Since my editorial musings are written almost two months before their publication, much can happen in the intervening weeks. It is mid-October as I mull over various themes, a time that encompasses the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul IIs election to the papal office. This week also celebrates the beatification of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the popes historic meeting between the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, as well as the ninth consistory at which some 31 men from across the globe were appointed as cardinals. The pontiffs frailty, painfully evident on television, and especially the frank assessments of his health even by several cardinals, have led to speculation about whether his pontificate might soon be coming to an end.
This week the media has been largely gracious in their assessment of the popes accomplishments. Unlike the critical remarks of Hans Küng and Daniel Maguire, most observers have found much to praise in the popes activities over the last decades. Even newspapers whose editorials are often reputed to be anti-Catholic and cynical about religious matters have hailed him as a fighter for peace, harmony, and justice.
Any governance, even papal, that has spanned so many years is bound to raise questions about the wisdom of certain prudential judgments, priorities, or short term goals. It is hardly realistic to expect committed persons who are encouraged to be vocal in assessing civil authorities, to be completely silent about the job performance of popes, bishops, priests, or theologians. Bishops are expected, as part of their collegial duty, to state their views in an appropriate setting and manner. Referring to the faithful in the Church, Vatican IIs Lumen gentium stated: To the extent of their knowledge, competence, or authority the laity are entitled, and indeed sometimes duty-bound, to express their opinions on matters which concern the good of the Church (no. 37).
To be fair to a lengthy ministry, judgments about the present popes effectiveness need to be as comprehensive as possible. His commitment to many forms of social justice, his desire to reach out to a multitude of cultures and nations by means of travel and interviews, his ecumenical gestures, his outreach to the Jewish people and to members of other religious traditions (even to the point of criticism by his own staff for praying with others at gatherings in Assisi), his teaching effectiveness that shines through even the Byzantine literary genres of encyclicals and apostolic exhortations are undeniable. What is sometimes questioned is whether the curial system that advises and implements his goals is not overly centralized and insensitive to legitimate expressions of cultural and theological diversity.
Finding fault with specific directives of the Vatican, whether directly or indirectly emanating from the papal office, requires in all fairness that one examines whether other persons, ourselves included, are not part of the problem. Could it be that we exaggerate the legal force of a text, or fail to appreciate the international character of the believing community, or judge a statement on the basis of a newspaper account without bothering to exegete the original text? Because of the world wide publication of papal statements on a variety of topics, including his personal theological or devotional preferences, some might be tempted to suspend their own thinking, judgments, and decisions. Is this a service to the papal ministry?
The 134 elector cardinals (that is, cardinals who are younger than 80) will be entrusted with the task of choosing the next pope come from 58 different countries. Among them are 65 elector cardinals from Europe (Italy alone has 22), 14 from North America (11 from the USA and 3 from Canada), 24 from Latin America, 13 from Africa, 13 also from Asia, and 5 from Oceania. Five of these newly appointed electors are under 60. A number of the electors reside in Rome where they hold curial posts, but the majority preside over dioceses in their home countries. Their wide geographical representation raises the possibility that the next pope will be chosen not from Europe but from another continent such as Africa where the Catholic population is increasing at impressive rates.
The community of theologians, both Catholic and non-Catholic, naturally hopes that the future conclave will elect as pope one open to dialogue with the theological community, one whose interests include strengthening the ties between theologians and those who serve the Church in episcopal and papal offices.