Choosing a Pope, Day 1

The exciting thing is the confounding thing: To a degree I’ve never seen before, nobody knows who the next pope will be. All my smart Catholic friends who tend to have a sense of what’s coming or a good read of the lay of the land—they don’t have a clue. Eight years ago I thought it was Joseph Ratzinger and said so, as he gave his great homily John Paul II’s funeral, to a friend. This time I have no idea. I don’t think the cardinals themselves have any idea. There’s a broad sense that this could be a time of wild cards, of amazing turns and surprises bigger than the normal surprise.

This morning I thought, as I watched the cardinals enter St. Peter’s on TV, that the conclave has been marked and even misshapen by the fact that they are not mourning the death of a pope. Normally they’d be in some sort of at least formal mourning as they begin to choose a new pontiff. And mourning isn’t just a feeling; it does something to you—it sobers, it grounds and stills. It forces you to know that you are in history. I have found myself thinking about that moment during John Paul II’s funeral when he was carried out to the steps of the cathedral and put before the people. A big Bible was placed on top of his plain casket, and a wind suddenly came up and turned the pages—page after page, as if turned by an unseen hand. The whole world saw it on TV, and no one could have seen it without having a feeling of the divine, of the supernatural. It bestowed a sense of Godness, and it would have reminded every cardinal there of the realness of history and the gravity of their choice. God had brought the cardinals to Rome to choose, in their mourning, John Paul’s successor.

Now they’re called to Rome because an 85-year-old man retired. He has all his marbles, as they say in the DSM, and can still stand straight, so even taking into account his age, the pains and limits of it, it seemed a decision made by a man—a worldly decision—that brought them there.

It seems to me the absence of mourning has left things strange, and contributed to the air of Anything Can Happen. Which also prompts the question: Is it good that anything can happen?

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There is a sense too, at least among American Catholics I talk to, that this is in some new way a crucial moment for the church, even though we don’t understand or cannot name exactly why. It’s not only The Scandals, the Vatican bank, that source of half a century’s rumors, or Vatileaks. It’s not only the three cardinals who reportedly made a dossier on the last, bound in red leather and locked away like the third secret of Fatima for the next pope’s perusal. Those cardinals—again, reportedly—wrote of rivalries and ambitions. But what exactly does that mean? Who are the rivals and what are they fighting over? Ambitions for what, to do what? We are all wondering about this.

Anyway, I talk to a lot of Catholics who are publicly sanguine and privately unsettled.

All this is at odds with the burly bonhomie shown in public by those such as New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who in his few days in Rome has always been seen laughing and reaching out, joking and teasing. It’s a good thing to see. I want to feel the way he seems to feel. Maybe by the end of the conclave I will.

Two thoughts:

The first is that we’re all talking about a possible American pope, or a Canadian, or a South American or Central American, or an African, an Asian. God bless them all, we’ll see. But a church whose cardinals might be feeling an almost primal longing for stability in an uncertain world—I don’t know that they are, but at least some would be feeling some tug toward the more coherent past—might make a choice whose headline would be “The Empire Strikes Back.” Meaning an Italian. There hasn’t been an Italian pope in 35 years. Before that they ran the papacy for almost forever and it all sort of worked out, or at least the church is still here. The Italian cardinals have a number of highly regarded papabili, such as Gianfranco Ravasi. You might say “No, that won’t do, that’s the old world.” But maybe everything old is new again; an Italian would be new again.

The second is that there’s a lot of ignorant, tendentious and even aggressive media chatter about the church right now, and it’s starting to grate. Church observers are blabbering away on cable and network news telling the church to get with the program, throwing around words like “gender” and “celibacy” and “pedophile” and phrases like “irrelevant to the modern world.”

I wouldn’t presume to tell Baptists or Lutherans or Orthodox Jews how they should interpret their own theology, what traditions to discard and what new ones to adopt, what root understandings are no longer pertinent. It would be presumptuous, and also deeply impolite in a civic sense. The world I came up in had some virtues, and one was that we gave each other a little more space, a little more courtesy both as individuals and organizations, never mind faiths. That kind of public courtesy is what has allowed America, with all its sharp-elbowed angers and disagreements, to operate.

Right now every idiot in town feels free to tell the church to get hopping, and they do it in a new way, with a baldness that occasionally borders on the insulting. Whatever their faith or lack of it they feel free to critique loudly and in depth, to the degree they are capable of depth. I have been critical of the church over the sex scandals for longer than a decade. Here’s one column—but I write of it because I love it and seek to see it healthy, growing and vital as it brings Christ into the world. Some of the church’s critics don’t seem to be operating from affection and respect but something else, or some things else.

When critics mean to be constructive, they bring an air of due esteem and occasional sadness to their criticisms, and offer informed and thoughtful suggestions as to ways the old church might right itself. They might even note, with an air of gratitude free of crowd-pleasing sanctimony, that critics must, in fairness, speak of those parts of the church that most famously work—the schools that teach America’s immigrants, the charities, the long embrace of the most vulnerable—and outweigh a whole world of immediate criticisms.

But when they just prattle on with their indignant words—gender, celibacy, irrelevant—well, they’re probably not trying to be constructive. One might say they’re being vulgar, ignorant and destructive, spoiled too. They think they’re brave, or outspoken, or something. They don’t have enough insight into themselves to notice they’d never presume to instruct other great faiths. It doesn’t cross their minds that if they were as dismissive about some of those faiths they’d have to hire private security guards.

I once read an account of Anne Boleyn’s death. In the moments after she was beheaded her head was held aloft by her executioner, to show the crowd. Her nervous system was shocked, her neurons misfired, her head didn’t know it was severed from her neck. Her eyes blinked, her mouth moved crazily. Those critics who go on TV now to tear down what they don’t even understand: they are removed and unknowing. They are Anne Boleyn’s head.