A Political Papacy?

How the new pope might engage the political world.

Pope Benedict XVI and U.S. President Barack Obama during Obama's 2009 visit to the Vatican. (CNS photo/Chris Helgren, Reuters)
Pope Benedict XVI and U.S. President Barack Obama during Obama’s 2009 visit to the Vatican. (CNS photo/Chris Helgren, Reuters)
For the past 700 years or so, the election of a new Pope was always preceded by the death of another, and so it meant, presumably, that Catholics would spend some time mourning the loss of their spiritual leader before considering who might serve next. This time around, however, with Pope Benedict XVI’s startling announcement Monday, many Catholics are mourning the end of a papacy, perhaps, but also looking quite quickly to the future, eagerly wondering who will be elected to lead their church.

The election of a pope is most definitely spiritual business. Guided by the Holy Spirit, cardinals, men selected by a pope because of some immense contribution to the life of the Catholic Church, (in this case, all 117 eligible electors were made cardinals by either Pope John Paul II or Benedict XVI) cloister themselves inside St. Peter’s Basilica and consider the traits they’d like in the man who will lead the world’s largest Christian church. This is done, we are told, with a profound sense of prayer and reflection, and it’s not a responsibility any one of them takes lightly.

At the same time, as any cursory study of world history reveals, the papacy is an exceedingly political institution.

The Pontiff is a head of state, Vatican City, and some choose to exercise their political authority rather boldly. It’s a common assumption that John Paul II played a rather important role in the downfall of communism in his beloved homeland, Poland. More recently, it was revealed that Catholic cardinals, perhaps some in the Vatican with Pope Benedict’s direction, helped to free political prisoners in Cuba before the Pope’s visit there in 2010. New work is emerging that shows the political assistance to Jews in Europe during the Second World War led by Pope Pius XII.

The flood of comments from world leaders following Benedict’s announcement shows that politicians, too, pay attention to goings-on in the Vatican.
Vice President Joe Biden tweeted, “This is a man of great integrity … looking out for what he believes is the best interest of our church.” While new Secretary of State John Kerry wrote in a statement that Benedict “has been a man of action and principle, working to promote human rights and dignity in places around the globe where they are too often denied, and a voice of clarity and conviction about our obligations as stewards of a fragile planet.” Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard noted that Benedict “wished to be ‘a simple humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord’ and in his resignation that humility has been amply demonstrated.” The President of the Philippines, Benigno Aquino, said that his country “join[s] the Catholic world and all whose lives he has touched in prayer and sympathy.”

Here at home, Pope Benedict visited the White House in 2008, meeting with former President George W. Bush and celebrating Mass at Nationals Park. The following year, President Barack Obama and his family met with Benedict at the Vatican where they discussed a wide-range of issues and where, it was reported, that Obama pledged to champion policies that would reduce the number of abortions in the United States.

There will be many demands on the new pope, including, especially, the continuation of protecting children and fighting the scourge of sexual abuse in the Church. The Church faces challenges both in its growth in the global south and its decline in the West. It will take a truly gifted manager to address these demographic realities.

But what will the next pope offer the world in terms of political advocacy?

It’s my hope that the new pope will continue Benedict’s environmental advocacy. The next pope will most likely fall in line ideologically with Benedict, and it’s helpful for a conservative of such stature to remind other conservatives that environmental issues must cut through party and ideological lines. Benedict did that well, and a younger pope with more energy championing this cause could make a real impact.

International religious liberty is something important for the new pope to consider. Christians are dying because of their faith around the world, and people of other religious persuasions often face difficulties in practicing their faith, too. The new pope must remind the world that an attack on religious freedom anywhere is an attack on religious freedom everywhere.

Imagine the powerful statement that a new pope could make about stopping the sexual exploitation of children and women around the world by taking full responsibility for our own failings as Catholics on this very issue? We know how horrendous it is, he could say, because we have lived through this nightmare for the past several decades. Benedict has begun to implement some norms that will protect children, but nearly all agree that there is much work left to do. Offering the lessons the church has learned on ways to protect the vulnerable from sexual exploitation would be a humbling and powerful gesture.

What do you hope from the next pope? Should the Church become more or less political? Should the new pope be simply a spiritual leader and leave politics to others, or does he have an obligation to use the power of his office to bring about justice in the world? Which specific crises might the new pope take on around the globe?