15 abril 2005


Queridos todos:
Una de mis pacientes y asiduas lectoras me dice: “Comenta un poco más sobre el porvenir de la Iglesia...” Ante tan tremendo tema creo que el presente artículo aparecido recientemente en The Economist: The future of the Catholic Church es suficientemente revelador como para que cada cual saque sus propias consecuencias. Os lo envío en lugar de la acostumbrada Colectiva cuya ausencia se justifica por estar en breve volando a Irlanda de viaje. Abrazos a todos y hasta la próxima.


“A NEW global togetherness flashed into being, and immediately began to disintegrate. That is how future historians may record the funeral of John Paul II on April 8th, attended by over 2m people and watched on television by perhaps as many as 2 billion, one-third of the human race. Thanks mainly to the electronic possibilities which the pope used so well, his passing has generated—at least for a fleeting moment—an intense feeling of fraternity, and common destiny, among people in most corners of the earth. Of these, about 1.1 billion, or roughly 17% of mankind, are adherents of his faith; a huge number of others admired him from a greater distance.
More through personal charisma than by any technique of governance or rhetoric, John Paul had the ability to convince Polish labourers, Filipina nurses, Detroit firemen and Spanish housewives that he understood their hopes and fears. In an age which yearns for icons yet misuses the word, he was and will remain a truly iconic figure: a personality who aroused in his followers a sense that through him, they glimpsed something of the eternal.
For the pope's keenest admirers, the two most striking features of the Catholic church in the years to come—whatever decisions are taken now—will be the lack of John Paul's physical presence, and his influence as a source of inspiration. There is probably no other leader in the world whose funeral would be attended by both America's George Bush and Iran's Muhammad Khatami, and inspire fulsome tributes from them and from Cuba's Fidel Castro. Nor, in the history of Christendom, has there been a prelate whose willingness to build bridges, and acknowledge past misdeeds, has drawn so many tributes from observant Jews, pious Muslims and non-Catholic Christians who are instinctively suspicious of Rome.
He assumed the papacy at a time when its importance in global affairs, along with that of most other religious institutions, seemed set to decline. He bequeaths a church which shows no sign of bowing out or running out of steam. Yet underneath the fanfare and the outpouring of grief, there is an uneasy feeling that the church faces not one but a series of overlapping existential challenges which no individual, however gifted or charismatic, can cope with alone.
In the rich northern hemisphere, where the credibility of Catholic bishops has been shattered by allegations of child abuse, and vocations for the priesthood have been plunging, there is still a need to clean house. Above all, the church will have to find an articulate, coherent and comprehensible voice in societies where Catholicism pur et dur will, in future, be a minority taste, even in states where loyalty to Rome has its deepest roots.
The question of choice: There are no European states—not even Poland, Spain or Ireland—where the church commands obedience out of an instinctive deference to old ways. Whatever the pope has achieved, he has not stemmed the trend, in all advanced societies including relatively devout America, towards the assertion of “choice” in religious matters, as well as sexual and reproductive ones.
Thanks in part to the pope, and the appeal to some of his intense form of mysticism and piety, there are minorities in many western countries who freely choose to live by rules that are stricter than most citizens can accept. Pious Catholics will be one such group, devout Muslims another. But like every other special interest group in a pluralist society, Catholics will have to explain themselves clearly to others, and above all to speak with honesty and consistency. The recent wave of paedophile scandals affecting the clergy is making this harder, to say the very least. Indeed, there are parts of the world, including Ireland and Catholic enclaves in the United States, where the effect of these scandals has not yet played out fully. In America, the inner crisis of Catholicism has been masked to some extent by immigration from Latin America and the success of a “religious right” that rallies Christians of all denominations, and their tactical allies from the secular world, around certain causes such as opposition to abortion and gay marriage. But the psychological and financial consequences of child-abuse cases, and the perception that they were shabbily concealed, will be felt for years to come.
Even in the developing world, where the Catholic faith still commands huge influence and there is no crisis in vocations, the church may face increasingly hard questions from its own grass roots about the implications of its tough, unbending line on reproductive matters. To many a Catholic priest working in third-world slums, certain things are obvious: it is morally impossible to tell a Brazilian mother who already has a family of six that she must go on bearing children indefinitely—and it is plain wrong to tell a couple when one or both partners have AIDS that they must avoid condoms.
After a quarter-century of domination by theological conservatives, the senior ranks of the church have been well purged of troublesome dissidents. But sooner or later, voices from lower down will be heard. They will not necessarily be liberal voices in the sense that rich countries use that word; they will not be looking for an “anything-goes” line on sexuality. But they will demand that the church takes more account of real life in places where its power is greatest.
The relatively cool and cerebral atmosphere of Catholicism in wealthy countries can seem a world away from the Mexico shanty-towns where hard-pressed believers gaze imploringly at images of the Virgin. But lines of connection between these two universes can certainly be traced. At its best, global Catholicism offers people in the rich world a deep sense of their bonds with poorer co-religionists. Yet there are people—Catholics included—who see an ugly side to the north-south axis that runs through their community.
The Catholic church is often better at influencing the decisions of third-world governments—either directly, or through its influence over the United States—than it is at guiding the behaviour of ordinary people, including its own flock. As critics see things, this can have grotesque side-effects. For example, Vatican diplomacy is more likely to dissuade governments in the developing world from allowing legal abortion than it is to stop desperate women from trying to have them. As a direct result of this, critics say, the number of women who die as a result of botched, amateur terminations goes up. There are, of course, counter-arguments, some of them offered by Catholics with experience of third-world medicine. But to a growing extent, these arguments may be heard inside the ranks of the church.
