What to Look for in a New Pope

Published March 12, 2013

The Wall Street Journal

[The Wall Street Journal recently published six views on what sort of leader the next pope should be. This was Mary Eberstadt’s contribution.]

No sooner had the unexpected news from Rome ricocheted across the globe than certain whispered hopes began to be heard: Time now for women priests. Time to abolish the celibate priesthood. Time to soften up on birth control, abortion, marriage. Such are the perpetual longings of those who would remake the Catholic Church by aligning it with that North Star of modernity, the sexual revolution.

The next pope can pop those trial balloons by energetically deploying Christianity’s most underutilized asset these days: doctrinal orthodoxy. That, and only that, will move the church out of its defensive crouch and back into forward mode.

Everyone knows what stands in the way of such assertiveness: 10-plus years of sex scandals. Hence the first order of business is to establish that the scandals, as an institutional phenomenon, are over. Perhaps also a radical new organization — say, a monastic order dedicated to penance for the sins of the sexual revolution itself — would help to clarify a thing or two about messaging.

Then maybe the rest of the world can get around to a widely overlooked but potent truth: Christianity Lite has been tried repeatedly during the past few decades, and for Catholics and Protestants alike, the result has been graying pews, falling attendance, indifferent practice and children from “Christian” homes who do not know Easter from the Easter bunny.

Why? Because Christianity Lite turns its back on that other great institution whose fate has been historically twinned with that of the churches: the family. As the empirical record shows, where the family is strong, so are Christian communities and doctrine — and vice versa. For both Protestants and Catholics, it is orthodoxy, not heterodoxy, that galvanizes the faithful, mints new recruits and succeeds, literally, in reproducing itself.

Unprecedented numbers of fatherless homes, burgeoning levels of depression and anxiety, a sexual ethos so freakishly jejune that parents of every stripe fear it-these are just some of the specters now stalking the secular West. Then there are the crushing burdens outside the West that traditional teaching also addresses: the women around the world who suffer genuine oppression, like sex trafficking; the millions of believers persecuted for believing; the many other human beings unwanted by anyone else and upon whose intrinsic dignity Christianity — and sometimes, only Christianity — insists.

The best defense remains a good offense, and the riven secular world itself, however inadvertently, hands the next pope plenty of moral ammunition. He just has to be willing to use it.

Mrs. Eberstadt is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the author of “How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization,” to be published in April by Templeton Press.

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