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A Church in Search of Itself: Benedict XVI and the Battle for the Futureby Robert Blair Kaiser
Toward a People's Church
For more than six hundred years, it has been the same scenario. A pope dies. The cardinals assemble. After a good many prayers calling on the Holy Spirit, they lock themselves in the Sistine Chapel, surrounded by some of the most stunning art in the history of humankind, to vote, twice each morning and twice each afternoon, in a series of solemn, silent, and secret paper ballots, until a two-thirds majority agrees on the successor. When he responds, he does so with the same single Latin word used by so many of his predecessorsAccipiam"I will accept." He proceeds to announce his new name, while over in a corner of the chapel the papal chamberlain burns the ballots with some dry straw in a centuries-old stove, sending three white puffs of smoke above the Roman rooftops to tell a waiting world, We have a pope!
The same prayers, the same ballots, the same three puffs of smokealways the scrupulous insistence on sameness by a group of men as committed to their history as any community on the face of the earth, to emphasize the fact that they didn't invent all of these formalities yesterday, that they are only following ancient traditions, and passing them on to the next generation.
But in the spring of 2005, the cardinals coming to Rome to elect Pope John Paul II's successor were being challenged to play new kinds of roles in a different kind of story. It was different because, although every element in their protocol mirrored the conclaves of 1378, 1566, 1846, and 1978, one important dynamic fact had changed: the waiting world had changed, changed more in the past quarter century than it had changed in all of human history. The old waiting world was a passive worldexcept in Rome, where its people, at least for the first thousand years of the Church's history, were asked to ratify, viva voce, the man chosen to follow in the steps of Peter. But for almost a thousand years since then, the cardinals who gathered and voted were verbs, and every other Catholic in the world a passive recipient of the action of the verbs. We have given you a pope, the cardinals said in effect. Rejoice and be gladin our choice.
In 2005, however, in a world that had suddenly shrunk to the size of a village, new mass-mediated channels of communication among the people of the world marked a shift in the grammar of the Roman Catholic Church, one that scholars predicted would have a profound, positive effect on the Church's existence for the rest of the twenty-first century. Through these channels, Catholics were finding the kind of active voice not exercised in the Church since the first few centuries of its existence in Rome.
Electronic miracles have compressed time and space, so that now we live and work in new kinds of microcosms and macrocosms that alter our perceptions of everything, accelerate the pace of change, and create the need not only for a new grammar, but for a new geometry of power, moving from the pyramidal to the circular. The shift was largely driven by new information technologies that made it possible, for example, for a cameraman working for RAI, the Italian state-owned television giant, to stand on a Vatican City rooftop, focus his Sony Betacam SX television camera with the fourteen-inch X2 Yashinon telephoto lens on the golden pectoral cross of a cardinal crossing Saint Peter's Square, and flash that image out to every television on earthand to many cell phonesinstantaneously and in color.
And so, when the cardinals gathered in the spring of 2005 to prepare for the Church's change of command, the whole world was present in Rome, courtesy of the mass media. Interviews and commentary about the event started beaming out from Rome to every corner of the planet. CNN had a rooftop aerie high above Saint Peter's Square, with glib reporters who had done their legwork and solemn analysts who had done their homework. CBS, with more than a hundred on its papal news team, had another view of Saint Peter's from the rooftop of the Atlante Star Hotel. Other networks had huge crews: NBC, ABC, Fox, and the BBC; Sky News in Asia; and Televisa, the network that covers all of Latin America, home to almost half the world's Catholics. Intelligence about the papal election, which had once been the private concern of no more than a few thousand Church insiders, had suddenly become common to all the world, so that Rome itself could be present to a nun in Tokyo and a lawyer in Riobamba and a mayor in San Francisco, giving them reason to care about the implications of this papal election in a way their parents and grandparents were never informed enough to care about as they did.
More important (and this is what made 2005 so completely different), Catholics everywhereand not only Catholics, but every man and woman on earth with a spark of religion in them and a feel for historycould also have a real presence in Rome because they could now express themselves about the kind of pope they wanted with an unprecedented ease and an incalculable power. They did it on the Internet, that miraculous child of the geosynchronous satellite and the personal computer that has so revolutionized the planet's communications. Suddenly, the Internet allowed people to make their opinions known in a realm where many of the cardinals also dwelledin cyberspace. Insofar as the cardinals surfed the Internet (and many of them did, almost obsessively), one wondered whether they could fail to pay attention to the hopes and prayers of the people who were cheering for them to make the right choice.
Many cardinals told me they were paying attention. They told me they felt blessedas no other cardinal-electors had ever been blessed beforebecause they had new ways of understanding what their people wanted of them. The College of Cardinals had no formal machinery for promoting their own understanding. They wouldn't be taking any public opinion polls, for example, before this conclave. So some of them relied on their local press to reflect public opinion. And thanks to the Internet, they had new windows on the rest of the world. They could read every major publication in the world as easily as they could read their local daily newspaper. The Internet had another treasure for them: a myriad of Web sites where they could listen in on people of every class, free from censors or gatekeepers, saying what they wanted to see in a new popeand saying it there on a daily basis.
These people with an Internet voice hoped many of the cardinals were listening, but they knew, of course, that the cardinal-electors were members of the pope's senate, not the people's senate. They had won their positions by appointment, not by a popular vote, and they didn't come to the conclave like delegates to a political convention, committed to a particular man. Still, after the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council of the early 1960s redefined the Church as all the people of God, many ordinary folks expected the cardinals to take the lead in building a new kind of Church, a Church that listenedeven, some hoped, a people's Church. In effect, and in a new way, the people of God thought they had some kind of consultative role in this election, and they voiced their opinions in cyberspace.
