in fact worked both to re-arm the Saddam Hussein regime and to corrupt the Security Council’s deliberations on Iraq. Surely the time has come to raise the question of whether this and a host of other problems at the U.N. are systemic, not accidental.

The Holy See will continue to insist, as it must, that the nation-state is not necessarily the final or ultimate form of political organization. But unless that insistence is coupled with a serious moral critique of the current corruptions of the U.N. system – a critique that must hold open the question of whether some other form of international organization is not desirable – then the Holy See will, unfortunately, sound ever more like a somewhat more restrained World Council of Churches. Which is to say, its voice will cease to have any relevance in these debates. That would be a loss for the Church. It would also be a considerable loss for the world of the 21st century, which is badly in need of a public moral grammar and vocabulary capable of structuring and disciplining the international debate on international security, human rights, and development issues. The Holy See could help facilitate the development of that grammar and vocabulary – if it is prepared to re-examine certain aspects of its position that seem, to some minds, more reflective of conventional European political sentiment than of what was once referred to as “Catholic international relations theory.”18

A similar re-examination of the Holy See’s “default positions” might well take place in regard to European integration. The current Vatican default position on the E.U., which was set (like its positions on the U.N.) some forty years ago, is something like this: an integrating Europe will be forced to ask the question of the sources of its unity. That question can only be answered, ultimately, by Christianity. Therefore, E.U. expansion and the further integration of the Union through a new constitutional treaty create an evangelical opportunity – the opportunity to reverse the centuries-long process of European secularization. Brussels, setting out to make the rest of Europe Belgium, in fact succeeds in making the rest of Europe Poland.

It doesn’t seem to have worked out that way, however. “Brussels,” setting out to make the rest of Europe Belgium, is now seeking to impose a soulless secularism as the official ideology of the European Union – a secularism with Orwellian overtones, as international legal scholar J.H.H. Weiler has observed, because in the name of “tolerance” it is remarkably intolerant of Christian conviction in the European public square.19 Ask Rocco Buttiglione. Or, more to the point, ask why Buttiglione got such tepid support from the Secretariat of State of the Holy See during his recent inquisition. If the Holy See fears that raising its voice in defense of the right of Catholics to bring their philosophically and religiously informed moral convictions into public life will somehow jeopardize its “standing” in Brussels and Strasbourg, then one has to ask, at some point, whether the game is worth the candle.

We have seen how the default positions in the Church’s approach to interreligious dialogue with Islam must be reset. The default positions in the “foreign policy” of the Holy See require similar re-examination and resetting in the next pontificate – not, I hasten to add, to align the Holy See more closely with U.S. foreign policy, but to retrieve and renew, at the level of policy and witness, the distinctive discipline of Catholic international relations theory. Its revival, in turn, would mark a significant step in the world’s capacity to think through the inescapable moral questions posed by the agitated world politics of the early 21st century.

In the Footsteps of a Giant. Perhaps the wisest line ever written about John Paul II was written at the beginning of the pontificate by a French journalist, André Frossard, a convert from the fashionable atheism of his intellectual class. After John Paul’s clarion call to fearlessness and faith rang out across St. Peter’s Square at the inaugural Mass on October 22, 1978, Frossard wired back to his Paris newspaper, “This isn’t a pope from Poland; this is a pope from Galilee.”

The cardinal-electors know that they will be trying to find a worthy successor to a giant – to a man some knowledgeable scholars call the most significant pope of the second millennium of Christian history. One cannot envy the man who succeeds such a colossal figure. Yet for all his personal initiative and boldness, John Paul II has always understood that “the Church” is far, far more than the papacy or the pope. Indeed, one way to sum up his heroic efforts is to see him precisely as the “pope from Galilee,” the successor of Peter who summoned his brethren, in virtually every corner of the world, to live out the meaning of their baptismal consecration – and in doing so, to “set the world ablaze” with the truth, as he challenged two million young people to do at World Youth Day 2000 in Rome.20 John Paul II, in other words, has quite deliberately left a lot of work for the rest of us to do.

And the “rest of us” includes his successor, whose stewardship of the Church that John Paul II leaves behind will shape the course of 21st century history far beyond the institutional boundaries of Catholicism.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.


NOTES

1. Somewhat to my combined chagrin and satisfaction, I recently learned that the Politburo of the Vietnamese Communist Party had ordered translations made of certain key sections of my biography of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope, for circulation among the higher party cadres – presumably to help them figure out how to avoid the fate of their east central European comrades. On the “immortality project,” see Leon Kass, “L’Chaim and Its Limits: Why Not Immortality?” First Things 113 (May 2001).

2. John Paul II, Universi Dominici Gregis, 22 February 1996.

3. See my Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (New York: HarperCollins, 1999), pp. 260-63.

4. Which in fact is already being done, in part thanks to John Paul II’s “theology of the body;” see Witness To Hope, pp. 333-43.

5. See John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 57.4, 62.3, 65.4.

6. See John Paul II, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, 4.

7. The claim that priestly celibacy only became normative in western Christianity in the Middle Ages is challenged, persuasively in my view, by Christian Cochini, S.J., The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), and Alfons Maria Cardinal Stickler, The Case for Clerical Celibacy: Its Historical Development and Theological Foundations (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995).

8. See my essay, “Europe’s Problem – And Ours,” in First Things 140 (February 2004). This argument is amplified and extended in my forthcoming book, The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God (New York: Basic Books, 2005).

9. See David Cracknell and Andrew Porter, “Miaow! Blair babes ditch sisterhood to sharpen claws on Kelly,” The Sunday Times, 19 December 2004. (The headline on this otherwise serious story may be taken as an illustration of what’s happened in recent years to what was once one of the world’s great newspapers.)

10. “The church should value tolerance over its own unity,” The Independent, 19 October 2004.

11. See John Courtney Murray, S.J., “The Issue of Church and State at Vatican Council II,” Theological Studies 27:4 (December 1966).

12. See John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, 46.

13. See John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 96-97.

14. See John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae 18, 20, 73.

15. See Witness to Hope, pp. 123-39.

16. John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, 1.

17. See David B. Hart, “Religion in America: ancient and modern,” The New Criterion, March 2004.

18. On this point, see my essay, “World Order–What Catholics Forgot,” First Things 143 (May 2004).

19. See J.H.H. Weiler, Un’Europa Cristiana – Un saggio esplorativo (Milano: Biblioteca Universale Rizzoli, 2003).

20. See Witness to Hope, revised and expanded paperback edition (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 880.

 

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