Cardinal Hume for Pope

From the Spectator


It is a mortal sin for to wish for the death of a Pope, which must have made it easier for the devil, harvesting liberal Catholic souls over the last twenty years. Pope John Paul II is neither a liberal nor a democrat and has fought throughout his reign against almost everything that the middle classes in liberal democracies believe, and especially against their interpretation of feminism. His energy has been astounding. He survived being shot with undiminished energy. His tireless travels around the world could bring men half his age to their knees - though that may be the position in which he finds strength. This energy and willpower has battered observers into supposing that nothing can stop him. Since he is determined to see in the Millennium, most Vatican watchers are confident that he will succeed. Yet for all his strength and willpower he is 78 and his Parkinson's can be terrible to see. When he moves across the polished Vatican floors his stiffness, the unbending will and the slow shuffling steps in his great ceremonial robes can give him an eerie likeness to a Dalek.

Perhaps the medications have the disease under control. It fluctuates, according to the journalists who watch him all the time. But the man has done so many incredible things that he might yet astonish the world one last time by dying. Who could succeed him when he does?

This is a much easier question to answer than "who will succeed him?": the only honest answer to the second question is that no one knows; not even the 120 cardinals who will choose his successor from amongst their own number. There was a flurry of excitement earlier this spring when Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Secretary of State or foreign minister, actually mentioned the name of the dissident Swiss theologian Hans Küng in a public lecture. He didn't say anything very complimentary about him; still less did he propose a reconciliation between the theologian and the Church, but even to mention the name was construed as an act of significant daring in the stiflingly conformist atmosphere if the Vatican. But it is not enough to install him as a favourite.

Since John Paul II was only 58 when elected, it is almost certain that his successor will be much older. No one wants another 20-year pontificate. This rules out one of the most interesting Conservative candidates, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn of Vienna, who is only 53. If it weren't for his age, he might have made one of the most interesting successors, since he has much in common with the present Pope, but comes from a church as unlike Poland as possible. Schoenborn himself is an iron conservative in doctrinal matters: when asked about his policy on the remarriage of divorcees, he replied that marriage was like riding a motorbike: for divorcees to remarry was as impossible as for a rider paralysed in a smash to mount his bike again. But he is also a gentleman: a week later, he apologised to a remarried woman who had been in the audience when he said that.

In Austria he has had to deal with one of the most public outbreaks of discontent anywhere in the Catholic church and a scandal around a predecessor as Cardinal who had a fondness for novice monks. More than half a million Catholics, a third of the country's church-going population signed a petition calling for women priests as well as married clergy and greater democracy in the Church. That is extraordinary in a country historically as loyally Catholic as Ireland. These are the three causes against which Pope John Paul II has set his face most firmly and they are the three questions which his successor will have to deal with most urgently. Women priests are almost certainly impossible. This Pope has done everything in his power to ensure they will remain so for ever: he would have like to proclaim his opinion on the matter infallible; but even if his successor were to want to reverse this decision it is difficult to see how he could do so without causing a schism. It is a question which divides the Catholic church just as it divides Protestants.

Married priests are another matter; in fact their introduction is probably the most urgent task facing the next pope. A married parish clergy would not solve all the Church's problems. Married men cost a lot, they get divorced, and they cannot be moved around as easily as the celibates. In the long run, a married parish clergy would profoundly change the character of the Catholic Church, tending to blur the distinction between clergy and laity. But that is a price worth paying: the crisis over celibacy is deep and dreadful and world wide. Almost the first act of John Paul II was stop all applications to leave the priesthood form men who wanted to get married: about 100,000 had gone in the thirty years following the second Vatican Council. Solid research conducted by Richard Sipe, a psychiatrist who was for twenty years a monk before leaving to get married, suggests that no more that about half the notionally celibate priesthood is involved in sexual relationships at any one time.