At the same time, it is not easy to see how the cardinals who select John Paul's successor, even if they were overcome by a sudden burst of liberal sentiment, could make a choice which somehow addresses these conflicting realities. A pope from the third world is more likely to be a conservative, especially on homosexuality and clerical celibacy, than a liberal. He would insist that in parts of Africa or Asia where the church's biggest competitor is Islam, people want strong spiritual medicine, not the watered-down compromises that might appeal in Boston.
Getting on with Muslims: Throughout the church, there has been a growing view since September 2001, that relations with the Muslim world will be a primary challenge for the next pope. It is felt that John Paul, with intuition and energy, pushed Christian-Muslim dialogue to its limits: in Morocco, in Damascus, and in Kazakhstan, he stressed the church's determination to avoid any “clash of civilisations” between the two faiths. Now there may be a need to focus on protecting Christians in places where they are vulnerable to Muslim rage. While John Paul's papacy, in its early years, sometimes rode in tandem with American policy, Vatican diplomacy in recent years distanced itself from the United States—in order to discourage anti-western Muslims from thinking they should also be anti-Christian.
But there is no candidate for the papacy who personifies the solution to all Christian-Muslim problems. Just as a third-world pope might not be a social or economic radical, a pope with experience of Islam will certainly not be a “soft touch” in dealings with the Muslim world.
Having said that, the elevation of Nigeria's Cardinal Francis Arinze would send a signal of the priority that the Vatican accords to handling Islam. He comes from a nation with roughly equal Christian and Muslim populations and, until 2002, he ran the department in charge of inter-faith dialogue.
Another candidate who might come into consideration if Islam were seen as the main concern is Ivan Dias, archbishop of Bombay: he has served as a Vatican diplomat both in Indonesia and Madagascar. But important as the dialogue with Islam is, there is a growing feeling that it is such a complex topic that it may need further consideration before it is put centre-stage. So cardinals may decide instead to focus on reversing the “silent apostasy” of Catholics in the wealthy world—the invisible drift that has swept millions of baptised Catholics away from the regular practice of their faith. There is thus a plausible case for selecting a relatively liberal pope who understands the West. A pontiff from the United States is almost certainly out of the question because it would identify the church with the sole superpower. On the other hand, a Canadian might be possible.
Post-colonial susceptibilities make a British, French or Spanish pontiff unlikely, even if a Catalan might pass. Divisions within the German and Dutch churches are so deep and painful that choosing a pope from any of those countries could be fraught. That leaves the smaller European nations, notably Belgium whose Cardinal Godfried Danneels remains a possibility, despite a record of ill-health. And it is by no means impossible that the College of Cardinals will once again opt for an Italian.
The fascist era apart, Italy does not have an “awkward” history in the eyes of world Catholicism. Italians are westerners, yet not excessively identified with America. And, perhaps most important of all, the Italian church has been quite successful in dealing with contemporary controversies.
Theirs to decide: That brings into the frame candidates who occupy what in the post-John Paul church passes for the middle ground—Dionigo Tettamanzi, the archbishop of Milan, Ennio Antonelli, the archbishop of Florence, and Giovanni Battista Re, head of the Vatican department that finds and keeps in line the world's Catholic bishops.
But the view that the next pope has to be European and, if not progressive, then at least moderate, runs into difficulty on two counts. The hard fact is that, in today's Roman Catholic Church, there are not that many progressives left in top posts. Most survive, almost unseen and unheard, in lay pressure groups, religious orders, theological faculties and missions. There are precious few in the College of Cardinals, 95% of whom were chosen by John Paul.
That in turn could focus attention on what in ecclesiastical jargon is known as “collegiality”—or what others might call internal democracy, which in the Catholic church is a relative term at best. John Paul had little time for this: he kept an iron grip on the clergy, and this has stirred an immense longing, especially in the developing world, for more freedom at local level.
But how might the bishops use that freedom? This is a question that worries many of the more conservative cardinals, and particularly so when it is applied to Africa and Asia, where there is widespread pressure to incorporate local traditions into the liturgy. The question becomes a little less sensitive in Latin America, whose claims to the next papacy are anyhow pressing. Over 40% of baptised Catholics are from Latin America—and most practise their faith. Paradoxically, that creates a problem for Latin America's contenders. Their region, so the European counter-argument goes, is not where the problems are. Latin America's faithful remain faithful.
That is true. But they are progressively less obedient. One need only look at Brazil's dipping birth rate to see that Latin American Catholics are edging on to a route already travelled in countries such as Portugal, Spain and Italy—one that can soon lead from disobedience to disavowal. This explains why, although the majority of Latin American cardinals are conservative, most of their papal front-runners are mildly progressive. They include José Maria Bergoglio, the Jesuit archbishop of Buenos Aires; Claudio Hummes, the Franciscan archbishop of São Paolo, and Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras.
Though still skewed towards Europe, the composition of the College of Cardinals is more geographically even than it has ever been before. This has led to the long-held fear that the differences of approach within the church could result in a stand-off in conclave between a big European block and a smaller, but obstructive, Latin American one.
Saintly pastor or able executive? The next pope will need the votes of two-thirds of the 116 cardinal-electors. So a candidate can be blocked by the votes of 39. The Latin American cardinals alone can muster 21, and could probably count on the support of many of the other voters from the developing world. In the event of a deadlock, it has always been assumed that the conclave could turn to someone of great spirituality. Several names have cropped up in this context, such as that of Jean-Claude Turcotte, the archbishop of Montreal.
Others, however, still feel that running a global organisation with 4,700 senior executives (bishops) and 400,000 line managers (priests) requires a capable executive rather than a saintly pastor. Paradoxically, an insider, quite possibly an Italian, may well have the best chance not only of mastering the Vatican bureaucracy, but of reforming it as well”


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