The New Choice

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From the Publisher/Arnold G. York

I sat in Dr. Jeff Harris’ office this past Tuesday morning, waiting for my annual ritual of the taking of a blood sample to send to the lab, so the lab can confirm what we already know, that, in every way, I’m a year older than I was this time last year.

While I was waiting, I was reading Jeff’s copy of the Wall Street Journal, which had a very interesting lead article with this headline: “Islam’s Global Gains Pressure Catholics to Rethink Strategy” and, in a smaller headline, “Next Pope Could Lead Vatican to Adopt a Tougher Stance.” In brief, what it said was that over the last 40 years, the popes and the Catholic Church have extended an olive branch to other faiths, particularly to the Muslim world, and during that time a couple of things have happened. First, the relationship between the Catholic Church and the other religions has improved measurably and, second, the Muslim world has overtaken the Catholic world in numbers of followers. Whereas in 1970 there were 20 percent more Catholics than Muslims, by the year 2000 there were 1.2 billion Muslims and 1.06 billion Catholics, according to the journal article, paraphrasing the World Christian Encyclopedia. I began to wonder what that might mean in the choice of a new Pope. It didn’t take long to find out.

When I got back to the office, I heard that the conclave had chosen Cardinal Ratzinger, which I think was both expected and yet a surprise at the same time.

The choosing of a new pope is truly a unique event that somehow has spread into the consciousness of the entire world. Part of it, I suspect, is the pageantry. It’s enormously colorful and dramatic, and 2,000 years of history and the continuity of the process give it a gravitas you can’t acquire in a century. Then the entire ritual of the gathering of the cardinals into a sealed room, the ancient ritual of voting, the burning of the ballots and the faithful waiting anxiously for the puffs of white smoke to tell them and the world that a new pope had been chosen not only is high theater, but it’s also tailor made for television.

Part of the fascination is that the decision involves a lot of choices. It’s a spiritual choice for many of the faithful. It’s a doctrinal choice for many in the church about where the church will go and it’s a political choice about who will lead them. Perhaps most of all, and what is most fascinating to me, it appears to be a totally democratic choice. Within most institutions of this world, questions of succession are seldom settled democratically.

Elections in many, if not the majority of, places in this world are a scam. One party controls the process and the opposition is totally blocked out, which is a reason why so many changes of government are violent. Don’t think this is just a Third World thing. Look at our own political process and the willingness of some to change the rules to achieve a particular desired result, and how that tears us apart and what it’s doing to our country. Does anyone think that the United States as a country could survive 200 years more, let alone 2,000 years, in the direction we’re currently going?

Yet the Catholic Church has survived and flourished for 2,000 years, so obviously it’s doing something right. If you think of it in modern business terms, it is a global enterprise with branches in every country, and probably most major cities, with a home office in Rome. Ratzinger’s peers, in a closed ballot, with a two-thirds vote, democratically elected their leader, and whether all the peers like the choice or not, everyone agrees in advance to abide by the decision. They have all the problems of a modern global enterprise. The umbrella has to be large enough and policy flexible enough to keep the faithful within the fold, and yet not so loose that they don’t know what they stand for. They have to recognize changes in the world and to that extent they have, in choosing a German pope now and a Polish pope before.

However, it’s plain that there will be many Catholics unhappy with this choice. Some will just grumble and stay, some will leave, and many Protestant denominations in the Western world will be putting out feelers for those ready to make a change. Things do change.

When you think that most forbearers of today’s Protestants where once Roman Catholics, it’s possible that we might see a sort of second reformation if too many feel detached from the new pope and what he stands for.

What happened in the choice of this new pope isn’t very different than what’s happening in religions all over the world. There is a growth of conservatism in Catholicism, but also in many evangelical Protestant religions, Orthodox Jews and the Muslim world. It’s a worldwide phenomena and probably comes from the speed with which the modern world is changing and deep divisions about values.

What we don’t know is what will happen when these faiths, many of which are aggressively evangelistic, begin to clash, and how it will work itself out.

There is no predicting. Only time and the flow of history will tell us the impact of this new pope on his church, and all the world and we can do is wait.