Christine Roussel, a legal researcher in New York City, put a prayer on the Internet, asking God "to part the Red Sea of fear, power, and bureaucracy and give us the pope we need!" Andrew Greeley, an American priest-sociologist, published an online survey that had asked 4,278 Catholics in five countries if they wanted a new pope who would give more autonomy to the local bishops, show more concern about the life of ordinary laypeople, permit more change in the Church, appoint lay advisers, return to the practice of local election of bishops, ordain women, and allow priests to marry. He found surprising support, as high as 78 percent in Germany and as low as 55 percent in Poland, for all of these mostly democratic reforms. And We Are Church, an umbrella for 140 reform organizations, issued a three-page statement on the Internet calling for a bishop of Rome who would share leadership with other bishops and the whole people of God. Its statement focused on qualities of leadership, not on specific candidates for pope.
These people could speak boldly because they were now so much more well informed. On the eve of the conclave, anyone with a computer could make the acquaintance of the Nigerian cardinal Francis Arinze, now featured on more than two thousand Web sites. Internet surfers could visit no less than 250 sites to learn about the background of Brazilian cardinal Cláudio Hummes, his record as archbishop of São Paolo, and what he had said about the family, eternal life, and Pope John Paul II's teachings on social justice. Anyone who knew how to use Google could find more than a hundred thousand entries on Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, John Paul II's doctrinal chief; many of these sites gave the full text of one or another of Ratzinger's important speeches over the past decade. And millions of people on thousands of electronic bulletin boards could share their feelings with like-minded spirits about what they were reading. John Wauck, a priest and professor of communications at Rome's Santa Croce University, said, "I run into housewives who are telling me about Cardinal So-and-so, and I'm wondering, where do you get that information? I can't help but think the Internet is feeding that."
Some asked, rightly enough, how many of the cardinal-electors would pay attention to these newly vocal Christians. In a 1996 directive on papal elections, John Paul II decreed that cardinals could not speak with the outside world during the conclave, or be spoken to by anyone but another cardinal. No telephones. No radios. No television. No e-mail. Electors should be attentive to the voice of the Holy Spirit, no other.
As far as we know, that rule was observed during the conclave of 2005, but only during the days when the cardinals were actually casting their ballots. Before then, in fact for several years before Pope John Paul II passed to his reward, many of the cardinal-electors haunted the Internet. Only one of many, Cardinal Julius Darmaatmadja of Jakarta (sometimes with the help of his aides) had been reading the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Times of London on the Internet. He could type in "next pope" on a half-dozen search engines and be ushered into hundreds of Web sites that gave him a sense of what people were thinking and feeling all over the world. He could (and did) correspond by e-mail with a number of his favorite theologians, and with friends from his own polyglot community in Jakarta who were not too shy to tell him what kind of pope they wanted. He could (and did) lurk on the fringes of any number of electronic bulletin boards and Listservs, allowing himself to ponder a mighty range of Catholic opinion (and even Muslim opinion, too, for Darmaatmadja lives in a predominantly Muslim country) that could not fail to tell him what kind of pope people wanted to see in John Paul's successor. If the Holy Spirit was speaking to Cardinal Darmaatmadja, this is how She was doing it, through the voices of other men and women or, as Pope John XXIII would have said, through historythat is, through events themselves.
Furthermore, when Cardinal Darmaatmadja and the other cardinal-electors arrived in Rome for a last good-bye to the deceased, long-reigning pope, they came determined to make maximum use of their weeks of freedom to compare notes with their fellow cardinals, during a period called the "preconclave," before they were finally rendered incommunicado inside the Sistine Chapel to cast their first ballots.
Cardinals are political animals. They couldn't have achieved their eminence otherwise. Whether these cardinals had started their careers as diocesan clergy or as members of a religious order, they, like the executives in any corporation, had networked their way to the top. They learned the art of politics, closely allied to the arts of conversation and of compromise, trading information for power. Now, at this conclave, information was powerpower, at least, to make the most intelligent possible choice for the 264th successor of Peter, and thus shape the future of the Church.
Yes, they were cardinals, appointed by the pope to do two things: advise the pope (but only when asked to do so) and elect a new pope when he passed on. But no one could expect them to make their choice in an information vacuum. They were also bishops, with a mandate to serve their people. In biblical terms, they were shepherds, called upon to feed their sheep. In 2005, that call had become far more complicated than ever before. For one thing, the sheep-shepherd metaphor did not much work for city dwellers, many of whom will never see a living shepherd or a live sheep. For another, their people did not much like to think of themselves as sheep. They had adult ideas, and more and more, they were demanding that those ideas be heard.
But this is what made the cardinals' task more complicated: their people did not speak with one voice, but two.
Ever since the French Revolution, two factions in the Church had been battling, not so much over the meaning of their faith but over ways to advance and give an account of that faith. One side said the Church was outside history. It was a perfect society, with no need of help from anyone but God; it didn't have to worry about giving an account of itself to anyone else. The other side said that because Jesus had been part of history, the Church was also part of historywhich meant that it had to grow up as the world was growing up. And growth means change. "In a higher world it is otherwise," said the famed English cardinal John Henry Newman, "but here below, to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often."
One side bought into the zeitgeistthe spirit of the age that hailed progress, pluralism, freedom, and democracy. The other side looked upon the very notion of progress as a sacred cow.
The two sides fought at Vatican II in the early 1960s, and they were about to fight again in this conclave, a little more than forty years latertwo parties, the party of change versus the party of no change. The change party wanted to update the Church. The no-change party despised the word "updated" and its sister word "reform," a word they had looked on with some suspicion ever since Martin Luther nailed his theses to a church door in sixteenth-century Germany. "Reform" sounded like "Protestant."
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