Thank God for small miracles. Or, in this case, huge ones.
The decision of Pope Benedict XVI to step down — the first resignation in 600 years and only the fourth in history — has given the Catholic Church an unprecedented opportunity to save itself. And since the eleventh hour is upon the Church, the Pope’s action could not have come at a better time.
Whether the conclave of Cardinals takes advantage of this blessing or blows it all to hell remains to be seen.
As one of the Catholic faithful, I desperately want to believe it will choose the right path.
I want to believe the Church, without hesitation, will do whatever is necessary to rebuild the greatest, most benevolent institution the world has ever known.
I want to believe the Church will admit and address, head-on, that its hard times — the scandal, corruption and genuflecting at the wrong altar (that of political correctness) — are sins of its own making.
I want to believe the Church has finally learned to practice what it preaches, that humbleness will replace arrogance, and that it fully appreciates the value of not just forgiveness, but asking to be forgiven.
I want to believe that the new Pope will inherently understand that, in order for the Church to survive, it must adapt — not in ways that undermine the pillars of its divine theology, but by approaching its critical “earthly” issues with an honest, fresh perspective.
I want to believe that the Church will strive to better understand the value of perhaps the most powerful tool in the 21st century: public relations.
And I want to believe that the Catholic Church, once and for all, will cease being a paper tiger, resurrecting its once mighty political power.
But at the risk of sounding like Thomas, I have my doubts.
Given its recent history, the Church does not exactly inspire confidence that it has learned from its mistakes and gained the wisdom (and will) to embark on the path to growth. A gambling man would wager on the next Pope being Business-As-Usual, radiating the status quo and reluctant to make waves.
That would be a good bet, but it would be a losing hand for the Church, relegating it to a house of cards.
So what should the Cardinals do to ensure the survivability of the Church?
1) For starters, choose the right-looking leader. Honorable as he may be, Pope Benedict makes John McCain look downright boyish, so picking another frail, gray-haired/white-haired/no-haired Pontiff is a surefire way to completely lose the middle-aged-and-younger generations. Like it or not, appearance matters. And that is infallible.
Proof? FDR could have never won in the television age because America would not elect a man in a wheelchair. JFK’s youth and good looks gave him a substantial advantage over Nixon in the debates. Bob Dole versus Bill Clinton? Not even divine intervention could have helped Dole in that matchup. And since the death of European Christianity has largely occurred under older pontiffs, maybe it’s time to go younger.
However, choosing a pope on ethnic appearance would be a huge mistake. Sure, a black pope helps bolster Africa (the new battleground in the vicious Christian-Muslim wars), as a Latino does for Central and South America. But that vision is short-sighted, as it wouldn’t actually address, let alone solve, the Church’s problems.
2) Select an articulate, charismatic pontiff who, in both perception and reality, can effectively communicate that he is in touch with the true heart and soul of the Church — the rank-and-file. The new pope cannot afford to be aloof or insulated, since these are the very qualities that contributed so mightily to the Church’s decline. How bad has it become? One in ten Americans is an ex-Catholic, and the 30 million who have left the Church, if counted as their own religious group, would be the third-largest denomination in the country. Vocations are a fraction of what they once were, and the obvious stigma associated with entering the seminary keeps even more away. And the stark reality is that, within a decade, Catholic education will be largely gone, leaving churches that much emptier.
3) Ensure the new pope apologizes in an unprecedented upfront, straightforward manner, not just for the scandals but the cover-ups. And that apology should extend down to every parish. Countless Catholics are still waiting for a genuine apology, and many parents feel that they are being put through the ringer because of priests’ sins. Praying in mass for the pedophile clergy, and those who covered up their salacious activities, is one thing. But the many priests who still view the scandals as overblown makes the sin mortal, as the continuing Catholic exodus and dwindling coffers attest.
4) Start talking about the positive aspects of the Church, restoring the credibility that has been shattered by years of sex scandals, shredded documents and cover-ups. The Roman Catholic Church is the largest provider of social services in the entire world (second in America behind only the U.S. government) and administers the world’s largest nonpublic school system, yet most people are unaware of those phenomenal achievements — a massive failure in public relations. It’s time to tell that magnificent story and educate the world — again — on what it really means to be Catholic. Unequivocally, pride in Catholic identity leads to fuller schools.
5) Flex political muscle. From keeping its schools open (which saves billions in taxpayer money) to fighting government healthcare insurance mandates for abortion and birth control, success in the public arena only occurs when muscle is flexed It’s time for Catholics to take their rightful place at the political table, as all other religions do (despite having far fewer members). But that means playing hardball, unabashedly making its issues front and center in primary and general elections. The power of a newly awakened tiger — one that has shed its paper skin — would be an unmatched political force. But that power will only exist if people once again believe in their Church.
6) Allow priests to marry. And yes, consider allowing women to enter the priesthood. This would ease the resentment felt by many women towards a Church that treats them like second-class citizens. Even more important, women and married priests are the only measures that can ensure the Church’s survival. We can play with the numbers, pretending that seminary vocations are up, but the stark reality is that if nothing changes, there soon won’t be a Catholic Church in the traditional sense. The cock has been crowing a lot more than three times — more like 30 years — and yet the denials from Church leaders continue. The clock is ticking.
An all-male, celibate clergy has its origins in human, not divine, history. Forget Dan Brown theories as to whether Jesus was actually married. Priests were married (and possibly even a Pope or two), and were for centuries, with some historians placing that practice at over 1,000 years. While it was abolished for “religious” reasons, the real impetus was rooted in property rights. But since God invented annuities and life insurance in the 20th century, that problem has been solved. Married clergy certainly seems to be working in the other religions (who don’t have nearly the old age and pedophile problems), so the Church needs to get with the times.
Keep the faith but fight the corruption. That should be the ultimate factor in choosing the next pope. It doesn’t get any simpler, or more poignant, than that.
If such a leader can preach a positive message, modernize without compromise, and wield a political sledgehammer, then prayers for a reinvigorated flock will be answered, keeping Christ’s Church alive far into the future.
As printed in the Philadelphia Inquirer:
Chris Freind is an independent columnist, television/radio commentator, and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, www.FreindlyFireZone.com His self-syndicated model has earned him the largest cumulative media voice in Pennsylvania. He can be reached at CF@FreindlyFireZone.com