In the parts of the world where the rule of celibacy is outwardly observed, vocations are collapsing. In Africa, and to a lesser extent Latin America, the rule is just ignored with some fairly dreadful consequences. A devout Catholic friend travelling in Africa reported to me a bishop who kept a harem constantly replenished with virgins to minimise the risk of Aids. Celibacy among the parish clergy is only a disciplinary norm: sacrificing it would change no profound doctrine. The moral price of maintaining this discipline is paid in double standards, hypocrisy and human suffering; traditionalists might argue that suffering is the true currency of the church, which it should not stint. But the hypocrisy and double standards, like bad money, drive out the good.

This is one reason why the traditional speculation naming Cardinal Hume for the job should be taken seriously for a while. He has done an extraordinarily skilful job of introducing married priests in this country while minimising the dissent and grumbles from the clergy still condemned to celibacy, many of whom are deeply suspicious of the motives of the married Anglicans who came over to escape from women priests . It would appeal to his romantic historical imagination if the Church of England were to collapse, but in the process hand back to the Church of Rome a solution to the problems of priestly celibacy.

Cardinal Hume's real qualification for the job, though, may be in his attitude to church democracy. He's agin it; but in the most charming way. He practices autocracy with consent and it works. He is almost the only candidate from the affluent West to preside over the church that is not in a state of cold civil war. The Austrian petition for church democracy (and against the Pope) was also offered round the German church, where 1.5m signed it, despite the active opposition of the bishops to the movement. But when it came to this country it fizzled without trace. This is not because there is no support for these policies here but because the Cardinal has somehow managed to ensure that his liberal opposition is entirely loyal - partly because almost all are employed by his Church, and partly because his mixture of exquisite manners, headmasterly autocracy and shining personal holiness disarms all but the most determined critics. All this has been accomplished without any interference from Rome. So to some observers he seems to be a candidate for decentralisation, if not for democracy. Since the electorate is composed of Cardinals who would, many of them, benefit from a decentralised regime in which they could run their dioceses without the constant threat of delation to Rome by their opponents, this is a point in his favour.

In North America, the split between conservatives and liberals is so absolute that Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles, who is accounted a liberal, has formally reported to the Vatican authorities the terrifying figure of Mother Angelica, a nun who runs the largest religious cable TV network in the world from a position somewhere to the right of Torquemada and who has been attacking his theology on air. No one from that continent would be possible since there are no neutrals: the same considerations apply with greater force in Latin America, where radicals tend to be shot rather than merely execrated.

There is a further difficulty with Latin American candidates, and this is that they come form a continent where the Reformation is being re-enacted. Pentecostal protestantism is spreading like wildfire across the continent, as it is in Eastern Europe, 400 years after the same thing happened in our part of Europe. Because Pentecostals make their own clergy and are radically decentralised, they respond to a market economy in religion much better than the command structure of an established church can do. Though they seem extremely patriarchal, they offer women better treatment and, often, more responsibility than can a Catholic church which is writhing in knots around feminism like a worm impaled on a hook.

There are other European candidates than Cardinal Hume. For Cardinal Miroslav Vlk of Prague, a conclave represents his last chance of getting some vowels into his name. But he would be another central European, too much like the present Pope. Cardinal Martini, a Jesuit from Milan, is probably the strongest candidate. He is wise, holy, brilliant, and carries all the hopes of the Liberals. But that alone is probably enough to dish him. The present pope has changed the rules for election so that a candidate no longer needs a two thirds majority: after twelve ballots, a simple majority will do; and some observers think that this might give extremist candidates a chance. But I doubt things are that desperate. What the next pope needs to be is a complicated Conservative, who can recognise the inevitability of change. I'm afraid our Cardinal fits the bill, even though he is nearly too old at 75, and even though it would wreck his plans for a quiet funeral: There is a scurrilous story which I entirely believe, which has him emerging from a gruelling meeting with Dr Carey: "When I die" he said, "I don't want that man coming to my funeral. Hold it while he's out of the country or something." The stratagem won't work if he's Pope.

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