Thank God for small miracles. Or, in this case, huge ones. The decision of Pope Benedict XVI to step down has given the Catholic Church an unprecedented opportunity to save itself. The Pope’s action could not have come at a better time. Whether the conclave of Cardinals takes advantage of this blessing or blows it all to hell remains to be seen. Here, what the Cardinals need to do to ensure the Church’s survival.
1. Don’t pick another frail, white-haired pope. Honorable as he may be, Pope Benedict makes John McCain look downright boyish, so picking another old man is a surefire way to completely lose the middle-aged and younger generations. Like it or not, appearance matters.
However, choosing a pope on ethnic appearance would be a huge mistake. Sure, a black pope helps bolster Africa (the new battleground in the vicious Christian-Muslim wars), as a Latino does for Central and South America. But that vision is short-sighted, as it wouldn’t actually address, let alone solve, the Church’s problems.
2. Select an articulate, charismatic pope who, in both perception and reality, can effectively communicate that he is in touch with the true heart and soul of the Church—the rank and file. The new pope cannot afford to be aloof or insulated. How bad has it become? One in ten Americans is an ex-Catholic, and the 30 million who have left the Church, if counted as their own religious group, would be the third-largest denomination in the country. Vocations are a fraction of what they once were, and the obvious stigma associated with entering the seminary keeps even more away. And the stark reality is that, within a decade, Catholic education will be largely gone, leaving churches that much emptier.
3. Make the new pope apologize—in an unprecedented upfront, straightforward manner, not just for the scandals but the cover-ups. And that apology should extend down to every parish. Countless Catholics are still waiting for a genuine apology. Praying in mass for the pedophile clergy, and those who covered up their salacious activities, is one thing. But the many priests who still view the scandals as overblown makes the sin mortal, as the continuing Catholic exodus and dwindling coffers attest.
4. Pick a pope who gets public relations. Restore the credibility that has been shattered by years of sex scandals, shredded documents and cover-ups. The Roman Catholic Church is the largest provider of social services in the entire world (second in America behind only the U.S. government) and administers the world’s largest nonpublic school system, yet most people are unaware of those phenomenal achievements—a massive PR failure. It’s time to tell that magnificent story and educate the world—again—on what it really means to be Catholic. Unequivocally, pride in Catholic identity leads to fuller schools.
5. Find a pope who can flex political muscle. From keeping its schools open (which saves billions in taxpayer money) to fighting government health-care insurance mandates for abortion and birth control, success in the public arena only occurs when muscle is flexed. It’s time for Catholics to take their rightful place at the political table, as all other religions do (despite having far fewer members). But that means playing hardball, unabashedly taking Catholic issues front and center in primary and general elections.
6. The next pope must agree to allow priests to marry. And yes, consider allowing women to enter the priesthood. This would ease the resentment felt by many women towards a Church that treats them like second-class citizens. Even more important, women and married priests will ensure the Church’s survival. We can play with the numbers, pretending that seminary vocations are up, but the stark reality is that if nothing changes, there soon won’t be a Catholic Church in the traditional sense. The clock is ticking.
An all-male, celibate clergy has its origins in human, not divine, history. Forget Dan Brown theories as to whether Jesus was actually married. Priests were married (and possibly even a pope or two), and were for centuries.
Keep the faith but fight the corruption. That should be the ultimate factor in choosing the next pope. It doesn’t get any simpler, or more poignant, than that. If such a leader can preach a positive message, modernize without compromise, and wield a political sledgehammer, then prayers for a reinvigorated flock will be answered, keeping Christ’s Church alive far into the future.